If any of you are like me, you’ve made some serious mistakes regarding queries. Burned some decent bridges—or at least—in your mind you did. Your query was so bad, you’ve changed your name just so no one would associate it with you.
We’ve all started somewhere, but writing is about evolving and changing and building and improving.
So, hopefully this post will help you avoid some mistakes I’ve made. These are not in any particular order, nor are they rigid, nor are they all inclusive (I may miss some sinful, SINFUL blunders).
1. Let someone else read your query before you send it out. No, not just one person, but a few. Trust me, your query may glitter, but it isn’t gold. It’s probably confusing as ever, poorly worded, clunky and… boring.
2. Take their suggestions and apply them—as long as you feel comfortable and agree.
3. Don’t write it in first person, unless you’re some smart alec that actually pulls it off. Most often, the agent will roll their eyes and call out, “NEXT!”
4. A query is NOT a synopsis. Okay, when I first started querying, NO ONE TOLD ME THIS. They referred to the query as being a synopsis, but they probably should have clarified to the newcomer who was wet behind the ears.
A synopsis is a small story about what happens in your book. Full detail. It has to be straightforward, expose all the details you think are exciting turns, and give away the ending. And, it has to make sense. A query, sometimes referred to as a synopsis, is actually a mini synopsis.
Some say it should cover the first fifty pages, some say it should cover up to the first major event. Basically, you present the protagonist, the antagonist, the conflict between them, and the stakes. But you DON’T reveal the end. Whatever you say, it has to be intriguing. I’ll repeat what’s already been said: pick up a book and read the back or inside cover. That’s a mini synopsis, and what your query could look like.
5. I tend to keep my standard query (mini synopsis, title-genre-word count, and bio) to 250 words, though sometimes I cheat and let it be nearly 300. This does not include my personalization part (Because of your tweet stating Y, I believe this will fit your MSWL). MSWL = ManuScript Wish List.
6. Keep the whole thing to about one page in length. (Celebrate if it’s shorter.)
7. Personalize, but keep the brown stuff off your nose.
8. Refer to agents by name. To avoid offending anyone, you can address agents as Dear First Name Last Name. I usually use first names. Some agents don’t mind, some say this is sinful, which is why it’s important to do your research. Addressing them by name is a lot better than, “dear agent,” or, “Dear Mr. Martinique,” when the name is Ryan, but the agent is a woman. I know a lot of girls who have “male” names, and the same vice-versa. If you’d prefer to use titles and the agent doesn’t have a web presence, visit the agency website: usually they’re listed (with a picture and pronouns in the bio).
9. Please Please PLEASE know who your target audience is. Sure, everyone will find your book intriguing and interesting, and will refer to it once or twice in their lifetime. Wait… your book’s name isn’t “Dictionary.” Oh, this changes everything. Then, no. Not everyone will crack open your book and enjoy it. Readers of hard sci-fi don’t always welcome whimsical fantasy. Readers of feminist or women’s fic won’t appreciate a cast of men and weak women.
10. I did this once, too. I was given advice that I went on, and queried my adult novel as… YA. Twice. I was told it was YA by someone I trusted. But said person, though an avid reader of YA, didn’t understand that YA has a lot to do with age of protagonists (13-18), whereas none of my characters were younger than 22. Yep, please know the genre. (And, to be fair, YA is more of a category than a genre.) YA = Young Adult
11. Add comparable titles if you want to, but don’t feel forced. You can also compare your style to other novelists, and even media (some agents are fine if you compare theme/setting to a film or show).
12. I’ve never done this because I honestly find it distasteful, but don’t say, my book is like this, but better. Describe how it’s different. Different doesn’t always mean better—and mature, well-seasoned writers never find the need of putting down someone else’s creative work. Especially when it’s been published, and the querying author is the 200th rejection in.
13. Be honest with yourself. While point number 2 is valid, you should give an honest ear to all advice, especially if it’s repeated. If 2 or more people are saying it’s confusing while you believe “not if you really think about it,” then that’s a warning you need not avoid.
However, it is your query, and you have to feel comfortable enough with it to present it. Don’t use someone else’s voice, ideas or terminology if you aren’t comfortable with them, but if there’s a more appropriate word choice (or less offensive one), then truly consider the exchange. And if you don’t, then also be willing to accept the chance that this may be why your query is rejected. (You think it’s clever, they think it’s confusing. You think it’s sophisticated, they think it’s loquacious sesquipedalia.) Be honest, admit if it’s not working, and don’t marry your words.