Wordiness in the slush pile. It’s a problem. One thing I’ve learned: Lurking behind every overly wordy query letter is an overly wordy (hard to read, hard to sell) manuscript.
My hope in writing this blog is that writers can use these bite-sized demonstrations in brevity to trim the fat not only from their queries, but from all their prose. Writing that doesn’t need a hefty line edit is writing that has a better chance at selling. So for this first post, here are three tighten-your-query demos:
Before: My manuscript can be compared to books like Jaws and other man vs. nature type of novels and movies.
After: This man-versus-nature tale will appeal to fans of Jaws.
Commentary: This one’s pretty self-explanatory. Or it should be. I hope. The before is how an author would describe his story to a new friend at a party. It’s conversational. The after is how you demonstrate clarity and conciseness in a letter to an agent or editor.
Before: Jane Smith is happily married with two children, a son and a daughter. There are only two people in the world who know her secret: her only true friend, Sally, who now lives in Europe, and the FBI agent who helped her get a new identity.
After: Jane Smith is a happily married mother of two, but the only people who know who she really is are her friend Sally and the FBI agent who assigned Jane her new identity.
Commentary: Cut irrelevant details from your pitch! Does the agent need to know that Jane’s two children are a son and daughter? Nope. Does the agent need to know that Sally now lives in Europe? Nope. Plus, “know her secret” introduces the possibility for confusion: Is her assumed identity her secret, or does she have another secret she’s keeping from her family besides her assumed identity? The after makes it clear that her assumed identity is, in fact, her sole secret.
Before: My novel begins the day after graduation when Jen Smith immediately starts packing for college. […] But then Jen meets Tim. While on the surface he seems to be another bad boy influencing another good girl, he is actually the first person to challenge Jen’s perception of her life and the lives of those around her. What started as a summer of waiting to leave, results in a summer that transforms Jen in ways beyond what she ever expected.
After: The day after graduation, Jen Smith starts packing for college. […] Then Jen meets Tim. At first, she thinks he’s just another bad boy. But when he challenges her perceptions in unexpected ways, her summer of “can’t wait to leave” becomes a summer of “never let me go.”
Commentary: “My novel begins…” Nope. Nope. Nope. These cluttery phrases can always go. And what’s the difference between “she immediately starts packing for college” and “she starts packing for college”? Not much, if anything. Cut. The rest of the before is not only wordy, but vague. What does “results in a summer that transforms Jen in ways beyond what she ever expected” mean in terms of plot? In other words, what specific events happen to Jen on the pages of your manuscript that you could pitch here instead? Because this query was so vague in terms of story, I made up “a summer of never let me go” in the after to demonstrate specificity. But based on this query, I have no idea if Jen and Tim actually end up together in this book, or if being together is actually a motivator for either character. Dear writer, don’t make agents guess what your characters want.
Join me next time!