During these sessions, a useful approach I have taken, along with other sessions I have seen, is to start reading it out loud and then stopping the moment we have "quit listening" to you. In other words, at what point have we decided to say no to your project. I do think writers have this belief that we are going to read that story from start to finish every single time. There is this belief that we might even read it a couple of times to "let it sink in." While this approach is great for authors to make sure the story is heading in the right direction, this is simply something that editors and agents are not going to do.
With that in mind, I wanted to list for you the points when we simply quit reading and make that decision about your book.
- "To whom it may concern" This is a big one with almost every agent and editor out there. Sure, they might say that this is a common mistake and one they over-look, but this tells us so much about who you are. This simply says you are mass mailing this to anyone and everyone. You really don't care who this ends up with. What is worse, is that even if we do think the project might have some merit, the odds are we will end up in this long conversation with you as you decide if you really want to go this direction with your book. This is a professional letter and we send it directly to the individual we want to read our story.
- Submitting something we don't acquire This might seem obvious, but I am still amazed at how many times I end up spending time writing a rejection letter (however brief it might be) to tell the person that this is something I do not acquire. The information is out there, I promise you! I know that a writer commented on a post I did for Writer's Digest that he sent things to editors and agents when the information was vague as to what they wanted. Umm, sorry to say this, but it is not that hard to do that research. Even if someone simply said they acquire "book club fiction" the odds are there is information on their blogs, in articles they write, or even from looking at what they acquired to tell you what they like and don't like.
- Poor grammar, spelling errors and typos No excuse here. Technology is too good right now and will catch these mistakes. Along the same lines, if you are submitting something and not taking the time to look over the query BEFORE you send it, what are the odds the story will be equally as bad?
- Sending more than we have asked for We asked for submissions a certain way for a reason. This is how we review projects and make decisions. This is not simply a hoop to jump through. For example, if I say to send only a query letter in an e-query, pasting the first three chapters, and the synopsis in the query tells me you cannot follow directions or you simply cannot read. I know you are telling yourself, "if you just read my writing, you'll want to sign me", but this is not going to work.
- Writing about yourself in 3rd person OK, this might just be me and my personal pet peeve, but writing about yourself in 3rd person is simply weird. When we see 3rd person narratives about an author or a book, it is generally written by someone other than yourself. This might be for a conference, an interview or so forth. The query letter is 1st person. End of story!
- TMI This is a professional letter. I don't want to hear about your personal experiences, I don't want to hear about your dogs and cats. I don't want you to start "kissing up to me" by telling me you are a swim parent too, or you did theatre. You are writing about your book and your writing career. That is it!
- Stereotypes and cliches When you start using stereotypical characters, cliche moments or phrases in this "informational" document, this tells us the book is probably full of these as well. This tells us you are trying too hard. So, with that said, dump the "sparks fly when" or the "she talks to her gay friend about the hero".
- Rambling and babbling The synopsis is to tell us what the main story arc is about. The moment you start including all of the smaller scenes in the book, or the dialogue, or what they had for dinner during that first night together, we quit listening. You have to stay focused here. Give us just what we need and stick to that.
- Trying to "show your voice" Again, this might be a pet peeve of mine, but inserting scenes directly from the story, or having your main character tell us the synopsis is not going to work here. As I said in the first point, this is an informational document. It is designed to tell us where the entire story is going to. It is a story board. We will see your voice when we get to the actual manuscript (if we make it that far).
- Stereotypes and cliches Same thing. In this case, we are looking at those stereotypical and cliche beginnings. We start with a dream, or we start with the vague beginning from the villain's POV as he or she plans the murder of someone. This is when you have to think as a reader. Would you really continue to read this story if you found it on a bookshelf?
- Formatting errors When I talk about formatting errors, I am mostly referring to the line spacing and font size. Standard formatting of any professional document is double spaced and 12 pt. font. Along the same lines, we use tabs to designate the start of a paragraph.
- Voice doesn't match the story line In this case, the odds are we will be giving your story a bit more time before we decide to say no. If you are writing a romantic suspense and the story is starting out funny and more like a chick lit story, we will likely say no. This tells us you are probably writing scenes in isolation and not looking to see how it all really fits together.
- Pages of no action Again, think how this looks to a potential reader. If I start asking myself what is going on, or when is this going to get good, I quit reading. We should have a clear sense of the story and at least one of the main characters by the end of chapter 1. We should also have a sense of what the character might be losing, or a sense of the big conflict that might happen later on in the book. We don't need it all, but we have to see something.
...unless of course you like receiving rejection letters.