Crafting Your 90-Second Pitch

Pitching Your NovelWhether you’re pitching an agent at a conference or through a query letter, you need to create the perfect pitch, one that would take 60 to 90 seconds to say and would take up about half a written page to type (leaving you room for your credentials and some personalization for each agent).

(Self-published authors – you need this too. This is your cover copy and Amazon blurb!)

This past weekend I had the privilege of attending a workshop run by Chuck Sambuchino, author of the Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents, on how to write the perfect pitch. Thanks in large part to his workshop, Lisa and I had great success at the three-hour pitch slam in New York. Although not every agent asked us to send them something, every one of them complimented our pitch.

So what does it take to make the perfect pitch?

Don’t start off with your pitch.

I know. This is a post about writing the perfect pitch, but you don’t want to leap right into the body of the pitch. Imagine a meal where you didn’t get to smell or see the food first. Wouldn’t it be weird to take a blind bite?

Give the details of your book first—genre, title, word count, and whether it’s complete.

My co-writer and I have a completed 100,000 word historical fantasy called The Amazon Heir.

(Note: According to Sambuchino, books are titled, people are entitled.)

You might want to argue that the details are boring and you need to immediately catch the agent’s interest, but when you give the details first, it shows the agent that you’re pitching something they represent. When you’re able to name your genre and give a word count that’s appropriate, it also shows you know where your book fits in the market. Finally, it gives the agent a framework into which to place your book so there’s less confusion.

Follow with the logline.

A logline is a one-sentence summary of your book. Sambuchino likened this to the cover on a published book. When you pick up a book, you get an instant impression of the book from the cover. Since you don’t have a cover to show the agent, give them something vivid to hold on to.

(In the workshop, someone asked if they should bring a cover mock-up with them to a pitch, and the resounding answer was NO. You need a written logline, you shouldn’t be handing an agent anything in a one-on-one pitch, and you definitely shouldn’t be including extras with any submission.)

Loglines come in different varieties.

You can compare your book to others that are out there. A comparison logline won’t work for every book, but when it does, instant picture.

Our logline ended up being Xena warrior princess meets Game of Thrones.

We have a fast-paced, action-packed story featuring a sexy Amazon princess (like Xena) that’s also full of rich details, political intrigue surrounding an heir, and a power struggle over two thrones (Game of Thrones-style).

For advice on writing a more traditional logline (character + conflict + stakes), check out this post I did a few months back on crafting a 25-word pitch (a.k.a. your logline).

Introduce your main character(s).

Now you start the meaty part of your pitch. From this point on, you need to summarize your book in 3-10 sentences.

Introduce your main character by telling what they want or by saying something interesting about them (or both).

Zerynthia is an Amazon princess with more man-kills than any other. Tradition says that to take her mother’s throne she needs a female heir from a prince of the nation that’s known as the boogeyman of the Greek world.

Don’t name any characters other than your main character(s). The fewer names you include, the better. You can usually refer to any other characters that need to be mentioned by their relationship to your main character (e.g. her brother, his childhood friend).

Give the inciting incident.

What propels the story into motion and moves everything forward? What is it that disrupts your character’s normal life and forces them to act?

Tell what happens next.

Just tell us what your story is about in an exciting, genre-appropriate way. What do your characters do in reaction to the inciting incident? What are the stakes if they fail?

Don’t include subplots.

If the agent doesn’t need to know it to understand your plot, leave it out. The example Sambuchino gave was “The main character is an elven princess who bids on an alien planet.” You don’t need to give the name of the planet or the race of elves she belongs to for the agent to understand the basis of your plot.

Only name your theme if it’s really, super unique. (Most themes aren’t, and that’s okay.)

Add in complications.

What other bad stuff happens?

When Kaduis’ brother devises a plot to cast doubt on the paternity of their child, their nations are brought to the brink of war.

Avoid generalities like “life gets turned upside down.” You want to paint specific pictures to help the agent get an idea of your voice and to keep their attention.

Don’t give away the ending.

In a synopsis, you always tell the ending. In a pitch, you’re only covering about the first half of your story and leaving them hanging.

Should you pitch a series?

Just pitch one book. If you have to say something, say, “This book could easily be a standalone project, but it could also be the start of a trilogy.” That lets the agent know you’re flexible.

What’s the point of your pitch?

In his book How to Write A Great Query Letter, agent Noah Lukeman writes, “Many writers hope to, in this one page letter, convey all the nuances of their plot, their characters, to convey everything about who they are, and to, by its end, have an agent commit to represent them. Herein lies the problem. Most writers expect too much of a query letter . . . The goal of a query letter is, simply, to get an agent to want to read more” (16).

That’s honestly the point of every step along the way from query letter to published book—get them to want to read more.

Does this make you want to re-work your pitch (the way it did for us)? Or does it give you confidence that your pitch is ready to go?

Marcy

**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.

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6 Steps for Your Final Edit

how to edit a novelLast week, Lisa covered the big picture edit to take your manuscript from first draft to second draft. But now you’re ready for the final pass before you send your novel off to an agent, editor, or publisher. Here are the seven steps you need to take to make sure your story is ready to go.

(1) Look at Every Scene and Ask, “Did I Wimp Out?”

The scene might be structurally fine, it works, but your instincts tell you that something is off. You copped out when writing it. You know this scene could be better if you wrote it differently, but that different, better way involves a lot more work.

A “wimp out” scene can happen during the first draft when we’re focused on making our word goals or we’re tired or we’ve lost sight of the overall flow of the plot.

Don’t be fooled into thinking a scene isn’t a “wimp out” scene because it has conflict either. It might very well have conflict, but it doesn’t have enough conflict or it doesn’t have the most effective conflict.

In our novel, we have a scene where Zerynthia, our main female character, goes to the temple to worship, only to discover that the altar to the deity she’d worshipped her whole life had been replaced by a shrine to another goddess. It worked as a scene, but on second read-through, Lisa and I agreed it was fluffy. I rewrote it to show not only the emotional effect on Zerynthia, but also the dark, disturbing aspects of this new goddess and her worshippers.

(2) Check for POV Mistakes

POV mistakes sneak in when we’re trying to convey information. If your character doesn’t see it, think it, feel it, taste it, touch it, or smell it, you can’t describe it. (For more on POV, check out our posts Problems with Point of View and 5 Tips for Writing Deep POV.)

In the first draft of chapter 2, we wrote about Zerynthia, “She pushed against the familiar binding constricting her breasts, her hair in a warrior’s tail down her back.”

But why would Zerynthia be thinking about her hair in a warrior’s tail down her back? We’d meant it as her doing a check list, but it wasn’t coming across that way to readers.

We changed it to “She pushed against the familiar binding constricting her breasts, and tightened the tie fastening her hair in a warrior’s tail down her back.” A small change, but it erased the POV violation.

A second aspect of POV is to consider the speech patterns and word choices of each character. Would he use that word? Would he say it that way? Our characters are not us, and we need to be careful to be true to their voice when we’re in their POV.

For example, if a character speaks in short choppy sentences, a scene written in their POV shouldn’t have long, flowing sentences that pile phrase upon phrase. Scenes in their POV don’t need to replicate exactly the character’s speech patterns, but there does need to be a sense of consistency.

(3) First Lines and Last Lines

I’m sure you know the first line of your novel needs to grab your reader and pull them in. But each chapter needs to do the same thing to a smaller degree.

In her post this Monday, Kristen Lamb wrote “Never leave a place to put a bookmark.” The end of a chapter is the logical place for someone to set your book aside until later. Use your last line and first line to push them over that potential rut so they can’t slide in a bookmark.

Copy and paste all the first and last lines in your novel into a Word document and look at them isolated from the context. Would they make it so that you couldn’t put the book down?

(4) Eliminate Weasel Words

Weasel words are slimy and slippery and lack all value. If you can cut a word from a sentence and the meaning doesn’t change, get rid of it. (Word’s “Find” feature works great for this.)

  • that
  • really
  • great
  • just
  • a lot
  • interesting
  • wonderful
  • very
  • sure
  • often
  • usually
  • many
  • most

(5) Kill the Clichés

ClicheSite.com provides a listing of 2100 cliches, euphemisms, and figures of speech you need to murder. Unless you’re using them in a character’s speech as a way to define that character, find a fresher way to say it.

(6) White Space

Zoom out to about 50% (so that you can see two pages at a time) and scroll through your book looking for big blocks of text or areas where there’s too much white space.

Big blocks of text are a hint at slow spots, and too much white space in a row indicates you might be skimping on the description/setting or internal dialogue.

Fiction is about balance. If your novel runs at a harried pace the entire time, eventually your reader will feel the same as if they’re listening to a speech where the speaker is shouting the whole time. That’s no more effective than a speaker who’s always talking in a monotone. Vary your pace to keep them interested.

What last minute check do you just have to make before you send your “baby” off into the world?

Marcy

**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.

Writers – Know Your Audience

It doesn’t matter what you’re writing, you must know who you are writing for because by trying to appeal to everyone – you end up appealing to no one. Remember that you’re not writing for a faceless book-buying crowd – you’re writing for Aunt Sally or Grandma Rose, or even yourself. Writing for readers distinguishes okay books from great books.

A Lesson From Disney

One of my favorite Disney movies is Aladdin (don’t mock me). I thought Robin Williams as the Genie was fabulous – he cracked me up. My kids watch that movie and they don’t get the Groucho Marks, Jack Nicholson, Rodney Dangerfield impressions, the ‘quid pro quo’ reference – they’re all about the slapstick humor. “Well I feel sheepish.” Genie morphs into a sheep. “Alright baaaaad boy, but no more freebies.”

Disney understands their main audience is kids, so they use simple story lines kids can relate to, incorporate slapstick comedy with great animation — and a powerful marketing strategy aimed at that audience. But Disney also knows that every kid has a parent watching over their shoulder so they sprinkle in ‘grown-up’ humor and deeper story lines to keep adults happy.

Take the movie UP! Do kids understand the bigger story going on beyond the humorous exchange between Mr. Fredrickson and Russell? No. Kids like Russell because he’s dealing with stuff they deal with every day like he has to go to the bathroom — RIGHT NOW, and the bigger issue of his dad never having time for him. My kids understood that Russell is lonely and finally finds a grownup who wants to spend time with him.

The adults catch the bigger story about Mr. Fredrickson not having any children, losing his wife Ellie, and feeling like life is over. But that backstory blurs past in the first minute of the movie for the grownups. Adults understand that Mr. F has set out to fulfill a promise to his late wife, doesn’t plan on coming back, and in the end realizes there’s a few more pages left in his scrapbook after all. Brilliant story-telling.

But Disney appealed to the kids first — their primary audience. If they didn’t catch the kids’ interest, the movie was going to fail.

“I want to give the audience a hint of a scene. No more than that. Give them too much and they won’t contribute anything themselves. Give them just a suggestion and you get them working with you.” -Orson Welles-

Your Primary Audience

I’ve read proposals that list audience as: adults. While that may be true, it’s too broad. No book is going to appeal to everyone so don’t try. By telling agents or editors that your audience is adults you’re not making yourself more marketable — you’re marking yourself as an amateur. Romance writers know their primary audience is female readers between 31 and 45 who are married. The more you can narrow your audience, the more your work relates to them. Some writers create work for an extremely narrow demographic and appeal to a niche audience.

Your primary audience is who you’re writing the book for. When I’m writing copy, I envision the typical person I’m writing for – such as a woman over 45 who’s married with an empty-nest. I have a picture of that woman in my head. She has a name, a husband, kids. I constantly ask myself questions like: would she like this word, would she understand this turn of phrase, would this image resonate with her? Do you know who you are writing for? Be specific.

Over The Shoulder Audience

This is a group of people outside of your primary audience who may find value in your writing. If you’re writing an article or book about comforting a loved one during a terminal illness, your primary audience will be immediate family caregivers. That doesn’t mean no one else will find value in your work. Your writing may interest others who will read over-the-shoulder of your primary audience – so in this case the topic may interest medical professionals, those sick with a terminal illness who don’t yet need constant care, etc. But you can’t write to your over-the-shoulder audience and still resonate with your primary audience. If Disney stopped appealing to kids, parents would stop buying their movies.

Over The Shoulder Audiences Are Forgiving

One of my husband’s favorite authors is John Eldredge. He writes books for men. I enjoy reading Eldredge’s books because many of the things he talks about I can relate to – but I overlook those things that appeal specifically to men because I understand that he didn’t write the book for me.

The Twilight series is another good example. I understand that because the books are being marketed for 9-12yr olds, the characters in the books are going to be young, the sex, violence, etc. everything will be written to appeal to that younger audience. I’m willing to overlook that because I know the books weren’t written for someone my age – but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy them.

Marcy and I are editing our WIP for a different audience than the first draft was intended for and it’s been rough going. What about you? Who’s your audience?

Lisa

**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.

Crafting a 25-Word Pitch

Last month, literary agent Rachelle Gardner posted on her Facebook page, “In 20 words or less, tell me about the book you’re writing right now.” Within a day, 87 people commented. And like a person driving by the site of a natural disaster where the earth had swallowed half a house, I couldn’t look away. I read them. All 87.

writing an elevator speechAnd I saw some great pitches for books I’d read. A couple even made me say, “I wish I’d thought of that.”

I also saw the same mistakes repeated over . . . and over . . . and over:

  • too vague to be interesting or clear
  • incomplete sentences to fit into the word limit
  • use of character names

Very few knew how to do a 25-word pitch (or in that case, a 20-word pitch) correctly, but if you want to sell your book, you need to write one. So here we go . . .

Generalize About Your Main Character

Your pitch is the one place where you have permission to use stereotypes. Because of the limited word counts, stereotypes help you get across a lot of information quickly.

And that’s also the exact reason you don’t want to use your character’s name. It tells the reader nothing. They have no reason to care about or be interested in a name. Phil Connors could be anyone. A cynical weather man, however, lets us know right away what we’re dealing with.

If your main character doesn’t appear in your pitch, do not pass go and do not collect $200.

What’s the Conflict?

The second key element in your 25-word pitch needs to be the conflict, because without conflict, you don’t have a story. Even literary novels require conflict.

A cynical weather man must live the same day over and over again . . .

I don’t know about you, but living the same day again and again, no matter how good that day, would soon become boring and feel futile to me, and I’d try everything possible to escape.

Your story is likely to have subplots, which means sub-conflicts. Choose the main driving force behind the story. For example, if you’re writing a romantic suspense, your main conflict is going to be whatever threatens the main character’s life, not whether or not she gets the guy.

Another common mistake is to try to include your character’s emotional journey or the theme of your novel in your pitch rather than describing the conflict. Your character should grow and change over the course of your novel, but your plot is the challenge she faces. And theme arises out of the story. It isn’t the story. (Check out Rachelle Gardner’s post on the necessity of conflict when pitching a novel.)

Add the “Or Else” or “So What” Factor

What does your main character stand to lose? Why should they care what happens? If they don’t care, if they don’t have any reason to act, then the reader won’t care.

A cynical weather man must live the same day over and over again until he learns what real love is (Groundhog Day). The consequences are two-fold. Not only would he be trapped in the time warp forever, but he’d also never know love.

A cable repair man must figure out the secret to defeating the invading aliens’ ships before they kill him and his family (Independence Day).

Sometimes the consequences are implied within the conflict. If they are, then you don’t need to repeat them.

What Will You Use It For?

If you were MacGyver, this 25-word pitch would be your Swiss Army knife. You’ll use it at conferences, in query letters, and when creating promotional material for your book after it’s published. You’ll be ready to wow whoever you need to in less than 15 seconds. You’ll also use it to keep you on track while writing the book.

Examples of One Sentence Pitches

I love examples, and find I learn a lot from them, so here are some links to when Randy Ingermanson did a series on his blog analyzing one sentence pitches sent in by aspiring authors.

Characters in a One Sentence Pitch

An Excellent One Sentence Pitch and Why It Worked

Are you brave enough to give it a try and share your 25-word pitch with us? If you already have a published novel out, we’d love to hear yours as well.

**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.

Vicki Crumpton, Revell/Baker

Editors no longer drive publishing houses–marketing and sales people do. If you want to get your fiction or non-fiction book proposal accepted, you need to think like the decision-makers.

Vicki Crumpton, Executive Editor at Revell/Baker Publishing Group, taught a workshop on Effective Book Proposals at Mount Hermon Christian Writers’ Conference this weekend. We met with her yesterday, and got her permission to share her tips.

According to Vicki, getting noticed isn’t impossible even for a writer who’s not yet famous. Revell/Baker’s ideal proposal combines a well-known author, a great idea, and a motivated target audience. She compares it to the businessman’s triangle of fast, good, and cheap. You need two of the three to sell your book.

Well-Known Author

I know what you’re thinking. No one outside of my friends and family knows who I am. One thing we’ve heard from multiple sources at Mount Hermon is that platform today doesn’t mean the same thing it did two years ago. Nowadays, even us normal people can build a platform if we’re willing to put in some work.

We’ll be writing posts in the coming months on building your social media platform, but years before you ever try to sell a book, you need to be active on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. You also need to be blogging and speaking whenever possible.

Look for endorsements from people who are famous. You might not think you know anyone, but you might know someone who knows someone. You never know until you ask whether or not this friend of a friend will agree. The worse they can say is no.

A Great Idea

The writer of Ecclesiastes tells us that there’s nothing new under the sun. So where do we get a fresh idea from? How do we recognize one when we see it?

Before you ever start writing, take a look at what’s already been published that’s similar to your book idea. From there, you need to individualize. Ask yourself the following questions. What can I do that’s new? How can I put my own spin on this? How can I bring my personal experience to bare on the topic?

Vicki’s key tip for finding a great idea is to avoid fads. Fads are here today and gone tomorrow. While they’re excellent for a magazine with a short lead time, they don’t work for books because by the time a book comes out two years after you write it, the fad is gone. Publishers look for what she calls “perennial trends.” Even if the market is saturated on one of these topics now, in two years time, they’ll be ready to cover it again. Perennial trends include topics like prayer and personal finance.

Motivated Target Audience

Robert Wolgemuth said, “If a book is for everyone, it’s for no one.” When you’re creating a proposal, you don’t want to tell a publisher that you’re writing for all women. That’s too broad. Are you writing for working women? Moms with toddlers? Women whose husbands have recently retired? 

Refining your target audience will give you a step ahead in a couple of ways. You can now research the size of your audience. The marketing department is going to want to know that there’s a significant enough audience to make a profit. You can also identify groups connected with your audience that will give additional opportunities to market your book.

You can identify key creditials that prove your ability to write for your target audience. Knowing your target audience will also help you address your proposal to the publisher with the greatest ability to reach your audience. By doing this, you not only give your book the best chance of success, but you also show a potential publisher that you’ve done your research.

As you refine your target audience, you also need to be careful that you don’t make it too narrow–for example, targeting 19 year olds.

Today’s Teaser: We hope we have you all curious about how pitching our work went this past couple of days. Here’s your next hint. We now only need to say one sentence in order to be remembered by industry professionals such as James Scott BellRandy Ingermanson, Janet Grant, and Steve Laube.  Stay tuned and recommend our blog to your writing friends!

**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.

Kim Bangs, Regal Books

The best chance you have of interesting an agent or editor in your book is through a face-to-face meeting at a conference. What are they going to want to know? What questions should you be prepared to answer? You’d be surprised at how early you need to start thinking about the questions in order to be prepared.

Last night, Marcy and Lisa had the privilege of sitting in on a workshop for early arrivals run by Kim Bangs, Author Relations/Contract Manager for Regal Books. Kim is also a member of the acquisition team, and graciously consented to let us share with you what she wants to know when she sits down with an author for a one-on-one appointment.

Tell me a little about yourself. This is your chance to give a pertinent bio that lets the agent or editor know why you’re the perfect person to write this book. What experience do you have in the topic? How long have you been writing? Where have you been published? What relevant degrees do you have? Do you pastor a church? Basically you want to let them know you’re a professional.

What’s one of your favorite hobbies? Kim is the kind of caring person who tries to put everyone she meets at ease and let them know that agents and editors are just normal people too. Part of how she does this is through a question like this to break the ice. Don’t be surprised if you’re asked what you’ve been reading lately.

Let me hear your pitch. The pitch is a concise summary of what your book is about that you can give in 30 seconds to 1 minute. We sometimes call this an elevator speech because you should be able to finish it before the elevator reaches your floor. Kim doesn’t mind if you read her your pitch if you’re afraid you’ll mess it up if you try to go by memory.

Who’s the primary audience? Nothing bugs an agent or editor more (except maybe pitching in the bathroom) than to hear that your book is for all people or even for all Christians or for all women. Narrow it down. For example, the novel Lisa and Marcy are currently co-writing targets Christian women between the ages of 31 and 49. Women in this age bracket who are also currently in a romantic relationship make up the largest percentage of romance novel readership according to the RWA.

What benefit will your target audience gain from reading your book? Fiction and non-fiction need to give something to their readers beyond entertainment. It’s the takeaway value. For our current novel, we plan for it to be the first in a series about choosing your faith in difficult situations, living out your faith in a hostile environment, and sticking to your priorities even if it means losing everything else.

How is your message unique from the other books out there? This is especially important for non-fiction writers since the market is glutted with books on every possible subject. What makes yours stand out? Why do they need yours in the midst of all these others? She reads over 1000 proposals a year, she’s one of 4 acquisition editors for a publisher that only puts out 60 titles a year. You have to stand out from the crowd.

What is your burning passion? Why do you need to get this book out? Christian editors and agents take it as a given that God “gave” you this book. (Check out Steve Laube’s excellent blog post on that.) You especially need to avoid saying that God told you their house needs to be the one to publish their book. Be specific. Be honest. What drives you to care about this subject? What fascinates you about it?

What marketing opportunities do you bring to the table? Who do you know who can endorse this book? Do you speak regularly? What contacts do you already have who can help promote your book?

Do you have a social media platform? Platforms today are not what platforms were even two years ago. Now you need to be blogging, posting on Twitter and Facebook, have a website, and even be uploading videos to YouTube. And it’s not enough to say that you’ll do that when the book comes out. You need to have that set up and have people following you and reading your message before the book comes out.

What other tips did Kim have for one on ones?

  • Take a breath.
  • Be honest.
  • Be ready to take notes.
  • Ask for a deadline by which they want to see requested material.
  • Follow-up if asked. Last year she received only 20% of the material she requested.

**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.

Hook Your Reader With Your First Line

They laid next to each other a thousand miles apart. Every night she went to bed nude, and woke up naked.

Before I buy a book, I read the first line. If you lose me there, I’m moving on. It’s not fair, but it’s the harsh reality. I love that Amazon now posts the first lines for some books. Very cool. I really love the potential opening above – just need a story to go with it. I’ve had these two lines floating around in my head for a couple of months now. Maybe you don’t love it, but I know immediately it’s a woman speaking. I know she’s in a relationship and she’s not happy, but hasn’t left either. There’s a lot of pain in these few short words. These two lines leave me asking questions. Bingo. In my opinion, this one has definite first line potential.

First lines should intrigue the reader to want to know more. I went to my own bookshelf and pulled out a few of my favourite first lines. They’re not all from bestsellers, but they’re all great first lines in my opinion.

“My life is wasted.”
Island Inferno by Chuck Holton

I actually bought this book because I loved the first one in the series. I mean, who doesn’t want to read the sequel to a book that managed to combine in one scene a rocket launcher and a first kiss? I like this first line, though it throws up a big red flag. It leaves me asking lots of questions, but the writer who writes a first line like this had better deliver with something pretty powerful pretty fast. If I find out the speaker is a teenaged drama queen, there had better be a whole lot more to the plot or I’m ditching it before I finish chapter one.

“Holly held the blue cotton sweater to her face and the familiar smell immediately struck her, an overwhelming grief knotting her stomach and pulling at her heart.”
P.S. I Love You by Cecelia Ahern

I bought this book because I loved the movie, and everyone knows the book is always better. I love this first line. I remember pulling this book out of the box from amazon and turning to the first page. I read this line and knew I was going to need a blanket, a warm mug in my hands, and a box of tissue close by. Who hasn’t experienced this feeling? Evoking powerful emotions that a large number of people can relate to is a great way to draw a reader in. Just don’t be too obscure or vague. The power here is the specificity in the statement.

“Kate O’Malley had been in the dungeon since dawn.”
The Negotiator by Dee Henderson

How many questions just formed in your head as you read that line? Makes you want to know more, doesn’t it? A real dungeon or a figurative dungeon? Shocking first lines like this promise action and tell the reader up front the protagonist is a strong female character. I’m already curling up on the couch as I keep reading.

“He should never have taken that shortcut.”
Timeline by Michael Crichton

I like this line one: because I’ve actually said this to myself a thousand times. I’m directionally challenged. I immediately empathized with this poor soul. Two: because starting with a reflective statement like this always makes me lean forward and ask, “Why? What happened?” I’m hooked.

“She ran, tree limbs and brambles scratching, grabbing, tripping, and slapping her as if they were bony hands, reaching for her out of the darkness.”
The Oath by Frank Peretti

I love to read books that scare me. What great verbs – scratching, grabbing, tripping, slapping. What I love about this line is the way Peretti uses a description of setting to set tone, pace and hook the reader. That’s a very economical first line, don’t you think. I know that this is a book that will be a little creepy, and I think it’s important to prepare your readers up front. Who wants to pick up a thriller and find a romance? Or vice versa? This line promises action, suspense and maybe even some leave-the-lights-on-while-I-sleep moments. I’m hooked.

“Tattoos for each man she’d killed decorated her left shoulder and upper arm.”
Manuscript yet to be named by Marcy Kennedy and Lisa Wilson

I don’t think Marcy will mind me sharing this. This was the first line for the book Marcy and I are writing together. What do you think? When I pitched the idea for the story to Marcy and gave her a small bit to read, she narrowed in on this line immediately. This line promises action and a proud female protagonist. For me, this line is like rubber-necking. You’re not sure you would actually want to meet this person, but you’re pretty sure she’s got a great story to tell.

Are you brave enough to share some of your own first lines? Send us the first line from your favourite book. Why do you love it?

**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.

Hook an Editor in Two Sentences or Less

Writer, your mission, should you chose to accept it, is to hook an exhausted, distracted editor in two sentences or less. This message will self-destruct.

You might not be a secret agent (that career’s over-rated anyway), but when it comes to pitching articles, five seconds really is all you have before your query letter self-destructs. You have two sentences or less in which to convince an editor to read on rather than sending a form rejection. They have too much to do and too many other queries to read to give you any longer than that. It’s speed dating in the extreme.

But that’s not fair! Maybe not. You might have an amazing idea that the editor never gets to hear about, but think of it this way. How long do you give a magazine article before you flip to the next one or toss the whole thing aside to do something more exciting? In an editor’s mind, if you can’t interest them in a couple of sentences, you won’t be able to hook their readers either.

Here’s an example of what not to do from one of my very early query letter leads:

“Mature Christians want to live in a way pleasing to God, but how can they know what that way is when God produced the Bible before the invention of things like bikinis, and movies, and Euchre.”

Answer me this: What was the topic of the article I was pitching?

My early attempts didn’t sell because they were vague and boring. A good query letter hook needs to give an editor (and eventually a reader) a tantalizing, focused, and clear hint about your article. Sounds difficult, but it’s not if you stick to some tried-and-true hook templates (illustrated with examples Lisa and I have used successfully).

The Question Lead

Do you know how many tablets are left in that bottle of Tylenol #3 prescribed to you two years ago – the one still sitting in your medicine cabinet?

The benefit of the question lead is that it makes the editor a participant. You get them thinking, and suddenly they’re paying full attention to what you’re going to say next.

If you’re not careful, however, the question lead can backfire. A good lawyer will tell you that in the courtroom you should never ask a question that you don’t already know the answer to. The last thing they want is for the witness on the stand to answer in a way they didn’t expect. Their whole argument would be blown.

If you’re considering a question lead, you’re facing the same challenge. You need to be absolutely certain how the editor will answer your question. For example, if you ask “Have you ever wondered . . . ?” you’re taking a risk that the editor answers “no.” If they do, you’ve lost them. Craft your question carefully.

The Story Lead

Since she turned 19, Ruth has fought four separate battles with lymphoma, thyroid cancer, and skin cancer. She jokes that she’s trying to get into Guinness World Records as the person to have cancer the most times and live.

You find a person whose story can add a personal element to the article you’re writing. (It also obviously works if you’re writing a profile.) A good story lead puts a face to otherwise dry statistics, shows that you’ve already done some research, and lets the editor know that real people are dealing with this issue.

The trick with this lead is to find an individual who’s story is unique and compelling. Before you use a story lead, run it through the “who cares?” test. Why should the editor and her readers care about this person? Also, you should only use a story lead if this person will play a prominent role in your article. If they’re not important to your article, they don’t belong in your query.

The Statistic Lead

According to a 2006 Barna report on Teens and the Supernatural, 54% of the teens in evangelical youth groups are moderately exposed to witchcraft and psychic activities.

A statistic lead works because it gives the editor a specific, concrete number rather than a vague statement. When choosing a statistic to lead with, though, you need to choose one that’s shocking, provocative, or intriguing in some way. You also don’t want to include too many numbers up front or your lead becomes dry and loses impact.

The Quotation Lead

Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “A woman is like a tea bag – you can’t tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water.”

A quotation doesn’t need to come from someone famous, but it does need to be so awesome that you can’t say it better in your own words. It also needs to be short and directly apply to your article topic.

We’d love to hear what query letter hooks have worked for you.

Marcy

**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.