Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Getting a Yes

Give me a reason to say, yes. Anyone who has ever received a query letter has fodder to tell horror stories about just how bad a query letter can be. One author believes God guided his hand as he wrote. Another believes that if the agent or publisher says not it is because he is demon possessed. The stories go on. But then we find authors like Tosca Lee who do well with their books, but publicly accredit some bad things that have happened to Satan trying to keep the book from reaching publication. How is that different from some of the stuff we see in bad queries? It isn’t. Though I don’t wish to make light of Satan, the real difference between Tosca Lee and the unknown author who makes a similar statement in a query letter is that she provided sufficient reason for the publisher to say, yes.

The things that will make a publisher say, yes, are platform and premise with some indication that the author can deliver on the promise. Platform is obvious, since we talk about it so much. If you have a lot of people who want to hear what you have to say about a subject, it doesn’t matter what kind of weird idea you might have, there is a publisher out there who wants to publish your work. Say whatever you like in the query letter, as long as you show the publisher that you have a strong platform.

Premise is more difficult, but if you have a strong enough premise, it will be hard for a publisher to turn you down, even if you do say that you got the idea by talking to George Washington’s ghost. From what I have heard of Tosca Lee’s Demon, she wasn’t able to sell it until she amped up the premise.

Some people say that anyone can develop a good premise, but the delivery is hard. There may be some truth to that, but the fact is that not everyone has a good premise for their novel. Even many of the published novels lack a good premise. Essentially, publishers are allowing multi-published authors to slide by with weak premises, crowding bookshelves with books that keep the author’s fans happy, but don’t give browsers a reason to purchase the book. But that’s an aside.

Us nobodies can’t afford a weak premise if we want to give people a reason to say, yes. We want that editor or publisher to take a look at our story idea and say, “I wish I’d thought of that.” If you can get them to say that, you might as well get your pen ready because the contract’s on the way.

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