Most of the queries I see miss the mark, and authors confuse the setup of their story for the plot. Because of this, all the vital information I need to understand the story’s basic elements are missing. That means I’m unable to figure out why the story is a “gotta have it,” or whether I even want to read it. Sure, the setup usually gives me a bit to go on, but it’s only a weency part of the “whole.”
Here’s an example:
In 1916 Dr. Joe Axlerod accidentally killed a woman while performing an illegal abortion. He lost his license and went to prison, and now the once-prominent family are pariahs. At 30 and unmarried, Dr. Axlerod’s daughter, Gracie, is fearful of facing life as an “old maid.” She’d like a relationship but can’t move past the angry adolescent girl she was when her father went to jail.
The novel explores Gracie’s journey from rebellion to understanding her father’s actions. The novel also traces Melanie’s growing feminism, since female independence was an unknown quantity in the years before World War One.
Now, this is a pretty good start, and I can make deductions as to the socially relevant factors I’m looking for. But it’s a stretch because the author spent all her time on the setup (highlighted in red) and allowed only a single sentence on the plot (highlighted in blue), and wasted a sentence on description (highlighted in green).
Why such a bugaboo about the lack of detail in the blue part (the plot)? Because that detail can be cliche and trite, or heavy and reflective. It can knock my socks off or make me take a pass. Not giving the detail to your plot is like going into 31 Flavors and ordering ice cream. Well, what flavor do you want? How many scoops? Cake or sugar cone? Mr. 31 Flavors needs the details, and so do I.
What shape and form does this journey from rebellion to feminist understanding take? Are we talking about burning high-topped button shoes at the local DAR meeting? Swimming in a more revealing swimsuit? Screaming at her date for opening the door for her? What are the elements that influence and change the main character? What changes does she make because of those elements? What will happen to the main character if she makes the wrong or right decision?
The setup (the green part) scratched my literary itch. A little. It’s sitting on a teeter totter, and I’m looking for something in the query that makes it teeter or totter. Anything sitting in the middle means that the editor doesn’t have any real investment in the story, so these missing-the-mark queries usually earn a rejection instead of a “please send pages.” You never want to see an editor sitting in the middle with your query. You want to strike an immediate reaction, and that can only be done by a strong setup (which I believe she has) and backing that up with good detail on the plot.
Had I been busier rather than nodding off in between ordering the beagle to remain in her time-out corner, I may have sent a form rejection letter. Instead, I pointed out her mistake and offered to give her another shot at her pitch. She could have easily tottered the other way.
It is said that it’s better to be lucky than good, but, yanno, not from where I’m sitting. I need good. I need informative, clear, and pithy. Take a hard look at your pitch in your query letter. Is your setup the beans and weenies of your pitch? If so, go back and edit your letter so that the plot stands strong next to your setup. Missing the mark is frightfully easy to do if you aren’t asking yourself the right questions:
- Short setup
- Character intro
- What happens that puts the character in a tough bind? This has to be something big, life altering.
- What choices does the character have?
- What is the potential problem/resolution based on the decisions the character makes?
- How does the character change based on those choices?
This should take up no more than three short paragraphs – one page. We don’t need every little intimate detail, we just want the facts because we’re all looking for strong, solid, marketable plots.
As for you, beagle, put that cigarello down and get back in your corner.