Pub Rants

Category: Beginning writer mistakes

#NLAquerytip #7

FACT: If you are allowed to submit opening pages along with your email query pitch letter, including the prologue pages will kill your query 99.9% of the time and agents won’t ask for sample pages.

Here’s why:

Most writers use the prologue for the wrong purpose.

* Prologues are written in a different narrative voice than the rest of the novel so do not represent an accurate sample of the writer’s voice for the story. (And usually the voice in prologues are the easy-to-do-poorly distant omniscient third person POV).

* Prologues given are usually the back story for the novel and writers use it as a “crutch” to get started. If you are a writer at the top of your game, you won’t need it.

* Prologues are used as world-building so the reader can understand the world before diving into the story. Once again, if you are a writer at the top of your game, you won’t need it. You’ll build in the world within your opening chapter.

I’ve blogged ad nauseum about this topic so check the side bar archives on “passing on sample pages” and “beginning writer mistakes” for more in-depth details.

#NLAquerytip #6

Fact: If you have to defend that your novel is over 200,000 words in your query letter, then you are not pitching your story from a place of strength. And agents are more likely to pass.

Here’s why:

Even though a writer might insist that the length is necessary for the story, rarely is this true. In fact the hefty manuscript getting picked up and sold for a debut author is so rare and unusual, industry folks make note and remember the titles (i.e. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell).

In probably 99% of the cases, a super long manuscript usually signals that a beginning debut writer has not mastered pacing. Or, that the writer has not learned self-editing. This is even more true when we talk about the fantasy genre. Lots of fantasy authors will cite George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones in the query letterA great example certainly, but that wasn’t George’s debut project. Most established and successful fantasy writers begin with a normal length debut (around 100,000 words with some room on either side of that).

And yes, you can certainly cite the extraordinary instance of Patrick Rothfuss and The Name of the Wind. But he’s an exception, not the norm.

So my advice? If you have a long manuscript and you truly believe it is the “one in a thousand” and is the appropriate length, I wouldn’t cite your word count in the query and instead focus on writing the most incredible pitch you can.

After all, if an agent/editor begins reading and is blown away by the mastery, we won’t care a fig about word count. We’ll believe. But you have to get a request for the pages first.

#NLAquerytip #5

Fact: A really terrific concept in your query won’t save you if the letter itself is poorly written.

Think of the query letter as a special training ground. A pitch for your novel is really hard to write. Trust me, we agents understand that, which is why most of us aren’t also writers. I’m not crazy enough to subject myself to that torture. LOL.

But you’ve chosen to be a writer so we expect you to perfect every aspect of your craft–and that most certainly includes the pitch in a query letter. It’s your first opportunity to show just how good a writer you are by nailing the pitch.

So if you don’t, agents will simply have the expectation that you are still a beginner and not quite ready for an agent to read your material. Hence, why we pass on 99% of the email query letters sent to us.

#NLAquerytip #4

Fact: A really good title for a novel will catch an agent’s attention

And once that attention is caught, then the chances of the entire query letter being read is very high. The benefits of this is obvious. If an agent reads the entire email, the more likely it is that the agent will request sample pages.

I know I’ve requested pages simply because a title was so original and cool, I had to see if the writing stood up to the wonderful title premise.

Now if the writing doesn’t engage, a good title won’t keep the agent from rejecting the pages but as you all know, writers have to get a foot in the door first to even get the chance to wow agents with their craft. So anything that increases your chances for getting sample pages read is valuable.

Spend some time on this component of your novel. Do searches on Amazon and other venues to see how common it is, etc. Don’t just include a “throw-away” title. It certainly won’t help and it might actually harm.

#NLAquerytip #3

Fact: Clearly outlining in your query letter how your story fits in the market will encourage literary agents to read your entire email letter closely.

First off, what do I mean by “clearly outlining how your novel fits in the market”?  You can do this by:

* listing other titles that would be comparable to yours.

* adding a line that readers who enjoyed X title, Y title, and Z title would also like your story.

* clearly designating your novel’s correct genre or type of work.

Note: This doesn’t mean saying that you as a debut writer are spectacular or that you write better than “insert famous author name.”

That is going to be read as hubris and won’t be helpful in making your query letter stand out. In fact, I have a suspicion that positing so in the beginning of your letter will probably result in a quick rejection.

The three bullet points above, by contrast, spotlight your professional savvy and the fact you did your homework about the current market. This is a business and writers who demonstrate a clear understanding of that in their query letter will attract agent attention.

Professionalism always encourages me to read the entire letter–unless it’s very clear to me early in the pitch that the type of novel just isn’t what I represent. And I imagine that’s true for a lot of my colleagues.

#NLAquerytip #2

Fact: Literary Agents rarely read the entire query letter.

It’s simply not possible given the sheer volume most of us receive. I average about 100 email queries a day and these days, I actually do read the letters myself. If I’m buried, Angie will jump in and help out on my request (as I don’t want writers to have to wait too long for a reply), but it’s pretty much me doing the reading.

And I have maybe 30 minutes a day to give it. Which means getting through 100 queries or so in that time frame. You can do the math. That means approximately 30 seconds for each letter.

So most agents I know, me included, skip down to the pitch paragraph and read that portion first. If it grabs us, then we read the entire query letter.

In long query letters, sometimes it’s hard to actually find the novel pitch! Yet another reason why shorter query letters get better response from agents….

#NLAquerytip

Fact:  Shorter query letters get a better request response from agents and editors.

Or to say this point in a different way: the longer your query letter, the more likely an agent or editor will pass on it and not request sample pages. Why? Because it shows you haven’t carefully crafted or honed your query pitch.

In query letters that are short in length, the writer has to make every word count. So the writer is showing a level of craft expertise nailing it succinctly.

So subscribe to the Twitter-verse approach to writing your query pitch. Okay, I’m going to give you more than 136 characters to nail the pitch but any pitch paragraph should not be more than 5 or 7 sentences long. That’s it. (And no cheating and subscribing to the Faulkner method of making a whole sentence last an entire page length).

Less is more!

Not a very original title for a blog post but it certainly conveys the message adequately! I’ve been on a bit of a reading binge lately. There’s just nothing like that excitement of finding a story that makes all your fingers and toes tingle.

I swear, it might be an addiction and why Literary Agents do the job we do!

And I’ve been reading lots of good stuff as of late. But nothing that is quite tipping me into the “must have” realm as yet. Part of what makes this job so fun is that the right manuscript could hit the inbox at any moment.

Adult Steampunk fantasy: PASS – good concept, solid world building, interesting opening scene. And these are the hardest letters for me to write, the story just didn’t spark for me. So not helpful for that hard-working writer but it’s true.

Young Adult SF: PASS – another interesting world, set on a ship, with a nice opening scene. No spark. Argh.
Adult Literary fiction: PASS – Writer has terrific background in journalism. Cool premise. Solid writing. Just couldn’t quite fall into the story and have it keep my attention. My focus kept wandering so I know this one is not for me.
Young Adult contemporary: PASS – Too gritty for me and I worried that the main character, his nature, was too dark and grim potentially for the YA market. I could be totally wrong but it’s a sign it’s not right for me.
Young adult contemporary SF: PASS – Another sample with good, solid writing. Interesting story concept. Author had an agent previously.  I should be game for it but the narrative just didn’t spark for me.
Adult Commercial mainstream: PASS – Loved the premise. Solid writing but I actually wanted the writing to be more literary than what it was because the concept hook was so commercial. And for me, that was the way to really make the story stand out.
Fantasy Young Adult: PASS – was a bit on the fence with this one. Nice writing. Interesting fantasy world. Gave it a second read and found I wasn’t feeling passionate about wanting to commit to reading a full manuscript.
Adult SF: PASS – a funny science fiction narrative that works! (so rare.) Good writing. Charming and inventive. Just wasn’t quite right for me but I definitely see another agent taking this one on and selling it.
Young Adult contemporary: PASS – Such a great premise dealing with contemporary YA themes but writing was really uneven and a little too much force on “this is the theme of my novel.”
Adult historical: PASS – Author has great background with winning some accolades. Really liked the time period so sad with this one a bit and reread it. In the end, I felt like I should love it but didn’t actually love it.
Young adult historical: PASS – One of my fav genres and is a popular tale re-telling. Writing felt too stiff and formal (the emotion didn’t match the scene) I couldn’t quite lose myself in the story.
Middle Grade contemporary: PASS – I really wanted to like this one as concept was terrific. Voice didn’t quite nail it for middle grade. Read a bit too adult.
Adult Fantasy: PASS – Really interesting premise for the anti-hero who is main protagonist of the story. Too many fantasy tropes in the opening without enough of a distinctive voice to really make the opening stand out.
Middle grade fantasy: PASS – narrative voice was too adult for the MG audience. World building was a bit heavy in the opening as well. Thought maybe it could work for adult market but it as in the deadly gray area without it being firmly to one audience or the other.
Young adult contemporary: PASS – loved the multicultural aspect of the story. Author has great background as well. This one I just didn’t fall in love with the story and the narrative voice.

What Exactly Is Uneven Writing?

After I did a blog post on Tales From The Submission Inbox, lots of writers asked on twitter and Facebook what exactly I meant by “uneven writing.”

It’s a great question and I’ll do my best to try and answer it. It’s tough though. Because I can always recognize it but it’s harder to describe.

 

Here are three examples:

1) Uneven writing is when an author has some writing talent but hasn’t quite mastered the craft fully. So one sentence will be terrific and then it will be followed by a paragraph of something clunky.

Or,

2) A scene is clipping along great and then the writer stops and throws in back story at a wrong moment that interrupts the flow of the narrative.

and,

3) Writer has some great characterization that’s clear in the scene unfolding and then suddenly the writer tells the reader what they need to know XYZ about this character but they actually didn’t have to. It’s extraneous because it was already apparent in the scene.

It’s good stuff clashing with what I always label, beginning writing mistakes.

 

Since the start of 2015, I’ve read 30 submitted sample pages and I have another 20 or so to go. I’ve been pretty impressed so far and have asked for 7 full manuscripts. That might be a record for me in such a short time period.

But it also means that I’ve passed on a lot of submissions as well. And they’ve been good so why did I pass? I popped into our electronic submissions database and looked at some of my responses.

Here are some snippets in case you find them illuminating:

“There are a lot of POV shifts and I’m also worried that it’s too quiet.”

“Great concept for the story. Writing too uneven.”

“Nicely written. Quirky characters. Not a story I would pick up and read on my own so just not right for me.”

“Nice writing. Just missing that spark for me.”

“Perfectly fine story but average writing.”

“The writing feels like it’s trying too hard to be literary.”

“Writer nails the voice but there isn’t much driving the plot forward.”