Julie Artz is an editor at Reedsy. To work with her on your manuscript, head to her profile and send a request.
“Is my manuscript ready to query?” is probably the top question I get from writers. So our objectives today are to:
- Identify red flags in your query or jacket, copy, and synopsis that indicate story-level issues;
- Think about how to position your book in the market; and
- How to self-audit for publication readiness.
A little about me
So a little bit more about me. I was that kid who snuck into wardrobe searching for Narnia way past the time that that was cool. I worked in high tech for a bit and am very, very happy to return to my roots with speculative stories and in the women's empowerment and social environmental justice space — particularly in memoir.
Don’t pitch (or publish) too early
No matter where you are in the publishing process, there's gonna be a little bit of information that you can use today. Starting with this:
One of the worst (and most common) things you can do is pitch too quickly. To pitch before you're ready. So what happens when we pitch or publish too soon?
By pitching or publishing before your manuscript is ready, you could:
- Miss opportunities with your dream agents and editors;
- If you're indie publishing, you have disappointing readers and disappointing sales;
- Face rejection or the sound of crickets (the publishing industry can be very slow, and if you send something out before it's ready, you're even less likely to hear back from people);
- Lose confidence in your story and in yourself; and
- End up shelving that book of your heart.
And we don't want that. So that's why I'm here.
95% of my clients come to me, and they think they're ready to pitch or publish. Then I have to deliver the disappointing news that they are not ready.
I'm going to teach you today how to assess this for yourself so that you can — free of charge — have a good idea of whether your manuscript is ready to pitch.
We're gonna start by talking about the elements of a pitch package:
- The query — a short business letter that pitches your project;
- The synopsis — a longer, full description of what happens.
Pitch packages can include sample pages or a non-fiction proposal (if you’re writing nonfiction) but we won’t cover that in detail today.
What if you’re self-publishing?
If you're indie publishing, you're gonna hear me today talk a lot about “the query,” and you're gonna say, “Hey, I don't need the query! I'm not querying agents. I'm gonna indie publish.”
If this is the case, just imagine that I'm saying “jacket copy” and other marketing copy. When I say “query,” from here on out, think of the 250-500 words of your best marketing copy. In fact, the examples that I have later center on copy from some well-known stories.
Elements of a Query
A query is a business letter introducing you and your writing to potential agents and editors. It's typically delivered via email and query managers. (Some of you that have been in the business for a while may remember printing out and sending out self-addressed stamped envelopes. Those days are mostly over for the most part.)
This letter should be short, engaging, and delivered electronically.
Opening: you will introduce your story with the genre word count and comp titles. I’ll show you a technique that uses a bit of a log line to deliver this information.
The pitch: a short blurb of your story, fewer than 200 words. This will include the character arc, plot arc, and stakes.
Your bio: this will include any writing accolades you have and a quick mention of any connection that you have to the subject matter.
Note: You don’t need a bio if you're doing jacket copy, but you will need that for when you start publishing your indie book.
Five Steps to a Great Pitch
I have five steps that I like everybody to go through before they send a pitch out into the world.
You can learn from what other writers have done before you to figure out the art of writing a strong pitch because it really is an art. Being able to tell a story in a 100,000 words is a different thing than trying to condense that whole enormous story down to 200 words. So I would say the more queries that you read, the better.
As a mentor in Pitch Wars — an online mentorship program that I used to participate in — I read literally hundreds, if not thousands of queries. With that, you start to get the rhythm of what works and what doesn't. What catches your eye and what doesn't. So the more you can read queries and learn from their example, the better off you're gonna be.
2. Write your pitch. And then of course, you're gonna try your hand with your own story and write your pitch.
3. Get fresh eyes. One thing that I'm gonna recommend again and again is to get fresh eyes on your your pitch. You might think it all makes sense — then you send it out in the world and you're not getting the answers and the response rate that you're hoping for. Many times, something that you've taken for granted isn't coming through clearly in your pitch. And that's something that critique partners or a beta reader can point out to you really, really quickly.
4. Self-audit. So once you've written your pitch, you had plenty of fresh eyes on it, and we’ll turn to some questions that will allow us to self-audit that query. (More on that soon)
5. Revise and revise again. Literally, just go back through this process again: get more fresh eyes, self-audit again until you're quite confident that you have a good, solid pitch.
So I will take us through some examples of stories you are probably familiar with.
Pitch #1. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Obviously, this is not a query letter for The Hunger Games, this is the jacket copy. I've added a log line, which can be the first line of your pitch if you so choose.
I've imagined how I would've pitched The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins if I were querying it. Here’s the logline I came up with:
Lois Lowry meets Margaret Atwood as a 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen fights to feed her family and survive in THE HUNGER GAMES, a dystopian YA complete at [probably 80-90,000] words.
Using comps in your loglines
So first, I wanna talk about comp titles. You'll notice that instead of using a specific book title in this logline. I used two authors, and part of that is because I think that their bodies of work are representative of the kind of book that Suzanne Collins is writing in The Hunger Games. But also, there were so many different titles I could have chosen from those two authors.
So that's one way that you can do comp titles. You can say, “I'm writing in the style or tradition of [well-known author].”
Then after the comp titles, I really dig into a one-sentence elevator pitch for this book. 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen fights to feed her family and survive. Then, of course, you’ll want to include the title, the genre, and the completed word count.
I don't want you to get too complicated when describing your genre. It can be so tempting to say, “I'm not just doing YA fantasy — I'm doing YA steampunk with elements of arcane magic and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.”
In the query, keep it simple. Many agents are reading these on their phones, on the train — trying to quickly clear their query inbox, and you have literally 30 seconds to hook them.
You also don’t want to over-complicate the pitch. If I start saying things like, “It's romance meets steampunk meets thriller meets whatever,” what's probably gonna come across is that I’m not sure what your genre is, so you've just put it all there and hoped that one of them will appeal to you, and that's not what we wanna go for.
So when in doubt, keep it simple. YA Fantasy is okay. Dystopian is okay. You, you can get into maybe one layer of subgenre, but don't overcomplicate.
Now let's look at the jacket copy. We talked a little bit about looking. Plot character and stakes. So let's see how that shows up in this jacket copy.
In the ruins of a place once known as North America lies the nation of Panem, a shining capital surrounded by 12 outlying districts.
Okay, so right up front we're saying this is a second-world fantasy. It's a little bit like America, but in the future dystopian world — we're establishing that right up front with the first sentence.
The Capitol keeps the districts in line by forcing them to send one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 to participate in the annual Hunger Games, a fight to the death on live TV.
So right up front in the second sentence, we know there are life or death stakes here. Somebody is gonna die. Now we're circling back to our character:
16-year-old Katniss Everdeen regards it as a death sentence when she steps forward to take her sister's place in the Games.
Okay, this introduces the character. She's not just somebody random, but somebody who was willing to step up and risk her life to save her sister. That establishes the internal stakes and a lot about Katniss’s character.
But Katniss has been close to death before and survival, for her, is second nature. Still, if she is to win, she will have to start making choices that weigh survival against humanity and life against love.
This is 121 words. So if your current query is 600 words long, you can prune it down. You can get really clear because this conveys a lot of information in a very short period of time.
I can imagine the agent that received this pitch for this just absolutely going bananas for it because it's so tight. It conveys so much information in very few words.
Okay. So now we're gonna take a little bit of a break from the speculative fiction space and look at another one of my favorite books.
Pitch #2. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
This might appeal to you if you're writing contemporary fiction — and there are some important things to look at here if you are writing with multiple POV characters. This will help you see how to create a pitch that tells about both of the main characters.
So, again, I invented a logline for this.
LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE is a multi-POV contemporary, complete at [x-thousand] words that explores the weight of secrets, the nature of art and identity, the ferocious pull of motherhood—and the danger of believing that following the rules can avert disaster.
Okay, again, we've got the genre is 'contemporary.' We've got the complete word count. We've also identified right up front that it's a multi-point of view because that can be important for agents and editors to know upfront, especially if they're only getting a small number of sample pages. More and more agents and editors are asking for a chapter or five pages. I’ve even seen requests for three pages. That's not a lot of space, especially if you want to convey that there are multiple points of view. So establish that right up front in your query.
In Shaker Heights, a placid, progressive suburb, suburb of Cleveland, everything is planned—from the layout of the winding roads, to the colors of the house, to the successful lives its residents will go on to lead.
So we've really got a good idea of what the setting is like.
No one embodies the spirit more than Eleena Richardson, whose guiding principle is playing by the rules.
So for those who know this book, you can see how we’re using very few words to describe someone who's a very rigid, upstanding member of society.
Enter Mia Warren, an enigmatic artist and single mother—
You can already see where the tension and conflict is coming from in this dual-point-of-view story. They couldn't be more different.
—who arrives in this idyllic bubble with her teenage daughter Pearl, and rents a house from the Richardsons. Soon Mia and Pearl biome more than tenants: all four Richardson children are drawn to the mother-daughter pair. But Mia carries with her a mysterious past and a disregard for the status quo that threatens to upend this carefully ordered community.
When old family friends of the Richardson's attempt to adopt a Chinese-American baby, a custody battle erupts that dramatically divides the town and puts Mia and Elena on opposing sides. Suspicious of Mia and her motives, Elena is determined to uncover the secrets in Mia’s past. But her obsession will come at unexpected and devastating costs.
For those of you that know the story or have watched the television version, there's something very big, something life-or-death that’s hinted at here, but it’s not on the page. Again, this isn't the synopsis; it's just a pitch. So you just wanna get a little taste of maybe the first quarter to a third of the story.
At 178 words, this pitch is a little bit longer because it does have a dual point of view. We get a good idea of the two characters, the main conflict (both plot and emotional because of the two very different personality styles of these two characters), and a hint that there's gonna be an unexpected and devastating cost. Those are the stakes.
Pitch #3. The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune
Okay, just one more example: one of my favorite books from the last couple of years.
1984 meets The Umbrella Academy with a pinch of Douglas Adams in this contemporary fantasy complete at [x-thousand] words.
So I wanted to include this logline so that you could see that you can use not just books like 1984, but you can use a television show. 1984 is a little bit of an older book, so spicing it up with a fabulous TV series like The Umbrella Academy is a nice way to show that you've got a good idea of how your story is coming across.
But one word of caution for comp titles is don't push it. If you're not sure if it works, don't say, “I've written Da Vinci Code meets Little Women,” or something that just sounds like completely implausible. Like, how are you gonna pull that off? It's better to have accurate title comp titles that convey the genre and the tone of what you're doing than to shoot big and have something that doesn't really work for you.
Now we're supposed to be assessing query readiness right now. If you cannot come up with any comp titles for your story, this is a red flag. It probably means that you might have a little bit more reading to do in your genre so that you can come up with some comp titles. Something to keep in mind. If you're thinking, “Wow, I can't come up with anything as pitchy as 1984 meets the Umbrella Academy,” then just keep reading.
And that's where your second set of eyes can come in useful as well. You can ask your readers, “what does this remind you of?” And they might brainstorm something that you hadn't even thought of that will help get you on the track toward coming up with some really strong comp titles. It’ll also give you a better understanding of how your story is coming across to readers.
I love this pitch because it's 98 words. Talk about economy!
Linus Baker is a by-the-book-case worker in the Department in Charge of Magical Youth.
So you get a little dash of world-building here, a little bit of the speculative element, but you also get a good description right off the bat of our main character, Linus. He’s by-the-book.
Arthur Psis is the master of the orphanage. He would do anything to keep the children safe, even if it means the world will burn.
Now, that sounds like a great foil for a by-the-book case worker. So you've got an idea of the tension again, right?
THE HOUSE IN THE CERULEAN SEA is an enchanting love story masterfully told about the profound experience of discovering an unlikely family in an unexpected place and realizing that family is yours.
So again, with very few words, They've come across, they've gotten across the main point of this story.
Common mistakes with pitches
So with those three examples in mind, I'd like to talk a little bit about some of the common mistakes that I see with pitches and what they say about the larger story.
Ill-suited comp titles. This could mean that you need to do a little bit more reading in your genre.
You can give too much of a peek behind the curtain. If you're giving away a major twist that happens 75% of the way through the book in your query, that is a problem. And if you can't think of a way to make the pitch engaging without giving away that twist, that could mean that you've got something a little bit less compelling about the opening of your story.
Your genre is missing or overly complicated. We talked a little bit about that. Keep it simple. Be very clear that you're writing within the genre or sub-genre that best applies to what you're doing.
The pitch or the bio is too long. If you've got a 500- or 600-words pitch, you probably need to do some trimming. A long pitch can be an indication of a story problem — it’s either overcomplicated or you might honestly just not know what the heart of your story is yet. That's okay. In fact, it's very normal not to know exactly what your story is about in your early drafts.
In many of your first drafts (note the plural), you are telling yourself the story and really exploring the story world so that you can refine it later for readers. And so it's okay if you don't know exactly what the heart of your story is in an early draft. But that definitely means that you don't wanna pitch it yet.
Too much worldbuilding. We had two speculative examples that showed just a little hint of worldbuilding, right? Talking about the Capitol and PanAm in The Hunger Games, and a little bit about the Department of Magical Creatures in The House in the Cerulean Sea. That gave you a really good example of how much worldbuilding is required at the pitch stage.
If, again, you find that you have to give three or four paragraphs of worldbuilding for readers to even understand what your pitch is about, then again, your worldbuilding might not be working well with your characters and story.
Giving too much away. We’ve spoken about this before.
Each of these things can indicate to the reader that you don't know your story quite well enough.
Audit your pitch
Okay, so we've gone through common mistakes, we've gone through some good examples. Now is the time to audit your pitch. We're gonna ask ourselves:
- What is the protagonist's story goal?
- What's at stake if they don't achieve that goal?
- What's the internal arc? (The character’s journey)
- What's the external arc? (The plot)
Now, I know we've got people from quite a few different genres, and some people are thinking, “I've written a thriller. It's not a character-centric story.” That's okay. There's still a little bit of an internal arc, right? So there'll be a different balance between plot and character based on genre conventions and what type of writer you are.
I picked three very different books in my examples, and all of them had an element of character and an element of plot in the short pitch. They all mentioned what was at stake. They all had a story goal (Katniss needs to win The Hunger Games to save her sister; A small-town conflict brings out the dark side of a community).
The examples I showed you had all of those kinds of things coming across with very few words.
What about my manuscript?
You’ll want to make sure all these things are in your pitch, whether that's the jacket copy or a query letter. If they're not there, it could just be that you haven't yet written and edited the best possible query letter for your story.
But… it could mean you still have some revision work on your manuscript. You still need to really clarify the plot and the character and how they're working together with the stakes to tell this story.
So if your answers are fuzzy, once you go through this query audit, do not panic. I have a next step for you to help illuminate what to do next.
Elements of a Synopsis
A synopsis is a little longer than a query:
- A 750–1,000-word summary of your book.
- It has the plot arc, character, arc stakes, and additional side characters as needed.
- It also reveals that twist at 75% and includes the story's ending.
- It is not the place to be coy. You're gonna spell everything out in your synopsis.
Then just as you did with your query, ask yourself, “Is this just a problem with how I wrote my synopsis, or do I have a deeper story issue?”
I know a lot of people dread writing a synopsis. I get so many people say, “I don't wanna do that. I don't know how to write it. It's impossible. I can't tell my entire hundred-thousand-word story in a thousand words.” But you can. And here is a simple trick that I have to help you get started, which is the synopsis as a fairy tale.
The Synopsis as Fairy Tale
1. Once upon a time. For those of you who know story structure, this is your “ordinary world.”
2. Every day, x happened until… And this is where you have your inciting incident.
3. Because of that… This is the “fun and games” part of your story. This makes up the bulk of the main central part of your story. Because of that [something else happens], because of that [something else happens], and so on.
4. Until finally… This is where the climax happens.
5. And ever since that day… This is where we get the resolution.
Let me show you how this works with an example that hopefully some of you are familiar with.
Sample synopsis: Rocky
I chose the movie Rocky because, first, it's a really excellent example of a three-act structure. So if you want a lesson in structure, watch Rocky. It's got such a beautiful blending of plot and character without being an overcomplicated story. It gets a lot of depth in a very clear and concise way.
So here's a sample synopsis that I wrote using the fairytale story structure for Rocky.
Once upon a time… there was a local boxer who believed it when the world told him he was nothing but a bum.
So that gives you a pretty good idea of his character arc right there, right? We know upfront he is going to try prove to himself and the world that he's not a bum.
Every day, he worked and tried to win the heart of his true love, Adrian, but mostly he failed.
Until… he got the opportunity to fight heavyweight champion Apollo Creed in a high-profile boxing match.
Because of that… he had to find a trainer (Mickey).
Because of that… he had to train harder than he ever had in his life.
And because of that hard work and perseverance… he wins Adrian's heart.
Until finally… he walks into the ring, determined to prove to himself and his community that he's not a bum. He does this not by winning but by going the distance, which he does — he’s still standing after 15 rounds.
And ever since that day… he knows he is not a bum, and he happily ever after.
That's a really quick 30-second summary of a long movie, right? But this shows you how a synopsis can get both the plot arc, which is all about the training and fighting in the boxing ring — and the internal arc, which is all about Rocky realizing that he's not a bum and deserving to be loved, winning Adrian's heart. This comes together in an action-packed story.
Audit your synopsis
So using the fairytale plot that I have outlined, you can create a synopsis. Then once again, you can audit it by asking yourself:
Are the turning points in the story clear? Those are the “because of that, because of that” parts. Is there a cause-and-effect trajectory there that makes sense? Or do they seem sort of unrelated?
Can you easily identify the main character's story goal and their change arc? He starts out thinking he's a bum, and by the end, he knows he's not and he's got the love of his life. In a few words, that’s the plot arc and character arc encapsulated right there.
Do you know what's at stake if the main character doesn't achieve their goal? If Rocky doesn’t get himself to the point where he could win the boxing match, he probably doesn't win Adrian's heart, and he won’t prove to himself and to the world that he's not a bum. These are the main stakes of that story.
Do all the main events that happen reflect the story goal? Another thing that's great about Rocky is the way that theme is shown visually. Running up the steps to the Philadelphia museum to the rousing theme music — getting to the top, showing the themes of the story really coming through.
When you complete this audit of your synopsis, you'll figure out what it is that's not coming through correctly in your query. From there, you'll be able to go back again, revise your pitch, get another set of fresh eyes, and see if it's working better.
If the query isn’t working — or if you identify something that's missing when you audit the synopsis — it's time to revise your manuscript.
The audit process you just did will tell you exactly what needs to be revised, whether it’s the character or plot that isn’t working, or if the stakes aren’t clear or high enough to keep the reader engaged. You can tell all of that from the query and the synopsis.
So I just wanna summarize the key takeaways from this process.
Please resist the urge to pitch too early. You will not get the results that you hope for. Response times are getting longer and longer in the industry, and there are more and more books available to readers, so it's harder than ever for a really good story to bubble up.Make the story as good as you can before you send it out into the world.
When you think you’re ready, self-audit. Take the time to self-assess. This is a simple process that you can do yourself without spending money on a developmental edit or a book coach, and that will identify red flags in your query and synopsis. If you do that and you’re still not sure…
Revise. Then consider hiring a developmental editor or somebody who can help you. Or take a class on the particular aspect of the writing that's not working for you. But there's no need to do that until you have done a little bit of self-assessment and revision yourself. I promise it will be worth it. I hardly ever come across a writer who's like, “Oh, I revised this, and I made it worse.”
If you have a plan — if you know from auditing your query and your synopsis what's wrong — then you can revise and make your story better. You'll learn more about your story, you'll learn more about the craft, and you'll be able to revise with confidence.
So hopefully, after listening to this talk, you have the tools to diagnose those big-picture issues, and you can pitch and publish with confidence!