Secret Santa Swap Musings
(+ this year of critiquing, swapping, editing, pitching, querying, submitting, researching, and writing)
Thank you to all the Santas who traded or gifted critiques this season! I hope you all had a lovely experience reading for each other and enjoy your gifts of praise. If you’re wondering what I did with the rest, it’s organized below by topic. We have so much to learn from each other, and I am so grateful to learn with you!
What MUST be known
GENRE and AGE category
This is too important to skip or fudge over, friends. While there are certainly times to debate the rigidity of age categories, your query letter is not it. Specifying age alone, however, isn’t enough. When denoting genre, stick to one and add “with ____ elements,” if it’s necessary.
Round to the nearest thousand and know what’s typical for the age and genre.
The stakes for the main character(s) need to be crystal clear to the query reader (even if the story will be much more nuanced/complex). Many queries and pitches fall apart delivering this, because it takes so much to explain “what” is happening in the story, we forget to clarify what’s at risk.
If character doesn’t [ACT (explain how)], they will [LOSE/RISK [explain what)].
What SHOULD be known
Not much is needed about setting in the query—a single phrase to specify time and place should do in most cases, like “12th century Mediterranean fishing village” or “far-future Parisian university.” Proper nouns that aren’t instantly familiar or relevant can make the query harder to follow (unlike in the pages themselves, when proper nouns tend to give dimension to the world building).
Comp titles are another opportunity to hook the query reader with a surprise blend of ideas, whether they knew they wanted what you’re offering or not.If you’re like me, you might find yourself straying a lot with comparative titles, because I can see elements of “my” stories in everything I read, watch, or play. For young adult, most agent bloggers advise selecting titles published within the last five years, though within the last ten years is the norm for other age categories.
Best bet for comparative titles in queries is to pick no more than two titles that are relatable in style or arc (plot or character), and briefly tell how the titles compare or contrast. Like “STARFLIGHT with F/F romance,” “SIX OF CROWS in space,” or “HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE’s trials meet ENDER’S GAME twist.” More about comp titles from Penguin Random House.
Stand out with
CLEAR, DIRECT SENTENCES
The query is not the best place to be wordy or long-winded. The stronger the verbs, the more interesting your query will sound. One common tip is to shorten sentences. Give the reader some quick, punchy sentences that cut clear to the point. For extra measure, try to avoid starting sentences with “and, or, but” as these soften the blow of whatever comes after. More about clean sentences here from Grammar Girl.
I think I’ve sent four queries in the history of ever that weren’t personalized, and they were my fastest rejections, for what it’s worth. Don’t be me, lol. Take the time to learn who you’re querying and jump straight to it.
Be specific, not general. Rather than “because you like science fiction and fantasy,” try “because you love _(adjective)__ elements in __(subgenre)__ stories.”
More about personalizing from Writers Helping Writers.
DON’T HIT SEND PREMATURELY. When you think you’re ready to hit “send,” stop. Print it out. Double check spelling, punctuation, formatting; look for extra or repeated words or phrases that match the previous version but don’t connect anymore. Then send it to yourself and check it again. Is the agent or editor’s name spelled correctly? Have you arranged your query into the format they prefer?
It should go without saying, but don’t be passive aggressive in your query. Don’t whine about previous rejections, don’t attempt to guilt trip or bribe the reader into “buying in,” and definitely don’t try to pressure the reader into a quick response. Let the story speak for itself and keep egos off the table. (Don’t even consider being outright aggressive either.)
What MUST be known
AGE/GENDER/NAME of MC
Many readers expect these things on the first page, and many writers provide it. Personally, I feel like the age category handles “age” well enough for me, but that’s just my opinion. Give these as soon as possible in an organic way.
Make certain to ground the reader in time and place as soon as possible. The reader may not need to know much about the setting to follow along, but they need to know something. Whenever possible, have the character interacting with their setting and environment, rather than observing it.
Specificity is everything, in my opinion. Elevate flat or generic descriptions (large, small, big, wide, low, thin, etc.) by considering all five senses and filtering through your character’s voice and emotional state.
The reader needs to be clued in as early as possible into what’s happening in the scene (without too much explanation). Are they traveling somewhere? Show us the luggage or the speeding train. Are they in a battle? Show them raising their weapon, appraising their enemy. Give us clues from their environment as they interact.
Beyond the situation, the reader needs to know the immediate obstacle. Large obstacles can be hard for the reader to process before they’ve connected to the characters, but even a small obstacle–like an argument or mild annoyance–on page one can help to forge that bond with the reader.
Alongside knowing the situation, the reader needs to know what it means to the main character. This needn’t be the same goal the character holds throughout the whole story, but knowing their initial goal helps the reader connect and it helps set the tone for what readers should expect from that character moving forward.
What SHOULD be known
Whatever is happening in the first pages, the tone of the voice and prose should resonate with the genre in a natural (and intuitive) way. Whatever most-prominent trait your character holds should be clear from the first page through their actions. Strengths, flaws, and quirks should begin to feel understood or familiar by chapter two.
Stand out with
Voice may be the single most important writing element to nail down, but it’s immensely tricky to describe. I like to think of voice as the colors we paint with—every blend is unique. Voice is far more than the words a character uses (in their speech and prose), it’s also how they see the world they’re in, tinted by their experiences, talents, interests, and dislikes.
Help the reader feel immersed by letting characters interact with the story environment rather than observing it passively. Beware overloading the prose with too many adjectives or lists; these weigh down the prose and lull the reader into a sleepy frame of mind, since their role in imagining the environment can be limited by too much description that isn’t grounded by character emotions.
Bear with me here, because I AM NOT AN EXPERT (I only want to be one so much I won’t stop till I am). Some of the most common craft struggles I’ve worked on (and with) this year are:
Dialog tags vs action beats
“Come here,” she said. = Dialog tag
“Hurry!” She slammed the car door. = Action beat
Mixing these up is a big red flag that the craft is unpolished.
Weak dialog tags
“Come here,” she said breathlessly, slamming the car door.
This is weak because the dialog tag isn’t necessary.
Weak action beats
“Hurry up!” She sighed and sprawled out on the couch.
This is weak because the content of the speech doesn’t seem to match the actions that follow.
Some comma errors are stylistic (skipping a comma amid brisk pacing or omitting the Oxford Comma), but others are just, well, wrong. If you’re really not sure where to put the commas, check out Grammarly on Commas for examples of correct usage.
Overuse of names
Knowing the characters’ names is important, but repeating them when it’s unnecessary dulls the prose. Pronouns are our friends up until the moment when the pronoun no longer has a clear reference.
The readers are coming into these pages knowing nothing about who/what/where/why/how/when, and we want to ground them as quickly and painlessly as possible. While every story is different in how much backstory is needed and when, it’s crucial to keep the focus on the actions the character is taking in the present moment. If a secondary character or world element are receiving paragraphs of explanation, there’s a good chance the present action has slammed to a halt.
My personal approach is the “rule of three.” A significant secondary character’s introduction can get up to three lines (actual lines on the page, not full sentence “lines”) before the next action. That’s actually a lot of space, in terms of my own brisk prose, but because those descriptions are doing just as much to characterize the main character as the secondary one, it feels “right.” For any other character, I try to limit descriptions to three, so the reader can move forward without having to chew on too much at once. Preferably, these three adjectives (or noun phrases) give clues about more than physical description.
For big backstory elements, I work to erase them from the first five pages entirely, replacing them with three hints or hooks instead. That way, when the backstory needs to come up (and are undeniably relevant to plot), because the reader can’t wait any longer to understand the specifics, their attention is less likely to pull away.
There are a hundred other lessons I’ve learned this year in the writing community, and I’ll be writing more about them next year with #authortoolbox and others. If you have any lessons you’d like to share, I love hearing from you!