Imagine the number of queries that cross an editor or agent’s desk. Imagine scanning through them day after day, the words blurring, the storylines running together. Hundreds of them. All day long. What would make one stand out?
Good writing, of course. A juicy conflict. A great character. But there are only so many plots and variations in the world – so while something original, timely, and exciting might stand out, it takes something special to make an editor say, “Yes. That one.”
I’ve just been through the proposal process with my own editor at Sourcebooks, Deb Werksman, so I can give a little insight into one factor that might make a difference. One of Deb’s guidelines (see this post on the Casablanca blog) is that “a world gets created.” And I think that’s something that’s lacking in many queries and synopses.
Think about the books that succeed. Over and over, people choose to spend time in Carl Hiaasen’s South Florida, Elizabeth George’s England, or Jim Butcher’s Chicago. Whether it’s the high plains of Wyoming, the chic streets of downtown Denver, or a Baja beach, chances are you’ve set your novel in a place that is your spiritual home, if not your actual address—and only you can capture the essence that makes that place meaningful to you.
While you certainly don’t want to bog down your query with excessive description, it’s important to make it clear that you can carry the reader into a world unlike their own, a place to escape. I think the best way to do this is to offer a few telling details that prove you know your setting. Watch how it’s done on back cover copy for some writers who are masters at creating a sense of place, and notice how each writer meshes crucial elements of the plot with details that place it firmly in a world that really sets it apart from most books:
“ 'Getting hitched' doesn’t necessarily mean ‘settling down’ – not when South Florida is crawling with slimeballs, swindlers, unrepentant jerks, and annoying bystanders whose ranks need some serious thinning.”
(Tim Dorsey, Torpedo Juice)
“In a North Carolina winter, new vistas appear through the bare trees… For Elizabeth Goodweather of Full Circle Farm, still a newcomer after more than twenty years, one terrible glimpse ignites a mystery that reaches back years into these hills.”
(Vicki Lane, In a Dark Season)
“Deputy Dorie Berenger knew it was going to be a rough day when the alligator she found in the town drunk’s swimming pool turned out to be stoned. The folks of Gator Bait, Louisiana may know everything about each other, but they’re sure not going to share it with an outsider. Richard wouldn’t be able to catch a catfish, much less a drug smuggler...”
(Jana DeLeon, Rumble on the Bayou)
And here’s part of my own query letter for the my debut novel Cowboy Trouble:
“In Cowboy Trouble, city girl Libby Brown packs up her broken heart and moves to Rawhide, Wyoming, where the West is still wild, the real estate is cheap, and the chickens are calling her name…”
So how did that proposal process go? In the end, it was fine, and there will be two more Joanne Kennedy books from Sourcebooks in 2012—but Deb rejected my first two salvos. “There’s not enough of your world in it,” she said. What she wants, and what readers seem to enjoy, is the high plains of Wyoming—the played-out pastures and barbed-wire fences, the tumbledown barns and battered pickups. And I hadn’t put enough of that into my proposal. The atmosphere was missing. Once I resubmitted proposals that had a better sense of place, she accepted them right away.
So if you’re getting rejections, check over your query and synopsis. Is there a way you can offer a little more of your world along with the plot details? Think about what makes your setting unique—little things, like Jana DeLeon’s catfish and Dorsey’s slimeballs and swindlers, Vicki Lane’s bare trees or even a little bit of cheap real estate. After all, there’s a good chance your reader is shopping for a place to call his own—even if it’s just for a few hundred pages.
For me, that world is a ranch and the small towns nearby. It’s the prairie and the big sky above it. It’s a very simple, rugged, basic world, and it’s my favorite place to be.