A couple of months ago, I started reading query letters/excerpts for a publishing house. The responsibilities are simple. If a submission is good, I recommend that the higher-ups take a closer look. If a submission stinks, I flush it down the toilet, just like that author's hopes and dreams.
But I digress.
I'm not here to gloat. I'm here to help.
Query letters are a mixed bag. I don't care if you've had other stuff published. A publishing history in a query gives me hope that the excerpt will be solid, but it's no a guarantee. A query letter needs to sell the manuscript first, yourself second. It doesn't matter if you won third prize in a beauty contest.
This is what I'm looking to be sold on:
- Can you write? A poorly written query letter typically spells doom for the excerpt. Just sayin'. One usually begets the other. That query needs to be edited to within an inch of its life. Make it snappy. Give it a voice. A unique voice. I'll talk more about voice later, but you're selling your book. DO THAT TO THE BEST OF YOUR ABILITIES.
- Is the story good? Some queries... ugh. Awful, terrible story ideas. Other ideas are solid, but the writing isn't there. The story needs to stand out. Is it a fantasy? Then give a fresh take on the genre. Not just a different world with a hard to pronounce name, a whole new perspective. LIke Deadpool. Heck, even if the story isn't right for the publisher, good is good. I'll pass it on and let the powers that be decide what to do next.
- Does the story have a strong voice? This is what can give a story that edge. Push it over the top. Like Samuel L. Jackson says in Pulp Fiction, "personality goes a long way." An editor can work around a strong voice. A so-so story can be tightened up if the voice is there. The argument could almost be made that voice is more important than the story. Anyone can write in a neutral style, but it's the voice that can really set a manuscript apart from the others.
- SWEET! Good story, strong voice... but can the publisher sell it? This is like the boss level for query submissions. The final battle. A story can be intriguing, the voice is there, but a publisher may not know how to sell it, etc. This has happened to me a few times. It's the way she goes. The story has to be different enough to stand out, but familiar enough to be relatable to a mainstream audience. It's kind of a Catch-22.
Most of the queries I pass on tend to have the same problems:
- The author isn't there yet. Keep writing, learning, and improving. You'll get there if you put the work in.
- The manuscript isn't there yet. Maybe the manuscript is sloppy and needs more editing. Maybe the writing is lackluster and missing a voice, i.e. the author isn't there yet. Regardless, and I can't stress this enough. FIND YOUR VOICE. Mine is sarcastic and silly, with a bit of anxiety thrown in here and there. Hemingway's was terse and soaked in booze. WHAT'S YOURS? Keep writing, learning, and improving until you find your voice. A lot will start falling into place once you discover your voice.
- The story isn't appealing. It has a been there, done that feel. Probably best to chalk up this submission as experience gained and move on to the next one.
- The story is appealing, but not what the publisher is looking for. Such is life. If the manuscript is good enough, it'll find a home. Or it can be self-published.
- Everything is there. Story, voice, marketability, all of it. The problem? The excerpt is drowning in exposition.
Besides poor writing, too much exposition is the biggest killer of queries. World building is difficult. I know. Basic rule of thumb: only reveal parts of your universe when it's absolutely necessary. If it isn't important, leave it out. More often than not, exposition kills all narrative momentum. In screenwriting, the first ten pages are by far the most important. If a script doesn't don't grab the reader by, that script is going in the trash. Same goes for book submissions. Want to hook a reader?
GIVE YOUR EXCERPT A JAMES BOND MOMENT.
Throw the reader into the middle of the action right away. It's okay to let the reader try to wrap their mind around what's happening. That's called ENGAGING THE READER. Think about Harry Potter. The series begins with Harry as a baby being dropped off at his aunt's house. All the reader knows is Harry's parents were murdered and magic was involved. That's. It. The reader doesn't need to know anything else at that point. J.K. Rowling was so smart with her world-building. She eased the reader into that world, spending TWO WHOLE BOOKS ON SIMPLY ESTABLISHING HOGWARTS AND THE CHARACTERS. It's only in the third entry, Prisoner of Azkaban, that Rowling opens up the world.
Look, too much exposition at the beginning is something I've been guilty of myself. But think about it. Remember the Star Trek reboot? That opening was AMAZING. The audience didn't have a clue what was going on until it was necessary. The only real exposition (that it was George Kirk's ship, his wife was on board, pregnant with James) comes naturally in the course of action, not because the film stopped to tell the audience about these people.
Ever see The Matrix? The first half of that film is fantastic, featuring one of the best cinematic twists of all-time. What comes after? The exposition. EVERYTHING comes to a stand-still so Keanu can learn about this new world.
When it comes to exposition, start small. Work your way out. Not every piece of the universe you've created needs to be established right away. Not all of it even needs to be revealed to the reader. If it doesn't advance the plot, it doesn't matter - especially when trying to hook a reader. Exposition, taken as a whole, slows the action down.
When trying to impress a reader with a query submission, focus on the action. You've got a finite amount of story to impress someone like me. Don't waste it on exposition. Trust me. I WANT TO BE IMPRESSED. I WANT TO MAKE IT DIFFICULT FOR THE POWERS THAT BE TO CHOOSE WHICH MANUSCRIPT TO PUBLISH. I MAY HAVE AN EVIL CACKLE, BUT I AM ON YOUR SIDE.
One big item to remember: EVERYTHING IS SUBJECTIVE. One submission I recommended a pass on wound up receiving a publishing offer from the powers that be. Everybody's tastes are different. Just because I'm not in love with a submission, doesn't mean the next person will feel the same way.
Don't lose hope if you get a rejection or two. Keep at it, KEEP GETTING BETTER, and eventually the worm will turn. The sun will shine on a dog's ass. The broken clock will be right. All it takes is one yes. The only failures are those who give up. The rest are still working toward their dreams and goals.