Why Am I Getting Rejected? Part 2

Hello! How are you? Was the weekend good? Can you believe that thing that the person said or did with the thing about the thing? Yeah, I can’t either.

Okay, enough chit-chat, you’re not here for my palaver.

We’re back at the Rejection Series. On Friday we talked about how the query can reject the MS before the MS even gets looked at, and now we’re going to come at this from a different direction. Today we’ll look at how the early pages of the MS can reject you.

Let’s assume for all these five cases that the query was interesting enough to lead the reader to check out the MS.

Whereas last time I told you to get your query letter, I want you to go get the first five pages of your MS. Yes, seriously. Double-space them. Print them out. Meet right back here when you’re ready?

Cool? Then onward we go …

Issue 1 – The opening paragraphs don’t encourage the reader to go forward.
This might be the big manuscript killer. The opening page is critical, like absolutely vital, to establishing the tone you’re trying to convey to the reader, regardless of the information.

You want to talk about weather, or blow something up, or write a quip, fine, but remember that whatever is in those opening paragraphs is the impression I’m taking forward. Yes, I’m beating the drum on word choice and decision making, but I don’t know any other way to stress to you that if you want me to go forward and ultimately say yes to your MS, that opening has to engage me.

Maybe that engagement is provocative, or it’s funny, or it’s new/a new take on a common idea. That engagement won’t happen if you’re trying too hard to be something or some author you’re not. It won’t happen because despite all camouflaging efforts, that try-hard blanket will hang over you. It’s visible, like a bad comb-over. Just be you, express whatever idea you have in as sharp and as “you”  as possible (this is a great time to mention the importance of voice), and you’ll be engaging.

Issue 2 – The tone of the first page (or so) does not match the tone of the subsequent pages. 
One of the ways people try and correct Issue 1 is by really working the hell out of that first moment in the book and then the next moment or scene in the book winds up feeling jarring and strange because it didn’t get the same intensive scrubbing. My example for this is a TV show, the newer version of Battlestar Galactica, where the SyFy tv-movie presented one feel and vibe and setup, then the first episode (and particularly the second) felt like I was watching a completely different, and not good) TV show.

I use that example because I hoped what I saw in the front would carry forward, and when it didn’t I made a variety of sighs and curses before never watching another second of it. Don’t let that happen to your MS. Yes, word choice and story-decision-making help this, but so does editing. NO, not self-editing, I mean getting other eyes on it. YES you need to get other eyes on your work before it goes out into the world.

Also, let me point out that this problem is fixable by applying the same strategy to every scene/moment in the MS. Assume the reader looks at this page, this moment, this scene, wherever it is in the book. Is it going to be interesting on some level? Don’t confuse ‘interesting’ with ‘perfect’, because interesting things are often imperfect and they’re supposed to be. Every word on the page helps paint a picture in the reader’s mind, so what will you do with their blank canvas?

Issue 3 – The pages have errors, big and small, that don’t encourage the reader going forward.
One of the big concepts I battle with is the idea that editing is both someone else’s job, as well as it being too expensive if you out-source it directly. It’s this duality that keeps authors from investing in things like editing or coaching, so that they can improve what they write, so that when they send the MS anywhere (to publisher or consumer alike) it’s in its best position to have a positive reception. Errors are catchable and fixable, and it’s worth the time (and the money, where appropriate) to get your work edited.

When I blog, I know there are typos and words I skip because I think I’ve typed them. I know I flub punctuation. I’m not perfect. No writer, no editor, no publisher, nobody is perfect. Errors happen, but there are (or there are supposed to be) steps in place to catch them.

For instance, I can send my drafted blog posts to people who will tell me that I’ve misspelled camouflaging again. Or I can get to the desk ten minutes earlier to re-read the sales copy before definitely approving it. These are things within my power to get whatever is in front of me into great shape.

When I open that MS, and the first page has things like tonal shifts, hopping POV, missing words, and/or substantial grammar issues, I sigh and tell myself that here’s one more for the rejection pile and grumble a little that 99% of that could have been caught and fixed if the person gave a shit about their work, my time, and their efforts.

Because that’s the message it conveys to me. I don’t know the writer. I know them by name and email address, but I don’t ‘know’ them. When the first pages are badly tossed word salad, and because I’ve got a lot to do on any given work day, I have to go with my gut-based first impression that this author, no matter how well intentioned, couldn’t be bothered to give me their best. If they can’t treat their work and the jobs we both have to do as editor and author with respect, what other conclusion can I draw?

Issue 4 – The MS has a load of potential and suggestion, but never pays off.
Last week, we talked about the bait-and-switch between query and MS. Here’s an extension of that. This is the MS version of ‘talks a big game and doesn’t deliver.’

If Issue 1 wasn’t the killer, this issue is. And that’s because the issue crops up not on page 1, but in the later pages, after I’ve read a bit and invested my time, interest, and energy. I read it, I start making notes, I start telling people to make time so they can read it and make notes, and then I get a rug pulled out from under me when the “good stuff” never happens.

Maybe it’s the subplot that doesn’t pay off. Maybe it’s a whole book of plot setup that will pay off a little in book 2 and 3 and 4, meaning I have to be willing to take a chance on the whole series (this is especially irksome if the later books aren’t drafted yet, and I’m suppose to take the hope forward that the idea of a series is publishable/saleable.) Maybe it’s the climax that’s not satisfying. Loads of elements in the story can peak too soon, weakly, or not at all and leave the reader unsatisfied, but not in that positive hungry-for-more way. More like how I felt when hype exceeds product, as in restaurants or video games.

And this is another treatable issue. Take the MS to multiple readers who have no emotional stake in being biased. Not the partner, spouse, child, friend, beloved co-worker, bestie (is ‘bestie’ still a thing?). Beta readers. People who aren’t well known. Writing groups. Editors. People who don’t have to say nice things because of non-creative agendas. Fresh eyes, objectivity, and feedback that might not be all rainbows and kittens can help get the MS into better shape.

Issue 5 – The MS turns out to be a soapbox for the author’s agenda. 
Most manuscripts are written by people who want to tell a particular story because the story is interesting and because they think they have an approach to the material that others don’t.

However, there are a number of authors who write stories as vessels and disguises for their opinions about material they otherwise can’t say for whatever reasons. These are the manifestos about government control disguised as protagonist dialogue. These are the stories of sexual violence fetishized and glorified. These are the stories where a hard stance can be taken, but the author can gain some distance from it because, “it’s not them, it’s their character(s).”

There’s a sincerity to seek for here. On the minor elements, the unobtrusive stuff isn’t a soapbox. But when an author disguises (often poorly, though you’ll never convince them of that) their belief under some narrative veneer, and that belief gets brought up again and again as if they’re saying, “DO YOU GET IT, HUH? DO YOU SEE WHAT I AM SAYING?” in a great stage whisper, it doesn’t matter how masterful the other MS elements can be portrayed – the soapboxing overshadows many other elements.

Let’s back up a second, because this assumption of agenda also extends to readers. How many great books are marred by one-star reviews because of reader misinterpretation and sentiment? How many authors see sales suffer because of the trolltastic machinery of ne’er-do-wells and the hypersensitive dogpile?

As part of a publisher, I’ve got a responsibility to look for manuscripts that can be made into books that people will buy. As an editor, I’ve got a responsibility to help the author produce the best book possible, not the best soapbox possible.

You can’t totally excise your personal opinions from your work, and it’s folly to think you can, since your opinions and ideas are part your voice. But that voice is for sharing, not for proselytizing. It’s for sharing without the agenda of conversion. The world is big enough for all the voices of all the people, and it’s not a numbers game of social politics. Nor should manuscript development happen with the express purpose of furthering a brand, but that can be our segue to our next (and last) installment in this series.

See you all later this week. We’ll talk soon. Happy writing

Why Am I Getting Rejected? Part 1

Today’s question: Why does my MS get rejected?

I get this question maybe 1 in every 7 emails, and then it usually gets followed up with a question about why I didn’t answer that rejection question.

Today I answer it.

In the past I haven’t been wholly explicit about the reasons for rejection because they aren’t codified or standardized. What might get you rejected in submission #1 might be the thing that gets accepted in submission #2.

So what I have for you today is a few reasons why your submission gets rejected. I’m splitting this into several parts – issues with the query; issues with the manuscript; issues with other author-y things – because otherwise this would easily be the longest and most rambly post I’ve ever written, and judging by my blog stats, my long posts get as much traction as a puppy on a wood floor.

Go get your query letter. I’m going to make a very large and very strong cup of tea, and together we’ll have some realtalk about how that query might be the thing getting you rejected. Meet me back here when you’re ready.

Let’s do this.

Issue 1 – The query does not make me want to read the MS.
When I read a query, I should not want to put the query down and go watch the lawn grow. A dull query, even when it’s just a few paragraphs, can feel like an abstract for a lengthy obnoxious/pretentious academic work that I can’t believe people get degrees for. (Shout-out to all the dissertations about shoes or the comparison of gender and its effects on pasta)

A query’s job is to encourage, tease, and drive the reader to manuscript to see how the promises of the of the query get paid off in the MS.

You can have all the interesting names and ideas and scenes and decisions in the universe in your book, but if your query doesn’t express them in a way that makes the reader want to check them out, then it won’t matter.

This is why queries can’t be slow burns. There’s a minimum of space, and word choice has to be at a premium. Start where the action is, don’t detour into fluffy things, and keep the focus on getting the reader into that manuscript.

Issue 2 – The query is unfocused.
The compensation for trying to keep the query exciting is that there’s so much going on in it, so much stuff described, that it’s unclear what exactly the MS is about, or what’s the more important element(s) warranting attention.

This is not about there being a lack of information, this is about an abundance of information and little (or none of it) is prioritized. And it needs to be.

As the query writer, you’ve got to help the reader get through the query, get excited, and get into the MS. To do that, build us a path we can navigate. Start somewhere exciting, somewhere intriguing, and work us forward through the ideas.

I say ideas, because you can’t keep us orbiting one idea where you just find different synonyms (the MC is brave! the MC is courageous! the MC knows no fear!). Segue us from one idea to another, so we can get a taste for the world, the character, and the plot (not necessarily in that order). Make decisions, lead us in a direction that ultimately gets us into the MS.

Issue 3 – The query is too short.
Scanning my inbox, 80% of the query letters I have rejected have been a paragraph inside an email where they’re also mentioning how they like this or how they read that.

It’s a query LETTER, not a query paragraph. Spend more than 2 sentences making the reader interested. Aim for a sweet spot between 90 and 300 words, and that count includes things like your name, info to reach you by, and the sentence ‘Thank you for your consideration.’

When the query is so short, my first thought is that the person either isn’t really interested in me reading anything they write, or they’re not actually as serious about getting published as they claimed. If they were, why wouldn’t they say more?

Issue 4 – The query is too long.
This doesn’t happen as often as Problem 3, but it does still happen. Much like Problem 2, this is a case where things aren’t prioritized and decisions aren’t made, so every possible idea gets thrown into what is often a block of text in the hope that somewhere in the word-glacier the reader can unearth the interesting bits.

They probably could, but they shouldn’t have to. Here’s another case where the decision-making process is critical, because the reader gets a selection of material that would increase the likelihood of going into the manuscript with an enthusiasm and interest.

Again, sweet spot. Make choices.

Issue 5 – The query talks about A, but the MS presents B.
We’re wrapping up with part 1 with a great bridge element to where we’re going next. The query’s promise of manuscript potential has to pay off. On the surface, this is something as obvious as saying, “don’t bait and switch”, where the query talks about the MS being a fantasy epic about chicken farmers and the MS is actually a bisexual love triangle of teenage poltergeists, to something as nuanced as the promise of an action thriller that misses core genre beats and staples like the villain’s demise or the romantic subplot.

This isn’t limited to insidious skeevy tactics. This comes up in the course of any manuscript that doesn’t deliver on its promises or premises. And when I say ‘doesn’t deliver’ I mean that the elements in the query aren’t found in the MS, not that they’re poorly developed. (Poor development goes back to Issue 1)

Inconsistency, nerves, over-ambition … there’s a number of reasons why this happens (you know how movie trailers have scenes and lines that don’t get into the film, but because they’re in there, you go see the film? This is that, but for books) It’s an entirely correctable problem that you can solve by putting only the stuff that happens in THIS ONE BOOK in THIS ONE QUERY.

You’re writing a series? Great, tell me that you are, but you only have to query this MS I’ve got in front of me, so I don’t need to know the plot of book 4 when you’re trying to get book 1 published. Tell me about book 4 AFTER we say yes to book 1. It’s the horse and cart, or eggs and basket metaphor, maybe a little of both.

This series will continue on Monday, where will look at how the MS can get you rejected. See you then. Happy writing.


On Creation and Feelings

Good morning everyone. I know I promised you a continuation of The Force Awakens, but if you’ll permit me, I want to take today and speak about something more personal and a bit more intensive than how I’d rewrite a movie with a seven-foot-tall furry guy and some people with laser swords.

The world lately has been a strange, scary, frustrating, and confusing place. Political candidates want to talk more about what keeps us apart than any plans they have to connect us. The fundamentally interesting and beautiful things that make people different also make them targets for bullets and bombs. Countries a world away access violence as their best tool for change, and it seems that we as a collective people have placed a premium on the short-term not-so-tough things to do and think about instead of constantly steeping ourselves in some brew where plenty of people on the Internet want to spend more time telling you what’s wrong and how virtuous they are for pointing out all the ways you and other people are wrong.

The world seems to be spinning differently, on some different axis, and to say that it does not in some ways affect a person’s native ability to create good in the world (be it art or butts or words or music or potato skins) is to perpetuate the idea that those oh-so-wacky creatives don’t care about the world, they just go live in their communes and kibbutzim espousing their collectivist or regressive ideals to an echo chamber built on feelings and bureaucracy.

I find myself deeply troubled, and I’m not a member of any of the affected groups, and depending on you who talk to or what you read, I’m a member of the groups responsible for the problems that led to these horrors happening. What jams me up the most is the assertion made by others that my complacency is worsening all these situations, as if I must abandon anything that isn’t full-throated support in the same manner they do it, and then spend a disproportionate amount of time telling other people how I’m in support, as if other people seeing me be supportive isn’t enough.

These are not popular ideas. I know that my having them and expressing them has cost me work and relationships with peers and potential audience. I know that there are people out there who will read this post and never come back, not to read storycraft information, not to check out some tweets. I know that it is not popular to swim against several river currents, and here I am doing some of my best salmon impersonating.

Creativity does not exist in a bubble. And it is imperative that people realize that both the ills of the world and the protests against them have the potential to be poisonous to other activities and beliefs. If so much time and energy is spent pointing out an emperor has no clothes, when is it possible to be compassionate to oneself? Does that not happen ‘so long as there is this problem in the world?’ How is that a rational and actionable response to anything? How would that help?

In no way do I assert I am superior to or above both the problems in the world or the people doing things about those problems. I’m not disinterested in the problems either. Too often those are the conclusions reached by others when so much of the chatter, so much of the world’s noise seems to focus on ladies in a movie with a glut of CGI effects, or abusive law enforcement or other countries rattling sabers and red phones alike.

Why isn’t the counterbalance to this weight a push towards creativity? Wouldn’t a world so divided and soon to be divided more be ameliorated by unity and inspiration. I don’t mean those Facebook fitness memes where someone’s doing one pull-up a day, because what they’re really lifting is themselves (yes, I gagged a little typing it), I mean why must creation and creativity be sacrificed for substantive progress?

No, this is not me donning my marketing and salescopy hat to say that many of these protests needs better slogans and chants (they do), this is me saying that I believe if we are to ever stop looking at our ugly parts long enough to go forward, we must find the beautiful parts. And it’s not like we lost them, though I am sure there are professional victims and soapboxers who will tell you that the days of beauty are gone. But that’s a crock of horseshit, and all that idea does is justify their own victimhood and soapboxery.

I suppose this post is as much a permission slip to myself as well as hopeful encouragement to others that we can still hold onto, propagate, and promote the idea that creativity need not be limited to the shallow ends of the pool, where it’s all about Pokemon-going or lady-ghostbusting or whatever ephemera sails downstream at us. There’s still a reason and a need for the discussions of books and art and music, parallel and along with the discussions of freedom and liberty and equality.

More to that point, remember that so long as one group gets the short of end of some stick, be it about gender or race or identity or faith or preference for steak doneness or whatever, then it’s not equality. And equality doesn’t come from a subordinate group turning the tables and giving into the childish notion that turnabout is fair play so they can hold some other group down “to see if they like it.” Who’s going to like that?

It’s our creativity, our passion for making things and expressing ourselves that can carry us through and past what appear like horrific times juxtaposed with a society that can carry a computer in their jeans and use it to order a pizza, sex, and a taxi at 4 in the morning.

Scan back through history and see that in other dark spots, creativity was a path forward. During World Wars, theater, radio, film and television flourished. During times of civil unrest, we traveled to outer goddamned space. Outer space!

We have put machines onto comets and taken pictures of things only written about seventy years ago in pulp magazines. We have created machines that can rebuild bodies. We have robots. We have made theatre productions that speak to generations. We have used technology to connect and support.

It’s a choice we make to be divisive. It’s a choice we make to act and react out of fear. It’s a choice we make to think our creativity is finite or that it needs certain conditions to operate at all, let alone at peak efficiency.  We make a choice about who we listen to, and about who we decry. And if I can ask anything of you at all, please think before you choose. Choose with not just the immediate or short term in mind. Choose not just what’s fastest or least taxing on you. Really consider that for not just your creativity but also possibly your very life, you’re not alone in any sense, and our interconnectivity depends on our choices and our understanding of each other’s choices, even when we don’t agree with them.

I’ll see you guys later this week. Happy writing.

My GenCon schedule

GenCon this year is August 4th to the 7th. I’ve got some really exciting days planned, but I’m always free to say hello, answer questions, rant about people and things, and hang out.

Also, there’s the not-so-small matter of my birthday on August 7th.

Here’s the schedule:


SEM1686117 Building A Better Freelancer Thu @ 10AM – 11:30AM
(Crowne Plaza :: Grand Central Ballroom B)

Hear me talk for 90 minutes about it takes to be a working freelancer. I’ll explain good versus poor techniques, strategies to get started, and red flags to avoid.

SEM1686113 So You’re Making Your First Game Thu @ 1PM – 3PM
(Crowne Plaza :: Grand Central Ballroom C)

For two hours I’m going to talk about the ins and outs of game development, while Mark Richardson will be telling me I should be writing, so that he can talk about what it’s like getting Headspace into the hands of consumers. Also, I will mock him for being Canadian. And there will be profanity.

SEM1686108 Gaming and Your Mental Health 2015 Thu @ 3PM – 5PM
(Crowne Plaza :: Grand Central Ballroom A)

One of my favorite but also toughest panels to give, here’s my yearly two hours on living with mental illness and disability with all the struggles and victories therein. This panel is incredibly personal to me, and I would appreciate your attendance.


SEM1686114 Writing Effective Scenarios, Settings, and Campaigns Fri @ 10AM – 12PM
(Crowne Plaza :: Victoria Stn C/D)

In two hours, I’m going to talk about the blueprints of a “good” module, no matter if it’s just for your friends at the table or you want to get it out for sale. This panel gets into craft as well as game development, while remaining system neutral.

SEM1686110 Getting Into the Industry Fri @ 11 AM – 12PM
(Crowne Plaza :: Pennsylvania Stn B)

Mark Richardson is back with me to talk about starting in the gaming industry. We’ll talk about what works and what doesn’t, when you want to talk about working in the industry and getting games into people’s hands.

RPG1699936 Noir World: Tragedy In The Heartland Fri @ 1PM – 3PM
(Marriott :: Santa Fe :: 5)

Hey look! It’s Noir World at GenCon.


SEM1686118 Working & Playing Nice with Others Professionally Sat @ 10:00 AM – 12PM
(Crowne Plaza :: Grand Central Ballroom C)

You might not believe this, but at times I can kind of be tough to work with. Shocking, right? Spend 2 hours with me and learn how not to do what I do. Learn how to work with others, learn what to avoid doing, find out the communication skills/tips/strategies to make it slightly easier to work with your friends.

RPG1699935 Noir World: Murder on Main Street Sat @ 1PM – 3PM
(Marriott :: Santa Fe :: 2)

More Noir World.

My birthday is Sunday August 7th. I don’t have any panels or games, but I will be around. You should come say hello.

How I’d Rewrite The Force Awakens, Part 2

We’re continuing the rewrite of The Force Awakens. If you need part 1, it’s here.

So where did we leave off…

The stormtroopers arrive, about a half-dozen of them. They surround Rey and Poe, and BB-8 rolls back behind the landing strut to hide.

The fight is fast, because Poe drops one trooper pretty quickly. Two of the six run back to get support, leaving 3 troopers to square off against the pilot and the girl. We linger on a shot of one trooper (the same as before), and we watch the three troopers pull out blasters and advance on Poe and Rey’s position. A trooper responds how they’ll get promoted for killing a Resistance pilot, but not for the girl, so maybe they should just take her back to base for themselves.

And that’s when our lingered-upon trooper hangs back in the advance and shoots both troopers before Poe and Rey can react. The trooper tosses off his helmet. FINN is visbily shaken by all the battle around him, and Poe steps out from behind the X-Wing.

There’s a quick minute of snappy dialogue about who’s going to put down their blaster first, and finally they both stop when they see Rey starting to pry panels off the X-Wing.

Poe protests, thinking she’s going to go back to looting it. Rey answers that she think she can repair it, or at least patch it together well enough to send Poe to the nearest inhabited city (we’ll call the city Mos Espa, because why not). Finn listens to them banter, and then reminds them that the two troopers who ran off will be back with fire support, and he just shot those two other troopers, and what are they gonna do. BB-8 agrees.

Rey pulls her skiff up to the ship and starts loading X-Wing contents onboard. They have to run, she says, so take what you can, and let’s go. Poe tells Finn to ditch the trooper uniform, but Finn says it’s the only outfit he’s ever known, and he doesn’t have anything else to where. Poe pulls a small satchel from the ship and tosses it to his new ex-trooper friend.

Wipe to a few minutes later, Finn is still adjusting the clothes, and we see the heavily laden skiff weaving its way around old Imperial wreckage. Poe is holding BB-8, Rey is driving.

The troopers return to the barebones X-Wing and see the dead troopers stripped of their armor. An officer steps out from behind the troopers to snarl, “They couldn’t have gotten far, find them.”

Back to our trio, where they are all hauling “scavenged” stormtrooper tech in front of the junk dealer. Poe and Finn make exaggerated attempts to blend in, and Rey tells the scrap dealer that these are her new workers, and she’ll be replacing them soon, thanks to their laziness. For all the scrap, she receives hundreds of rations, as well as a few credits. It’s more success and more wealth than she’s ever had in her life.

To celebrate (and to help them blend in) Poe suggests a cantina. Finn is still thinking like a stormtrooper and says he can’t until relieved, which nearly exposes their scrap deception, but Poe plays off the word ‘relieved’ saying he drank a lot of water. A moment of levity, and Rey leads our heros to her hovel, the overturned AT-AT. She stashes all the food and BB-8, and we get a good look at “home” for Rey – the interior has been gutted, the bulkheads turned into room dividers. She has a growing stash of Rebellion tech and material, as well as a variety of vague personal items. Finn comments that he’d read reports about the Imperial assaults on Jakku as well as the “Flight From Jakku”, and Rey describes how she was left behind as a child. Poe tells the droid to stay here and try and contact C-3P0 using the communicator he rescued from the X-Wing.

After a few moments, BB-8 rolls after them.

The three humans head off to the cantina, and take seats among all the aliens we’d expect and a few we don’t. They’re served drinks and food Finn has never seen before, as well as some dirty looks from two aliens that Rey talks to in a subtitled language. Poe laughs as Rey calls Finn a nerf herder, and then Finn tries to follow along, repeating the alien word to everyone seated around them. The three then get down to business.

“By tomorrow there won’t be anything left of theX-Wing, the other scavengers will have taken it apart by the time we get back there.” Rey explains.

“I need a ship. The Resistance is expecting me.” says Poe.

“If they find me, they’ll kill me.” says Finn

And that’s when the stormtroopers enter and start moving from table to table in a search for our heroes. All three of them duck under the table, and try and map out how they’ll get out without being seen. Poe and Finn both concoct elaborate plans with almost Rube Goldberg timings, but during the discussion, Rey crawls away to shove one alien into another, causing a fight that distracts the troopers. In the chaos, all three leave. BB-8 is waiting for them just outside the door.

Others run from the cantina too, and as people disperse, our trio heads to a small cargo ship, grabbing boxes and looking casual. BB-8 rolls along with Poe and Finn, and Rey is the last to carry a box behind them. She stacks her crate and goes to exit, just to watch the ship’s door close. We hear the hum of the liftoff. She looks in shock as the cargo hauler gets off the ground. Poe is elated. Finn is confused. BB-8 chirps.

To be continued in Part 3.

What I’m looking for in a Query Letter

Hey everybody. I apologize for the radio silence, there’s been loads of work, a little bit of stress, and a ton of prep going on from one convention to another.

Today I wanted to put on my ParvusPress editorial hat:


If you want to buy me this hat, I’m totally okay with that.

and talk about query letters. Specifically, I want to talk about what I’m looking for in a query letter. So let’s start with putting me in the office:


Yeah, totally this.

and now give me a stack of query letters:


Ready? Awesome.

Here now are 5 things I’m looking for while I’m reading your query letters.

i. A series of sentences that entice me to find out more information by reading the manuscript. A query letter is not a synopsis. It is not the opening three paragraphs of Wikipedia. It is not a blurb you read when you press that Info button on your TV remote.

The query has one job – to make me want to read the manuscript. How does it do that? By sounding interesting. By being enticing. By having sentences that aren’t flat and flaccid on the page.

Start where the action is. Don’t give away the twist. Get the vibe of the story and world across. (What’s that mean? Find the tone and get it across to me.)

ii. A query letter that’s not longer than the first chapter of the manuscript. With the majority of submissions ParvusPress sees, there are some form of query letter as the body of the email rather than just a few lines of typical email banter. The format of the query letter, the structure of the sentences and paragraphs that are trying to encourage me to open the attached manuscript is critical.

Email length is hugely important, because I’m looking at dozens of emails a day (and that’s not counting my own personal email with five times as much material in it), and I’ve got a short window in which to read and process this material. Granted, that’s a function of ParvusPress not being my sole job, and needing time to prep for and work with coaching clients in addition to completely freelance editing and writing projects – so while I am in control of the time I have, the time is still valuable. To make the best use of it, I do come to my inbox with a certain amount of expectation. I expect to see new submissions. I expect to see queries. And I expect those queries to be more or less the same relative length.

When a query runs long, I worry that the manuscript will run long, meaning it will be bloated or meandering. A long query that spends extra time and space hashing out the same points over and over again (albeit in different ways) isn’t going to encourage me to read the manuscript (how many different ways is the author going to tell me the fate of the galaxy is at stake?).

Keep the query tight and evocative. Excite the reader to get into the manuscript to see more.

iii. A concept, even one that isn’t new, that gets expressed in an exciting way. There are so many story types, and within each genre there several well-tread (overdone) concepts: people destined for greatness because of prophecy; angels and devils clashing over mortals; a magical item necessary to save the kingdom or country or world.

It’s hard to present these ideas in new ways, and it’s equally difficult to roll out new concepts. Presenting any idea is scary, and there’s plenty of blog-fodder on the topic of encouragement despite being scared. But the presentation is paramount – whatever you write, be excited to share it. Even if that excitement is nervous energy, use that excite to shape the message you’re putting out.

Find the exciting way to tell your idea. Passion and enthusiasm is contagious, and there’s nothing wrong with counting on people to think positively about your work as they could negatively (it’s a 50-50 proposition, right?)

iv. A strong demonstration of authorial voice. I want to make this point as clearly as possible, as voice is one of those concepts that gets a nebulous treatment with flexible definitions depending on the user and context. When I say authorial voice, I’m looking for a query that is not packing a subtext of self-doubt. The language is clear and decisive, the focus is on the world in the story as though it’s the only world (meaning it’s not like I’m reading an email where you’re telling me about this story like you’re curating at a museum), and the things being described in the query are interesting.

That makes word choice important. Sentence structure becomes critical. Decisions about which elements to present and which to hold back become mandatory. How are you going to demonstrate that you’re in the business of telling a great story and that business is good? (There’s a way more colorful version of this question I ask at seminars, and if you want to hear it, come see me at GenCon at the end of July)

v. A query letter format that tells me the person writing it actually cares about their efforts, and isn’t just dashing something off for one reason or another. Sloppy presentation dooms good ideas by burying ledes, obfuscating critical elements, and dragging out ideas that could be stated in simpler terms.

Someone who takes the time to compose three paragraphs after an intro where a person’s name gets used (You know how you get ‘Current Resident’ junk mail to your home? Getting an email that starts with ‘Editor’ is a lot like that.), where the first paragraph sets up the world and the protagonist’s experience, the second gives a taste of conflict and possibility, while the third covers the title (in all caps) and word count (the actual word count, not an estimation), and hopefully thanks me for my consideration when I’m done reading is definitely going to make it higher up the food chain than the sloppy six sentences that mention title and word count at opposite ends of a not-formatted paragraph, where I can’t quite get a sense of what’s going on in the manuscript because the writer forgot to hit the Enter key once or twice.

In short, this is the “Give a damn” rule (Again, more colorful name for this available).

At Parvus, I’m looking for SF/F (previously unpublished) manuscripts. But these ideas apply just as much to other genre. If that’s what you’re writing, send it on over.

Go forth and write. Write the hell out of your day.

We’ll talk soon. Happy writing.

How I’d Rewrite The Force Awakens, Part 1

Disclaimer: I really liked The Force Awakens. I like the characters and their actors. I am a huge Star Wars fan. It has a very special place in my heart. That said, I would approach the story and development differently, into something more cohesive and frankly, a little heavier.

From time to time, I offer rewrites to things. I don’t do it maliciously, I don’t do it slag on the people who did the work, I just come at things from a different direction. And so it is with The Force Awakens.

Do we need to run through the characters? Not the OG ones, for sure, but let’s hit the new ones.

Rey – A plucky desert world tech-rat, Rey is our Force-wielding protagonist for this next trilogy. Daisy Ridley rocks the role, but the character is a list of skills, with a translucent veneer of internal conflict. Abandoned on a planet, she’s alone, but her loneliness is demonstrated as having happened to her, rather than felt, since she reinforces her ‘lonership’ time and again, until she doesn’t. We’ll face a lot of the rewrite towards her.

Finn – The Stormtrooper-turned-Rebel, the guy with feelings. John Boyega is great. He’s playing the hell out of what’s on the page, and he and Poe have a chemistry like they should be the reboot of Lethal Weapon (with the Riggs/Murtaugh roles reversed, of course) and then be in every TV show I watch.

Poe – The trilogy’s Han Solo, and holy shit can we make him dance all the time? Look at this: serveimageserveimage2serveimage3

His character is pretty much going to stay the same, because it works.

Kylo Ren – Herein lies the bulk of the problem. It’s not wholly clear that he’s either Light Side or Dark Side, and not really all that clear that he’s stuggling to be one or the other with any meaningful intent. Sure, he tells us he is, but when have you ever known me to be all-in for telling something so fundamental to a character? He’s going to get transformed by this rewrite.

For me, the two stand-out issues with the film are two issues common to many manuscripts: A lack of arc, and a lack of motivation due to backstory and arc.

A lack of arc is two-fold: The character arcs are under-expressed, as well as the story’s arc is relayed by the title crawl and the last 5 minutes of film. Plenty of room there to show us the universe post-ROTJ, and plenty of room take it in a new direction or subversion of the expected direction.

The lack of motivation due to backstory and arc is a character problem that can be expressed by the question, “Why is _____ (INSERT CHARACTER NAME HERE) doing ____ (INSERT ACTION THE CHARACTER IS DOING)? Is it because plot-reasons?”

So let’s keep those issues in mind, and let me rewrite TFA.

The Force Awakens

The title crawl is one of danger and fear and the unknown, only a few years after the destruction of the second Death Star, and only a few years into the rise of numerous splinter groups: Empire, Rebellion, and otherwise looking to spread across the galaxy. We don’t name-check any ROTJ characters, and we don’t mention the Force (except in the title).

We sweep down through the starry space to a large swampy planet. We actually don’t just show the planet from space then cut to a soundstage, we follow the camera as it plunges through the planet’s atmosphere and moves at a pretty decent speed to about shoulder height. The audio comes back in on ragged breathing. Someone is running.

In blur, and then into focus, we see POE DAMERON running, looking back over his shoulder periodically, because he’s being chased.

Chased by whom, you ask? Stormtroopers. Classic Empire stormtroopers in fact, and they continue to be terrible shots. Great for shooting trees and swamp vines, not so hot at nailing a biped in motion. Poe runs back to his ship, a heavily modded X-Wing, where his droid BB-8 is squawking and chirping furiously. Poe yells at the droid that they’re not going to get shot, to prep the ship for takeoff. The nervous droid has the ship a few inches off the ground when Poe leaps on board.

It’s at this moment that the stormtroopers reach the ship and plaintively fire at it. Poe engages the ship’s cannon to mow a few down. He sets a course to leave atmosphere and tells BB-8 to ‘send a message to Command that four planets in this sector are Imperial, and that he’s moving on to the next.’ The droid complies as the ship heads back into space.

Cross-cut to even more Stormtroopers reaching where the ship was and seeing the dead troopers littering the ground. A few troopers sight the craft and watch it get tiny in the distance. The camera lingers on one trooper, sighing so intensely we can watch the armor rise and fall. He receives an order to get the bodies back to base and does so.

The camera slide-wipes just as a trooper’s white chest plate clears frame to reveal that a pair of hands is wiping off something white, or something that used to be white, under a few inches of sand.

We’re on the planet Jakku, and a gloved set of hands is picking armor out of sand dunes. A few dented helmets and chest plates sit in a stack on a tarp. The gloved hands are attached to a young girl, REY, and she’s somewhat desperate in her search for material. We don’t know what she’s looking for, and maybe she doesn’t know either, but she’s accumulating a lot of irregular bits like codpieces and Rebel Alliance gloves on the tarp. We watch her drag the tarp to a small speeder. We watch her try and get the speeder started, but it gives up with a cough and smoke. Also, as she tries to get moving, her tarp breaks and spills onto the ground. She curses (yes I want some kind of cursing in Star Wars, maybe she just says, “Nerf herder”) and cleans up the mess. Other speeders packed with junk and people skim past her and laugh. Rey is not well liked in these parts, and we feel it.

Cut back to Poe’s X-Wing and he’s cruising towards his next planet, Jakku. BB-8 relays some information, maybe a complaint that it’ll be hot, and Poe assures him that it’s just a big ball of sand and it won’t take long. He sets the course and that’s when a call comes in from Command.

A familiar voice, C-3P0, tells ‘Captain Dameron’ to proceed with all haste back to base, that there’s General Solo has called a meeting and he’s needed urgently. Poe banters a bit, complaining that if this is another meeting without a reason, he’s going to crash into a sun. C-3P0 assures him that it’s more important than that, and he should return immediately. Poe relents, but once the message from C-3P0 ends, plots the course to Jakku anyway. BB-8 protests, but Poe explains that it’s a quick search and won’t take long. Also, meetings aren’t his style.

Cut to an Imperial base on Jakku, stormtroopers in not-white (let’s put them in sand and beige and rock tones) watch ships enter the atmosphere via monitors and lock onto Poe’s ship as it nears landfall. An order is given to open fire.

Poe and BB-8 detect the assault just a moment too late and the ship is hit. Poe’s first thought is of the droid, then himself, and manages to put the ship down in some dunes before launching a distress beacon along with some chaff, making the ship’s damage appear worse than it is. He checks on his droid, then using the last of the ship’s power to get a read on where the shots came from, so he knows to expect trouble.

Wipe to Rey, who saw the ship go down and is willing to dump part of her scrap haul to squeeze a bit of power from her speeder. She sets off towards the crash.

Cut back to the trooper base, where a squad of troopers has just landed, the troopers from Poe’s previous escape scene in fact, are being dispatched to go round up any survivors. We see them setting off towards the downed ship as well.

Rey is the first to the scene, and she can’t believe her eyes.An actual X-Wing, in sort of working order. She checks the seat, finds it to still be warm, and quickly pulls out some tools to start dismantling the cockpit

Which is when Poe comes out from stage right, blaster drawn. They argue about the ship and the pilot, Poe says he’s the pilot and he realizes he’s not going to shoot “a kid.” Rey says she’s not a kid, and that if he’ll just part with some of the ship’s electronics, Rey can eat for a month. Poe hands over several of his rations – more food than Rey has seen in weeks she says – and explains that he was shot down. Rey is incredulous, that there haven’t been troopers on Jakku in years.

Which is when the troopers arrive.

Stay tuned for Part 2 next week after DexCon.

The Sisters of Crime Discussion

Good morning. How was your weekend? Did you do anything exciting? Was the weather a sweltering furnace? I had a good one, since I always enjoy my chances to speak to groups of writers. This weekend I was in front of the local to-me chapter of the Sisters of Crime, talking about mystery and story development.

The conversation we had was excellent. But let me describe where this conversation took place.

Picture a very old colonial church, wooden, not brick and mortar. Okay, now take whatever you’re picturing and have Tim Burton re-shape it. Exaggerate the spire. Gloomy-goth-art-student the interior. Make the parking lot a Stephen King land of angry weeds up through cracked asphalt. Don’t forget that every door squeaks and every floorboard groans.

Now add a 48-star flag:

Yes, 48 stars. I counted.


And add a Kennedy era bingo machine:

The dust on this thing was incredible.

If you’ve ever been to one of my events before, you know I don’t make a whole lot of notes, and I swear enough, and well enough to make stevedores shocked. But, because this event was a big deal to me, and because I was really trying to make a good impression, since I’d like to do more speaking like this for other groups, I cut the 300+ usually profanities out of my discussion points and examples. The Batman examples stayed in though, because Batman.

Not every place I speak does audio recording, and the acoustics in the barn-sized room weren’t the best, so there’s no audio. Instead, I’m going to take my notes and expand on them, a point at a time. While this event was targeted at mysteries, it’s not that hard to extrapolate the general craft elements out of what I’m saying.

Cool? Awesome. Let’s do this.

A mystery is a story where the central conflict is a question and there are character(s) compelled to answer that question or face consequences. Those consequences may be short-term (if I don’t catch the murderer, they get away with it), or they may be larger in scale (the serial killer will strike again!), but there are always consequences to not answering whatever the question is, and the fear about how the world will be with those consequences in place is the driving force behind the character(s) taking action.

Unlike other genre where the conflict is an action (thriller, horror, action, etc) the fact that the conflict is a question – often a who/how/why – means that the character(s) trying to answer that question need external elements because they’re only going to start the story with some assumptions. Assumptions about how the world works, about how people behave, that sort of thing.

Side note: Rather than have the assumptions be provided just by the experiences in this story, you can build a better character by basing those assumptions on character philosophy and motivations

Because the character(s) have a set of assumptions, and need to gain knowledge to dis-/prove those assumptions, mysteries are built on an economy exchanging assumption for knowledge. Like this:

The detective (the character trying to answer the question at the conflict’s heart) gains knowledge that challenges the assumptions (whatever they might be) WHILE the antagonist (the character looking to benefit from the actions related to the conflict’s question) makes and acts on assumptions in the face of knowledge.

That knowledge comes from clues which are pieces of information (not limited to objects, but they’re most commonly objects) that increase the detective’s knowledge. There are three kinds of clues to keep in mind:

A) the inciting clue
This is whatever piece of information indicates that there’s a conflict to resolve. In most murder mysteries or television shows, this is the body. This clue incites the detective’s efforts.

B) “body” clues
“Body” refers here to “body of the story”, and there will be more body clues than any other kind in a mystery.  The clues that follow the inciting clue are all body clues. And this can cover everything from the murder weapon to the ATM photos to the piece of spinach stuck in someone’s teeth.

C) the confirming clue
This is the clue that gives the detective that last piece of knowledge to shore up the mystery. We’ve all seen that moment in TV where a secondary character says something innocuous and the protagonist gets up from wherever they’re sitting and when we come back from commercial, the detective is explaining the solution to the whole case.

It’s the sum of all these clues that guide the character(s) forward into answering the conflict’s question.

But (and here’s my last point) … this forward pursuit of the answer has to INTERSECT with the character’s arc without being the entirety of that arc.

Because your MC should be greater than just the operator/actor within one story. What they do is not the complete package of who they are, anymore than it is for you, the person reading this. And when I say ‘greater’, I mean they should have more depth and more to them. Yes, the plot events are a big deal (hopefully), yes the plot events are a challenge for them (hopefully), but you can do better than the stale-from-the-can “troubled past.” I know you can.

And if you’re just not sure how, come ask.

This week is a short one from me, since DexCon is Wednesday-Sunday. We’ll do InboxWednesday for sure, and let’s put a ‘maybe’ on Friday’s post … it depends on if I can write it Tuesday.

Go write good stuff. Follow me on Twitter and Snapchat (johnwritesstuff) for more info and other things of wordly nature.

Happy writing.

My DexCon Schedule

DexCon is fast approaching at the end of the month, and it’s one of my favorite conventions of the year. This year, there’s A LOT of Noir World.

If you’re asking what Noir World is, it’s the game I’ve written that features film noir and noir tropes in everything from 1920s gangster pictures to near-future Blade Runner tales, and everything in between. Get some people around a table and tell a wickedly sinful tale of emotion and tragedy.

Here’s my schedule:

R0194: Apocalypse World; “Noir World: A Good Day For Bad Stuff” presented by John Adamus. An INDEPENDENTLY PUBLISHED GAME – Part of the Indie Games Explosion! In The City, it’s always a good time for bad people to bad things. Noir World is an Apocalypse World hack that features shared narration and tells a tragic drama set in a film noir-influenced world of the players’ creation. The story involves either a crime that has happened or will happen, and the players can be anything from the cops eager to solve it, or the criminals eager to get away with it. Thursday, 9:00AM – 1:00PM

R0206: Apocalypse World; “Noir World: A Good Day For Bad Stuff” presented by John Adamus. See R0194. Thursday, 2:00PM – 6:00PM
R0233: Apocalypse World; “Noir World: A Good Day For Bad Stuff” presented by John Adamus. See R0194. Friday, 9:00PM – 1:00PM
R0251: Apocalypse World; “Noir World: A Good Day For Bad Stuff” presented by John Adamus. See R0194. Friday, 2:00PM – 6:00PM
R0319: Apocalypse World; “Noir World: A Good Day For Bad Stuff” presented by John Adamus. See R0194. Saturday, 2:00PM – 6:00PM
R0376: Apocalypse World; “Noir World: A Good Day For Bad Stuff”presented by John Adamus. See R0194. Sunday, 3:00PM – 7:00PM

Oh and don’t forget –

D1192: “The DEXCON 19 Writer’s Workshop” presented by John Adamus. Are you an aspiring writer? Have a story inside you and want to find out how to get it into print? Join our esteemed panel of authors and other professionals who will talk about how to get your wonderful ideas into the hands of millions! Sunday, 10am – 12pm

So, yes, that’s SIX games. For more information as the convention draws near, be sure to follow @noirworldrpg on Twitter.

No post on Friday, but I might try some Facebook Live stuff. I’m playing around with it.