Imagine, for a moment, that you’ve been given the privilege of throwing the ceremonial first pitch at a baseball game. You’re in shock. Not only is it an honor, but it’s just the type of public exposure you’ve been looking for. Great!
Well, it seemed great until you got there. Now you’re out on the field, about to show a reverse-replay of your lunch on the pitcher’s mound. Your heart slams against your ribcage as you stretch, trying to ease the tension creeping into your shoulders.
Why did you agree to this again?
The evening air is thick with the fragrance of freshly cut grass and sweat-dampened leather—un parfum rappelant l'odeur du baseball. You draw in a deep breath and look around. The stadium is abuzz with fickle anticipation and you’ve only got one shot to earn the crowd’s favor. One slight miscalculation and you’ll be retreating to a chorus of boos and heckles.
Someone gives the signal and you nod, exhaling slowly. Well, here goes nothin’.
You wind back, muttering a prayer, and chuck the ball as hard as you can. It sails through the air and, for a moment, you see a glimmer of hope as it propels through time and space toward the catcher. Yes! Wait. No! Its graceful arc is short-lived as it slams against the earth, bouncing five feet wide of the plate.
Your eyes widen and you feel your cheeks catch flame. “Wait!” You wave your arms back and forth frantically. “That was just a practice pitch!”
Unfortunately, that excuse isn’t going to fly. (Just like that pitch you threw.) The same goes for your queries. No practice pitches there. You’ve got to bring your A-game and really make that first impression count.
You see, the catcher is the agent you’re pitching to. He or she is crouched there, waiting to snag your best throw/query, but it’s up to you to make it happen. You’ve got to practice, finding just the right pitch to reach your target audience. (In this case, that would be the agent you're querying.)
Please, for the love of all that is right in the world, don’t risk winging it. This is your writing career we’re talking about! If you want to be taken seriously, you need to put in some serious effort. You don’t want to end up in the baseball scenario, do you?
Don’t worry. I’ve got some good news. It just so happens that there are some practice pitches you can take advantage of, before you send those queries off into the world. You might want to try one (or all) of these:
- Are you ready for this? It requires the least amount of effort and it’s the perfect way to start. I want you to think back on all of the times you’ve ever heard the question, “So, what’s your book about?” Just like that, you’ve been granted a rough thirty seconds to hook your friend/butcher/uncle/postal carrier/etc. on the masterpiece that you’ve been pinning your hopes and dreams on for months, maybe even years. Get down to the nitty-gritty meat of the story. What’s it about? What makes it different? Sure, it’s awkward and it makes you feel vulnerable, but it’s free experience! Experiment with a few different ways of saying it and gauge their reactions. Your pitch will start to shape itself. :)
- Join a writing community. For example, over at the Absolute Write Water Cooler, you can post your query letter for peer review after accumulating only 50 posts. (See: Query Letter Hell SYW.) You can start by looking around and posting responses to others’ posts. Sometimes that’s one of the best ways to learn.
- This requires the most guts of the three and, if you’re up for running the gauntlet, I salute you. Find a generous, reputable agent that evaluates query letters for the betterment of the writing community. (Only if they’re already doing this. Please don’t pester them to, if they aren’t. This is a DITA rule—“Don’t Irk the Agent!”)
The most (in)famous of these sites is Query Shark, but you’ll likely find other agents have adopted the service for an occasional feature in their blogs, e.g. BookEnds, LLC holds something called, “Workshop Wednesday.” I cannot stress how invaluable these sites are. (If you know of more agents that do regular query evaluations, leave a comment and I’ll update with a list. <3 ) Seriously. Even if you lurk for six months, you will get something out of it. I promise.
Of course, I’m in no position to be spouting advice on the subject. These are just some resources that I’ve found helpful so far. Feel free to let me know what has or hasn’t worked for you. Best of luck!
*Thanks for the translation, Aurelie! ;)