One of the most common pieces of advice I’ve given out in the last 6 months is some variation of “your setup and your other submissions materials are telling or selling two different stories.”
And it oftentimes comes down to the setup or opening chapters of the book not matching what was promised by the author’s premise (i.e. their Twitter or query pitch).
So in this week’s (very late) blog post, I want to go over what I mean by that, and why it’s so important to make sure that your setup and the premise of your book match each other.
When an acquisitions editor takes a look at your submission package or a freelancer assesses if ya’ll would be a good editorial fit, what happens is that they assess your submission package—your query letter, your book synopsis, and your sample pages.
Your samples pages, depending on the publisher or agent’s submission guidelines, are the first 30 – 50 pages of your manuscript. So, what they are really asking for is for a good chunk of the setup of your book.
The setup refers to the portion of a book that establishes the premise of your story in a way that makes the reader want to continue reading and addresses genre expectations. This is the main thing that moves readers or industry professionals out of that immediate DNF reaction to a story they “can’t connect to” or “can’t seem to care about.”
What we’re really looking for during our assessment of your submission package is:
- Have you submitted to the right place or person? (because if your pitching horror to a women’s fiction publisher, then it’s an easy no for obvious reasons)
- Do you have an interesting or marketable story concept? (as described by your query letter)
- And is the story told in a manner that is compelling either from a conceptual point of view (i.e. this is a unique twist on X) or from a story voice perspective (i.e. is there something about your authorial voice that is very unique and relatable in some way)
Now, yes, if you are bad at writing query letters and synopses, your sample pages might be what pleads your case for acquisitions. Your amazing setup and characterization or voice might be so strong that we can acquire based on voice and good writing choices alone.
But, you really need to consider how you position your sample pages to someone who is seeing the full submission package.
Because with each part of the submission package an acquisitions editor reads, they are beginning to form expectations and impressions of who you are as a writer.
Hang with me, it’ll make sense soon.
Market and Reader Experience Expectations
So let’s say I’m sitting down with a submission package. I’ll start with the query letter first, not only to check for any easy nos but to also understand the author’s concept.
And let’s say the author is pitching me a sexy paranormal romance that features a human heroine and her wolf shifter bodyguard in a sunshine grumpy, adversaries to lovers situation filled with lots of misunderstanding. Okay, cool, this isn’t quite the Paranormal Mr. and Mrs. Smith I’ve been asking for, but it’s definitely in my wheelhouse. I’m interested.
The tropes are clear, and I’m expecting either shifter/human conflict or some kind of world building that explains why this unlikely duo, who obviously don’t want anything to do with each other, are pushed together in a circumstance where the wolf shifter feels responsible for the heroine. And given that we are in ye modern times, I am praying that the heroine is not a damsel in distress and that the author has found some kind of way to maybe turn her human “weakness” into a strength that gives the heroine agency and expertise.
Right there is a whole lot of expectations you’ve developed in your potential editor or agent. They’re expecting the tropes you’ve listed to actually play out—if you say it’s adversaries to lovers, then from page one or the meet cute I am expecting bickering, sniping, huffy characters who clearly have some kind of past they need to work out. But there’s also the genre and current market expectations that come with that—namely, if you’re writing some kind of bodyguard romantic suspense then readers don’t want to see a purely passive heroine who depends on the hero to save her from her predicament.
You’ve set the bare minimums that the editor is expecting out of your book. And more specifically, you’ve set their brain to engage with your submission package in the way a discerning, high volume consuming reader of such tropes, genres, etc. would absorb your book, should it be acquired and published.
In other words, you have set a specific reader experience as the goal or target market for your book. And with that comes their needs, wants, and expectations of what a book supposedly like yours should contain.
But wait, there’s more.
Now, depending on whether your hypothetical editor or agent believes in synopses or prefers reading them before or after they’ve taken a gander at your manuscript, the synopsis is where they form their structural expectations of your book.
Your synopsis is a giant sketch of the main characters’ arcs, the external plot, and if you’re writing romance, the romantic arc. It is a wordy book map of what your story’s structure is going to look like.
And from this, editors and agents can divine a lot about the writing choices you make and how well this structure you’ve proposed will meet the reader and market expectations you’ve now set with your query letter.
That means if you say in the synopsis that the meet cute happens in chapter 18 of our hypothetical paranormal bodyguard romance, I am concerned, because pacing wise that makes no sense for a romantic suspense novel. Either your chapters are really short or you have some unnecessary backstory or world building that is delaying the romance part of the book. Either way, not good.
And for the editors and agents who like to look at the synopsis after the sample pages, it’s also a good indicator of how true to outline you write. If your sample pages follow the relevant part of your synopsis pretty much word for word (but expanded because you’re actually telling the story), then it means they can trust that the rest of the book, should they request it, will do the same.
It also means that if they ever acquire something from you on proposal, they can trust that they won’t have a freak out when they get the full manuscript on deadline, because you will deliver what you promised. And let me tell you, that trust is a good thing to have.
But if you have 3 paragraphs at the beginning of your synopsis that gives world-building context to our hypothetical submission whose plot points are not detailed or expanded on anywhere in the manuscript, it’s a sign that maybe you haven’t started the book in the right place. I’m going to start reading and get very confused because I am missing a good chunk of the book that would enable me to understand what’s going on.
Either way, the synopsis is where the editor starts forming their expectations of the kind of author you are, whether you make interesting writing choices, if you writing true to outline, etc., and what the structure or overall shape of your manuscript’s arcs will look like.
The Proof is in the Setup
Then we get to the sample pages. This is what makes or breaks your submission package because despite what most people think, editors and agents do know that asking you to condense your 300-page novel into a single-page pitch or a five-page synopsis is hard. But this is your chance to shine.
But, whatever is in those sample pages needs to meet the expectations of the premise you’d hypothetically sold them on. Sunshine/grumpy? I want to see the grumpy human heroine bitching to her friend about how she doesn’t see why wolf boy (referred to only as that man or by his last name) needs to be all up in her business when he has no consideration for her scientific genius. And the wolf shifter being all kill ’em with kindness as he convinces her lab mates to follow the strict security measures he’s put in place for all their (read: her) protection.
And if you do it in a way that lets your voice do what is does best, whether this is LOL female friendships, or super steamy UST, then you, my friend, are hitting all the right notes to make the right editor and agent say either “I want the full manuscript” or even “let’s acquire it on proposal.”
But what happens when they get to your setup, and nothing about what is on the page addresses those market, reader experience, or structural expectations you’ve created? Then they are confused AF and wondering if you uploaded the wrong book.
“But, Kate, what about a strong voice or a slow to start manuscript?”
A strong voice is great, ideal even, but if is it paired with questionable writing choices and structure, and/or a demonstrated tenuous grasp on what readers of the genre, the tropes are currently looking for, you trigger the editor’s ROI brain function.
Because at the end of the day, acquiring or taking on a manuscript for publication or editing is a business decision. And what we often have to weigh is can this particular author, with editorial support, come back with something that is a significant, positive improvement, and that will sell enough copies to turn a profit.
If I spend 2 weeks of developmental editing, a twelve-page editorial letter, another week of line edits, and another five-page editorial letter, will the author come back with something that returns that investment?
And sometimes the answer is… maybe.
Maybe they will. Maybe they just need that little bit of a push and things will click and the manuscript will just keep getting better and better and sell really well. But how much work will the editors have to put in, and how much work will we have to ask the author to do?
But if I have to ask you to change more than 30% of your book due to questionable writing choices, and I don’t trust that even if you agree to make those changes you will be able to do it in a way that strengthens and benefits the manuscript, then the ROI is looking pretty bleak.
And maybe it might be better to do an R&R or a personalized rejection because, despite me loving your voice, it’s a pretty big gamble to take.
So when I say “Match the premise of your book to your setup” I mean make sure that you are not creating expectations your book will not meet.
It’s why I often advise authors to double and triple-check the alignment of their submission materials. Because you don’t want to sell your book as something it’s not. It’s not going to go unnoticed. And you have as much time as you need before you hit submit make sure that you are building the right set of expectations for your book.
If you’re signed up for my newsletter, you would have gotten my tips for double-checking that alignment and making sure that each piece of your submission package builds toward one cohesive story. Please use them, because you don’t want to get a no because you mispitched your book.