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.

The road to publication: if I’d known

This is how I imagined my writing career would go during that wonderful, magical time when I sat down to write my first novel in the late summer/early fall of 2014:

I would write the novel (no problem, I had the first draft done in a month).

I would revise (this turned out to be way fun, so, cool).

I would send to beta readers and revise some more (check, check).

I’d submit to agents (yep, not a problem, the internet is full of information on how to do this).

They would request the full manuscript (this happened too! Things were looking good).

They would fall in love with it and bing-bang-boom, I’d get a publishing deal.

Cue a long and prosperous career, movie deals, etc.

This would probably happen by Christmas.

Um, no.

What actually happened:

I wrote four novels (plus many many other half-finished projects and idea-flirtations ranging in length from a couple pages to 100,000-word forays into stories that, in the end, didn’t cut it).

I queried two of the finished novels (make that “am querying”) (with a year-break in there to have a baby, etc.) until the present day. For non-writers, “querying” means pitching my project and myself via a short email to literary agents who, if they love your book, will agree to pitch it to publishers and sign you on for the remainder of your writing career.

That’s one and a half years of active querying, or overall, two and a half years, if you’re counting.

(Can you tell I’m counting?)

I have received more rejections than I care to count. (Please. Don’t make me tally them. It’s in the three digits).

Anyone who’s been through the querying process has heard all the phrases:

“Not quite right for my list”

“While you have an intriguing concept …”

“Didn’t connect with the characters …”

“Oversaturated market …”

“Didn’t love it enough …”

As of now, two and a half years after embarking on what I was certain would be a quick journey to becoming a published author, here I am, unrepresented and still searching for that agent who will say, ‘yes! I love this story!’ Along the way, I’ve also recognized that neither of the two manuscripts I have floating out there in query-land on various agents’ computers and tablets may land me that effusive love-love relationship that writer and agent must have for their relationship to work.

Which is fine.

Looking back, I was in NO way ready to be represented in 2014. I had a lot of work to do honing my craft, learning about what gives a story good bones, and scraping those early-writer flaws out of my writing (-ings, “just,” “start to,” fancy dialogue tags, and everything the internet can tell you about, too), and I imagine I still do. For all I know, I’m not ready now either and two years from now I’ll be grateful that no one snatched me up.

That said, waiting is hard. Just to give you non-writers an idea of the molasses-speed timeline of things, it can take three months for an agent to respond to an emailed query (sometimes longer!). If she likes your query and requests the full manuscript, it can take up to a year for her to read it (my longest standing full manuscript out there is currently over the eight-month mark). If an agent signs me, I will still need to go through revisions with her, probably for a number of months. Then, she’ll pitch it to publishing houses. Cue another wait. And down the road, I know, there are even more waits. Even if I get a ‘yes’ today from an agent, it will still be years until any book of mine hits an actual shelf (and there are still no guarantees it will happen).

This process is not for those who need immediate gratification.

If I had known it would take this long, be this hard, and involve so much waiting and rejection, would I have started the journey?

Maybe, but with less spring in my step. Maybe, but perhaps with less enthusiasm and drive. Which are some of the ingredients that kept me writing.

I’m so grateful that I couldn’t (and can’t) see the future. I’m even grateful that I started out thinking I could spring up the mountain of publishing like a young goat–because it got me going. It got me writing. Now I’m readjusting. It turns out I’m not a young goat–or at least that the top of the mountain has turned out to be much further and the goat has aged along the way.

I think I’ll be a donkey instead now. Still climbing. More slowly, but steadily (I hope). Ready for the long-haul. Not exactly less hopeful, but with a hardier kind of hope that’s a little broader in its scope.

For all I know, one of the agents currently reading my manuscripts will fall in love and sign me. Though I’m not holding my breath like I was in 2014 (I’d have passed out by now). So for now, I’ll keep plodding, hopefully upwards (though ready for detours).

What’s at the top?

It’s a question work asking.

Is it becoming famous? Making millions?

I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t love to support my family with my writing. But right now, the top of the mountain is this:

Sharing my work with readers.

Because there’s nothing like putting something you create out there and having someone else enter into your creation and respond to it.

And the thing is, of all the different dreams I could have, that is a dream that lies within my power to realize–whether it’s in two years or twenty, with or without the backing of New York Big Publishing. Self-publishing is a viable option for the future, and I’m finally allowing myself to recognize that. It’s such a relieving thought–that I have that power–and that helps me be patient. Wait another day, another week, another month, another year. Maybe many years.

Thankfully I don’t have to make decisions now. I certainly don’t want to send half-baked work out into the internet–I need more time to hone. Revise. Perfect. See which path opens up and which does not.

The bottom line is that I love writing. I love what I’ve written. And eventually, I will get those stories out there.

But that day is not today.

So right now, I need to write and I need to wait.

Here’s to more writing. More waiting. Then more writing. And–I know–a lot more waiting.


Pausing is not quitting

I read a book recently. I couldn’t for the life of me quote the exact line, but the gist was this:

There’s a difference between pausing and quitting.

They can look the same at first: you start a task. It gets really hard. You don’t feel like you can do it. Strength spent, you stop.

If you never come back, if that’s the end of it, you quit.

But if you come back the next day, or the next month, or the next year, and do it again, you just paused.

Last fall, I started a fantasy project. About 40k words in, I got completely stuck. The story ran out of steam.

Okay, okay, it’s fine, don’t panic, I told myself. I reasoned that not all my drafts had to come together in a month (like my previous three projects had), and that I was just facing an exciting new challenge.

In subsequent weeks, I hunkered down and did what I knew how to do: I plotted. I mapped out a progression of events with multi-colored sticky notes on a massive section of my bedroom wall. I went back and rewrote a main motivation and followed its trail all the way through, hoping the story would surge ahead (it didn’t). I brainstormed. I scrapped, I rewrote. I read blog posts about how to deal with story blockages and found lots of great advice. I took long hot showers, a place where plot tangles have traditionally come unwound.

Still, the novel was stuck.

Discipline, I told myself. Discipline is the secret. This is where the rubber hits the road. You can’t always feel high when you write. You have to learn to write from a low place too. If you want to make a career out of this, you need to learn to butt-in-chair, push-push-push, take the muse by the roots of her hair and yank her back into her place.

It didn’t work.

In my non-writing life, I can be quite disciplined (or maybe I should say stubborn). I’m the kind of person who is sometimes a little too determined to succeed. This streak kept me at a job for three years that I should have quit as soon as I realized that my boss was a narcissistic megalomaniac and most certainly a psychopath. But no–I had to succeed. I stuck it out, through emotional abuse and tirades and general misery.

I wish I’d clung less to my misguided vision of success–but that’s another story for another time. The point here is, I can be dang stubborn. I can stick to things through difficulties, tears, and beyond. Certainly I should be able to apply my fingers to a keyboard and bang out a dang novel.

I couldn’t.

Why am I failing at writing? I asked myself over and over.

But see, already I’d made a big mistake: equating stopping with failing.

Stopping doesn’t have to be a failure. Stopping can be pausing. Stopping can be natural, and healthy, and sometimes even necessary.

What I saw as a massive creative failure was just a big old pause button.

By the way, the pause button on that particular project is still deeply pressed. I sense it’s not done forever, that it would be nice to take up in the future and see if I can make something of it (I really do love the setting and the main character) but I’m not planning on picking it up for at least another year.

As the sun comes back, my seasonal sadness is lifting, and life seems all-around a happier place than it did in bleak January, I’m working on a new project birthed from an old idea in a voice completely different than anything else I’ve written.

Will I see it through?

I don’t know. We’ll see. But I certainly don’t plan on freaking out at each pause like I did with the last project.

Writing friends, there’s something to be said for butt-in-chair discipline.

BUT. Don’t recriminate yourself for pausing either.

Pausing is a necessary rhythm in the long race of life. Without pauses and rests and breaks, you will burn out.

The creative side of me, I’ve been learning, has surges and lulls that don’t seem to be entirely in my control. So my goal for this year: learning to work with them. Learning to pause without letting my self-doubt fill my head with shouts of “quitter!”

I’m not a quitter.


I’m a pauser.

And I think that will enable me to run longer and get further in the end.

Why I write

For my brand-spanking new writer’s website, I thought I’d go down to the roots of the roots so to speak.

Why the heck do I write?

I could say, it’s meaningful. Stories have shaped how I see the world. Stories teach empathy. What more natural way than a beautifully written story to help a reader put herself in someone else’s shoes? And if we can’t put on other shoes, we become cold, hard people who judge others. Reading has taught me to see from different eyes. To suspend judgment. To strive to understand. So: I write.

I could say, because it’s fun. And it is, a lot of the time. There’s nothing (nothing, I say!) like the rush of a story that feels like it’s taken you over. Those are beautiful, powerful moments–when your fingers become divine conduits and it feels like the words are writing themselves. However, there are many parts of writing that aren’t fun. Namely, writing on uninspired days. Opening up that blank document–or worse, that document that’s just a plain old mess and has gotten completely lost in the maze of itself–and realizing that you have no idea what the crap to do with it.

I could say, because one day I realized life was too hard and I needed to escape my world, so I opened up a Word document and began to write what would become my first novel.

I could say, because a stretch of time came when I was mourning the breaking up of my band (my wonderful bandmates moved away–still makes me weepy to think about) and the creative lull (read: desert) that came after, and writing was something I could do by myself, for free, and with no planning necessary.

And all of these are true–in part.

But ultimately, none of them explain it all the way. I have to say, deep down, I don’t know why I write.

Lyrics from an old song about a boy who liked to boogie-woogie come to mind:

“Let that boy boogie-woogie. Because it’s in him, and it’s got to come out.”

Writing is in me. And it’s got to come out.