Showcase The Sexy, But Don't False Advertise (and other lessons I learned when writing my book pitch)

Disclaimer: I’m not a professional slush reader, nor am I a veteran indie author who’s A/B tested dozens of cover blurbs. But I had a decent request rate for my query letters (52% asked for partials or fulls), and agent Jim did use my unmodified query to pitch Midnight Thief in the DGLM newsletter. (Jim also asked to use it as an example in his classes on query writing, which did amazing things for my ego, until Secretly-Supportive-But-Very-Mischievous-Husband asked if the class was called “How Not to Write A Query.” Ah, what are our loved ones for, if not to keep us humble.)

These are the lessons I learned while I was writing my query. Hopefully you will find something helpful for your own queries, book blogger pitches, etc...

1. Showcase the sexy

You’d think that a writer would know what’s sexy about her novel, but that wasn’t true in my case. My first query draft began:

“In a city besieged by vicious barbarians, Kyra struggles to clothe and shelter her two adopted sisters. Then she meets James, the deadly yet intriguing assassin with his eye on Kyra’s extraordinary grace and agility. If Kyra will infiltrate the palace for him, he'll pay her more than enough to meet her needs. ”

Okay, fine, but could you tell that my heroine could scale six-story buildings without a rope and sprint along narrow ledges in total darkness? Not really. Thankfully, my critique partners pointed out that I had summarized the sexy right out of my story. For later drafts, I emphasized Kyra's abilities. The final version started like this:

“To Kyra, high walls and locked doors are not obstacles, but invitations. She specializes in nighttime raids, using her sharp senses and extraordinary agility to break into Forge’s most well-guarded homes. Then she meets James, the deadly but intriguing Head of the Assassin’s Guild. He has a job for Kyra: infiltrate the supposedly impenetrable Palace compound. The pay is good, and the challenge appealing. It’s the perfect job for someone of her talents.”

2. Decide how much you want to reveal

Pitches are a tease, showing just enough to entice. When I was drafting my query, I obsessed over how much was the "right amount" to reveal. Agent X said 50 pages, but Editor Y said to tell everything up to the very end. In hindsight, I was being silly. The correct answer, of course, is that it depends on your story and what you want your pitch to accomplish.

The first few drafts of my query letter only covered the first third of the story. And if I were to self publish my novel, I would probably limit the cover copy to the first third as well -- it’s enough to attract the right type of reader, but it doesn’t give away any of my plot twists. My novel actually ends up in a very different place from that initial setup, but my instinct is that a casual reader would rather discover the twists as she’s reading.

But as it was, I wasn’t writing my pitch for a casual reader. I was writing for an agent with a huge slush pile, and I wanted her to know that my book was more than a simple thief story. Therefore, I made a trade-off – revealing a few plot twists in order to show a more complete picture of what happens. Did my approach work? I don’t know, since I didn’t test different query letter versions. But that was I was aiming for, at least.

3. Sexy is good. False advertising, not so much.

Among the numerous drafts of my query letter is “the draft that shall never be spoken of again.” This was the one where I made a big deal about the sexy mysterious assassin, and Kyra’s dangerous yet growing fascination with said ZOMG sexy assassin. Totally hawt. I’d read that book!

Unfortunately, this version of the query made my book sound more like a category romance than a young adult adventure. So while the pitch might have enticed some readers to pick it up, it probably would have enticed the wrong type of reader. And that reader would have been sorely disappointed at the lack of, um, “action” in my action adventure. Thanks again to my critique buddies for saving me from myself.

4. Be a Pessimist, and Don’t be a Slave to the Summary

A typical narrative can be thought of as a series of successively larger obstacles. You run into obstacle one, and then it resolves. And then obstacle two comes, and then that resolves. Lather, rinse, repeat.

To make up an example: "Stacy loses her favorite puppy, but thankfully tracks it down after several days. Then she realizes that a dog-napping ring was behind it all. She works out an arrangement with the neighborhood dogwalkers, and together they disrupt the ring."

When writing a pitch, it can be tempting to summarize both the conflicts and the resolutions equally. But instead, try emphasizing the problems more than the resolutions.

"Stacy loses her favorite puppy, and her investigations lead her to a horrible dognapping ring. Now, her only hope is to work with the annoying and unfriendly neighborhood dogwalkers, and if she doesn’t succeed, all the dogs in her city will die."

So those were the main lessons I learned while writing my novel pitch. How do you go about writing yours?

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  1. Really good, practical advice. This post is a keeper and a share-er. Right now I only have energy for finishing the novel...but you bet I'll be back here in a few months!

  2. Thank you so much for posting this! You would think a writer who can draft an entire book wouldn't have any problem writing a query letter, but as you pointed out, the temptation is so strong to try to tell the entire story in one or two paragraphs.

    A query is more like an advertising pitch than a summary. I have to train myself to think Madison Avenue (did I just date myself?). I've written ad copy before, so why can't I seem to apply that experience? Um...I think it's because this time around I actually OWN the product.

    Your blog posts always teach me something new and inspire me. Please, keep them coming!

  3. This is really good advice. I often see query letter advice that tells you how to make your query, exactly, but as you mention, it depends on the story. Your points are more general and ultimately more helpful, so I will be referring back here if the time comes for me to write a query.

  4. I REALLY could have used this last week...
    I'm preping my own sizzle right now (fine tuning a query), and this is all great advice. Thanks.

  5. Janet, Sarah, Jesse - Thank you! Glad you found it useful.

    Janet - You're right that it's more like advertising pitch. Sometimes I try to channel "the guy" who narrates movie previews. You know, the voice that's like "In a time..." It helps me start thinking about a larger than life voice.

    Jake -- Glad you found it useful! I think a lot of really specific advice is well meaning, but sometimes it does make writers lose sight of the big picture. The point is to get people interested. Everything else is just details

  6. enjoyed reading what you have written , have followed you on google + , respect from Matty