The Power of a Pitch
How to write an effective plot summary in your query letter
By David G Brown
Your pitch is the most important part of your query letter. Literary agents are on the hunt for great stories, after all. Publishing credentials, well-researched comp titles, and a bit of personalization will certainly help your case, but your pitch is currency.
“Concept and Craft”
In our Book Broker blog series, we’ve interviewed over 80 literary agents. They all give excellent suggestions, but two interviews stand out as the best advice I’ve seen about query letter pitches. From the first, here’s my favourite quote:
I’m always looking for the two “C” words—concept and craft.
—Sarah Davies, Greenhouse Literary
What a perfect summary! A pitch should convey that you have a solid understanding of the craft of writing as well as a fresh concept on your hands.
Demonstrating Craft Savvy
A significant part of the art of a novel is in its structure. An author uses immersive details and scene-based writing to draw readers into a story world, but it is with narrative structure that they convince readers to keep turning pages.
You might wonder, but what about characters?
Yes, of course, all stories require characters. Indeed, readers’ love of your protagonist will keep them connected, invested, and eager to know what happens next, but characterization is also a part of structure. This is because characterization is demonstrated with an arc: the protagonist embarks, struggles, learns, and in the end is transformed in some way.
Or as F. Scott Fitzgerald put it: Character is plot, plot is character.
For some advice, then, on how to write a craft-savvy pitch, I’d like to share a quote from a second interview:
When A (inciting incident) happens, B (character) must do C (action) otherwise/before D (catastrophe).
—Hannah Sheppard, DHH Literary
Not all narratives can be boiled down to one sentence. For example, if you have more than one protagonist, you would need to repeat this “pitch test” for each. In fact, this essential plot structure should also apply to secondary plotlines and even well-developed relationship arcs.
Why? Because a protagonist’s character is demonstrated by what she is willing to do, or not, to get what she wants, and what she wants should matter—deeply—if readers are expected to care.
(Looking for a primer on narrative structure? Start here and here.)
A Fresh Concept
The average agent will easily review a thousand queries every year, and some as many as five thousand. So it’s one thing to have an interesting and well-structured story, but it’s quite another to stand out from the crowd.
A fresh concept can be a shiny new idea or a creative take on something that’s been done before. Either way, a fresh story makes an agent stop and think, now there’s something I’ve never seen. On one hand it’s important to highlight what is unique about your plot and characters, but this isn’t something you can fudge. A story concept is fresh when it’s legitimately a neat idea—a genesis or revival—and not simply because the pitch is worded a certain way.
Part of hitting on a fresh concept is also luck, since the average querying author doesn’t have access to the cross-section of ideas that are currently landing on agents’ desks (or will be next week). Both popular fiction and world events can inspire fads in creativity. For example, a vampire movie will go blockbuster and six months later agents’ inboxes are filled with bloodsucking plotlines. Or you start spotting drones with some regularity at parks and festivals and suddenly agents are inundated with science fiction thrillers based around drone warfare (those are both real examples, by the way).
Here at the Darling Axe, we work with many clients on their query letters, and I have the privilege of viewing even more when I’m screening entries for our Clash of the Query Letters contest. Plus, we have the advice of many amazing agents who have taken the time to share their thoughts in our interviews. Here are some of the most common reasons for a pitch to fall flat:
- A focus on context (world-building, backstory) more than the actual story
- A protagonist without a specific goal
- A lack of clear stakes
- A general lack of clarity
The Fate of an Imperfect Pitch
If your pitch isn’t near perfection, your query submission is doomed, right?
If you've done much research into the "art" of the query letter, you may have noticed many (often conflicting) recommendations about paragraph order, personalization, comp titles, etc. However, if you look at some successful query samples, for example from Eric Smith’s blog, you’ll find many of them break a "rule" or two.
I’ve now interviewed over 80 agents for our Book Broker series (and counting). Many have suggested to me that the query letter rarely kills a submission. In other words, you have to muck up pretty bad for them to move on without peeking at your sample pages. It’s much better to have a mediocre query letter and a killer manuscript than the other way around. Your first sentence, first paragraph, and first page are the true test.
It’s not easy to summarize an entire novel in a couple short paragraphs, but this is especially true of manuscripts with meandering and convoluted plotlines. If your narrative structure is watertight, your story will be easier to describe. If you are struggling to express the events of your novel with the above pitch test, then it could be that your narrative structure still needs an overhaul.
One thing we often hear from agents is that most writers query before they are ready. In other words, their manuscript is still in an early draft stage or the writer has yet to fully wrap their head around narrative structure. In order to convince an agent to stand by your side and represent your work, your manuscript should be as close to perfection as you can get it. That means revision, workshopping with critique partners, more revision, and maybe a bit more workshopping, and then a bit more revision.
The other key to success in this game is to keep writing. The road to traditional publishing can be long. An agent might take months to respond to your query, then months more to read your manuscript. In the meantime, you could have another manuscript ready to ship off to your critique partners. In the end, it’s all a learning process: the writing, the revision, and the rejection too. With each "no" we are forced back to the drawing board to consider once again how we can tighten, tune, and transform our work.
David G Brown is an award-winning short fiction writer with over twenty years' experience as an editor. His debut manuscript is represented by Valerie Noble with the Donaghy Literary Group. David is the founder of Darling Axe Editing and also Darling Indie—a new service that connects authors with concept artists to bring novels to life with custom illustrations and character sketches for social media campaigns and newsletters.