Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant
Few experiences are more instructive about what-not-to-do in your writing than working your way through the queries and proposals editors or agents receive. I can’t make my stack of reading available to you, but I can give you a peek into common errors.
I’ve picked one submission to highlight here because it had three flaws showcased in the query. That means before I even read the first paragraph of the novel, I knew it wasn’t ready to be represented. Note: While this example is a novel, the same problems could exist in a query for a nonfiction book.
1. The writer explained that the book was targeted to young adults and adults. While adults, especially those in their 20s and 30s, are reading some YA books, the writer is telling me that she hasn’t targeted any audience. You must choose to write a book that appeals to a specific age-range. A proposal that describes the targeted readers as those between the ages of 16-90, has no audience.
What a novelist chooses to write to appeal to a teen isn’t the same as what would appeal to a 60-year-old woman. That doesn’t mean the woman wouldn’t enjoy the book, but she would approach it with a different expectation if she knew it was categorized as YA.
The same would be true for a nonfiction book written with a 30-year-old man in mind. Word choice, illustrative examples of the book’s points, and maybe even the structure of the book (length of chapters, number of chapters, length of examples) would be targeted to the core reader.
To write for everyone is to write for no one.
2. The query also mentioned that the novel was intended to be for both the Christian reader and the general market reader. Commonly called a “crossover” book, this type of manuscript is an attempt to sneak Christianity into the story in such an enticing way that the unsuspecting reader is snagged into faith before he or she realizes what’s happened. While I laud the desire to invite readers into the kingdom of heaven, this strategy is most likely not to succeed for the same reason you can’t write a book for a teen as well as for an adult. If you aim at nothing, you’re bound to hit it.
I continue to be confounded by how regularly books aimed solidly at an evangelical audience land–and stay–on the New York Times Best-seller List. No sneaky tactics were employed in either the writing of these books or in their marketing. If memory serves me, the barricades of this best-seller list were breached by the Left Behind Series. You know, the unfolding story of the rapture and the apocalypse. A nonfiction example of a title that has been on the NY Times list for years is Heaven Is for Real. No punches are pulled as the story tells about a little boy experiencing heaven, Jesus, God, the angels during a dire medical emergency.
The writers of these books weren’t expecting their stories to appeal to the unbelieving reader but instead focused on the core Christian reader. If you keep your core reader in mind, others might start to read your book out of curiosity and find themselves drawn in.
3. The writer of the novel went on in the query letter to explain that the word count was 50,000. Since this was a historical novel, with a complex plot (war, romance, family issues), I was hard-pressed to believe that word count was sufficient to write the toothsome story necessary to fulfill all the writer wanted to achieve in exploring complex themes. Historical novels especially tend to be longer than contemporaries because the writer has to depict rich details about lifestyle, clothing, housing, vehicles, etc.
The same goes for a nonfiction book. If someone tells me that a manuscript is 90,000 words, I know that the writer is unaware that, unless the book is a biography of epic importance, no publisher can afford to produce the book. And the retail price would be so high, few readers would be willing to buy it. Know what the appropriate word count is for your audience and for your book’s category.
Don’t let the belief that everyone would enjoy your book blind you to the boundaries every writer must set for him or herself. Show yourself knowledgeable about “what the market will bear” when it comes to getting published.
What steps have you taken to figure out who your core reader is for your current writing?
How do you keep that reader in mind as you work?
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