Ease Off the Facts and Stats

I read a query this morning that was 367 words long. A fine length. And no, I don’t count all the words in all the queries. But this particular query had a problem I thought was worth discussing: Only 161 words (44%) were story pitch; the other 206 words (56%) were facts and statistics related to ADHD, which was the issue presented in the story.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with issue fiction. In every genre, for readers of every age, authors have meaningfully confronted issues like ADHD, autism, eating disorders, addiction, sexuality, gender identity, race, abuses of power, rape, bullying, infidelity, suicide, divorce, unwanted pregnancies, terminal illness, the deaths of loved ones, and countless other challenges that make being human hard. Write issue fiction, if that’s what you want to write. It certainly sells.

But in your query for issue fiction, pitch your fiction, not your issue. For my more visual learners (like me!), here’s what this morning’s 44%/56% query looked like:

Screen Shot 2017-08-15 at 1.37.07 PM

When you devote more real estate to your issue than you do to your story pitch, you come off as worried that your story can’t support itself. It’s like you’re worried it needs facts and figures and emotional appeals to prop it up.

In other words, you’re whispering here’s my story but shouting HERE’S WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW THAT YOU NEED TO KNOW SO THAT YOU WILL UNDERSTAND WHY MY STORY IS SO TIMELY AND IMPORTANT!!!

Keep in mind that agents and editors looking for stories that stand on their own. They’re looking for stories that shout. Craft your query accordingly.

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!