Writers know they’re supposed to ground readers in setting. But don’t forget that time is part of setting, too. Consider:
Before: Seventeen-year-old Cassius is a born concealer. He hid is heartbreak when his father died and left his family bankrupt. He hid how scared and confused he was when his family’s villa went to auction and sold to the rich and snobby Quinctilius family, who made a great show out of letting Cassius’ family stay on until they could find a place of their own to rent. But when Laelia—the younger half-sister of the matriarch of the Quinctilius family—arrives from Rome, Cas is captivated and more than a little terrified that marrying Laelia might be the only chance he has to save his family from destitution.
First, what the heck is a concealer?
Remember that most slush readers are consuming 50-100 queries a day, and that in the current literary climate, many of those are for fantasy projects. We read a lot of made-up words and regular words with made-up meanings, so please for the love of all that is good and righteous in this world BE CLEAR. Here, I didn’t know if a concealer was someone with special, magical powers, or if it was just a fancy way to say he’s just a regular guy who hides his feelings.
Turns out it’s the latter. Don’t be fancy. Be clear.
Let’s do some fun query math. This query’s pitch paragraphs contained 234 words. The first 66 words of the first paragraph (given above) are about Cassius being a concealer. That’s 28.2% of the total query letter.
That’s right. Almost 30% of this query was focused on introducing the protagonist’s flaw to set up what I assume will be his internal story arc. If your query letter’s job is to hook me (hint: it is) and get me excited about your story (let me repeat that: YOUR STORY), then this is not good use of your query letter’s real estate.
Second, when are we?
OK. Now for the time issue. I have no idea when this story takes place. Names like Cassius, Quinctilius, and Laelia could be fantasy names, present-day names, or ancient names, so no hints there. Same with words like villa. Rome tells me something, but are we in present-day Rome, ancient Rome, or some fantastical alternate history or possible future of Rome?
Unfortunately, the second half of the query did nothing to clear this up for me. Rather, it was a pitch for the romance between Cassius and Laelia: He loves her, she loves him, will their love destroy their families and stations in life, yada, yada, yada…
It was a YA romance in a white room called Rome. Heh.
If this is a love story, then pitch it as a love story. Here’s a possible start:
After: When seventeen-year-old Cassius meets the Laelia, a daughter of House Quinctilius of Rome, he is captivated. He can think of nothing else. The problem is, he is destitute, his family bankrupt in the wake of his father’s death, and House Quinctilius now holds the deed to everything Cassius ever held dear…
Shoot right for the heart of the story and nail the conflict that’s going to hook me. Story and conflict. Get there.
See you next time!