Is the story good? Will I like working with this writer?
Those two questions, in general but all importantly, govern me as an acquiring editor.
As you know, dear aspiring authors, every editor, house and agent look for certain things specific to their needs and preferences in the submissions they receive. I’m talking “cold” submissions--not manuscripts sent to them by authors who’re already clients or on their rosters. Those lucky authors already know how to submit to get the Big A. So here are The Ways of Mary when diving into the slush pile.
First, I read the query. If it’s polite and friendly, I am so there, reading your manuscript. Every freakin’ word. I certainly don’t live in Utopia, but complete strangers in my town, when passing in the parking lot at the general store, smile at each other and say “Hi, how are you?” If someone’s coming out of the store with an armload, we hold the door for them and they say “thank you.” That simple politeness is the tone I look for in a query letter. A hint of snark, a one-line query--“I’ve attached my submission per your guidelines.”--and the hair on the back of my neck rises. Two, maybe three blurby paragraphs about the characters and major conflict in the story, and you’ve got me anticipating reading it. Easy, huh? Like Patrick Swayze said in Roadhouse, “Be nice.”
A big aside here-- Please, please don’t disregard the submission guidelines. That gives me an itchy feeling like I don’t want to bother with your submission. They’re not that different from other publishers’, after all. An impolite/offhanded query and disregarded guidelines combo, and my hair is standing straight up and I’ve got a rash. I’m done already. Your story had better be stellar because if I’m still willing to read it after that, my attitude is a solid “meh.” Now remember, I really really want to read your submission. Ya know the movie Puss in Boots, and he’s got the big pleading eyes on him? That’s me, wanting to read your sub but disappointed. And after having read hundreds of subs, many with the Combo of Death query/synop thing going on, I’m crabby too.
I don’t read the synopsis first, for two reasons. They’re hard as heck to write, so I give authors a break on them, but mainly I want to read your story as if I were a paying customer. Folks out in the world buying a book don’t have a synopsis, so the story that sucks me in will do that to them too. That may sound know-it-all-ish, but I read widely. Profusely. Even biographies when I get the chance and have time.
If the plot seems confusing to me then I go back and check out the synop. But if I have to read your synopsis to understand what’s going on in the story, you’ve lost me. The moral of this story, grab me in the first five pages. When I like the author’s voice or sense that “spark” to the writing in the first five--a certain turn of phrase or description that captures the imagination--even if plot confusion reigns, I’m there for at least twenty pages. Unless the writing needs major overhauling of mechanics or sentence structure, I’ll read on because I know if minor, those issues can be cleared up in content edits. To make me read every freakin’ word and imagine your characters in the world you’ve created, grab me in the beginning, hold me by the throat through the story and make me heave a big satisfied sigh at the end. Or want to read the next book in the series, as the case may be.
That’s a tall order. I know that because I’m a writer too. The agony of choosing the perfect word and figuring out how to “show not tell” the turnings of the plot--I’m there and still doing that. Consider this, though: I want your manuscript to be accepted, to be the one that makes my inner editor shut up and compels me to vote “Yes!” I’m a writer who’s an editor, and on your side.
’Kay, so you’ve got me now. Your query was friendly and polite, I love your voice and am sooo into the story. Maybe not quite at acceptance, though. Now things I’ll have to give detailed explanations for in content edits come under consideration, like point of view and the whys and wherefores of incorporating sentence variety throughout the manuscript.
Yep, my inner editor’s a bitch. Many, many subs after starting at Lyrical, I can now tell how much work will be needed should I accept yours. I’m weighing that, and the scales are tippy. Something else to consider, I’ve already been through this process with the authors on my roster. Their writing is beyond this point. Way beyond. A sub from them has depth to characters’ perspectives and plot turns that make me say “Oh my God, I can’t believe that happened!” out loud. When I’m done reading their subs, their characters remain in my thoughts for days afterward. No matter the genre or setting, they make me believe and live in their world.
“Well, how the heck can I win?” you’re likely thinking. You still can win. Of course you can. My doors are wide open; from your polite, “Hi, how ya doin’? Thanks for reading my story” query letter, you seem nice. Simple, huh? That, and the fact you finished writing the story, however many pages later, and made an attempt at mastering the big stuff fiction writing requires says to me you’re my kind of author. That you’re open to suggestions to make your story better--you’ve obviously been in a critique group--and are determined and dedicated. Heck, that we might have fun editing your book! If I suggest revising and resubmitting, I know you have the chops to give your best effort. I have faith in you. And your success, the Big A for acceptance, makes me happy. :-)