Expanding the Logline: Developing the Pitch

Have you heard of the Snowflake Method? I don't use it, but my early steps are similar. You can find more on the Snowflake Method here: https://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/articles/snowflake-method/

In my last writing post, I took the first step of developing a story from an idea by writing a logline. The next step is to expand the logline into a pitch.

Pitch defined

The pitch is the paragraph or two you would put in a query to entice an agent to request pages — or, if you’re self publishing — the blurb on the back of the book that entices readers to buy the book.

You might also see the pitch called a summary or even a synopsis (though that last term is incorrect — a synopsis is an entirely different beast). 

Why write the pitch now?

The pitch is usually written after the book is finished when the writer is preparing to query (or self publish). Why write it now? Because the pitch shows whether you have the elements of a commercial novel.

Not every novel will have an exciting, compelling logline. Some stories are more quiet, less “high concept.” But every story can and should have a compelling pitch. If not, there is likely a problem with the book itself.

Writing the pitch at the beginning ensures you get ahead of that problem. Finding out the stakes are too low or the protagonist’s goal is too nebulous is a HUGE problem when you think you’re finished and ready to query.

When you write the pitch at the beginning, you can fix such issues before they become massive problems.

Key questions

Before I write a pitch, I answer eight questions:

  1. What’s unique about the protagonist? My main character is a former soldier, now a reporter. He’s suicidal and a heroin addict. If you’re writing a Romance, what makes your romantic lead stand out as different from other romantic leads? If you’re writing teen fiction, what makes your protagonist stand out in a sea of other teen protagonists?
  2. What’s the story goal? What does the protagonist want? This is the backbone of the plot the entire story is built on.
  3. What’s the conflict? Why can’t the protagonist have what he wants?
  4. What’s the crisis/black moment? This is the moment just before the swing into the final act when all seems lost.
  5. What choice must the protagonist make? To get what he wants, the protagonist has to make a choice. The best choices are gray — where there are positive AND negative consequences for either/any option.
  6. What’s the twist?
  7. What terrible horrible thing will happen if the protagonist fails? Stakes, folks. You don’t have a story without stakes. Not all books are life and death, but it must FEEL like life and death for the protagonist.
  8. Why should the reader CARE? What’s the emotional hook? Your reader might not ever be in your protagonist’s shoes (especially if you write fantasy or sci-fi), but they can empathize with human experiences like losing a loved one, finding your way as a new adult, or having your livelihood threatened by something out of your control. What universal human experience is your protagonist experiencing?

Putting it together

The pitch is crafted using the answers to the above questions. You don’t necessarily have to use one hundred percent of your answers, but a compelling blurb tends to have most of it.

I found this fill-in-the-blank template for a back-of-the-book blurb online: 

_______(Main Character name) is a ____________. She lives in ________ and what she wants most in the world is _________. But that’s not possible because ________. So she did ______. Well, that didn’t work out very well because_______ and ______. Then along came _________. He/she/they did ___________ and __________ and ______. That made things even worse because _________. Now it looked like _______(Main Character name) would never get what she wanted. But then, one day, __________happened. Would _______ (Main Character name) finally find the __________ she was seeking? This _________(tone of book, i.e. suspenseful, gripping, lyrical, etc.) story of _________(type of story, i.e. intrigue, mystery, romance, etc.), captures the spirit of ___________ (setting or tone) and confirms the power of _______ (theme or message).

It seems ridiculous to think a fill-in-the-blank formula would be useful, but I found it surprisingly so! The formula gives me a starting point, and from there I can change things around until I have a compelling pitch.

Note that a back-of-the-book blurb is a bit more salesy than a pitch to an agent.

Tip for success

Specificity. This is not the time for clichés and generalities. If your blurb sounds like it could be one of any number of books in its genre, you need to start over.

Focus on the story. Don’t focus on backstory and character to the point that you forget about what happens in the book.

My Pitch

I’m honestly struggling with my pitch. The pitch I’ve written captures the main plot accurately, but it doesn’t capture the tone correctly. At its heart, my new WIP is a story about faith and its impact, good and bad, on damaged people. I’ve got more work to do!

That, by the way, is fine. I have established that I have the conflict and stakes and other elements I need for a commercial novel. I have plenty of time to rewrite this pitch — and I’ll keep noodling with it now. I want to be able to use the pitch as a guiding star as I develop and write the novel.

The final days of the Korean War damaged Mick Quinn physically, mentally, and emotionally. Ten years later, the things he clung to for survival — his family, his reporting job, and when all else failed, the sweet relief of heroin — are slipping away, and Mick is done. When his boss assigns him to write about a healing revival in a nearby town, the cynical reporter decides his parting shot at the world will be to prove Elijah, the faith healer leading the revival, is a fraud. That task, however, proves frustratingly difficult. As Mick digs to find the truth, the assignment takes a turn when someone tries to kill Elijah. Mick races to unmask a killer, only to have his renewed faith challenged when the killer strikes someone close to him.

Write the pitch

Traditional Publishing — Step 5: Submit Your Query Package

It’s time.

You have a polished manuscript, a killer query, a compelling synopsis, and a list of reputable agents or publishers who represent your manuscript’s genre and category. Good job getting this far! Now it’s time to submit your query package.

Before you send, whitelist the domain of the agent's or publisher's email address. You want to be sure you get all replies!

Submit in small groups

I recommend you submit your query package in groups of five. Why so few? Because submitting in small groups gives you an opportunity to evaluate the responses you get and revise as necessary.

In an earlier post, I described how to make an A, B, and C list of agents. I recommend querying to at least one from each batch in each query group.

Why not just start at the top? Because until you know for certain that your query, synopsis, and pages are working, you don’t want to burn through your list of top agents.

Remember: You get ONE shot at a specific agent.

Track your submissions

Earlier I recommended that you either use a tool like Query Tracker or create a spreadsheet to track submissions. Columns on my personal spreadsheet are:

  • First column is just a checkmark. I leave it blank if I haven’t yet sent the query. Black checkmark if I’ve queried, but they haven’t responded. Green checkmark if they requested a full. Red checkmark for rejection.
  • Agent name
  • Agency
  • Notes
  • Date queried
  • How (email or online form plus specifics about what they asked for in the query package)
  • Est. response time
  • Reject date
  • Request date (for fulls or partials)
  • Nudge (date to nudge if I haven’t heard on a full)
  • Full rejection date

As you get responses, update the spreadsheet, and send out more queries.

Rejections

Sadly, some people have a “no response means no” policy, which means you won’t get a response unless they want to see additional materials. Most agents reply to queries within a couple of months. If you haven’t heard by then, assume it’s a rejection and send out more queries.

Don’t pore over the rejection letters for queries to try to figure out why they rejected you. 99% of those are form rejections — including most of the ones that SOUND personalized!

Even the very occasional personalized rejection won’t go into detail. Why? First, because it’s time consuming to give feedback to people who aren’t clients. Second, because too many queriers respond with “Yeah, but” or outright attacks.

If an agent does send a personalized note, you may respond with “Thank you” but nothing else! If you disagree with the feedback, let it go. It’s a rejection. Move on.

Requests

  • If you get a request for pages, reply to the same email (so the previous correspondence will be included at the bottom), but change the subject line to REQUESTED MATERIAL: BOOK TITLE. Requested partials and fulls can be sent as attachments.
  • Track the percentage of agents or publishers who request material. This tells you if your materials are working.
    • If fewer than 10-15% of agents or publishers are requesting additional material, STOP submitting and reassess. You might have targeted the wrong agents. Or maybe your query or your opening pages (or both) aren’t working. FIX THEM, and then resume querying.
  • If you get requests for partials, but those don’t turn into requests for fulls, particularly if they come with a form rejection, STOP submitting and reassess. Your first three chapters (or first 50 pages) aren’t grabbing their interest and making them want to read more. FIX THEM, and then resume querying.
  • If you get requests for fulls, congratulations! That’s huge and wonderful. You are getting close to getting published. Chances are good that any rejections will be personalized. If you learn that your story isn’t well organized or the ending isn’t working, STOP submitting, FIX the problem, and then resume querying.

Be patient

It can take weeks to hear back on a query. It can take MONTHS to hear back on a partial or full. Track when you sent the pages and the stated response time. If they say they respond in 12 weeks to a full, then you can politely nudge after 12 weeks or so to make sure they received your pages.

In the meantime, write another book!

Traditional Publishing — Step 4: Format your query package

Before you submit your query package, you need to ensure everything is formatted correctly and professionally. (And spell-checked. Dear God, spell check!)

The Manuscript

For your query package, the manuscript needs to be in a single file saved in .doc or .docx format. Not PDF or other format.

The general requirements are:

  • 12 pt. Times New Roman or Courier font, black only
  • 1 inch margins
  • Double-spaced text
  • Indent the first line of each paragraph
  • No extra space between paragraphs
  • Cover page with title and your contact information
  • Your name/Title/Page number in the upper right corner of each page, beginning with the first page of the story
  • Begin each chapter about 1/3 of the way down the page.

Want a visual example? Check here.

You may hate the way your story looks when formatted this way. You may prefer a different font or even have the skill to make your manuscript look like a printed book.

Don’t. This is the way professionals format their manuscripts. Agents and publishers want to work with professionals.

Email queries

The vast majority of your queries will be sent via email or online form.

Only a small number of agents (or publishers) accept snail mail exclusively these days because it’s considerably cheaper, easier, and faster to work by email. Honestly, unless you really, really, really want to work with a particular person who accepts only snail mail, I would put those people at the bottom of my submission list.

  • Email subject line (unless told otherwise in the agent’s submission requirements): Query: BOOK TITLE / Category & genre
  • Start the email with Dear {Person’s Name}. Skip a line, and then begin the body of your query.
  • Your query should be single spaced.
  • Do not indent the first line of each paragraph
  • Do skip a line between paragraphs.
  • After the body of the query, skip a line, and sign “Sincerely, {Your Name}.” Put your phone number beneath your name.

Now, check your spreadsheet to see what the agent or publisher wants you to send in your query package. If the agent or publisher wants you to include pages or a synopsis, these are pasted into the email. They are NOT attachments unless specifically stated as so.

NEVER send an unsolicited attachment. NEVER.

Formatting the synopsis and pages

The synopsis and pages will be formatted much like the query — single spaced, no paragraph indent, extra line between paragraphs.

PROFESSIONAL TIP: You probably have your query, synopsis, and manuscript saved in Word or similar word-processing program. Instead of copying and pasting from your word-processing program directly into email, paste into Notepad first. Format in Notepad (and save for the next query package!), and then copy and paste from Notepad into email.

Why? Because word-processing programs have lots of back-end code that can be problematic when pasted into email. It may look great on your end but have a lot of weird characters that make it virtually unreadable on their end.

Notepad is a “plain text” program. That means it will strip away all the special characters and formatting and back-end coding. Your email will then be clean and simple and readable — exactly what agents and publishers are looking for.

Note that you will have to go back through and manually add any italics in your pages.

Online forms

Those query packages not sent by email will be sent using online forms. Query Manager is one such online form that is becoming more and more common.

Agents love Query Manager and online forms because they can specify exactly the information they want and make it required.

I, personally, hated online forms because they strip the formatting all the way to the paragraph breaks! Having to manually add back the paragraph breaks in the first fifty pages of your manuscript is a royal pain in the butt!

Printed query packages

Fortunately, printed query packages are rare. This site has a lovely breakdown of how to format your query and synopsis, what size envelopes to use, and so forth.

Time-saving tips

Now that I’ve been in the query trenches a while, I’ve developed a few tricks to make the process a bit less tedious.

  • Prepare and save plain-text versions of things most commonly requested. For example, I have:
    • My query
    • My synopsis
    • My bio — often request separate from the query
    • My one-sentence pitch (log line)
    • My first ten pages
    • My first twenty pages
    • My first fifty pages
    • My first chapter
    • My first three chapters
  • All of the queries you email will be in your sent mail. When an agent requests teh same thing a previously queried agent requested, copy and paste from the sent mail. Just update the “Dear” and the “___ is pasted below” information, and personalize as you can.
  • As mentioned, Query Manager strips the formatting all the way to the paragraph breaks. However, when you submit to Query Manager, you get a reply with a link to check status. If you scroll down on that page, there’s another link with query details. You can copy from THAT page into the next Query Manager form, and the format will transfer! Such a life-saver.
Rain in the leaves