I see a lot of fabulous query letters that show oodles of promise, but what invariably happens is that the manuscript fails to deliver, and here are a couple reasons why:
- The bells and whistles elements are only a small part of the story
- The author fails to recognize the marketable, mouth-watery aspects.
The bells and whistles elements are only a small part of the story
Let’s say your story is about suffering a tragic car accident right before striking it big in Hollywood. The stars are all in alignment, and you’ve been cast in the movie role of a lifetime. Your receiving an Oscar is all but assured, until you’re t-boned by a drunk driver that shatters about every bone in your body. You spend the next seven years healing, learning to walk again, and clawing your way back to Hollyweird.
Naturally, I expect the story to be built around this struggle and triumph. But what I invariably run into is a lack of sufficient red meat to sustain the story because the author feels it’s important to write huge chunks of backstory. And here’s the problem with that:
- Unless your college experiences are germane to the story arc, then I don’t care.
- Unless your dating and ultimate marriage to your spouse is germane to the story arc, then I don’t care.
- Unless your family issues are germane to the story arc, then I don’t care.
- Even the backstory of getting into acting isn’t germane to the story, so I don’t care.
You’ve pitched a very narrow experience, so all the backstory reduces your main selling feature in the part of bit player. And why does this happen?
A) That narrow experience may not have enough red meat to sustain a book-length manuscript (and may be better as a magazine article)
B) You haven’t outlined your story carefully enough to know what’s important. And this can depend on your readership. Depending on who will read your book can influence the elements you focus on. For example, if your readers will be other acting wannabe’s, you might bring out more narrative about how hard it is to be a “used-to-be” who’s trying to break back into the biz. There are all kinds of ways to develop your story depending on your audience.
A story filled mostly with backstory instead of red mean is not a marketable story. Rejection is inevitable…and this is because:
The author fails to focus solely on the marketable, mouth-watery aspects
Here’s the easiest way to ensure your story matches your query letter: Does your pitch accurately explain the guts and red meat of your manuscript, or do you have a ton of other elements that have nothing to do with the pitch?
I know it sounds dreadfully simple, but I’m amazed at the number of manuscripts I reject because the pitch (which is mouth-watery) plays second fiddle to what’s actually written in the manuscript. It feels like bait and switch. If I’m pitching a story about unicorns that take over the world by farting rainbows then I’m going to infuriate editors when they see that my story focuses more on the gremlins who corralled and rode the unicorns in order to raid the camps of local hoodlum elves.
The pitch MUST match the content of your book, or I’ll have a hissy fit and stamp my little feet.
Another problem is that the author doesn’t recognize the marketable elements of their story. Let’s use an example. A woman mentions being part of the first female firefighters ever hired, but her pitch is more about growing up on the mean streets of Detroit, a child of divorce whose parent suffered from chemical dependency and prostitution, and discovers she suffers from PTSD over her childhood issues.
Here’s my problem: There are a million books on growing up poor; children of divorce and whose parents were less than stellar; and PTSD over childhood issues. HOWEVER, there are zippo books about being a part of the first female firefighters. That, I can sell. The other issues would send my sales guys after me with a sharpened blade.
So while I’ll definitely ask for pages in order to see the quality of writing, and to see where the focus really is, I’ll probably hit a crossroad. If the writing is really good, I’ll probably suggest a major rewrite that focuses on the one thing I know I can sell – the firefighter bit. Or I’ll reject it because it’s too big a misfire for me to take on.
It’s frightfully easy to misfire, but only if you aren’t doing conscious writing and lack a clear intent on the marketable elements of your story. You’re the captain of your writing ship, and the burden of proof about communicating your story in a query letter rests squarely on your shoulders.
Your query MUST match your manuscript, and you need to know exactly what makes your story a “gotta have it.” In order to know if you have a “gotta have it” story, you need to be well-versed in the genre you write and be aware of what sells well vs. what’s been overdone.
Hey, if it were easy, everyone would be a best-selling author, right? Go forth and be brilliant!