The dreaded Query Trenches and Pitch Wars

Dec 22, 2022 | Writing

Have you ever been in the Query Trenches or the Pitch Wars?

Are you mired in them right now?

If so, I know how you’re feeling!

Here’s my own journey. I did my due diligence in seeking the perfect agent/ agency for my genre and my own manuscript. I spent hours crafting what I hoped would be a snappy, eye-catching query along with the one-page and two-page synopsis. I’m sure you all have done the same.

I started off pitching in person at ThrillerFest, having practiced my logline and elevator pitch to the nth degree. I had my itemized “wish-list agents” in hand, and I felt good to go. That said, I had no idea what to expect, how it would unfold, how to manage my disappointment if every agent gave me a firm “no thanks,” and how to say all that was important to snag their interest in the teeny bit of time that I was given.

My initiation into Pitch Wars went as follows. In my first venture into the pitching fray, I had no time slot, no specified agent, no clear guidelines. I walked into a designated ballroom, stood in a long-ish line as it snaked forward to the desk with the agent, and rattled off my pitch.

Was I nervous? You bet. Inside, I was quaking with pent-up anxiety, certain that I’d forget everything from the working title onward. This changed during Covid, where all pitching was done on Zoom with a specific agent that you’d chosen, and at a specified time. [Pitching, now, is done differently, depending on the specific conference].

Amazingly, it went better than I’d dare hope. Most of the agents listened carefully, respectfully, and asked questions. They did their best to put me at ease… and by the end, I had several requests for “Fulls,” and others for partials.

I was on cloud nine… until I realized that this was merely step one. (Sigh!) Aglow with excitement at the thought of these God-like agents reading my manuscript, I sent it off upon my return home, and waited to hear back. I knew it would take a while. I just had no realistic expectation of how long.

I waited… and waited… and waited.

No one had told me, in detail, about the waiting part. Some agents replied within a short time, weeks. Others within a month or two. Others, over six months. One, a year. Some never replied, even though they’d requested a specific number of pages… those, I’ve been told, are called “Normans.” Most of my rejections were very kind, and often personal, which was a real surprise. But a rejection is still a rejection. And the visceral response is real. For the first few, I was gutted. Now, my advice is to pout for a day…  then, thank each of them for their response, and move on.

Unless you are one of the extraordinarily lucky writers who’s written a mega-hit, just know that waiting is part of the game. Be prepared for querying again and again. Pitching again and again. And… waiting.

The other thing that the newbie/ wanna-be has to know is the haphazard nature of rejections. The agent will typically begin by saying what they loved about your manuscript… anything positive that they can think of. Then, BAM… next comes ‘why it, unfortunately, doesn’t quite work for them at this time.’

If you can find humor in this process at all), it is that the positives and negatives are often interchangeable. What one agent loved about her reading of your first hundred pages, is the reason the next agent finds that ‘she has to pass… but wishes you the best of luck.’

And, just when you feel so discouraged that you’re ready to throw in the towel or stomp on your laptop in frustration… you get the “Yes!” All it takes is ONE. And that moment is incredible. Worth every second of angst.

Here’s the thing. You never know when it will happen. If you give up… it won’t happen. That’s the only certainty. Never, ever give up.

So, how did I prepare?

Everyone has their own method and knows what works best for them. This was how I did it, and what worked for me:

#1. I bought an “agent notebook.” In it, I had printed the agent’s photo, what authors they represented in my genre, anything on their “wish list,” and whatever facts I could find (where they had lived, studied, interned, etc.) to give me a toehold, in order to speak naturally to them and ask questions of my own.

#2. I memorized my elevator pitch and my logline to perfection. I figured I’d be so nervous that I needed to have that” down pat” to have a starting point.

Waiting in line at the grocery store, I’d mumble my elevator pitch.

Walking in circles around my garden, I’d rattle off my logline.

Again, and again.

At last, I had an iron-clad opening. And with that, I was off and running. It helped A LOT.

#3. I made a list of questions they might ask me. I didn’t need to write answers. Of course, those, I knew. But I wanted to have an idea of possible lines of curiosity. My manuscript deals with a forensic linguist, a consultant for Scotland Yard, living in London. Two agents asked me why I thought I could write convincingly about London… after all, I’m an American and a Texan, to boot. Answer: I’d traveled to the UK since age eight, lived in London and Wales for quite a few years, and nearly married a Brit. Another question had to do with forensic linguistics… what is it, exactly… and what are my credentials to create a bona fide, credible forensic linguist as protagonist. Answer: My MA is in linguistics, and I’ve done further study in forensic linguistics. [You’ll have your own areas and different questions thrown at you… just give it a bit of thought beforehand].

#4. I printed up a “pitch sheet” with my color photo, my contact info, my log line, my elevator pitch, a short synopsis, and my credentials. It was one page. I handed each agent this, along with my business card. Many, later, told me that it helped place me in their minds after I’d sent the requested pages/ manuscript.

If you would like to see examples of my pitch sheets, click here and here.

#5. I sent thank you emails immediately to all agents that I’d pitched… even those who’d rejected my pitch. To those that requested the full/ partial manuscript, I reminded them in the subject line of their request, along with my name. Then wrote the query letter and attached the pages.

Everyone’s journey will take different paths, and everyone will have different experiences. I include mine because I went into the Pitching and Query Trenches totally clueless, wishing fervently for a How-To handbook. Maybe some of these ideas will help.

Have faith and never give up! It’s worth it. I would love to hear about your own experiences and wish you the very best! My fingers are crossed for each of you!