In the last few months I've been getting quite a few queries from what I would call "young" writers. By this term I mean people in their early- to mid-20s, often college students or recent college grads. To all of you who fit into this category, I congratulate you. There are challenges ahead, but you benefit by starting early. You learn from your mistakes, make connections, and find your voice.
And here's what I've found most encouraging: Many of the story ideas included in the queries have been fantastic. (I wish I could mention two or three of them here, because they were so good, but that would be the violation of a sacred trust.) What made them so good was their originality and the thought that went into them. These were young people who didn't just think "I'm going to sit down and write a novel"--they had really thought through what they wanted to accomplish and how they could make their work stand out.
So today I would like offer some tips for those just starting out. As always, remember that Mysterious Matters is just one man's opinion, and to learn from as many sources as you can.
1. Stop worrying so much about "setting up" your story. What I have seen in these manuscripts is a very concerted effort to set the story up in the first couple of chapters. The best advice that I can give you is this: Your first couple of chapters must BEGIN with story, not SET UP a story. You have to grab your readers and pull them into the action--the ancient device of in medias res is as relevant now as it was then. I know you are trying to do the right thing by playing fair with your readers and giving them the information they need to understand the story. But the first pages of a good mystery novel should leave the reader with a plethora of questions, not a surfeit of answers. You don't want readers to know everything so early -- feeling that sense of incompletion is what drives suspense and keeps the pages turning. In a nutshell: Look at the first fifty pages of your current manuscript. I bet you could cut that in half and get the story moving more quickly.
2. Work on your dialogue. This seems to be a particular area of improvement for younger writers. Dialogue is often written solely to provide information (understandable in a mystery, of course), but it is often wooden, without the cadences of real speech. You also need to make sure that each character has a distinctive voice/speaking manner, and that all characters don't sound the same. The old trick is to read the dialogue out loud and "hear" if it sounds right. If you're writing about a milieu or specific place, try to visit that place and listen to the locals--or, in a pinch, find a (good) film set in that location and listen to the characters' speech and vocal patterns.
3. Polish before submitting. Many of these manuscripts have a few typos and grammatical errors. Nothing that a copy editor can't fix, but any work you present to a professional (whether editor or agent) must be clean as a whistle. This includes cover/query letters and plot summaries. The really is no excuse for misspellings and grammar problems. You should be editing your own work to find these, or having someone else read your work one final time before you submit.
4. Cut, cut, cut. Your book is most likely too long. You can give me a dozen good reasons why your manuscript is 120,000 words, and all you will hear me say is, "Get back in touch when it's no more than 80,000." All writers--not just the young--can grow fond of certain passages or their own words, and can't always objectively figure out what sounds nice but isn't essential to plot or character (the two key elements in a crime novel). You have to be willing to hack away at your manuscript with a machete--and then be able to deal with it when I hack away even more.
5. Study the masters. Regardless of the genre you're writing in, it helps to read some of the masters of that genre. Most likely you've done this already, but if you decide you want to write mysteries, you should have read at least a few Agatha Christies plus others of the specific subgenre you want to write. For thrillers, you really do need to have read some of the greats, such as Dean Koontz and James Patterson, to understand why they have developed such a loyal following. My key piece of advice here would be to talk to your local librarian about the most popular writers, then check out the shelves. Lots of books by the same author in a library is a very good sign that the writer knows what s/he's doing. Don't copy, of course, but learn by reading.
A lot of people will give you a formula for writing a query letter...I'm sure you can find dozens of Websites showing you exactly what should be in each paragraph. I personally find that I respond well to query letters that are somewhat more personal and somewhat more revealing of the writer's hopes and dreams. My heart goes out to the 21-year-old who says, "I want to be a novelist more than anything and am looking for someone to give me my first chance." Some would say you shouldn't mention your age in a query letter, and certainly there are a lot of good reasons why you shouldn't. But I like to see some personality in a query letter, and younger people, I have found, tend to write from the heart rather than sending a business-like, standardized query--and I always find myself responding well to that.