As you know, our contest wrapped up on Thursday. Aside from a few internal glitches, it went really well, IMO. This was my first foray into The Other Side Of Submissions, and it was interesting, informative, humbling, and at times, frustrating :)
After critiquing a little over twenty hooks, I have a new appreciation for both my agent and - gasp - the form letter rejection. Previously I hated them and thought there should be a better way, but now I understand they are necessary evils. I spent an average of twenty minutes on each hook I critiqued. Agents can't spend that amount of time on queries - or they'd fast be unemployed - so while it seems unfair to get that rejection letter back with no reason explaining why, I now truly understand that it shouldn't be taken personally. Plus, there's the subjective factor. Some hooks I didn't care for got high praise from other commenters. Others I really liked weren't advanced to the next round by their critting judge. As much as I, or the other judges, try to be fair, we are subjective people with subjective opinions. Agents are also subjective people with subjective opinions. Yes, a query letter should be the best it can be, but sometimes that still won't be good enough and it could all boil down to random preference. Miss Snark says to query widely (within a list of qualified non-scamming agents you've researched that rep what you sell. Not just anyone with an email address and a contract). This contest drove home what good advice that is. You might have written the best damn space odyssey there is, for example, but if you queried someone like me, who doesn't care for space odysseys, you'd get rejected. It IS a numbers game, too. Sure, revise your query letter after getting feedback from your writer friends, but realize even great letters get rejected. That's why you need more than just a select few agents to query. That's why you can't set your heart on *one* agent, because that agent may like vanilla ice cream instead of chocolate...or paranormal romances instead of gritty urban fantasies.
But there were some common mistakes I saw writers make, so I'm going to list them below with a big Do Not Do warning. No, I don't think I'm an expert just because I critted some hooks and pages - but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night ;) Seriously, these are query-killers and should be avoided.
1) Ignoring the directions. If you find yourself thinking, for example, "I know the submission guidelines say I'm supposed to send chapters one through three, but chapters five, ten and fifteen really capture my story better..." STOP! Smack yourself, suck it up, and follow the directions. When you don't, the person on the other end of your submission isn't thinking, "Wow, this novel must be so special that the rules don't apply," they're thinking, "Didn't this author bother to read the directions? Or don't they care what they say?" So you're starting off by annoying whoever receives your submission before he/she's even read a word of it. Whatever you think is worth breaking the rules over, trust me, it isn't. Always follow the directions. Always.
2) Using cliches in your hook. How many of you read through all 250 hooks? I did, and many of them used the exact same lines. No, they weren't written by the same author, but a cliche is a cliche because it's been repeated innumerable times. It's hard enough to stand out of a slush pile without using some of the same phrases and sentences half of the other writers are. Look at your query letter. If it contains any cliches, take them out.
3) Generalized summaries. "Hero X and Heroine Y face almost insurmountable odds on their journey to ward off the growing evil and restore balance to the land." This isn't from one of the contest hooks, I made it up. But it's pretty similar to some of the things I read, and if you look at it, it doesn't really tell you a damn thing. As the author, YOU might know what those insurmountable odds are, or how the evil's growing, but with a generalization like that, you're the only one who does. Or cares. Lack of specifics induce apathy. Take the news. If a headline says, "Man shot at convenience store," you may think, "Uh huh, that sucks," and shrug. But if it says, "A cancer survivor and father of two was slain while buying ice cream..." you're probably going to have a stronger emotional reaction. A few details made that person more real to you, so your hero/heroine and main plot conflict should be treated the same way.
4) Everything but the kitchen sink. Yes, you want details to make an agent care about your plot/characters more than others in the slush pile, but there's a fine line between enough details to evoke interest and too many that bore. Some hooks told everything down to the way the story ended and seemed to list every character that had more than two lines. By the time I was done reading those, I was confused, tired, and my eyes were sore. Let me say, IMO, that if you haven't written anything interesting in the first three sentences, you're in trouble. I'm going to go as far as to say make your first sentence a hook all in its own. As soon as I read a good first sentence, I perked up while reading the rest. Some of you thought 300 words wasn't enough to summarize your novel in. It wasn't, and you know why? Because you're not supposed to summarize all the intricacies of your novel in a hook - or a query letter! You're only supposed to show the most interesting, most attention-grabbing, most highly-trimmed main plot obstacle your main hero/heroine has facing them, and what the stakes are if they fail. Bonus points if you can do that while showcasing your 'voice' as a writer. That way you stand out from every other query letter in the pile.
5) Hot off the press queries. Never send out a query letter if you're the only person who's read it. Why? Because your mind can play tricks on you, like inserting in words you forgot to type, ignoring improper pronouns, or glossing over double words. I kid you not, I almost sent out a query once that said "Dead Mike and Susan" instead of "Dear Mike and Susan." Spell-check didn't see a problem with it, *snort* and my mind knew what it was supposed to say, so the whole dead-versus-dear thing didn't catch my eye. Luckily, a friend read the letter before I sent it, though I didn't understand why she immediately started to laugh. Mistakes happen, we're human. But you'll look stupid if those mistakes happen because you sent a query letter off without having someone proofread it first. Simple grammar or spelling errors can garner you a rejection. Take the time to carefully check your query, and then have someone else do it too. This is too important to let impatience dictate your actions.
That's my two cents on the top five no-no's for hooks/queries. I may blog later about samples page no-no's, but this post is already long enough.
I want to say thank you again to everyone who entered the contest, and a thank you to all of you who took the time to congratulate the winner. Those of you who were Pages finalists and congratulated her are an example of class at its finest. Hat's off, seriously. You rock.