How to Boost Your Query’s Success

With the tenth annual Write to Publish conference just around the corner, there are going to be a lot of exciting learning opportunities available for authors. As to be expected, Ooligan’s Acquisitions Department is particularly anticipating the Pitch Workshop, where we (and several other local publishers) will be able to listen to authors’ pitches and give specialized feedback.

In the past, the Ooligan blog has posted some great advice about query letters. For those who have never written a query before, you should go check those out first. However, with those resources available, we wanted to dive deeper into some pitch concepts: framing and in-person pitches. While the latter will primarily be of use to those participating in Write to Publish (or similar writing conferences), framing your book correctly is useful in all cases. Doing it correctly can really give your query letter a leg up on the competition.

Framing

Building Your Synopsis

The question is not whether you should include a synopsis (the answer will always be yes), but how you include it. The information that you include in your synopsis is going to do the bulk of your framing work, as this is where you need to get across what the book is about on more than just a plot level. The synopsis should be fairly short—one to two paragraphs at most—so pick the storyline that is most important or most portrays the themes of the book and focus solely on that. At this level, you need to be as clear as possible about what story you are trying to tell, and bringing in too many characters in such a small space will muddy that vision.

Once you have your storyline picked out, approach telling it in three parts: the background or set-up (most commonly what the world is like, or what your main character’s life is currently), the conflict, and the stakes that your main character has in that conflict.

Positioning Your Manuscript

How you position your manuscript within the marketplace says just as much about it as your synopsis does. While it is acceptable to just state what books are like yours, an even more engaging—and more useful—way is to show where the books intersect: for example, “the lighthearted camaraderie of X meets the optimistic vision for the future of Y.” Using an intersection points out what makes the story similar to others and how it stands apart, all in one sentence.

As you’ll see with other suggestions about comp titles, using authors or books that are either explosive hits (Harry Potter, The Hunger Games) or canonized (The Bell Jar, Jack Kerouac) is not as helpful in this area as another title would be, as this helps us glean initial thoughts of target audience—and you can’t pick out an audience when it’s “everybody.”

Relating to the Publisher

Almost every article with advice on writing query letters will tell you to make sure you check the submission guidelines, and they’re right! Making sure that a publisher is actually interested in the type of manuscript you’ve written is important, as it saves them time and saves you heartache from another rejection. However, you should also be thinking past just the basic guidelines. If they state that they take nonfiction, does that mean light-hearted personal memoir, or a deep evaluation of the economy? Or both? The best way to figure this out is to look at the list of books they’ve published and compare the titles there. Another strategy would be to see if any of the editors for the press have posted a manuscript wishlist somewhere (most commonly on Twitter under the hashtag #MSWL).

In-person Pitching

Focus on the Synopsis

While knowing about a writer’s background can be useful, it isn’t what really captures an editor’s interest most of the time. Given your limited time, really devote it to your positioning statement and your synopsis.

Practice

Presentations are nerve-wracking, especially when it’s about something as close to you as the manuscript you’ve been working on for months, possibly years. While editors and agents will likely have that in mind, giving a solid presentation of your manuscript will impress them. Practice in the mirror (to see how your body language is coming across), practice to your friends or family, and make sure that you feel confident speaking about your manuscript and answering any questions they may have. The more prepared you are, the more relaxed you will be during the actual meeting.

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