Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Back to Basics - Writing a Query (slash) Pitch (slash) Jacket Blurb

The fine art of writing a pitch for your story is not something only to be learned by those seeking a literary agent. If you want to self-publish, you need a catchy jacket blurb to attract your audience. If you want to pitch directly to an editor, you need pretty much the same skills as you need to write a query letter for an agent, both of those requiring you to stand out in the slush pile. If you already have an agent and/or a book deal, you still need to know how to do this-- for your next book.

It doesn't go away. Ever. As long as you want to write and publish novels, you need to know how to sell them with 1-3 brief paragraphs.

I've blogged about this before. But this is a skill we must continually sharpen, so it bears repeating.

Why is the title so important? Because the title is half your pitch. Whether the reader sees the title before or after reading the pitch, once they have both pieces it should instantly make sense.

One of my biggest pet peeves when reading query letters, or, sometimes, even when reading jacket blurbs of published novels, is not seeing a clear connection between the title and the pitch. I read the query pitch and get to the paragraph that states the title/genre/word count and go... wait a minute, what? That is never a good thing. The title should instantly make sense. No questions. No backtracks to find the relevance.

The first thing I notice on a book I'm contemplating to read is the cover image. The second thing? Is the title.

title = what your story is about (this is detailed in the pitch)

It's a very simple equation, but many authors seem to forget this when writing their query letter. A perfect title doesn't always come to you right away. In fact, the idea I was talking about just yesterday has already received a new title. Why? Because I developed the concept more since first penning it, and my original title choice wasn't doing its job. It didn't connect as well as the new one.

And the argument that "an editor is likely going to change your title anyway so why concern yourself over it?" is not really valid, in my opinion. Yes, a lot of titles are changed before a book is published. But if the title is half your pitch, it matters at every stage of the process before publication as well. It could be the difference between a yes and a no, even if the agent/editor doesn't realize that the awkward title is contributing to their "just not quite feeling this concept."

The title is an important part of your pitch. Give it just as much effort as you do the rest of it.

My best example from my own work is Summer Hoax, and no surprise, this project got more attention from agents than anything else I've queried. The premise is clearly relevant to the title.

Summer Hoax is about a girl who agrees to play the fake girlfriend of a still-in-the-closet gay guy for one summer, and ends up falling in love with him.

And this nicely brings me to my next point:

The tighter the concept, the easier it is to write the pitch. If you can slim down your concept to a single line, without losing anything vital-vital, without losing the vision you need the reader to have to make a decision on whether or not they like it, then expanding that sentence into 1-3 brief paragraphs is CAKE.

I had trouble with this myself regarding my novel Social Graces. I will be the first to admit that it isn't "high concept." It's more of a literary story than it is commercial. I had a hard time, at first, separating the character arc from the plot. They are so very closely knit together. Because of this, I struggled with this query more than I did with the query for Summer Hoax, which seemed downright effortless by comparison.

But that doesn't mean it was impossible. It just took more effort to present a clear story arc in the same few words. My first few drafts of the Social Graces query had far too many random details, and my Big Choice at the end wasn't connecting to the rest of it as well as it should have been. I'm not sure how many drafts I wrote for that particular pitch, but it felt like a thousand. Once I got it where it needed to be, though, it did its job. I got requests to read the manuscript.

So if you have a novel that is more literary, character-focused, and/or you don't feel it is necessarily "high concept", don't lose hope. You can still write an effective pitch for it.

What makes it especially hard for an author to write their own jacket blurb, or query letter, is that they are too close to the story-- THEY KNOW TOO MANY DETAILS. These details crowd you and the query letter becomes a chore.

Writing a pitch is NOT about divulging all the details. It's about balancing between "not enough" and "too much." It's about teasing.

In a one-sentence description of your premise, there is no way you're going to get everything out that explains your concept. But it is enough to entice the reader into wanting to know more. And that's all you're doing with a query letter/jacket blurb as well. You have to present only what is absolutely vital, but without making it feel like something crucial is missing.

There is a difference between intrigue and confusion, and THAT is the difference between a yes and a no. The more concise you are, the better.

This means focusing on a single story thread for your pitch (the main one, obvs), regardless of how many you have so creatively twisted/weaved into the plot. The easiest way for me to remember what is vital in a pitch is with the 3 Cs.

the 3 Cs of an effective pitch = character, conflict, choice

Rather than explain how this works, and risk losing you with my words, I'm going to highlight each of the 3 Cs in the following example of what I consider to be an excellent jacket blurb.

Butter by Erin Lange ~ YA contemp (upcoming 2012 release from Bloomsbury)

423 pounds.
One dangerous defining moment.

A boy everyone calls “Butter” {character "who?"} is about to make Scottsdale High history. He’s going to eat himself to death live on the Internet – and everyone will watch. {character goal}

He announces his deadly plan to an army of peers and expects pity, insults or even indifference. Instead, he finds morbid encouragement. {conflict}

When that encouragement tips the scales into popularity, Butter has a reason to live. {stakes raised} But if he doesn’t go through with his plan, he’ll lose everything. {clear choice}

This is what I call a rare case of "high concept contemporary." Again, the tighter the concept, the easier it is to write the pitch. Notice how few words the author needed to make the premise shine.

So, in review, the basics of an effective pitch are:

1. title = what your book is about (as presented in the pitch)

2. the tighter the concept, the less words needed to make it clear

3. tease - give only the vital details of the main plot thread to entice and prevent confusion

4. use all three Cs = character, conflict, choice (in that order)

If there is anything in today's post that you have a question on, please feel free to ask in the comments section below. I will answer as best as I can, as promptly as I can.

Happy writing,


  1. Thanks for all these tips. Nice to have a condense version to refer too!

  2. This is great, Lydia. Thank you. I'm currently editing my ms, but I have written two query drafts "to get a feel." (I'm the type who drives a trial run before an important appointment.) I'm not exactly stressing over the query at this point, but I want to make sure I'm presenting my work well.

    I appreciate that you addressed titles in this post too. I've read the whole "title doesn't matter, they'll change it anyway" argument. Your perspective on this is helpful.

    I haven't gone through all the previous posts on your blog. You might have discussed the synopsis already, but if you haven't, I'm interested in your thoughts and experience. :)

    1. Thanks, Tracy, I'm glad you found this helpful. :-) I haven't done a post on writing a synopsis yet.

  3. I found an even easier way to write a query. Have your CP and beta reader write it for you after they decide yours sucks. :D

    Great post!

  4. Once I'm back at home, I'll probably Tweet this. School filter won't let me.

    I'm still a bit stuck on how to state my premise. The problem is how to articulate both the "fantasy" part of it and the "relationship" part of it.

    "A high schooler meets an exchange student, a psychic who fight spirits made from human emotions, who uses his social awkwardness to hide his true feelings".

    The problem is how to incorporate both without resorting to that awkward format. While I consider the relation the core of the story, it depends on the fantasy elements to drive that relationship and provide a parallel for the character's problems. I can't really pitch one after the other. It's like presenting the soul without the body, or vice-versia.

    1. The main issue I have with that one-sentence description is that I'm not getting any real sense of conflict. So they meet and...? Why is their meeting a conflict? I wouldn't just state that they meet, but rather I'd focus on how their association with each other makes room for conflict.

      Hope that helps! I like the idea of the the psychic's character and inner conflict, definitely. I just think the inclusion of the other character, without a clear idea of how this creates external conflict, is weakening the pitch. Good luck!

  5. I love that you tore apart the YA query. Examples help me so much more than just telling me what to do. Reading your post helped me pinpoint some things I need to improve in my queries. Thanks so much.

    And you sold me on Butter. Good job. (Arrgh! One more book on the TBR pile.)

  6. Thank you for this great post. I am just writing a pitch letter for a new literary agent and realize now it is way to "wordy".
    Hope you'll visit my blog I will definitely come back and visit you. My blog:

  7. Oh man, my really awesome comment was eaten by Blogger!

    Well, I'm saving this post. I never thought about linking the title to the pitch. It make total sense though.

  8. You put this beautifully, Lydia. I agree with you about the title matching the pitch. I changed one of my book titles (after reading Save the Cat) to better match the pitch and plot; the new one fits better and teases more. Thanks for breaking it down.

  9. Thanks Lydia, this was really a great post-- I need to revisit my pitch and query with this in mind... Thanks!

  10. Thanks, everyone! I'm glad this post was helpful. :-)

  11. Really great tips! I like the Butter example a lot. I'm adding it to my TBR list. :)


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