Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Queries don't have to be perfect but...

Many novels have a phrase on the cover that says "a name here novel".

Examples: a Sam Dryden novel; an Avery Cates novel.

When you write a query letter and tell me your book is like a thriller similar to those by Sam Dryden, or crime noir like the talented Avery Cates I laugh so hard I blow coffee out my nose.

Unless you intend to be hilarious, this is NOT the reaction you want to your query.

I thought it was obvious these are the names of characters. You can tell who the author is; that's the OTHER name on the book. When you look on Amazon, the author is the name that's preceded by "by."

If you didn't know that, now you do.

This is a mistake of carelessness. It's a huge warning sign. My goal is to work with writers who err on the other side of care: they slave over every word. I'd rather have authors from whom I have to wrest pages as they wail "it's not done! it's not done!" than authors who throw pages at me saying "here, make sure I didn't confuse The Light Brigade with ConEdison. They're both in New Jersey, right?"

There's a reason for this. When I know you are meticulous, I don't assume the innovative things you do are wrong.

Query letters don't have to be perfect, but they really shouldn't have careless mistakes.


Another version of this blog post appeared in March 2009

42 comments:

Amy Johnson said...

"When you look on Amazon, the author is the name that's preceded by "by."

If you didn't know that, now you do."

Oh, Ms. Janet, that is absolutely...sharky. :)

E.M. Goldsmith said...

I have not finished my current WIP yet but already have nightmares that my query will be spurned by agents and sharks everywhere.

Still, this is delightfully funny. I haven't had coffee yet.

Theresa said...

This reeks of "fiction novel." Take care with those queries to avoid howling mistakes.

Mister Furkles said...

The problem back in 1854 was that there wasn’t a utilities commission and the Light Brigade over charged. There was also something about communication with Russians.

Amy Schaefer said...

This sounds like someone trying to personalize a query without putting in the hard yards of actually, you know, reading those books. Unless the dear querier thought that Avery Cates was writing his own true story, in which case I'm more than a little concerned.

Donnaeve said...

This was a comp error of epic proportion. Oh well. Funny, but not funny.

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

Imagine writing a book, and then doing the angel-wrestling that is query writing, and still not knowing this. I'm a writer. I write really weird things sometimes. Like, my friends say "what the fuck, Jen?" I partake in tabletop roleplaying games where I pretend it's our dystopic cyberpunk future, or I'm an elf (okay in Shadowrun you can do both those things). And I still have a hard time grokking that level of ignorance/mistake.

Amy Johnson said...
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Amy Johnson said...

Mister Furkles, Very clever!

Colin Smith said...

So, the lesson here is: if you're going to use comp titles, do so accurately. Misuse of comp titles (e.g., the examples Janet gave, or using comps that really don't compare to your story) signal to the agent that you haven't read the comps and are simply using them to impress or suck up. I think I'm correct in saying that it's better to not comp than to comp badly. Stomp me like Champagne grapes if I'm wrong, Janet, but even if the agent asks for comps, if you can't come up with a comp, just don't even try. The point of the query is to entice the agent to request pages. Anything that detracts from that (e.g., bad comps, or bad humor) should not have a place in the query.

Am I right, or am I not? :)

Donnaeve said...

Colin I will butt in and say, to not comp at all is better than to comp badly. At least THIS badly.




Lisa Bodenheim said...

Haha. Great morning comments here.

Although I live in dread of doing an epic awful something in my query when the day shall arise and I shall be the anonymous example! (Yes, I dream big, don't I?)

And, do I remember correctly? We shouldn't be presumptuous as debut authors to suppose that our novel is on a par with a NYTBS author? When we do comps, we should steer more towards well-known but not famous books.

Colin Smith said...

Lisa: I think the rule-of-thumb is the comp must be recent (within the last 3 years?), though I think an exception to this might be if the novel is a re-telling ("EMMA set in modern Korea, where Emma is K-Pop idol"). The comp doesn't have to be a book ("Stranger Things" meets I DON'T LIKE KOALA), but some agents may prefer strictly book comps. I guess it depends how well the comps describe the novel. After all, the purpose of the comp is to give the agent an idea of what to expect in terms of tone and style. Ideally, that should come through in the blurb. Again, I think it's fair to say, if the comp doesn't add or enhance the query, leave it out.

Dena Pawling said...



Wait. Now I'm confused. Are you saying that for my last query, in which I wrote that my story [which took me a month to write and my mother loves it] was a delightful fantasy sci-fi adventure romp similar in theme and tone to those written by Harry Potter, the problem with the query was NOT that I compared my manuscript to a best-seller? Even though I'm sure it will be one?


BJ Muntain said...

I know this is terrible. But I also know I'm not the only one feeling this.

I look at these mistakes, wherever they're mentioned, and think, "Oh, thank you. I have a better chance than that person."

When you've been in the query trenches long enough, you start doubting you even have a chance. Then you see the people you're competing with, and you feel better. I guess that's human nature, right? Right? Oh. Just me?

Lisa: As long as you get others who know what they're doing to look over your query, you should be okay. Sometimes mistakes slip in, but they're usually caught by knowledgeable peers before they go out.

As for comparison with NYTBS authors: I think if you say your book is on par with these authors, or you're better, that's bad. But if it's a good comp, you could probably word it so that it shows more of why it's a comp. Something like, "With a kickass heroine like X in a noir world like Y, this novel will appeal to fans of Author A and Author B." If this isn't a good comp, let me know (I don't use comps, myself, but it would be good to know if this works or not.)

Colin Smith said...

BJ: It's hard not to smile and think, "Really? This is my competition??" The antidote to that is to remember how many talented and smart writers there are who read this blog (far more than comment, by my estimation, and from what Janet suggests), and who are well aware of how to do things properly. :)

Casey Karp said...

Colin, I doubt I'm alone in not wanting the antidote. Sometimes a bit of strategic self-disinformation is the only thing giving us the will to persist.

Sure, overdosing is bad (see the political thread...), but if thinking "This is so much better than the tripe that Harry Potter kid is writing," gets you to send out that thousandth query, then go for it.

Melanie Sue Bowles said...

But, Lisa... what if your debut novel is on par with a NYTBSer? *wink*wink

Mister F HA!

I'm foraging around the unfamiliar landscape of middle grade books. And, I must say, having a grand time. I've promised myself I won't query until I've properly educated myself and have more than half a brain about it all.

It's a gorgeous day here at the sanctuary. Morning chores are complete. I have the house to myself (no distractions). My first cup o' coffee is steaming in front of me...and I'm diving into my WIP with unfettered zeal. Cheers!

Beth said...

I'm trying to imagine the circumstance where this would happen. So, I'm writing a query, and in the guidelines it says I need comp titles. I think my story is sorta like that one with the blue cover I flipped through at the library last month. I mean, it was in the mystery section, right? What was the author's name? *tries to picture cover* Oh yes. Hercule Poirot. That ought to impress them.

Kate Higgins said...

If I ever even thought of comparing my work by (comping?, compping?, comp-ing?) another book by it's character or even by it's author; I should be thrown into the Great Pit of you know where!

If my work is not original enough to stand on it's own, it is not worth querying – even if it is better written than those by Lennonie Snicker or that Harriet Potter person.

Amy Johnson said...

Wow, there's some funny stuff here this morning!

Regarding the X meets Y type of comp, while I've read from some agents that they appreciate that type, recently I read from another agent that she can't stand it.

BJ Muntain said...
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Colin Smith said...

Casey: As with most things (except chocolate, of course), balance is the key. You want to have confidence in your own work, but you also need to be humble enough to recognize there are plenty of wonderful writers in the world, and you can't just assume because you think you're awesome, everyone else will too. I'm sure, within this group especially, that goes without saying. So why did I say it? Because I vomment too much. But that goes without saying too... :D

BJ Muntain said...

Casey: YES. (And you made me laugh out loud!)

Kate: Comping is less comparing your book to others and more giving the agent a view into the tone and background of your book. More than that, it shows an awareness of the type of audience you feel your book will reach. Agents like to know who the target audience is, and that will help them to sell it.

Some agents WANT comps and specifically ask for them. As I said, I don't use comps. Sometimes I worry about that, because I know many agents like them. I just have to hope I'm getting enough of that information in the query letter. But that's not always easy.

Lisa Bodenheim said...

Colin: Yes, I knew about the timeline bit. And though I feel unconfident mashing together comps, it's an intriguing concept I want to play with. But it seems comps can be either exceptionally blow-your-socks-off or exceptionally embarrassing (as in today's example)!

Bev: Exactly. Now I have a better chance knowing what mistakes to not make. And tbh, I don't mind anonymous embarrassment. (um...did I just write that?)

Melanie: Ha! Sweet music to my ears! We can dream wonderfully big here.

kathy joyce said...

Ugh! Every time we talk about queries, I cringe about my initial attempts (pre-shark and pre-reiders). Lots of intro details? Check. Long, long explanation of plot and characters? Check. Comp with major prize-winning novel from decades ago? Check. Story about why I wrote this book and statement about how everyone will love it. Check. Check. Succinct overview of main characters and conflict? Uh...

*hangs head in utter embarrassment*

Thank you all for saving me from my own ignorance!

Lennon Faris said...

I'll be brokenhearted if you tell me that Sam Dryden is not real! I mean come on, a name like 'Patrick Lee?' - it has pen name written all over it.

Lisa - just one more thing to add to the comps discussion - I believe Janet wrote a post on this a while back and said that a NYTBS can be a fantastic comp as long as it is appropriate (as BJ & Colin have described, tone, pace, ect.). You want your comp to be successful! But she warned to NOT choose a novel that's so big that it's been made into a movie and is known by the entire world. It shows you might not be reading enough in your category.

Casey Karp said...

I beg to differ, Colin. Balance is extremely important when it comes to chocolate. Last time I didn't balance the tray properly, an entire serving of dark chocolate hobnobs slid off. Naturally, they landed precisely on the spot where one of the cats had gifted us with a hairball the night before.

Fortunately, I had another package of biscuits (yeah, I know, I know. But, while I'm an American, the hobnobs aren't, and it seems only polite to speak of them in their native tongue), so I didn't have to go chocolateless.

But the point remains: Balance + Chocolate = Good.

Colin Smith said...

Casey: I take your point. Especially when Hobnobs are on the line (dark or milk chocolate), balance is critical.

kathy joyce said...

Hobnobs?

Colin Smith said...

Kathy: Hobnobs. The best British biscuit. Even better than Jammie Dodgers (but only just). At least as good for dipping in your tea (British hot tea, of course) as a Digestive or a Rich Tea. I tell ya, until I moved to the States, I never realized how much good food there is in the UK! :)

LD Masterson said...

I feel relieved. At least this is one mistake I know I've never made in a query. (It may be the only one.)

Casey Karp said...

Karen, that link again: hobnobs.

Vaguely on topic: Don't, by the way, try to offer a food-based comp in your query. Telling agents that it's "oat cookie meets dark chocolate" isn't going to help. Unless you've printed the query on a hobnob.

Colin Smith said...

... and if you print the query on a Hobnob, expect a request. For the rest of the packet. :)

Cecilia Ortiz Luna said...

Casey and Colin, you two remind me of the Two Ronnies

(sorry, dunno how to bold names hee)

Colin Smith said...

Wow, "The Two Ronnies"--there's a blast from the past. Lost on US Reiders, I daresay. Here's a sample of their work. :)

BJ Muntain said...

I remember The Two Ronnies. I think it was Ronnie Corbett who just passed away recently... Yes. Not quite a year ago. Loved that show as a teenager. Yes, it was shown in Canada.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

If I had nickel for every stupid, idiotic, lame-brained screw-up I have put in a query I'd have about a buck. Just the thought has me red faced and changing my name.

JD Horn said...

I just stick with the Bible, War and Peace, and Fifty Shades of Gray for comps, regardless of what I'm pitching.

Timothy Lowe said...

...It's just like Green Eggs and Ham, but with more sex.

Her Grace, Heidi, the Duchess of Kneale said...

A well-done comp had the power of invoking entire books in the space of a single sentence. That's pretty spiffy.

My track record says I'm terrible at query writing. Comps are my way of borrowing someone else's brilliance to make me look better.

"CHARMING YOUNG THING will appeal to fans of Gail Carriger and Mary Robinette Kowal." This alone calls upon the power of a dozen books and gives you an idea of what the novel is about.

An ill-done comp invokes the wrong magic. It makes bad winds blow, your robes fly up and everyone to see you wear ugly, frayed underwear.

Craig F said...

I have to admit that for such a small word, query packs a lot of emotion. That one little word can cloud the judgement of some good writers. Maybe it is because they are the kind of things that have a definition that tells you nothing about what one really is.

Then there is taking a year or two's worth of work and deconstructing it into 250 words and a chunk of story arc. Face it, queries are mothers and make you crazy. Hopefully those cute new ways to make a query work don't make it to the cold morning light.