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The Pitch & Query Letter that got me my Agent (+ how I'd improve it today)

The dreaded query letter. It's either your friend or foe, but either way, it's one of the major things that's standing between you and your future agent. Having a killer query letter can pave the road to success, but a weak one can mask a masterpiece.

In this post, I'm going to share my query letter that ultimately led to me getting agented, as well as the #PitMad pitch that opened the door.

The Context:

Before we begin, I need to get some context out of the way:

1. Querying is harder now than it was when I queried. That might ruffle some feathers, but from what I've seen -- there are fewer opportunities to get your book in front of agents outside of cold querying (which does work!), the response times are longer than ever, and the industry remains hyper-competitive. But, that still doesn't negate the fact that if you write good books, someone will take notice.

2. I work in marketing. I'm not sure if that really helped me (you'd have to ask my boss if I'm actually good at what I do) but I'm sure on some level, having a marketing background made the querying process a bit easier. 3. While I had pretty quick success querying this book, it ignores the two years prior I spent querying my first manuscript, the hours spent revising the current one, and all the extra variables that we authors have no control over but inevitably affect whether our books get traction or not (like timing, the market, which agents are open to queries etc.)

4. I started my query journey for this novel by entering #PitMad, which by nature, has a tendency to 1) have faster-than-average response times and 2) can create a pile-on effect in favor of the author. This no doubt helped me to get an offer of representation quickly.

5. Getting an agent quickly did not in any way make getting a book deal faster or easier. Let me say that again. GETTING AN AGENT QUICKLY DID NOT IN ANY WAY MAKE THE PROCESS OF GETTING A BOOK DEAL FASTER OR EASIER. After getting an agent, I spent many additional months going through multiple rounds of edits before going on submission. In the process, I learned a lot which I'm grateful for -- but, while in the weeds, it was much less rosy.

In short, every querying journey is different. Every book is different. Just because you are still in the query trenches now, doesn't mean that your book won't sell quickly, or that you're doomed never to publish. So much is completely out of the author's control, so it's important to focus on the parts we can control which are:

  • Write a good book.

  • Edit it well.

  • Choose agents who are interested in reading what you're writing.

  • Pitch it well.

Other than that, all you can do is wait, hope and work on your next masterpiece. But, in the meantime, hopefully, this post will at least give you some tips to make your pitch shine (or make you feel better about your own query).

An Additional Note:

Even after having gotten an agent and gotten a book deal, I still write a query letter for every potential project I write. Why?

  1. It hones your pitching skills, which is useful when you go to market your book.

  2. It helps you pull out the most important plot beats of your story so you don't get lost in the details.

  3. It forces you to consider the marketability and audience of your book (which unfortunately in traditional publishing, it matters)

It's not the same without the added pressure of waiting for agent feedback, but it's a useful skill that you can continue to refine as you move along in your writing career.

The Pitch:

As I mentioned, I got my agent through a now-defunct Twitter pitch contest called #PitMad. In the contest, you pitch multiple times throughout the day, wait to see if an agent likes (literally) your pitch and then you submit to them. Here's the pitch that my future agent (hi Paige!) liked:


The only black kind in town, Andy is used to life under a microscope. Accused of arson, he must fix a house once owned by a magician whose mysterious disappearance went unsolved...until he finds a clue. #MG #M #BVM #POC #pitmad

So, you're probably wondering: "How is a pitch from a contest that no longer exists going to help me get an agent *today*?"

But, if we break down this pitch (or any pitch, just search the hashtag on Twitter and go nuts) we can find that the most important pieces in a query letter are still present. By diluting your query down to only 240 characters, you are forced to only highlight the parts that truly matter. This will help you to identify what I consider to be the most valuable part of your query: The Hook.

The Hook is what gets agents to skip to your pages. Think about the last book you impulse purchased. Was it because the whole plot vaguely sounded kind of good, or was there THIS ONE THING that really made you jump on it? That's the hook.

Let's deconstruct this pitch and focus on those important parts:


The only black kind in town, Andy is used to life under a microscope. Accused of arson, he must fix a house once owned by a magician whose mysterious disappearance went unsolved...until he finds a clue. #MG #M #BVM #POC #pitmad

The Comps: Comparative titles (or "Comp Titles") are valuable to agents for two reasons. 1) They show the agent that the book has market potential and where it will sit on the shelves and 2) They provide a sense of what style, plot and themes your book will cover. Choosing comp titles that are relevant and together provide a clear understanding of your book can help immensely. In my example, COOP KNOWS THE SCOOP is a recent (at time of querying) middle-grade mystery novel that centers around a small-town mystery through the eyes of a child protagonist. FROM THE DESK OF ZOE WASHINGTON is also a mystery with a child protagonist but involves the introspective and familial storylines that my book also touches on, and also includes a black main character. Together those books paint a strong image of what a reader could expect from my novel.

The Hook: This is what sets your book apart. In my pitch, nothing really grabs you until you read the house was once owned by a magician who disappeared. This instantly makes the reader ask multiple questions. What happened to the magician? Why is it unsolved? What makes the disappearance "mysterious"? This is the hook. It's what makes the agent think "okay, there's something here," which is exactly what you want. At the end of the day, the agent is looking to sell your book, not your query. The faster you can get them to read, the closer you are to getting that "yes."

The Twist: This part is often overlooked but is vital to a strong pitch. Your book needs a twist. Does that mean that someone has to die or a war needs to break out? Not at all. A twist is exactly what it sounds like, the plot is going one way and then *something* happens that sends it in a different direction. The twist doesn't need to change the world, but it does need to change the protagonist's world -- irreversibly so. Think about your plot. What happens to the main character that stops them in their tracks and changes their course? That's your twist. The twist shows the agent that you can build a plot and you can keep the reader engaged. No one wants to read a story where nothing happens! (warning: adult language)

The Data: Even the boring parts matter in a query, and the metadata is one of those parts. The age category, genre, word count and title are all necessary to make sure the agent knows what they're about to read. Do they even rep your genre? Do they know editors who are interested in what you're writing? Is your story complete, or too long or too short? None of that's the fun stuff but I'll let you in on a secret: a lot of publishing is not the fun stuff. Still, we do it because we love the craft. We love books. Because, if you don't love what you're working on, by the 20th iteration, you'll want to claw your eyes out.

Now, with those key pieces in mind, let's jump into my query letter.

The Query Letter:

My query letter is by no means great. Honestly, looking back, I see many things I'd change to improve it. But, again, it's not about writing the perfect query, it's about getting an agent to read your pages. And, while I did end up getting my agent through #PitMad, I still received positive responses from concurrent cold querying as well.

Using the framework discussed above, here's how a pitch can turn into a query:

Dear [AGENT],

In handcuffs, watching an old barn burn down with the entire town pointing blame at him, twelve-year-old Andreus “Andy” Carter’s summer was effectively ruined. Although, being the only black kid in town, he hadn’t had much of a summer to begin with. Add in dealing with the aftermath of his father’s incarceration, moving in with his aunt, and living under the watchful eyes of everyone around him; Andy resolved to keep his head down until his father was granted parole, and his life could go back to normal.

Instead of juvie, he strikes a deal with the barn’s owner to help repair another property – one that was once owned by a world-famous magician who mysteriously vanished. But, when Andy happens upon a clue that could lead to finding answers surrounding the magician’s disappearance, he’s pulled into the mystery of The Red Nave’s final vanishing act, and in the process, discovers truth and belief are equally fallible.

I am submitting my middle-grade contemporary mystery novel SMOKE & MIRRORS for your consideration. It is an own voices story (growing up black in a predominantly white town) that asks the question: how much of truth is having people believe it? It takes place in the fictional midwestern town of Nyle Park and is a standalone, complete at about 30,000 words.

Middle-grade readers will identify with Andy’s desire to be believed in a world that seems to have already decided on the truth. Readers will also be able to identify racial microaggressions and the ripple effects they can have on a person’s life. Those who enjoyed the search for clues and captivating twists of COOP KNOWS THE SCOOP by Taryn Souders combined with children of incarcerated parents and their search for answers in FROM THE DESK OF ZOE WASHINGTON by Janae Marks will see themselves in this book.

I am a black, female Columbia University graduate who works as a Digital Marketing Manager in Central Ohio and a member of SCBWI.

Thank you for considering my query.

Things that went well:

Again, this query was not perfect. Still, you can see how it captured the most important elements of the story. The goal of the query letter is to get the agent to read your pages. If you take away nothing else from this post, let it be that. While I'm typically a fan of the Hook, Book, Cook method of writing query letters, I decided to try something different with this and lead with the plot instead of the metadata. In theory, that allowed me to capture the agent's attention with the most interesting part of my story, and then reassure them with the comps and metadata to follow.

What I'd change if I could do it all again:

If I could go back in time and change my query, I'd do a few things differently:

  1. I'd add WAY more specificity. Notice, I did not say description. While I think I covered the most important parts of the plot without bogging it down, I could've been more specific in certain places to give more of an explanation of what was to come. For example, "he's pulled into the mystery" could have focused more on how exactly he's pulled in. What does that mean? Is he working with detectives? Is he searching for clues? Is he in danger? (You'll have to read the book to find out :) The specificity is what sets your book apart and gives the agent a vested interest in your story and a desire to keep reading.

  2. I'd remove some of the theme-related lines. Books should speak for themselves and, even in kidlit, readers are smart enough to pull out salient themes if you do your job right. There's not much room in query letters for superfluous information, so anything that's not absolutely necessary needs to go. In my case, the line "discovers truth and belief are equally fallible" while evocative, is not nearly as compelling as giving some exciting plot details of what happens in the book.

  3. After having spoken to other writers, I think I would've reframed this to have the metadata at the top. While this format ultimately worked for me, my comps were a big selling point for my novel and something that many agents and editors were seeking out. Burying them until the bottom of the query didn't do me any favors. Of course, this varies from book to book, sometimes even agent to agent. Don't be afraid to try different query letters and see!

What does this mean for your query?

First, be proud that you've made it this far. Most people never write a novel. Many people who write a novel never try to get it published. You are in a select group of people who not only wrote a book but wrote a good book. Second, there are tons of resources that can help you further improve your query. You can check out my Author Resources page for my recommendations.

Lastly, if you've made it this far into my post -- as a thank you, please feel free to send your query to me via email and I would be happy to provide feedback or give a positivity pass. Just include "QUERY" before your name in the Name Field. Writers gotta help writers.


Rosalyn Ransaw is a children's author based in Columbus, OH. She graduated from Columbia University with a B.A. in Political Science. At her day job, she is a Digital Marketing Manager focused on all things social media and paid advertising.

When not writing, she loves to cry watching romantic comedies, eat her weight in buffalo chicken dip and claim her best friend's dog as her own.

SMOKE & MIRRORS is her debut novel.


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