The care and feeding of a query letter.

2 Mar

One of the funniest people I know—Susan Wright—is from Dallas. So how fitting that I recently discovered a writing blog, Fiction Groupie, by a romance writer from Dallas, Roni Loren, whose debut novel CRASH INTO YOU, will be published by Berkley Heat in early 2012. I was so taken with her no-nonsense post on query letters—the cover letter you send to a literary agent to see if he or she would consider reading your manuscript—that I’ve reposted the meat of it here. Roni was at a writer’s conference, and took excellent notes during a workshop given by a panel of agents who “gonged” bad query letters.

If you’re not a writer you’ll never need this advice, but it’s fun to see what literary agents are looking for/repulsed by, and to get a behind-the-cover look at one of the first steps in book publishing.

Personally, I hope I’ll never have to write a query letter—because Gail Fortune, who is considering my manuscript even as I write this, will love love love THROWN more than life itself—but just in case, I’ll be ready.

1. Opening with a question.
Most of us have heard this, but there was still a query in the bunch that did this. It got instantly gonged.

2. Vampires
You have to be REALLY REALLY different to get them to even consider another vampire novel.

3. Cancer
In and of itself, it may be an important issue in a book, but there were at least four queries where cancer seemed thrown in to up the dramatic effect. “There’s this and this and this! Plus, someone has cancer!”

4. Too many things/issues/characters/plotlines.
This was one that the agents said a lot. Stories that seemed to have too many different things going on, too many characters, or too many plotlines listed in the query lost their interest. Stick to the hook!

5. Describing your own writing.
Don’t tell them in your query that your story is fascinating, fast-paced, touching, whatever. Show them the story, not what you think of your own writing. One agent gonged out when the first sentence said “This is a fascinating story of…”

6. Cliches and tropes
Overused and tired phrases in the query got you gonged. If you’re using them in the query, the agents suspect they’ll be in your book. “Her life will be forever changed”…”The last thing she expected was”…”love is blind”…etc. Plus, cliched storylines as well—girl finding a diary with secrets, person finding a portal, romantic suspense where the wife suspects husband is up no good, the woman who loses her husband and goes  a small town to rebuild her life, etc.

7. Inauthentic voice
There was a YA one that used “awesome” “buttload” and “stupid” all in the first two sentences. It sounded like an adult trying to do teenspeak. Didn’t work at all.

8. Stuff Happens
Queries where there was a list of events but no hook or central conflict described.

9. Teens and the elderly
This is a bit random, but there were a few queries that were pitched at YA where the story is the teen gaining wisdom from an older person. They shot these down. Teens don’t want to read about old people. They don’t care what older people have to say when they are that age and so they aren’t going to want to read about that.

10. September 11th plotline
All the agents literally groaned. Some said it was still too close of a topic for them to personally work with. Remember, most of these agents live in NYC, 9/11 was a national tragedy but for those on the front lines realize that it’s got to be even more traumatic to relive.

11. Going on and on and on….(kind of like this post :p )
They want to hook, the main character(s), and what’s at stake. That’s really about it. Do not give a synopsis posing as a query.

12. If you do the “it’s this meets this” kind of hook, don’t use two movies. Use at least one book in the comparison to show that you are well-read in your own genre.
And don’t compare to the GIANT books. Twilight, Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Hunger Games—they’re used so much that the comparisons don’t meant anything anymore.

So many queries had a whole lot of words but said nothing. It’s a tale of love and loss and redemption. Of good and evil. Of whatever other completely vague abstract concepts you can think of. That may be a theme in your story but that is not what it’s about. The agents want to know what your story is specifically about. Do not waste words talking about abstract things. Every word must give them something that you haven’t already said and that speaks to the uniqueness of your story.


  1. Roni Loren Says:

    Thanks for linking to me! Glad you found the post helpful.:)

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