Saturday, June 06, 2020

You can have a perfect query letter and still get a pass.

You can have a perfect query letter and still get a pass.
(pause for the howls of anguish to quiet down.)

Your query does the job if the agent reads the pages you include.
If the pages don't work, the query gets the blame of course. Which is really really unfair, and the QueryShark is very unhappy about that.

Overstuffed sentences is one thing that can make your pages founder.

Overstuffed sentences tend to be long (more than 20 words);
they tend to have more than one clause;
they tend to link clauses that don't relate.

Example: Felix Buttonweezer was donning his mask one fine morning and looking forward to his jaunt to the laundromat which had been closed for the past six weeks due to a leak in one of the overhead pipes that had burst with the spring thaw because Betty Buttonweezer had just that morning announced she was no longer going to the laundromat cause she could no longer stand the smell of bleach.

This is a first draft sentence. It comes out of your noggin, on to the page. That's a good first step, but the writing journey doesn't end at step one.

Step two is revising.
Pare down long sentences.
Don't' be afraid of sentence fragments.

Each sentence should connect to the one that follows.

Felix Buttonweezer was donning his mask one fine morning
Felix Buttonweezer donned his mask one fine morning.

By putting this in simple past tense, it's easier to make it a sentence.
Was donning begs for something to follow; donned not so much.

and looking forward to his jaunt to the laundromat
He was looking forward..

which had been closed for the past six weeks due to a leak in one of the overhead pipes that had burst with the spring thaw

Two choices here:
which had been closed for the past six weeks due to a leak in one of the overhead when pipes that had burst with the spring thaw

It had been closed for the past six weeks. A  leak in one of the overhead pipes that burst with the spring thaw

because Betty Buttonweezer had just that morning announced she was no longer going to the laundromat cause she could no longer stand the smell of bleach.

Now here is where we lose the connectivity.
Felix is going to laundromat.
He's looking forward to it.
It's been closed.

None of that has anything to do with Betty. Or bleach. Or the smell of bleach.

Which means the reader is confused and that is not not not what you want.

Which brings me to the point of this: revising takes time, and polishing comes after.

Revising is moving furniture.
Polishing is painting the door jambs.

Not revising enough is probably the single biggest problem I see when you take away the people making witless mistakes like no plot in their query.

Revising requires down time.
Let the query and pages sit over night.
Go back and really go through every sentence word by word. Don't just read.

Then let it sit overnight.

I find that my best revisions start on the third or fourth pass, when I've got the pieces in place, and I can see what doesn't work.

This blog post took five  six seven revisions, including changing up the Felix and Betty example. Some of my best work gets cut during revision. It kills me, but if the quip doesn't fit the story it gets benched till next time.

Any questions?


KMK said...

I feel your pain! I just recently had to scrap the best first line I've ever written -- and the one that gave me the idea for the whole new project because it wasn't the right start to the story. Ouch.

nightsmusic said...

I do have a question. You've gone through, revised, edited, edited, edited, an agent loves it, contract signed and off it goes editor. So if you've edited till you're blue in the face, how much more, generally, does an editor do to it? inquiring minds...

Kitty said...

When I feel like the story is complete, I print a copy. And that's when I invariably find corrections to make. I've been working on a story and stopped counting how many edits I've put it through. I thought it was finally fini, so I printed a copy. Now I have to shred those 38 pages because I found more corrections to make.

Brenda said...

I’m one of those oddballs who prefers to edit. I can only force myself through a first draft if I have no clue what’s coming next. To stop myself from endlessly editing, I send five chapters at a time to my first reader. What she has, I don’t touch until the whole draft is finished. Then I rub my hands together like Scrooge in the counting house and start playing with words.
There are probably self-help groups for this addiction to words. Book club anyone?

NLiu said...

I have a question! Did I miss the memo about the contest results? I'm starting to worry I've woken up and it was all a dream.

Right now I'm reading the "final" draft of my WIP and vacillating between delusions of grandeur and the abyss of despair. (Is my first chapter exciting or alienating? Is the MC snarky or hateable??) Help!

E.M. Goldsmith said...

I feel certain that a query "can" be perfect and the pages not so much. Having never had a "perfect" query letter, I can't relate. How do you know if it is query or pages? I recently blamed my pages and now have had to pull back and blame my query. Or maybe I am a terrible writer and no one will ever love my stories and I should just crawl under a rock and die. <---- rejection is hard to take. I don't mean it.

I must keep writing. I am the Dory of the writing world "just keep swimming". It would help if I would stop drowning so often.

NLiu It is same for me when I read that "final" draft or go back to revising after letting a manuscript sit for a bit after a massive revision. How it burns. The ecstasy and the agony.

Lisa Bodenheim said...

Though I'm not glad to revise endless times (can I still claim newbie at fiction writing?) I AM glad to be in such a great community here, which offers support and reminds us we're not dumb, we're "just" seeking excellence.

Beth Carpenter said...

I agree with Brenda, editing is the fun part. Right now I'm pushing through a rough draft, even though I'm sorely tempted to stop and move furniture. If I can finish by the end of this month, that will leave me ample time for revision and polish. Can't wait!

Rio said...

Yep, I'm with Brenda and Beth on this one. I love revising. My “Drafts” folder is definitely my happy place. If only I could figure out a way to bypass the long slog through the first draft and get right to the fun part. That would be so glorious.

BJ Muntain said...

nightsmusic: The writer revises and edits and polishes to the best of their current ability, simply to make the book the absolute best they can. Like putting on one's best suit for a job interview - you want it to look good so it will be accepted!

If a book doesn't sell right away, the writer may revisit the book and revise again, since a writer is constantly learning and expanding their ability.

The editor of a publishing house takes it *beyond* the writer's current ability and helps the writer to make it even better. The objectivity and experience of an editor can help them see things the writer might not be able to. The writer can learn from the editor's notes, and expand their ability even more.

MaggieJ said...

As several other people have commented, I too enjoy revising and polishing my work more than I do writing first draft. There is a particular satisfaction in finding a better way to say something and then a better way still.

I hope, Janet, that you will write more posts about things that can result in a manuscript being rejected, in spite of a good query letter. It would be a great help to all of us. Thank you for this one.

Craig F said...

Yes, the joys of editing. Those wonderful moments when you ask yourself "What the f--- did I mean when I wrote that down?"

Colin Smith said...

Just to state something that is probably obvious to everyone: All the above granted, there is a place for long sentences and unusual sentence and plot structures. However, long sentences and unusual sentence/plot structures are like dissonance in music. A child learning to play the piano uses dissonance because they don't know any better. A master composer uses dissonance because they understand how to use it to great effect.

Katja said...

Blogger is blocking me on the post for 4th June. Aw, it was my FIRST comment there. And not naughty or anything.


NLiu said...

Thanks E.M.! The burnnnnn!

Panda in Chief said...

I agree with Brenda too. The first draft is torture. Editing is the real fun.

John Davis Frain said...

The pup in that picture is me after the thirteenth attempt at the opening line of my new work in progress. Sorry, outline in progress, look at me getting ahead of myself.

But no, really, the pup's ears are exact same size as mine. And the nose ... spot on. Uncanny. Did he just read my opening line?

KDJames said...

I once knew a woman, a music teacher, who had very obviously been trained in voice and elocution. She spoke "normally" in casual conversation, but when she had Something To Say, she shifted into her professional voice. Almost like she had flipped a switch in her brain, her tone became smooth and measured, her words were considered, she even stood a bit taller. Every utterance that came out of her mouth was already perfectly edited, a verbal skill which, as a writer whose words all bypass my mouth and go straight to my fingers and even then they're often wrong, was astonishing to me.

And let me tell you, it was boring as hell. I struggled not to nod off when she did this. I hated it, even while I admired her ability.

There has been much discussion and debate about a writer's "voice" and what it is. You know it when you hear/read it, but what is it? It's a compilation of everything you are, what you know, what you've experienced, what you believe, what you question. Yes, of course, all of that. But I believe a big part of it is simply self-confidence (some might say arrogance, and they're not wrong). It's the self-confidence of competence and command over the language that comes with experience. The confidence to be different, to take chances, knowing you can make it work. It's that recognition readers sense when they read the first paragraph and just *know* they're in good hands.

Ceaseless over-editing will kill that.

Yes, of course you need to edit. And be edited by others. But I keep hearing writers talk about this endless editing and second guessing and it makes me a little crazy. At some point you have to just trust that what you've written is the best you can do, that in fact it's GOOD, and let it go. Send it out there with all of its/your personality intact. Don't be that writer who puts us all to sleep in your quest for bland "perfection."

Linda Shantz said...

I love sentence fragments. Maybe too much.