Monday, March 26, 2018

Tales from the Slush Pile

When I volunteered to mentor for Author Mentor Match, I was excited to help other writers. But I never imagined I'd learn so much about writing in just a short amount of time. What is Author Mentor Match you ask? It's a mentorship where agented and/or published writers offer to mentor one writer who has a completed manuscript and is looking to query. The mentor can help with everything from developmental edits, to line edits, to setting up an agent list to query, basically anything the pair agree to work on together. Mentees apply to work with four possible mentors and then the mentors read all the submissions and decide which mentee they want to pick. For those curious how to get involved check out the link above. The submission window for this round is closed, but there will likely be another window in the fall if you are interested in entering.

Over the last week and a half I've been slush diving through the Author Mentor Match submissions. I've seen some amazing things in there. Writers are seriously talented and creative people. But I also have a new understanding for agents sifting through their slush piles. When you read query after query and opening page after opening page, some common issues tend to arise. And not that these are things that can't be fixed, but they can prevent you from getting that yes I want to see more.

In the spirit of mentoring other writers, I'm going to share some things I noticed.

With respect to querying:
Queries are hard. It's so hard to take a 50-100K manuscript and boil it down to one page that not only gives the reader insight into your book but also entices them to read more.

You want to make sure you have enough information so the reader knows what is going on in your story, but not so much that they get bogged down by all the details. This can be hard to find on your own, so make sure you have people who have read your manuscript and some that haven't, read your query for clarity. In addition to balance, you want enough detail to show what makes your story unique and stand out is a crowd. How does your story about the topic differ from every other story on that topic out there? This is especially important for topics that are considered hard sells or overdone.

Capital Letter/Name/Word Soup
What is this? Too many names ,made up words, or terms etc. I see this more often in sci fi and fantasy, but it can also occur in other genres. When writing a query you want to focus on your main character and the character or thing preventing your main character from getting what they need. From there you may throw in one side character that helps them achieve their goal or an important setting but you really don't want much more than that. If you world has a lot of made up elements, sometimes it's easier just to describe the element in your query rather than putting the formal made up name to it. The reader can learn the language of your world in the manuscript itself. The more proper nouns in a query the more confusing it can get. So focus on your main character and the conflict.

At the end of your query, you always always always need stakes. What is stakes? What happens if you main character can't face the challenge and/or achieve their goal. And maybe also what happens if they do? Do they stand to lose anything if they accomplish the goal? Stakes in your story is what takes the conflict from the point of oh that sucks to OMG this is nuts I have no idea how this character will accomplish their goal with those things in their face. It's what makes the reader want to read more and find out what will happen.
Now that I've talked a little bit about queries I want to shift gears to opening pages.

This is a tricky one because it's hard to see if you have it in your own work. But this is usually what initially draws the reader in. Finding your voice can be tricky, but I'm a firm believer that everyone has their voice in their manuscript somewhere, it's usually just hiding. The trick to finding your voice is going to those couple scenes that you had an absolute blast writing, that you found super easy, and that just came pouring out of you. Usually there's something super special in those scenes and something that really draws the reader in. See if you can find those scenes in your manuscript, study them, and try to replicate how they sound throughout your story.

Right after voice comes connection. The voice pulls a reader in initially, but if there isn't a character the reader can relate to and connect to right off the bat then it's hard to stick around. This is why starting with dialogue, weather, or lengthy descriptions can be really tricky. It may be interesting, but the reader doesn't have a story to follow or a character to latch onto. Without a something to invest in and sympathize with, or generate some feelings around, no one will keep reading. So what helps with connection? Voice of the character is one thing. But beyond that, help the reader understand what the character is thinking. It's not just about how the character is reacting to things, but also what is going on internally. Why are they reacting the way they are? What underlying things are going on that's making them maybe think one way and react another? That juxtaposition can make for a really dynamic, interesting read.

After finding a connection with a character whose story you want to follow, you need tension to continue to pull the reader in. Sure you can give the reader this character they've started to find interest in, but what is happening to that character that keeps the reader invested? This is where you start to pull the conflict thread. In your opening pages you may not be directly linking to the main conflict yet, but find something that is in the way of the main character or is causing them problems or concern and weave in that tension. If there is a struggle or something at odds or a tense feeling to sympathize with then you've likely hooked the reader in long enough to make them want to stick around.

Less is More
This last one actually applies to both queries and opening pages (and overall stories). I saw a lot of submissions that likely in an attempt to be unique, threw everything and the kitchen sink at their novels. There was romance, and technology, and magical elements and paranormal elements etc and on and on. And in a query and opening pages this can get confusing really quickly. The reader needs to understand how elements build on each other and move toward the ultimate conflict. Not a million things that can muddy the conflict and detract from the overall goal.

For the sake of an overall story, and especially in the opening pages, it's often better to reduce things down to one or two major plot elements and get rid of the rest. Why? Because then that gives you the real estate in your manuscript to dive deeper into those couple of elements and really connect the characters to them rather than throwing a lot of things at the story, not being able to explore them, and thus confusing the reader. I know it's fun to do all the things, but it's a lot more engaging to really focus on one or two and develop them fully in a unique way. Too many elements can turn a reader off. And too many elements in the query can make the reader not want to continue to your pages because they are lost in what the story should be about. And this goes back to item number 1, finding the right balance between unique elements and detail and too much that makes the story confusing.

So there you have it. Common issues I saw in queries and opening pages. And now you know them too. Go forth and polish up your queries and opening pages so you can turns those no's into yes's. I know I'll be rooting for you.


Unknown said...

Thank you for this! Less is more really hits home for me right now. :)

Jamie Krakover said...

You're quite welcome! Glad it was helpful :)

Meghan said...

Thank so much! It's always helpful to have a little peek inside the readers' mind. Best of luck mentoring!

Jamie Krakover said...

You're welcome! And thanks! I look forward to getting to mentor a lucky writer.