As you celebrate Independence Day, why not free yourself from the agony of the query letter with the third installment of the Kite Tales Writing Prompt: #KTWriteOn? Each writing challenge is crafted by a kid-lit publishing professional to help spark ideas and creative energy. This prompt was created by Bridget Smith, an agent at Dunham Literary, Inc., where she represents middle grade, YA, and adult novels, including contemporary fiction, historical fiction, and science fiction & fantasy. She is also the co-host of the podcast Shipping & Handling, and you can follow her on Twitter @bredalot.
By Bridget Smith
As an agent, I very often hear complaints from writers about how hard it is to write a good query. And I sympathize! I have written many pitches myself, after all. But unfortunately, it’s a necessary skill – and it doesn’t stop once you get an agent, either.
Luckily, with all the pitches I’ve written, I’ve figured out a formula that can give me a workable draft quickly. This isn’t necessarily the form your final pitch needs to take: I’m always delighted to see a pitch that breaks out in interesting ways, whether it’s hauntingly minimal or a clever inversion. And, of course, there is LOTS of room here for adding flavor: voice! Jokes your characters would make! Emotion! Tension!
But if you have absolutely no idea where to start, here’s a handy map:
Step one: Who’s your main character?
Start with the reason you want me to care: your main character (or, if you have multiple central characters, the one with the most easily defined arc). Who are they? What’s their context? What do they care about? Distill them into one or two sentences, and try to signal how it will change or come into play over the course of the book.
If you have two or three POV characters, you can do this two or three times, in separate paragraphs. (The more space you spend defining characters, the less you’ll have to explain what brings them all together, so keep that in mind.) If you have more than that, hone in on one!
Step two: What’s the inciting incident?
After you’ve established the MC – or even while you’re doing so! – you should very quickly get to the thing that upends their life. What happens? What does it mean? Was it something your character did, or something that happened to them? Why does that matter?
This is again something you can probably do in one or two sentences.
Step three: How does your character respond to the inciting incident?
Now you’ve got some room to expand – this is the interesting part! It’s also where you’ll need to demonstrate your character’s agency, regardless of how the inciting incident happened. What do they do about it? How do they feel about it? What are they hoping to get out of it?
Step four: Where do things go wrong?
In the course of their reaction to the inciting incident, I bet something went wrong, didn’t it? Of course it did, you’ve got a plot. Explain that here!
You may find that there are a lot of options for things that go wrong. That’s fine! You don’t need to include all of them; this isn’t a book report, it’s a marketing tool. Pick one or two that best depict the arc of the story. Maybe your best example happens in the first fifty pages; maybe it happens at the climax. As long as there’s an exciting lead-up and a dramatic payoff, you can just use one.
Step five: What are the stakes?
Once you’ve demonstrated what goes wrong, bring it back to the beginning: why do I care? Why does the main character care? What are they going to lose, if they can’t fix this? What’s changed for them over the course of the book?
Step six: Can you give me chills?
Here’s where you bring it home! I love a good strong closing line: you want it to resonate. Something funny, or poignant, or haunting, or unnerving. You want something that ties up the character, the central conflict, and the stakes into a knot that the book promises to unravel.
The easiest way to do all this is often to ask a question. I’m not a big fan of that method, to be honest. It’s never a deal breaker, but it’s just not memorable – as is often the way with the easiest method! If you want me to say, “Ooh, I HAVE to read this,” push beyond the utilitarian wrap-up question and aim for something a little more notable. Is there a turn of phrase used earlier that you can invert or play with? Is there a line from the manuscript that you can pull out and use here? Brainstorm some options – you might be surprised what you can come up with.
And finally, remember: it’s absolutely fine not to get every element of the book into the query. It’s not possible! You’re trying to distill tens of thousands of words into half a page: you only want the strongest flavors. Left out the part where she tries to find her father? That’s fine. Didn’t get to the climax? I won’t even know. Can’t fit in the secret about her ex? It’s just something for me to discover while reading!
To reiterate: this is just a place to start. Feel free to invert or ignore or elaborate on any of these elements as you revise your pitch – or throw it out altogether when you come up with a wholly original idea!
Happy querying! And have a safe and fun Independence Day!
Readers, if you get stuck on a step, want some feedback, or have questions about querying, share with the SCBWI community in the comments! Which step do you find the hardest? Which step might you skip for your own unique approach?
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