September 12, 11 @ 4:28 pm
I wrote this article for my RWA chapter newsletter, but thought I’d share it here as well….
I know I still have tons to learn about writing, and romance writing in particular, but I also feel as if I’ve managed to get a decent grasp over what editors and agents are looking for over the last six years. I have also judged quite a few RWA-related contests over the years and have observed the same issues over and over again in pre-published authors. Issues that I believe will prevent the writer from finding an agent or editor, which, of course, is the ultimate goal of entering these contests.
These are just my opinion, really…and your mileage may vary… if it helps, then groovy. If it doesn’t — it’s your book and you should write it however you think it should be written!
That said, let’s begin with some of the things that have made me dock points for the contest entries I’ve judged……
THE UNSYMPATHETIC HEROINE
She’s a shrew, a bitch, sometimes an actual unapologetic whore who exudes greed and deception. Um…why should I care about her, again? Oh, because she’s going to have an amazing character arc that leads her to see that her behavior and actions have been wrong in the past? No thanks. I won’t be reading that far unless you show me something about her from the very first page that I can connect with.
THE BORING HEROINE
My favorite type of heroine to write is what I call the “everygal.” She has a normal job and a normal life (at the beginning, anyway). The heroines I’m seeing in contest entries are very normal. But they’re not particularly witty, or have dreams, or flaws that set them apart from anyone else. They’re just there. Not terribly attractive. A bit plump. With a job they like. Friends they like. And it all leads me to a big fat…so what? I like that the everygal heroine will inevitably land the deliciously hot alpha hero, but it really isn’t all that believable unless you show me some sort of spark in that average-girl heroine that sets her apart from the pack.
THE INSTANT ATTRACTION
They’ve never met before but omg he’s so hot, she’s so hot, their loins are on fire before they’ve even uttered a word and they must have sex. Soon!! The sooner the better!!! OMG!!!!11!!!!1 No. Just no. Let’s delve a little deeper or have a bit more of a thought process when it comes to dealing with this “lust at first sight.” It’s definitely not enough to build an entire plot upon. This can work, and does work in romance writing, but there needs to be more to it than simple lust.
THE INSTANT ATTRACTION LEADING TO TSTL BEHAVIOR
An example: The heroine has gone down into a dark, scary basement and the hero, whom she’s never met before, is waiting there. With a knife. And he’s an accused serial killer and/or shapeshifting monster. But you know what? He’s really, really attractive. He’d never hurt her. He’s so handsome…I mean, his eyes are so dreamy, how could he be evil? Why is this particular writing error so prevalent? Because the author knows the hero isn’t evil, so that magically transfers to the heroine’s knowledge. Umm…. NO.
A book should start with some sort of hook, some sort of action, or dialogue, or really anything other than: 1) a character waking up and thinking about the day ahead of them, 2) a character driving and thinking about their life and problems, 3) a character alone and thinking. Because? That’s boring. It’s to make things easier for the author to do set up of the plot coming up. But by the time that plot actually starts, the reader has fallen asleep.
I’ve seen the “looking in a mirror and describing one’s looks” done two ways — the right way and the wrong way. The wrong way includes observations of eye color, height, hair, beauty-level. No. It’s not realistic. If you look in the mirror you don’t casually observe your looks. You might think that you’re having a bad hair day. Or, oh, look at that zit. The kind of person who looks in the mirror and thinks — wow, my ocean green eyes are truly as stunning as everyone says they are — is not someone I want to read about. For the most part, character description is overrated. With just a few casual mentions, the reader will fill in the blanks. Another no-no for character description is comparing them to a Hollywood actor, eg: “People had always told her she could be Angelina Jolie’s twin.” Or, “he was so good looking, he reminded her of Brad Pitt.” This is LAZY WRITING, pure and simple. Unless, of course, there’s a valid reason for the character to look like a known celebrity.
INAPPROPRIATE EMOTIONAL RESPONSE
This, quite possibly, is my biggest challenge in my own writing. I even coined a term for it with one of my friends. It’s the “La la la, I like cheese” syndrome. The world is ending, the heroine’s life is in dire jeopardy, fire could be literally raining from the sky, and her response is something like “Hey, I’m kinda hungry. I feel like some cheese.” Because we, as the writers, have never (or rarely) experienced true life or death situations, it’s difficult to imagine what it would be like. But let me tell you…we wouldn’t be thinking about our appetites.
THE PERFECT HERO
Well, he’s tall, gorgeous, and alpha, and uber-powerful, and uh…that’s about it. He’s a big, good-looking machine with no interesting flaws. Flaws rock. Flaws make the character interesting. He might be gorgeous, but he’s a control freak. Or he has daddy issues. Or…there are so many different ways to give your hero some layers that will make him more than just a chiseled hunk and have your the reader (or judge or agent or editor) wishing there were more sample pages available.
Okay, so that’s it for today. If I think of more I will certainly share them….
June 25, 10 @ 5:48 pm
Tori in the comments to previous post asked me to expand a bit on this post and give an example of a query letter that DID work. So I’m going to first go over why my attempt at querying when I was 18 didn’t work and why the letter I wrote at 33 did work. Age didn’t have much to do with it, but experience and research did.
First “what NOT to do”…..
Mr. Editor, (15)
I’m not really sure about the do’s and don’ts of submitting a manuscript. (1) What I have enclosed is the first 4 chapters of my first (yet unfinished) (2) novel. I’d classify it as a teen adventure story for ages 11 and up, I suppose. (3) Also enclosed is an outline (rather proposed outline) (4) of the rest. I figure (5) it will come out to around 50,000 words — about 200 pages. (6)
Let me tell you a bit about myself, okay? (7) I’m eighteen years old, still in high school (gr. 13), looking at either Ryerson or Carleton for post secondary education. If my future as a fiction writer bombs (8) then I’ll head into the field of journalism. For one semester at school I had a co-op at the local paper writing general interest stories and having a weekly column about the high school happenings.
The first two chapters of INSOMNIA were originally a short story written for my English class. (9) My teacher thought I should send them in somewhere but I didn’t know where to send it. (10) One day I just picked it up again and rewrote it leaving an open end for expansion. (11)
Well, I certainly hope you like it. Please let me know either way. (12) I’ve enclosed a SASE. (13)
Thank you very much.
(aspiring novelist) (14)
1) Admitting you’re clueless up front is not charming. It’s juvenile and marks you as an amateur who shouldn’t be taken seriously. Do your research. Then do it again just to make sure.
2) I can’t think of any editor who would offer on an unfinished manuscript from an unpublished writer. No track record, no dice. Sure it’s happened before, perhaps to a wunderkind literary student who is viewed as someone destined for greatness as an author. I wasn’t one of these.
3) Don’t use words that make you sound uncertain or unsure. It lacks confidence. Confidence can be faked if need be, but again this does not come across as amusing and charming, it comes across as unprofessional.
4) See #2. Unfinished means no contract. Period.
5) More weak words.
6) An editor will know how many pages 50K is so this is totally redundant.
7) Giving background is okay, if relevant. What’s not relevant is these cutesy lines. This isn’t a conversation over cocktails. This is a query letter.
8 ) I believe this point goes unsaid. This is so unprofessional and so flippant — I know I was trying for humor, but the page has no tone. It sounds like I’m not taking this seriously.
9) The reason it was written, especially if it’s for a writing class, is irrelevant unless it’s very relevant. A high school assignment is not relevant.
10) Again, showing an appalling lack of research into the publishing business.
11) See #2 and #4.
12) At this point, if I was the editor, I’d be saying “F**k you, Michelle R.”
13) It stuns me that I actually knew enough to send an SASE. This is the only part of the letter I got right, but this was before e-queries.
14) It’s painfully obvious that I’m an aspiring novelist. Stating it outright is just sad.
15) (tagged onto end because I missed it) Again research who you’re sending your letter to. A generic “Mr. Editor” will most likely lead to a generic “no.”
My query letter for BITTEN & SMITTEN (originally titled DEARLY DEPARTED) isn’t perfect, by any means, but it is rather good if I say so myself. It got me immediate agent interest and out of four agents I sent it to I received a request for a full after three hours after this being emailed (which led very quickly to an offer of representation) and a request for a partial by snail mail (which came too late to be a contender).
I am seeking representation for my first novel, a completed 94,000 word urban fantasy. (1)
DEARLY DEPARTED is the story of Sarah Dearly, a newly made vampire, and her adjustment to life as one of the fashionably undead. If the hunters on her tail weren’t enough, she also has to deal with her love triangle with a 600-year-old sexy (but suicidal) master vampire and one of the vampire hunters who can’t decide if he wants to kill her or kiss her. She struggles to combine her comfortable, working-girl life with her new, unpredictable and danger-filled world, which includes her quest for the rumored ‘cure for vampirism,’ once she decides that life as a vampire, well…sucks. In the end, she realizes that when the world is out of control, the only thing you can trust is your heart. Provided there are no wooden stakes lying around. (2)
I think of this novel as ‘Chick-Lit with Bite’ — Bridget Jones meets Interview with the Vampire (3) – as it is filled with humor, romantic tension, and suspense, utilizing Sarah’s witty, lightly sarcastic, first person point-of-view. (4) It will appeal to mainstream fantasy readers, vampire enthusiasts, hopeless romantics, as well as those who enjoy a good story, a good laugh, a few tears, and a happy ending. (5) Although DEARLY DEPARTED stands alone as a novel, I have outlines for two potential sequels. (6)
I would love the chance (7) to send you a few chapters, or the entire manuscript, and full synopsis of DEARLY DEPARTED at your request. (8) Thank you for your time and consideration. (9)
1) State right up front what you have and how many words it is (round up or down with the words. No need to say it’s 94,563 words). Some agents say they think it’s obvious that you’re looking for representation so there’s no need to state it, but I think it’s perfectly okay for a first line.
2) Give a paragraph about what the book is about, keeping the focus on the hook and making it interesting like a back cover blurb. It’s nice to give the “moral of the story” since every story has a theme you’re trying to get across and this is the “take home” of the book that give it more weight that it just being a generic story
3) Some like this and some don’t. I like it as long as it makes sense to compare two very popular titles in describing what your book is similar to. The titles should be very different, which is what makes your story different. Saying something is Supernatural meets Buffy kind of defeats the purpose since they’re both in the same genre, right?
4) Just a line to describe what the reader can expect when they read the book
5) What’s the audience? Agents and editors are interested in who is going to pick this book up and that you have an idea of who your reader is.
6) Just a note to let them know I’m not a one trick pony. This was a bit of a fib, actually. While I had ideas for more books I didn’t have actual outlines. but I ended up writing five books in this series so it worked out okay in the end.
7) This line is a bit of overkill. “I would LOVE the chance.” Come on. I’d cut this now or reword it to avoid any potential eye rolls.
8 ) What are you offering up? This too is a bit redundant. The editor or agent will ask you for what they want. As long as your full manuscript is good to go, then it’s all good.
9) Some agents say thanking them is unnecessary, but I think it’s a nice note to end on. Gratitude is a good thing, and being perceived as polite is never bad.
So there you have it! An overview of what not to do and what to do in writing query letters from yours truly.
After spending so long working on your book, you really should devote a good chunk of time to polishing your selling tool before you start looking for the perfect agent. I know it’s tempting to just send things off quickly because it’s so easy with e-queries. But professionalism is key and being a good writer doesn’t apply only to your books but to your query letters and synopses as well.
Agents get hundreds of these a week to wade through and they’re looking to reject in order to clear their inboxes. You have to spend time making your query letter as good as possible to stand out in that vast ocean of emails and paper of other query letters that might look more like the first example I’ve given here. DO YOUR RESEARCH, believe in your story and believe in yourself as being worthy to get to the next level! It can definitely happen — trust me on that!