Sometimes I'll be reading a query and get a couple of lines down and think, "I don't know what's happening - I wasn't paying attention." So I start over - it's then I realize it's not me - I'm not zoning out, it's because nothing is really being said - everything in those lines is just generalized information and there are no specific details to help me get a clear picture of the characters or the plot. This happens while reading manuscripts too.
This is a problem with specificity. Here are some reasons for this:
1. Being specific helps make each moment feel real.
If the writing only includes generalized descriptions, it feels glossed over, and in turn, your readers are going to gloss over it - in other words, they're going to skim it. It's not interesting or exciting, so why should readers spend any time on something that doesn't sweep them into your world. Readers naturally know when to skim and when not to skim and one reason for this might be because specific details are lacking.
2. Being specific helps readers connect more to the story.
Providing only general descriptions, events, actions, and feelings doesn't allow readers to vividly imagine or experience what's going on, where it's going on, how the characters feel, or what the world looks like. If readers don't know how your character truly feels or what they're experiencing in every moment, and especially in critical moments, your reader is not going to care about them.
3. Being specific helps readers remember details.
Without concrete descriptions of your world, the actions, the character's feelings, or what's happening, your readers are not going to remember the details later on when they come into play again - it'll take them out of the story trying to figure things out and they'll get frustrated.
Not using specific details earlier on might also feel like an afterthought and that you just suddenly added the information on page 78 to make the story work when that might not be the case at all, but it still feels like that to a reader because the previous events, worldbuilding, emotions, etc. were not specific enough to help readers remember those details.
Time for an example query to show what I mean (totally made up & might be horrible but I think it's enough to get the point across):
Alyssa is sad and heartbroken, and after a huge fight, she falls into a strange world she knows nothing about. She meets a few people and discovers they have many secrets and bad intentions, and she doesn't know who to trust.
Then after a devastating event in her new town, she is cornered by the evil man who's been manipulating her and she must make the right decision, or her life will be altered forever.
In all actuality, the above made-up-on-the-fly query tells me nothing. Sure, things happen, but what exactly?
What I really want to know from this query:
Why is Alyssa sad and heartbroken?
Who did she have this huge fight with?
How did she fall into a strange world?
What kind of world did she fall into? How exactly was it strange?
Who are these people she met? What kind of people are they?
What are the secrets? At least provide a general idea if you can't show the secret (and may need to come in the form of the MC noticing odd behavior - show that)
What are the bad intentions of these people?
Who exactly does she not trust?
What was the devastating event that happened?
Who is the evil man in this world?
How has the evil man been manipulating her?
What decision does Alyssa make?
And more importantly what are the stakes - how will her life be altered if she doesn't make the right decision?
That's a whole lot of questions without specific answers, and this query would be a pass. Even if half or a quarter of those weren't answered specifically in the query, it would likely be a pass if I can't figure out what the story is about.
You want to engage readers, make it exciting, make it feel like the reader is experiencing every worldbuilding detail, every emotion, every action, and every single moment that's happening to your characters, so be super specific with your details in every way. This doesn't mean you need pages or even paragraphs of description. It means state things using specific details and description. You may only need to make different word choices or add an extra sentence or two to make it sparkle and shine.
Alrighty, so if you've made it this far, I have a challenge for those that want to participate. Take the above example query, and using the questions I have, write a query and post it in the comments below. The query that sings to me (using the tips in this post) will get a critique of your query and the first 15 pages of your manuscript. This mini challenge ends on midnight EST on Sunday, November 20th.
I'm seeing several query submissions where the story doesn't start in the right place. The query shows the inciting event - but the author is starting the pages after the inciting event has already happened.
As readers, we lose creating a connection to your main character (MC) when you start with the inciting event rather than just before it. We don't get the chance to learn a little about the MC while they're humming along in life prior to the inciting event. We don't know what it is they want out of life, what their fear, flaw, or misbelief is, or what they're struggling with internally or externally. We don't know what's important to them or what they love or hate.
Knowing your main character and how they live in their normal world will help readers connect emotionally to them so that when the inciting event occurs, we really feel for your MC and want to follow along to see how they're going to handle this terrible thing that has just happened to them.
If you're starting with the inciting event on the first page (or the first couple of pages), you'll want to back up and show the MC in their normal world. Give readers a small look into what their life is normally like so that when the inciting event happens, readers can see how they handle it, what decisions they make, and how this new world they've just been thrust into will change them and their lives as the story progresses.
Of course, there are always exceptions, but for the most part, if you want readers to be able to really connect with your main character and your story, start just before the inciting event and show us your character in their normal world before everything goes to hell.
Let me give an example (that I just made up off the top of my head) to help illustrate what I mean.
Let's say our main character is named Bennie. He's had a terrible string of bad luck searching for a job. He needs a job because his parents are going to kick him out because they're selling their house and moving to Hawaii. He has bills to pay (car, insurance, student loans, etc.). Bennie also has this big dream - he wants to save enough money to buy an RV and travel the U.S. to do nature photography, one day he'd like to be able to live on the income he makes from his photos.
Well Bennie's been to seventy-two job interviews over the past three months and still hasn't gotten a job offer (might have something to do with the fact that Bennie doesn't believe in himself and subconsciously sabotages the interviews). Then, suddenly, a month after his parents have sold their house and moved (and Bennie has been living in his car) he gets a job offer.
If you were to start your story with Bennie getting the job offer, readers miss out on all the important information about Bennie, about his struggles and dreams, his flaw (not believing in himself). We don't get to experience all those emotions he's going through as he gets rejection after rejection. We don't get to see how he's sabotaging himself, and we don't get to experience what Bennie experiences when he finally gets a job offer. We wouldn't root for him as hard as we would if we knew everything that was happening in his life prior to finally getting the job.