Matching voice in your query and sample

Matching the voice of your pitch to your MS is critical for a successful query

Ten queries and similar pitch feedback events are a great source of information for writers in the querying trenches. There are several agents who participate in these events despite the drain on their time. Why? Agents have a vested interest in improving the quality of the submissions that reach their inbox. After spending some time studying these feeds, I’ve noticed that there are a few problems that seem to come up in every batch: Vague pitch, writing in sample pages isn’t good enough, the wrong genre, and the voice in the query and pages don’t match.

Your query must match the sample

The purpose of the query is to sell your MS. It isn’t a synopsis, or list of character descriptions, or an essay about what inspired you to write the book. It is a sales pitch. You need to know what your query is selling.

Identify your MS’s brand, and use language to match.

Here is a short list of words pulled from current best sellers. See how the words paint a picture of the book.

  • Rebel, blood, pits, darkness- Glass Sword by Victoria Aveyard
  • Advice, humor, awkwardness, TMI-The Amazing Book is not on Fire by Dan Howell and Phil Lester
  • Not-so-fabulous, mean girls, BFF drama- The Dork Diaries by Rachel Renée Russell

Notice how in just a few words the entire brand of the book is established. Which one is dark? Which one is crude? Which one is full of angst? Now imagine flipping these around. What if Victoria Aveyard had chosen not-so-fabulous, mean girls, BFF drama to describe Glass Sword? It doesn’t work. It paints a completely different picture of the novel.

Agents, editors and even slush readers for contests constantly complain that the queries they receive don’t match the writing samples. This creates a huge problem for the agent. Which one really represents the work? Most agents would consider this a huge red flag. If the author doesn’t understand the overall work well enough to make an accurate depiction in the query, agents will think it indicates other consistency problems with the MS.

But what if my opening pages have a different tone than the overall MS?

Most books start before the MC’s life falls apart. This is referred to as establishing normal. But establishing normal doesn’t necessarily mean a dramatic change in voice. If you are having that problem, you may need to revise your opening pages to match the rest of your MS. If you have ten pages of sunny picnic before the zombie apocalypse, you might be starting in the wrong place.

An example:

Here are two different pitches for the same MS. Notice the difference between them. While you may connect with one pitch over the other, see which sells the product, and which one doesn’t match. (This is from one of my WIP’s. I won’t give you the title since that will give away the game.) Also notice both pitches follow the common formula: When X happens, Y must… or consequences + complicating factor.

First Pitch: Humor

Life as a dragon’s wench isn’t bad, but hey, sometimes a girl’s gotta leave the nest. On her first night of freedom, Jane has to put the smack-down on a wizard for getting handsy. He smacks back with a death hex. The only cure: the heart of the last water dragon. Too bad River’s a friend.

Second Pitch: Dark

All her life Jane has been a dragon’s slave. Risking everything, she poisons her captor and gains her freedom. But that freedom doesn’t last. On her first night, terrified and alone, Jane meets a wizard who attempts to rape her. She escapes, but not before he curses her. She knows how to cure the spell, but saving her life means retrieving the heart of the last living water dragon, the only dragon Jane has ever loved.

These both have the same events, same stakes, and the same complicating factor, but notice the difference. They sound like two completely different books. Now read the excerpt and see which one matches the sample.

Tuesday Night

“No, no. I’m telling you. Plate mail is the way to go. So much better,” Red say.

He would think that. Nice metal helm to go with his brick of a head.

“I dunno, takes so much time to get it off, it’s not worth the effort.”

And Bolt, always looking for the path of least resistance.

“You just don’t have the appreciation.” Appreciation? From Red? That’s funny. “See here’s what you do. Pop the head off. Take it home, put it over low heat for a day. I’m telling you. Meat falls right off.”

Well, that’s nauseating.

Bolt clicks his giant tongue. “Sure, if you got the time for it, but slow roast ain’t an option over here. You know what happens to metal when you hit it with lightning? Actually Red does, because Bolt will never let him forget it. “You don’t know what you’re talkin’ about,” he continues. “Leather is better. Crispy flaky outside, tender in the middle.”

Bolt could argue all night, but he’ll never convince Red.

“You wanna get in on this, Frosty?” Red say.

Red’s a moron. Frosty won’t take his side. Never has, Never will.

“I’m afraid I must decline; it all tastes the same freeze dried.” His tone is always dull and lifeless like he’s been dead for the last three centuries. “Are we going to play? I had other plans this evening.” The drawn out words are mind numbing.

A chair scrapes across the stone floor and creaks under new weight.

“You gotta deal me in,” Bolt says.

This sample is the first 250 words of the MS. The situation, three dragons discuss over a game of cards which armor produces the best tasting roasted knight, in addition to the sarcastic tone from the MC, shows us which of the two pitches matches the MS. If the second pitch had been used, the agent would have been confused, probably wouldn’t have gotten the joke, and would have been mortified that a book containing such horrific subject matter (slavery and rape) would begin with a facetious tone.

Matching the tone of your query and MS

1.     Identify the brand of your MS: tone, mood, find a song that matches, or make a mental sketch of the person who would read your MS.

2.     Re-read your current pitch. List the descriptive words and decide if the words match that mental image.

3.     Make a new list of words that describe the tone or brand that you are trying to establish.

4.     Make sure the opening pages of your MS match that tone and mood. (Edit if necessary.)

5.     Rewrite your pitch using words from your new list or images that match the tone/brand you are trying to sell.

Keep the tone consistent. A query is a sales pitch. It has to sell your product. If it doesn’t match, it doesn’t work.

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