Avoid Soft, Squishy Words, i.e., Your Prose-Craft Matters

Welcome back! Today, let’s look at a query for a work of historical fiction:

Before: Philip Williams is an English mercenary fighting for France. The only family he has ever known has been the army. He loses that family at the Spanish Siege of Calais in 1595.

Read those three sentences out loud. Don’t they all kinda share the same cadence? Would you want to read 106,000 words of that same rise-and-fall, or would it lull you into a dreamless slumber after a couple of pages? Remember: Your query letter is your audition. Even thought it’s sell copy, it’s still your opportunity to demonstrate that you have a solid command of prose-craft. Vary. Your. Sentences.

Okay. Back to the content.

I dig that a character is introduced right off the bat. Nice. But heckuva lot of backstory-ish-like stuff there that could be condensed thusly:

After: After the Spanish Siege of Calais in 1595, Philip Williams, an Englishman fighting for France, discovers he is his regiment’s sole survivor.

I’d suggest getting rid of the whole family thing. Not only is it a bit precious, but it also takes up valuable real estate by developing backstory when what I really want to read is your pitch for this story. Let’s keep going:

Before: Healing from his wounds and mourning the death of his friends in Antwerp, he receives a second chance at life when he hears Queen Elizabeth I needs soldiers in Northern Ireland.

There’s a little grammatical ambiguity going on here. Is he healing in Antwerp, or is he mourning the death of his friends [who were killed] in Antwerp? (Is Antwerp even important to the pitch?) Now, I’m pretty sure his friends were killed in Calais. But again, when I’m reading your query, I’m paying close attention to your prose-craft. Grammatical tics, no matter how small, start raising my little red flag.

In addition, this feels passive. He’s healing. He’s mourning. He receives a second chance. He hears the news. Not only are these passives, but say these words out loud. They’re soft and squishy, with soothing long-vowel sounds. This whole section is a lull in story action that hasn’t even started yet. Can we make this section more active? Can we punch up our nouns and verbs and plant some imagery here? Let’s try:

After: Now, though broken in body and spirit, Philip is desperate to return to the front. When Queen Elizabeth I begins conscripting officers to train an army in Northern Ireland, Philip volunteers.

Now, Philip has agency. He wants something so badly as to be desperate. He makes a decision to volunteer. Let’s keep going.

Before: Bound to recreate his family by starting his own company of soldiers, Philip is bewildered by the divisions in Irish society, the armies’ lack of discipline, and the English commander’s blatant racism.

Blatant racism is a contemporary phrase that snatched me right out of 1595. It broke the spell. I suggest cruelty, a strong synonym with harsh sounds. We know the English abhorred the Irish. We know the feeling was mutual. We can put the pieces together. Avoid anachronism. How about:

After: But Ireland isn’t Calais. His soldiers’ lack of discipline, divisions in Irish society, and an English commander’s cruelty…etc.

Another thing: I’m not so interested in the fact that your protagonist is bewildered. He’s allowed to be, sure. But what does he do about it? That’s story.

Let’s keep going.

Before: While the army marches north into Ulster, Philip must also contend with two women. One he is honor bound to protect, the other he desperately wants. Tormented by a mad commander bent on revenge and desperate to prepare his men, Philip feels the weight of his decisions as the great rebel, Solomon Red Beard O’Donnell, comes closer to setting Ireland on fire.

What does it mean to “contend” with two women? That’s vague and kind of cliché. Who are these women, and why are they marching north with the Irish army?

Is the mad commander the same as the racist/cruel English commander you mentioned in the previous section, or is this guy someone different? If the former, can you combine these mentions into one for clarity?

Bent on revenge is vague and cliché. What does Mad Commander want revenge for, and against whom, and what’s it got to do with Philip?

Feels the weight of his decisions… What decisions? That’s also vague. The situations you put him in and the decisions he makes as a result…that’s the story you should be pitching! Yet you’ve omitted some much-needed particulars here and lapsed into vague clichés. Goal. Motivation. Conflict. Stakes. Stakes. STAKES!

Anyway. This last section feels super rushed. I think maybe you expanded where you should have contracted (setup, backstory) and contracted where you should have expanded (the actual story events that occur on your 106,000-word “page stage” to test and temper your protagonist, changing him in unexpected, enlightening ways).

Make sense?

Thanks for reading. See you all next time!

Fun Query Math + Time Is Setting Too

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?

No clue.

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!