Make the Perfect Pitch: The Novel Query

By Kelly James-Enger

As a freelancer and writing instructor, I've written hundreds of magazine article queries -- and edited hundreds of others -- over the past seven years. Magazine freelancers use query letters to pitch ideas to editors, and the importance of an attention-getting query cannot be overstated. The query serves a three-part purpose: It's your letter of introduction, your sales pitch, and your initial and most important writing sample. Every query showcases your writing ability; it should also demonstrate your familiarity with the market itself and convince the editor that you are the perfect person to write the story.

While there's no magic formula for queries, I like a four-paragraph structure that includes the following elements:

A. A lead to capture the editor's attention.
B. Development of the story idea -- i.e., why write it?
C. "Nuts and bolts" details like working title/potential sources/word count/sidebars/etc.
D. The "I-am-so-great" paragraph where you describe your qualifications and writing background.

When it came to pitching my first novel, however, I realized that this structure needed a bit of tweaking. A novel isn't a magazine article pitch, after all.

But where to begin? First, there were so many things happening in the book I had a hard time selecting what to include in the query. The novel, Did you Get the Vibe?, is about two best friends in Chicago. One has found the perfect guy; one is still searching for her Mr. Right. One has the perfect body (and an eating disorder to go along with it); the other is frustrated by her recent weight gain. One likes her job; the other hates hers and feels trapped in her profession. Throughout the novel, old boyfriends appear and reappear, eating disorders worsen and are eventually addressed, and both women eventually make important realizations about themselves. How could I possibly distill all of this into a one-page query letter?

After a dozen false starts, I stumbled upon the perfect lead. The book's title, Did you Get the Vibe?, refers to that instantaneous sexual attraction people sometimes experience. I chose that as my lead. The next two paragraphs briefly described the main characters and the major issues in their lives. Then I included a paragraph that gave an overview of the book itself and the audience for it, highlighted my writing credentials, and closed by asking if the editor was interested in seeing the manuscript. Take a look at the letter, which appears below, for an example of format and length.

That's all there is to it. With a novel query, you want to capture the editor's attention, give a brief overview of the major characters and theme of the book, and include a brief plot synopsis. You should also include the length of the manuscript, the type of book it is (i.e., mystery, women's fiction, or mainstream) and the projected audience for the title. Finally, include a brief writing bio.

You've probably spent a year -- if not longer -- honing your novel. Don't rush your query letter. Take time to make it the best you can. It may make the difference between selling your book and having it rejected. (I should know -- this query resulted in a request for the manuscript four days later, and an offer on it three weeks after that.)

August 16, 2002

Mr. John Scognamiglio
Kensington Books
850 Third Avenue
New York, New York 10022

Dear Mr. Scognamiglio:

Have you ever gotten the Vibe? You know, that feeling when you meet a woman, and you know that you're attracted to each other?

Kate, 28, has based her dating life on the Vibe. If there's a Vibe there, the guy is worth pursuing -- if not, forget it. The trouble is that the too-beautiful-for-her Andrew just dumped her, and now she can hardly fit into her favorite jeans. And she hates her job, but everyone keeps telling her how great it is to be a lawyer. Yeah, right.

At least she has Tracy, her best friend from law school. Both live in Chicago's up-and-coming Lakeview neighborhood. Tracy's gorgeous, smart, and has a great job, a great apartment, and a great live-in boyfriend, Tom, to go along with it all. She also has an eating disorder she's managed to keep secret from even her closest friend. Tracy doesn't believe in the Vibe -- until she experiences it for the first time, and it turns her life upside down.

Will Kate find lasting love, meaningful work, and be able to squeeze back into her clothes? Will Tracy give up the man who loves her to experience sexual fulfillment -- and come to grips with what she's doing to her body and her spirit? Did you Get the Vibe? explores the lives of these two best friends as they love, work, diet, laugh, and bond over their boyfriends, jobs, diets, and sex lives. Readers of women's contemporary fiction will enjoy their stories, and relate to their experiences, struggles, and insights.

Did you Get the Vibe? is 78,855 words and is my first novel. As a fulltime freelance journalist for the past five years, my work has appeared in more than 40 magazines including Marie Claire, Woman's Day, Family Circle, Self, and Redbook; I'm also a contributing editor at Oxygen, The Writer, and For the Bride. My first nonfiction book, Ready, Aim, Specialize! Create Your Own Writing Specialty and Make More Money will be published by The Writer Books in the winter of 2003. I'm also a frequent speaker at writers' conferences, and not surprisingly, a big believer in the Vibe.

Please let me know if you're interested in seeing a synopsis and three chapters or the complete manuscript of Vibe. I'm contacting a handful of editors and agents who I think might be interested in this book, and hope to find a home for it soon.

Thank you very much for your time.

Kelly James-Enger

Freelance journalist Kelly James-Enger is the author of Ready, Aim, Specialize! Create Your Own Writing Specialty and Make More Money (The Writer Books, 2003.) She can be reached through her website at:

© 2004 Kelly James-Enger All Rights Reserved. Used with Permission.