In Your Pitch, I'll Look for . . .
- More hook, less summary. Don't tell me what happens in what order; PITCH it to me. Even if you have to generalize, minimize, or gloss over an important plot point; I don't want you to explain everything to me or give me back story or give me an outline of the action. I don't want to know what happens. I want to know why I care!
- Character and hints at voice. I'm going to latch onto the who of your story, not the what, so I'd like a taste of who I'm going to meet and what their attitude is like.
- Smooth language. If it's clear you struggled to write this, or it looks choppy, or it feels like too many cooks in the kitchen, or you write really awkwardly in your pitch, I will expect the book to look the same and I will be turned off.
- Clarity and transparency. I saw way too many vague queries in the last contest I judged. People were "finding themselves" and "losing everything" and "becoming a hero" and "facing their true fears." It was like they thought this would make me curious enough to want to read more rather than just sounding sort of cheap and gimmicky. I need enough of a snapshot to understand why this is going to be exciting to watch, and hiding it behind vagueness expecting us to manufacture our own enthusiasm is unlikely to work.
- Humble bio and realistic comparisons. I have actually had people opine in their queries that they are the next J.K. Rowling. I have actually had people call their own book a tour de force. The reality is that awesome writers don't have to praise themselves because reviewers do it for them. And if you compare your work to existing work, please say it will appeal to fans of X and Y, not that you write like the authors of X and Y (where X and Y are of course fabulously successful authors).
In Your Writing Sample, I'll Look for . . .
- In-progress openings. I very much don't want to open your book and feel like I'm watching you set up your props. Your characters should feel like they've been alive for as many years as they have, with relationships that go back as far as they do. I would like them to behave as if they do not know the reader is watching, and I would really rather you save the back story, flashbacks, and expository conversations for later in the story when I'm already invested.
- Personality. I'm not going to toss you out if your character's physical description figures in early, but a pet peeve of mine is when authors stampede to tell me what their characters look like (in really heavy detail) before I know what they act like. I don't mind if a protagonist is meeting a love interest for the first time and the in-depth recitation of the potential partner's physical attributes is necessary if they're going to drool properly, but if characters appear and then stand still for their description, I'm irritated.
- New approaches. Lots of agents complain of seeing the same openings over and over--characters waking up, characters dreaming, characters doing something contrived just so they can look in the mirror and think about what they themselves look like. If I open your book and think "Ugh, they're trying to be cute" or "Ugh, this again," I probably won't want to keep reading. This article on "Inspired Openings," with over a dozen literary agents chiming in, will give you some idea of what kinds of openings are too common. I give you some more specific ideas for what to do and what not to do in an older blog entry: "Chapter One, Page One."
- Smooth, skillful prose. Hopefully this won't sound too jerky, but you have to be a hell of a first drafting expert to hook me with an unedited NaNo novel. I've noticed there are lots of authors scrambling to finish drafting their books for this contest, and I firmly believe a book you just finished should not be queried. I'm always a little surprised when authors believe they don't need beta readers and don't need polishing. I do believe some people are better first drafters than others, but they're still first drafts. I don't want to read first drafts and neither do agents. Don't be this author:
But please do keep in mind that sometimes you'll get conflicting advice. I'm just one mentor and my word is not law, and just like all the agents say . . . this is very subjective. Here are a few more things I've blogged about that might give you some insight:
- How I've broken the rules myself
- Don'ts of writing a novel: Idea vs. Execution
- How to make sense of criticism you disagree with
- Thoughts on pacing, with ideas
- On Editing: Grammar and spelling glitches to watch out for
- Five Common Querying Mistakes (and how not to make them)
Good luck! And ask if you have questions!