Elevated Diction + the Importance of “When” and “But” in Your Query

Let’s talk about elevated diction. Elevated diction means using fancypants words or phrases when simpler, more easily recognizable synonyms will do.

Elevated diction usually pops up in queries when authors assume slush readers are pipe-smoking, tweed-jacket-wearing septuagenarians with PhD’s in comparative literature who still hold sway over their life’s imaginary GPA. Thus, “I wrote a book” becomes “I have penned a manuscript,” or “my book is complete at 100,000 words” becomes “one-hundred-thousand words comprise my now-completed tome.”

This is commercial fiction, not your dissertation. Bring it down a notch, there, Sparky.

However, what if you’ve written a novel in an elevated style—a literary work or a sweeping historical novel or an epic fantasy? Readers of these genres accept (and expect) elevated diction. It’s a genre trope that you, the author, are expected to deliver. So shouldn’t your query’s style echo your novel’s style?

Sure. But.

Elevated diction—or, in the case of this partial query below, too great a focus on nailing the epic-fantasy voice—becomes a problem when it obscures a reader’s ability to clearly understand your story:

Before: The Emperor’s missives have been rarer of late, but they’ve never been blank before. Tim, a loyal but disillusioned veteran, sees this letter as a portent of the Empire’s demise. The village council agrees and sends him and his brother Chuck to the Imperial capital to investigate. Tim is a natural choice for this venture, but his brother is as cynical and aloof as all young men of his generation. Seeing this mission as an escape from the outmoded confines of his village, Chuck accepts his role as protégé and begins plotting how to turn the journey to his advantage.

Here are the questions I have so far:

  1. Why does the Emperor send Tim missives in the first place? What is their relationship or arrangement?
  2. Why is Tim disillusioned? Is “disillusioned” meant to imply that his loyalty is precarious?
  3. What is Tim a veteran of? If it’s a war, is the war over, or is it still raging?

If the answers to these questions aren’t germane to your query, then ask yourself why you’re raising them in a slush reader’s mind. If they are, then develop/explain. I’m going to attempt a revision, but keep in mind I’ll have to make some assumptions about the story:

After: Ten years ago, during the Big Bad Imperial Wars, Tim Commoner served as a trusted lieutenant under Commander Bob. Now Bob is Emperor, and Tim lives a quiet life in Boring Village.

Two brief sentences of setup, establishing that Tim and Bob share a history and trust each other, and, more importantly, that the Emperor would have a reason to reach out to Tim when trouble is nigh. Moving on.

After (continued): When Tim receives a cryptic message from Emperor Bob, he suspects the Empire is in trouble. The village council agrees and sends Tim to the Imperial capital to investigate. But they insist that Tim’s brother Chuck—cynical, aloof, and desperate to escape the tedium of Boring Village—accompany him.

Two important words I want you to notice here: WHEN and BUT. Learn them. Love them. Use them! No query or pitch is complete without them.

  • WHEN signals change. (Hint: Your novel’s inciting incident)
  • BUT signals complication or conflict. (Hint: A major obstacle your hero will face)

The original query does include “but”: Tim is a natural choice for this venture, but his brother is as cynical and aloof as all young men of his generation.

However, note that this but only serves to tell me that the brothers are nothing alike. It’s an expository but. The but I’m looking for is one that delivers complication or conflict. The but in my suggested revision implies (a) that the village council has some plot-related reason (which your plot will have to circle back to at some point) for sending both Tim and Chuck to the capital, and (b) that Tim’s not amenable to this arrangement. Conflict! Yay! Now I understand that the brothers are likely to clash on their shared mission, and that Tim is really just a puppet of the village council—which may or may not have nefarious intentions.

One last thing before I sign off on this one:

Note how the original query shifts its focus to Chuck’s goal (to get out of Boring Village) and Chuck’s plan (to turn the journey to his advantage). This was confusing. When you lead with the Emperor and Tim and the village council and the mission, then when I get to Chuck, I’m like, who the heck is this guy all of a sudden?

According to the rest of the query (not given here), the brothers are of equal importance in the manuscript, each becoming entangled in opposing interests once they arrive in the capital. Knowing this now, I’d recommend that this author lead his query with something like…

When two brothers are sent by their village council to the Imperial capital to investigate rumors of a dark rebellion, one remains loyal the emperor while the other is seduced by the demonic forces rising to destroy the empire.

If your story is about two brothers, then lead with two brothers.

See you next time!

Real World or Fantasy World?

Welcome back! Let’s dive into another query-pitch snippet that could benefit from a little strategic tightening. I’ll break this one down into a couple parts.

Before: Fake Book Title follows Tim Brown and his two best friends as they are spending the last days of their summer vacation at Blue Lake before they start high school in the city of Laramie, WY, where they live. During a visit to the only convenience store by Blue Lake, they come across a renowned giant and town drunk who turns on them and violently assaults Tim’s friend Skip. Tim finds himself uncharacteristically defending his friend by knocking out the great bully. With two unconscious bodies at their sides, Tim’s other friend, Chuck, tries to convince Tim he has superpowers as they wait for help, because who, or what, else could have knocked out the giant?

Commentary: 1. “Follows” (like “finds”) is another one of those throwaway words that signal an opportunity to tighten.

2. There’s a lot of exposition packed into that opening. While some framing details might be useful, think hard about how much background information you really need here. (Hint: Not much.) For instance:

  • Do I need to know they’re about to “start high school in the city of Laramie, Wyoming, where they live”? Not really. Giving me “fourteen-year-olds” and “last days of summer” is a much lighter touch. It’s all I need to know. Get to the pitch.
  • Do I need to know that there’s only one convenience story by Blue Lake? Nope.

Remember: Your goal in a query letter is to wallop us with your hook/conflict/story problem/action. Get there.

3. “Renowned giant” threw me for a loop. Keep in mind that your average slush reader is consuming 50-100 queries per day. In today’s climate, many queries include magic or supernatural/paranormal/fantasy elements. Since you didn’t lead with your genre, I don’t know if “giant” is literal and we’re in an urban-fantasy-type setting, or if “giant” just means big, mean bully. So I had to guess.

4. “Violently assaults”? Aren’t all assaults violent? Tighten, please.

5. Ack! There’s that word “finds” again! Edit that out.

6. Why is defending his friend uncharacteristic of Tim? This is ambiguous. Are you trying to imply that Tim is meek and wimpy, or is he simply uncaring—an MTV’s Jackass type of kid who stands by and laughs when others get hurt? Since Tim is your protagonist, I’m going to assume the former.

7. The mention of “superpowers” here reinforces my confusion about “giant.” What kind of world is this?

8. Why is Chuck mentioned here? Is the story going to be about Chuck trying to convince Tim he has superpowers? Or will it be about Tim coming to terms with his newfound abilities?

After: Fake Book Title is a contemporary young-adult novel, complete at 70,000 words.

Fourteen-year-olds Tim Brown and his two best friends, Skip and Chuck, are spending the last days of summer at Blue Lake, Wyoming. When the town drunk, three-hundred pounds of malicious muscle, assaults Skip outside a convenience store, Tim leaps into action. With an astonishing burst of strength and speed, he knocks the man out.

Now, baffled by what appears to be sudden-onset superpowers, Tim must…[keep pitching your story from here.]

Hook Me! Lead with Your Inciting Incident.

Welcome back. Here’s a query pitch for a suspense trilogy. By the way, DON’T QUERY A TRILOGY. You have to sell book #1 before you can sell subsequent titles, so use all your query letter’s valuable real estate to sell the agent on your lead title. Mention in your query’s closing that books two and three are complete, but don’t elaborate. If you pique an agent’s interest enough that she reaches out, that’s when you chat about your plans for a series. But for now, one query, one book. Which is why I’m only going to break down the pitch for the first book.

OK. Let’s get started:

Before: We’d like to introduce you to Jane Smith, the heroine of an exciting new suspense trilogy.

Fake Book Title (88K words) finds Jane at the peak of her career as an FBI agent who made a name for herself taking down the notorious psychopath, Tim Brown. Jane is now in New Orleans investigating a series of child abductions. When one of those children turns up deceased, wrapped in the skin of an exotic snake, Jane realizes her case may be spiraling into an unfathomable darkness. Meanwhile she’s also dealing with a troubled adolescent daughter she barely knows and the reemergence of buried memories from her final, traumatic encounter with Brown. As a clash of cultures, religions and personalities drive Jane to the breaking point, she determines one final, unthinkable course of action: she must leave the FBI forever in order to survive.

After: When a child’s body is discovered near New Orleans wrapped in the skin of an exotic snake, FBI agent Jane Smith must take on the most harrowing case of her career.

X years ago, Jane made a name for herself in the Bureau by taking down notorious psychopath Tim Brown. She thought she’d put the Brown case behind her. But as she tracks a child killer through the swamps of Louisiana, memories of her final encounter with Brown drive her to her breaking point. Now, to confront her past, protect her troubled teen daughter, and stop the killer, she’ll do the one thing she never thought she’d do: leave the FBI.

Fake Book Title is a thriller complete at 88,000 words. It is the first in a planned trilogy; books two and three are also complete.

Cautions:

1. Don’t tell me you’d like to introduce me to your character. That’s a waste of your words and my time. Just get on with pitching your book already.

2. Please don’t tell me your book is exciting. It’s suspense. It had better damn well be exciting, because if it’s not, you’re not ready to query.

3. That word “finds” again… Stories always seem to be finding their characters doing stuff. Characters always seem to find themselves in certain situations. find such phrasing to be awkward. Such phrasing is awkward. And wordy.

4. Be careful about introducing your character with a snippet of backstory. While this pitch does circle back to the notorious psychopath she took down earlier in her career, you’ll be better off leading with the conflict at the center of this novel—the New Orleans child killer.

Suggestions:

1. Sometimes it’s most powerful to lead with your novel’s inciting incident. Which in this case is also your most evocative image—your hook. A dead kid wrapped in an exotic snakeskin? Damn, Kids, that’s a hell of an image. How can you lead with anything else?

2. As written, I’m confused about the connection between the Brown case (backstory) and the current case (the child killer). Without diving too much farther into backstory, can you make that connect for me in a phrase or sentence? If, in the novel, the Brown case exists solely to give your protagonist a little complicating PTSD, then, plot wise, that seems a little weak. If the connection is important enough to mention in your query, then I’m guessing there’s a stronger connection in the manuscript.

3. Overall, the original query is both vague and overwritten. “Spiraling into unfathomable darkness” is too much. “The reemergence of buried memories from her final, traumatic encounter with Brown” can simply become “memories of her final encounter with Brown.” And “a clash of cultures, religions and personalities” is vague—it’s a missed opportunity to evoke your story’s milieu. Is the culture clash related to the fact that Jane is from the north and this is her first time in the deep South? What religions are we talking about? Voodoo? Catholicism? Southern Baptist? Satanism? Each would evoke a different type of story in my mind. Finally, personality clashes with whom? The only non-criminal you mention is her daughter, and you’ve already implied with “troubled” that we’re going to witness some clashing between them. So is the mention of personality clashes redundant?

4. Finally, sometimes it’s OK to put the project summary (title, genre, word count) at the bottom of your query instead of the top. This one just felt better at the bottom. Play with it.

That’s it, Folks! Join me next time.

Quirkiness Isn’t Conflict

This is a longer one, so I’m going to break it down piece by piece:

Before: As a trusted friend, vocal advocate, and one of New York City’s finest orthopedic surgeons, Dr. Jane Smith has vowed to care for her own. When a grieving family files a malpractice case against her…

After: Dr. Jane Smith, one New York City’s finest surgeons, just got slapped with a malpractice suit.

Commentary: Keep it simple. Lead with a brief sentence that introduces a character in conflict. All that “trusted friend, vocal advocate” stuff isn’t relevant to the story problem, so it doesn’t belong in your query.

Before: …Jane starts falling for the charming, thoughtful attorney who’s prosecuting her—but to be fair, she didn’t know that Tim Brown was the plaintiff until it was too late!

After: The suit she can handle. But Tim Brown, the charming prosecutor who just so happens to be the plaintiff, might pose a challenge.

Commentary: Did I understand that right? Are the prosecutor, the plaintiff, and Tim all the same person? Clarify. Don’t make me guess. Also, “Attorney who’s prosecuting her” means “prosecutor.” Watch that wordiness. And be fair to whom? And too late for what?

Before: Join Jane as she unearths startling realizations about her hospital, plans her gay best friend’s engagement, indulges in trashy television with her sister, critiques sociocultural politics over tea, sets out to bake the perfect scones, and searches for a measure of inner peace. She fiercely denies her feelings for Tim, but when it turns out that their senses of justice aren’t so different after all, Jane might just have a change of heart.

After: Now, Jane must deny her feelings for Tim as she fights to clear her name. But her hospital has been keeping secrets, and [villain?] has set Jane up to take the fall…etc.

Commentary: Wait. What?!? OK. Pay attention because this is important. Gay best friend, trashy TV, sister, tea, scones, inner peace—none of that stuff is plot. Let me repeat that:

None. Of. That. Stuff. Is. Plot.

The story problem this query introduced is “Doctor faces malpractice suit while fighting romantic feelings for the prosecutor-cum-plaintiff.” That’s a great premise! Now keep me on that path by pitching what happens next (plot)—which must relate to your character’s plan to get herself out of her lawsuit-versus-love predicament. That is, it must relate to solving the story problem.

All that day-in-the-life stuff might be quirky and fun in the manuscript, but in your query letter, it’s passive. Zero tension. Zero conflict. And that doesn’t give me much hope that the manuscript will be an exciting read. Where’s the villain? The antagonistic force? Sadly, in this query, there wasn’t one.

On a final note, please don’t ask me to “join” your character as he/she moves through your story. It makes your query sound like a 1980s movie trailer: “JOIN MARTY McFLY AS HE TRAVELS THROUGH TIME IN HIS QUEST TO GET…BACK TO THE FUTURE!” IMHO, it just doesn’t work in a query letter.

Join me next time!

Does Your Query Info Dump?

Welcome back! Today, let’s look at a partial query for a YA sci-fi.

Before: In the year 2201, seventeen-year-old High Princess Jane Smith finds herself graduating from the Commando Academy a sergeant in the Six Worlds of Genesis Fleet. It’s unheard of for a princess or prince to graduate a commando. And it’s even more unheard of for anyone to graduate with such a high rank, which she accomplished by breaking every record in every course at the Academy. Jane also carries two secrets with her: the first, she has the ability to see glimpses into the future and read minds. The second is so horrible it could destroy what’s left of the human race.

After: Seventeen-year-old High Princess Jane Smith is the first royal to graduate from the Commando Academy. Not only that, but she’s the first graduate to be awarded the rank of sergeant—a rank she earned by breaking the academy’s every record. But as Jane accepts her commission with the Six Worlds of Genesis Fleet, three secrets threaten her hard-won status. First, she can glimpse the future. Second, she can read minds. And third…well, the third could destroy the human race.

Commentary: 1. This is nitpicky, but I omitted the year because the rest of the query screams futuristic fantastical world! The year seemed unnecessary.

2. Whenever your query has a character “finding herself,” that’s an opportunity to tighten. Does she find herself graduating, or does she simply graduate?

3. Just like you don’t want to info dump in your manuscript, you don’t want to info dump in your query. This author asks the slush reader to unpack a lot of information in that first sentence: a year, an age, a title, a name, a school, a rank, and a military unit. Whew! Break that up a bit. Here’s what I suggested in the after:

  • First sentence: age, title, name, school
  • Second sentence: rank, Jane’s tendency toward overachievement (character development)
  • Third sentence: military unit, threatening complications (hinting at plot/conflict)…etc.

See what I did there? In your query, as in your manuscript, weave expository details together with character-development and plot details! Get to goal and conflict ASAP.

4. Speaking of conflict, the before doesn’t have much. Look closely. The fact that Jane has secrets is introduced with “Jane also carries two secrets with her” (which could be tightened to “Jane has two secrets,” but I digress). The word “also” means you’re making a list. What you need to make are connections. How are Jane’s secrets going to spell trouble for her as she moves into her new role as sergeant? Conflict, conflict, conflict! Get it on the page. Here, in an attempt to make a connection, I suggested that her secrets will “threaten her hard-won status.” But, sadly, I don’t know if that’s what will actually happen in the manuscript.

5. I had some trouble with this author’s math. Jane’s “first” secret is actually two secrets (she can glimpse the future and she can read minds), so why not call them out as such? Also, TOO MANY WORDS! “She has the ability to see glimpses into the future” is the same thing as “she can glimpse the future.” Tighten, please.

Join me next time!

Your Query’s Icebreaker

A lot of writers seem to struggle with how to open their query letter. So today let’s look at killing the awkward icebreaker and getting right to the point:

Before: I am writing in hopes of finding literary representation. The story I am submitting is called My Awesome Book. It is the first piece of a larger overarching story I have worked out, but just as well stands on its own. This title is an action-fantasy written for teens and young adults with 61,779 words.

After: My Awesome Book is a YA action-fantasy complete at 62,000 words. It’s a standalone with series potential.

Commentary: First, everyone who sends us a query letter is “writing in hopes of finding literary representation.” Why waste words telling us what we already know?

Second, look at how many different ways you refer to your project. Here, I count five!

  • The story (I am submitting)
  • My Awesome Book
  • it
  • first piece (of a larger overarching story)
  • this title (is an action-fantasy)

Combine to cut! Limit yourself to two references. (Hint: One should be your title.)

Third, just tell us it’s a YA rather than that it was “written for teens and young adults.” Look how many words we just saved! Wheeeee!

Fourth, just round your word count to the nearest thousand. Another way you can keep things simple.

Finally, “it’s a standalone with series potential” is a stock phrase, one that’s 100% OK to use because it’s immediately 100% clear. You don’t have to try so hard to come up with a unique way to express this. Use the stock phrase. Embrace it. Slush readers can scan it in a microsecond and move the heck on to your actual pitch paragraphs.

Thanks for reading. Join me next time!

The Pregnant Boyfriend

Welcome back! Here’s another partial query in desperate need of tightening:

Before: Having become pregnant as a college freshman, Jane Smith’s boyfriend, Tim Jones, has promised to marry her so they can raise their child together. His wealthy lineage would be able to support their desire to remain a loving family, and she is happy to know they can both move forward to fulfill their dreams of graduating from Yale and doing great things. But the patriarch of the Jones dynasty will not allow it to happen, his devastating announcement that she will never be accepted into their family tearing the couple apart from what was supposed to be their happily ever after.

After: When Yale freshman Jane Smith discovers she’s pregnant, her wealthy boyfriend, Tim Jones, promises to marry her. But just when Jane dares to hope she can have a husband, a child, and a college degree, Tim’s father announces that he’ll never allow her to be part of the Jones family dynasty.

Commentary: First, according to the rules of grammar, Tim is the pregnant one. Grammar alert! The first noun following an introductory phrase is the thing that phrase is about. You might think “Jane” is the first noun after that introductory structure, but nope. “Jane Smith’s boyfriend” is a compound adjective describing Tim Jones, which is the noun.

The very pregnant noun.

Second, holy sentence length, Batman. Even if your narrative style tends toward lengthy sentences, remember that your query pitch is sell copy. You’re writing it to convince an agent that she can sell your book to a publisher for money. So. Sell copy should be brief and to the point. Shorter sentences, please.

Finally, look for factoids you can combine. The before leads with “college freshman” and later mentions “Yale.” Easy enough to combine “Yale freshman” to describe Jane as soon as she’s introduced.

That’s all, folks. Join me next time…

Three Quick Demos

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!