Ten things to avoid in a query letter

As someone who has been in the querying trenches for years, I’ve picked up a few things along the way. In my early days of searching for agents, I stalked various websites which helped me figure out how to query. (Which ones, you ask? You can always start with Queryshark and work your way through the brilliant and painful archives. Then you can check out Miss Snark’s First Victim and go from there). Still, my early queries were rife with things that, now, make me shudder.

May I pretty please share them with you? To save you the pain? Because I already went through it and why should you have to as well?

Okay, thanks.

Here are ten things to avoid in your query letter:

1. Talk about themes. Pretty much, don’t. In my early queries I had sentences like, ‘this story examines the importance of blah blah blah in a society that blah blah blah’ or ‘this story is about the strength it takes to be a woman in a man’s world, which I really care about, because blah blah blah.’

Are themes important? Heck yes. Your story should have them. They can really drive your writing and fuel your inspiration, plus they give the book dimensionality and meaning. I love themes. BUT. Your prospective agent does not want to read about them now. Because if the story is crap, no one will ever read long enough to get to the theme. Story is king. Tell the story. Leave the themes for later.

The only occasion I’ve found it appropriate to add a few words about a theme is when I’ve come across an agent’s Manuscript Wish-List (via Twitter, their blog or agency profile) and it resonates with my project. So if I see that Agent Jane Smithy-Smith says, “Looking for feminist stories that speak to our political climate,” I’ll darn well point out that my story is a feminist story that speaks to our political climate.

2. Forget to present the stakes in your story. When you’re pitching the story, the stakes have to be crystal clear. Don’t describe a sequence of events (the plot) without saying what the hero/heroine stands to lose. Is it the trust of all their loved ones? Their life? The hard-earned $5 the neighbor lady gave them? Stakes. It’s all about stakes.

3. Address the wrong agent or send the wrong materials. This may go without saying, but triple-check that the agent’s name is correctly spelled and that the up-front materials they’re asking for are included in the format requested (5 pages, synopsis, 10 pages, nothing but the query, materials pasted or attached). When you’re querying dozens and dozens of agents, copying and pasting bits of old query letters and writing new personalized paragraphs talking about why you think you’d be a good fit for them and vice versa, these things can be easier than you think to overlook.

4. Front-load the query with information about yourself. Your main selling point right now is the story you’ve written, so wham-bam them with that. Open with a one-sentence zinger, give them the title, genre and word-count, then proceed into a few paragraphs that lead the agent into the world of your story (this part should read like a book jacket and leave the agent on a deliciously tantalizing cliffhanger).

5. Talk about how this book is part of a trilogy/series, or try to pitch other works you’ve completed. At least for us unpublished peeps, for now, we are pitching ONE STORY. And that story must stand alone (even if you believe in its series potential, or have already started working on sequels). So you have two other finished novels that are also works of genius, as well as three sequels to the work you’re querying. Let that be a bonus surprise when an agent offers to represent you. Focus on the one story you are selling.

This is a mistake I made early on. I wrote a book but envisioned it as part of a trilogy. I though, ‘trilogies are great. This is a selling point.’ No. It was an anti-selling point. Every single agent was like, ‘It needs to stand alone. If you’re an unpublished author, it is very unlikely you would sell a trilogy up front.’ I had some trouble getting that through my thick skull, so just trust me on this one.

6. Use adjectives to describe your own writing. You are not your own critic–it’s not your job to describe your work as ‘smart, thrilling story about …’ or a ‘beautifully-written poetic elegy to teenage heartbreak.’ And heaven forbid you use the word ‘bestseller’ or say anything about how your work is ‘ripe for a movie deal.’ No, no, no. This will come across as braggadocio. Let the reviewers do this when you’re published and everyone is drooling over you in Goodreads. Instead, find that happy balance between confidence and humility (both in your words and in your spirit–it’s a delightful combination).

7. Describe how much your beta-readers or crit-partners love your work. Or just as bad, how much that one agent loved your work even though she turned it down because it was a little outside her area. No, no, no. Not saying their praise isn’t legitimate, but this will make you seem desperate. Play it cool. Let your work speak for itself.

8. Over-complicate the description of your story. So your story has twists and turns. It has subplots. Many characters. Changes of setting. Maybe even its own language. Maybe dragons are called Kilim and teapots are called Klitkat and are revered by the Tea Ceremony Masters. That’s cool. BUT. You should under no circumstances lay this all out or you will confuse the crap out of the agent reading your query.

The short-and-sweet format of the query letter is awesome because it will force you to really examine the barest of bare bones of each story. Who is the main character, what world are they moving in, what is their goal, who/what is their antagonist, what are the stakes? You don’t need to spell out the detours, emotional ups and downs and twists right now. Keep it simple and make it go ‘wham!’ We’re not sprinkling gossamer streams of drifting fairy dust here. We’re knocking them out with a sucker-punch.

9. Combine a bunch of genres or say that your work defies genre. The truth is, you can write hybrid, genre-defying works. BUT. Even if you’re written a masterful speculative thriller with a hint of magical realism and a fantasy subplot, choose the most prominent genre and label it accordingly in your query. Define your work simply, even if your work is not simple. And by all means, don’t refuse to label it. Just because it’s your baby doesn’t mean it can’t wear a bar code proudly. Research your genre and label your work appropriately and concisely.

10. Describe too much about your personal life. When I started querying, I embarrassingly felt the need to lay out the full story of why I started writing in the first place. That was so not needed at that point. Remember that your query is a professional letter. Yes, toss in a couple personal details. After all, you’re not a cardboard cut-out and you don’t want to sound like one. But don’t go all sharey with agents either. They aren’t your BFF’s–yet. Everything in due time.

Any others that come to mind for you?

And does anyone else get a kick out of writing query letters like I do, or am I just a freak? Don’t get me wrong–it hurts at first. But through sheer stubbornness and determination, you work and work at it, and polish and hone, and read blog posts that make you destroy your query and start again, and whaddya know if you don’t end up with something you kinda like. It’s a good feeling.

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