That’s writer-speak for, “Look what I just pulled out of my arse!” Actually, I felt pretty bad that my last blog ended up a rant and my next blog is slated for a second spectacular giveaway. So, I’m sandwiching a little authorly advice in-between.
That’s right. I’m going to actually use my author’s blog to talk about writing. It’s revolutionary, I know. I’m avant-garde like that.
And what, pray tell, am I scooping up from the withered dregs of my writer’s soul and dishing out to pass off as useful advice to you? Two words:
No, not body glitter. Get your mind out of the strip club.
I’m coining the phrase. Remember you heard it here first, folks. Query glitter. Please don’t break out your 4 oz. shaker of Martha Stewart Micro-Fine in Florentine Gold just yet. I do not want to be the recipient of a bunch of agent hate mail when you take me too literally. But what I do want is to shed a little light on a big lesson I just learned the hard way.
You see, I was recently asked to participate as a guest judge in Deana Barnhart’s GUTGAA Small Press Pitch Contest (I am now, officially, a.k.a. Slave to the Muse). I’ve never done this sort of thing before and I was judging at the first round level, so in my enthusiasm I went through and commented on every query/first 150 words I was asked to read. I really paid attention because I wanted to offer something helpful to everyone. In the end, I found that most of the pitches fell into three categories:
A small number that were truly lacking.
A small number that were truly exceptional.
And a large number of everything in between.
Those in the first group had obvious issues. Misspellings. Serious lack of focus. Punctuation errors. But they weren’t hopeless. With a little polish they could move their way into the mid-zone.
Those in the second group sparkled. They shone. They were tight. You knew exactly where that story was going. They had great voice. And they were clean. They were the real crowd pleasers and stood out from the pack.
But it’s the last group that really taught me something. All those pitches in-between? They were good. Some were very good. They were clean. They were tight. But they dulled in comparison to the great pitches. Why? They had not been sprinkled with a generous helping of query glitter.
I couldn’t get these good-but-not-spectacular pitches out of my head. Reading so many at once made me feel like an agent or an editor and I realized my own current query was more likely to fall into this middle group than the I-have-to-read-this-right-now group. When you read a mother lode of pitches the words start to blur, the premises start to blend together and the effect can be very soporific. Snoozefest 2012. What stands out are the truly terrible and the truly fantastic and everything else gets lost in a mind-dump of vampires, mid-eighteenth century romance, and ray guns. I could not let my characters end up there— in the query epitome of no-man’s land. Query dystopia. (Ooh, another one to coin! I’m on a roll!)
I went back over the pitches that struck me as being a brand apart from the rest. What made them shine? What made them rise above the pack and surface like champagne bubbles to tickle an agent or editor’s fancy? What I pinpointed as the main difference was voice. That elusive tone that can’t be taught. I’m sure most of the middle-class pitches had voice. In fact, I read it in some of their first 150 words. But their queries mostly lacked it and their openings were a bit delayed in showing it. The really exceptional pitches dazzled with little flecks of voice sprinkled throughout their query. Even in their opening line, voice glittered like the promise of an untapped diamond mine. It’s like agent bait. Like when your cat can’t resist the subtle movement and sparkle of their favorite toy as you wave it before them teasingly. They must pounce upon it. They must make it their very own.
I went back over my own query after this revelation and saw where it was really lacking voice. I explained well what my premise was. I gave setting and characters. But there was no real sizzle in that bacon. I wasn’t teasing the agents with glimmers of another world. I was explaining. I wasn’t luring them from behind their towering slush pile stacks with scintillating morsels, hints at the flavor of my work. I was describing. My work is good. I know that. I’m not delusional. There’s likely room for improvement, but it’s really good. My best work ever. It’s juicy and fresh and rich and consuming. But my query didn’t convey that. It was flat, like soda left out over night. I needed to carbonate it with some of my voice and breathe life into it again.
So here’s my advice to you. Drag those tired pitches back out and give them a fresh read. If you can, find a pitch contest online and make yourself read through every entry. Then read your own and see where it falls among the masses. Find the ones you love and ask yourself why they are so great to you. Pretend you’re the agent. Who would you ask for more? Be honest with yourself, is your query really sparking with the life of your WIP? Take the bland Melba toast first draft you’ve written (or second or third) and write it again. Slap some glitter on that b----. How can you make the basic pitch you’ve got sparkle like a minnow in the late afternoon sunlight? Remember, this is not just a pitch. It’s not just a query. It’s agent bait (third time’s a charm). Make it enticing!