Wednesday, November 11, 2015

More ways to query badly

Diving into the incoming queries is one of my favorite things to do. A well-written query with enticing pages is one of the great joys of this job. Ineffective queries, not so much.

Here are some new ways you've found to be ineffective recently:

1. Forward. Never forward a query. Particularly do not forward if you got a bounce-back from me when you got my email wrong. If the first thing I see is the bounce back notice, I'm confused.

You want to look professional. We all make screwy errors on email addresses. Open a new email, and start fresh with correct info.

2. Describe my role in the publication process incorrectly. "I'd like you to help me publish my book" demonstrates you either don't know what an agent does, or don't know how to write well. This error doesn't stop me from reading, but it alerts me that you're likely to be someone who will need extra work. I do not like extra work. I do not like it at all.

You don't need to tell me what you want me to do with your query. I know that already.

3. Add a prologue to your query.
"Please find included below my query letter accompanied by the first five pages of chapter 1 as per your submission requirements."

Just send the query. You don't need to tell me it's a query. After this many years in the business, I recognize them pretty easily.

4. Be unclear about whether your book is fiction or non-fiction. If you're busy telling me how you came to write this, and what events prompted your book, I still don't have an idea if it's a novel or something else. If I don't know by the end of the query, I send you a form rejection.

5. Tell me the book can be considered "either fiction or narrative non-fiction".
No. It can't.

6.  Tell me you self-published your book but now you want to reach a bigger audience
e. If you didn't reach a big enough audience with a self-pubbed book, no one is interested in taking it on now. Self-pubbed books that find traditional publishing deals have compelling sales numbers.

7. Include the instructions or guidelines from the site where you found my name in your query...and then don't follow them.

Example: Recognition of the agent’s guidelines, client list, and why they are a good fit for the novel. Ask if they would like to see the whole manuscript.

This is just plain old bad proof-reading. It bodes ill for your manuscript.

Bottom line: there's more good work out there than I can take on. All things being equal I want to work with someone who is prepared, meticulous, and has invested some time in learning about the industry. EVERY AGENT WANTS THIS.


  1. Wow. Just wow. We've discovered more ways to do queries badly?

    Oh, wait. WE are the woodland creatures, the Reiders of the QOTKU's blog. We know better. You mean...some people query you who do not take time to study your two stellar blogs? I hope I remember all of this when I finally send my query out into the literary agent world.

    Ha! How very Seussian of you: I do not like extra work. I do not like it at all.

  2. Lisa, you picked up on my two thoughts exactly.

    I am shaking my head at the plethora of details on Query Shark, loaded with PERFECT examples of what to do/not do, and yet...? These arrived? I envision a Head + Desk connection in NYC.

    AND...why does my Spidey sense tell me there's an evil sharkly grin directed towards a particular dweller this blog in respect to the phrase, "I do not like extra work. I do not like it at all."

  3. The point about fiction or narrative nonfiction.


    That is all.

  4. Even in my first queries, when I was a naive, unknowing, too-enthusiastic-for-my-own-good querier, I didn't make these kinds of mistakes. There's more than enough information out there on what is good and not which is how I found QOTKU's blog in the first place. If one can't read directions to query, should that same someone manage to secure an agent, what will happen during edits? *shivers*

  5. I wish there was a way to permanently erase the queries I wrote prior to discovering QOTKU. I think there were some even worse egregious errors in them. I was a rather feral woodland creature back then.

    As per usual, this is great information. And I definitely don't want to cause my agent (whoever that lucky soul might be) any extra work. I want to bring them success. Now off to find the coffee

  6. Well, that's an ego boost. I haven't made any of those mistakes. (trust me, I've made others)

  7. My great early-query mistake (apart from the mainstay mistake of querying right when I thought the novel was done when, of course, it was no such thing) was drinking the "comp title" Kool Ade.

    I think comp titles serve an important purpose, especially with innovative writing styles, genres that may cross lines, and unexpected ideas - but, for good old-fashioned histfic, I've decided that they're not necessary. I write good old-fashioned historical novels, and they're not about pretty virgins getting their bodices ripped. Comping Mantel, Cornwell, or Iggulden doesn't illuminate anything about my novel that the query doesn't - it's the story of Clovis I, first king of France, first Catholic king in Europe, founder of the Merovingian dynasty.

    Barring denials about The Heresy, it should be fairly clear to anyone reading the query that we're going to have a few battles, a formidable queen who will not possess the pneumatic qualities most prized in video game design, and some of the legends and history of nation-building. Nobody's going to be looking for steampunk, YA-courting, coming-of-age themes, nor high comedy here. Comps would be essentially wasted words, in my case.

    But some website, or some agent's exhortation, convinced me I *must* have comps, so (please do not laugh too hard at me) I comped Parke Godwin and Mary Stewart.

    "Stop her, before she comps again!"

    I'll do a lot of things right and wrong, perhaps, when the next time comes for me to query. But comping is not going to be one of those things.

  8. Oh, no. Just think of those blank, numb faces out there whispering to their screens, "Oh no. She's talking about me. I did that. And that. And oh my God, that too. And that."

    But, as E.M. Goldsmith points out, all of us were once before-Janet and eventually, God willing, we will look back and laugh at the time when, as wee writers, we sent our first pitch letter (ever) to a magazine editor on 32 lb. bond paper because I, I mean we, thought it looked nicer.

  9. Seussian LOL. I thought the same thing.

    The thing that freeeeks me out more than this list is what the QOTKU posted on Query Shark from the Crimebake workshop. Clean up your web presence.

    Assuming you don't make the above mistakes, an agent googles your name to finds all kinds of virtual junk. What's the verdict?

    I've had a website since 2000, actually four. Four blogs. After I finish NaNo I'll be vacuuming the web.

    Julie and BJ, thank you for answering my questions yesterday.

  10. "I do not like extra work. I do not like it at all."

    Brilliant sharkiness.

  11. I think some of these mistakes are made because the writers are afraid of being blunt (thinking specifically of the prologue here). Not everyone grew up in New York. Some cultures think it's rude to get right to the point. This, of course, is an explanation, not an excuse.

    I'm sure even the QOTKU would overlook any one of these mistakes if the query otherwise knocked the socks off her fins. I'm equally sure that most great queries don't make these mistakes.

  12. I have to say everyone is a novice at some point in their lives. You either learn the ropes or you make stupid mistakes. There are, however, things that require no knowledge because it's just common sense. #1 is one of them. My 2¢ for today.


  13. >>You don't need to tell me what you want me to do with your query. I know that already.

    I remember teaching this concept to my #3 son when he was younger. He would do things like see a black person and say “you're black” etc. I can't count how many times I had to tell him “you don't have to tell people something they already know.”

  14. I think the biggest mistake I made when I started querying was "Dear Sir or Madam"... but in my defense, that was in the stone age of the interwebz, and I only had the Writer's Digest Novel & Short Story Writers Market to go by. The 1998 version, if I remember correctly. I didn't even know then that writers conferences existed, and the local writers organization felt that the only writing that counted was literary, poetry, and 'local interest'. Mystery was tolerated. Science fiction and fantasy need not apply.

    I learned a lot more when more information was available online. Then a few years later, I took a query-writing workshop from the QOTKU, and learned a lot. Highly recommend any workshop given by Ms Shark - and I recommend QueryShark, too.

  15. I agree with Angie - the latest Query Shark posting has a great outline of what to/not to do for your querying process. I found it very helpful.

    I am still in the process of writing, I do not have anything even to query with. I have a timeline, which is necessary when I already am a Forestry Professional, and have horses, and live in the middle of a National Forest where winter will be arriving soon. The closest town is 44 miles away, all gravel, so if Im missing a roll of scotch tape, I just cant go out and buy the damn thing without it being an adventure.

    But I will be prepared to query next year if I keep at it. And keep reading here and elsewhere. So onward writing ho! Giddyap!

  16. Elissa is right about the cultural thing. It does not feel natural to me to be blunt. I had to really push through the desire to include polite pleasantries in my last round of queries. I am still not comfortable with the idea of addressing an agent on first contact by first name so I risk the gender bender article snaffoo (Dear Ms Smith instead of Mr. Smith). I do research my agents and usually there is a picture and other clues to agent's gender on the agency website. Not always. The Right Hand of Darkness could really go either way. Had to look under that one's skirt to make sure. (yes, that is an actual agent- one that is reviewing my stuff or he says he will- some day). But regardless, I am not bold enough to go Dear Snookums at this juncture. I will work very hard to assure I have spelled the surname correctly and pray my deeply ingrained sensibilities are not met with offense.

    Yes, I have some done some bonehead things in my zeal to acquire an agent, but like Lynn said, #1 isn't even done here on Carkoon. Hopefully, I will keep getting better and despite my unforgivable state of being me, I will pass this hurdle.

  17. Next query for my fiction novel, I'm opening with an image in a mirror scene, after waking up from a very bad, grab the agent by the balls, dream. Then I will explain that my book was an e-failure, but that I now what sir or madam agent to help me publish and get famous. That should work, huh.

  18. Janet - I am working on my query letter, synopsis and having my first few chapters reviewed for a novel now and I appreciate the guidance. I enjoy reading your thoughts and tips. Should I put "I want to be a paper back writer" at the end of every paragraph?

  19. I have to admit, it's a little mystifying to me that succinctness in a business letter could be construed as bluntness. It is not just queries that should stick to about 250 words or less; that really should be SOP for most professional communications. When I see an email at my job which requires me to scroll to see all the words, I see a GBOT ( that instantly shuts me down.

    Keeping any letter simple is not rudeness, it's MERCY. In a query, it should be the very form of your hook!

    2Ns and David R: *snerk!*

    PS - Darkness is my favorite LeGuin ever. It was my gateway drug, and it is still perfect and re-readable. And now I want to go read it.

  20. The book I'm currently querying is written entirely in letters. The query letter has been through three rounds of edits. In the beginning, I did some cursory research, thinking queries were just business letters and I already know how to write those; I really should have known better.

    Oh, God, I'm cringing as I write this...

    The first query letter I ever sent was written as if the character was writing one of her letters. *headslap* I queried to a batch of 10 agents and heard...crickets.

    Then I spent weeks digging into the interwebs, including reading every post on this blog, and learned this was a frowned-upon gimmick. So, I revised, trying to emulate some of the Queries That Worked samples they have on Writer's Digest and studying everything on QueryShark. Still nothing.

    Finally, I hired an author I'd met through Twitter to critique my query and, after receiving some good feedback, decided to take a chance and completely rework it. Now, it reads like a back-of-book blurb. She loved it, I've finally gotten some full requests, and I've determined that if I do decide to self-publish this book (not as retaliation for rejection, but for other reasons), I'll be set with at least that part of the marketing.

    Querying matters.

  21. I want to shake my head and sigh, but there but for the grace of God via QueryShark go I. :) I queried my first queriable novel in 2011. By that time I had already read the QueryShark archives and had a pretty good handle on what should and shouldn't be in a query. I'm not saying my query was the best, but at least I didn't do any of the above, or any of the other classic query snafus.

    Good Colin wants to scream at the woodland creatures to read QueryShark and get it right. Bad Colin wants to walk away, hands in pockets, whistling, smiling at the competition.

    Evil Colin wants to do #3, and send a prologue as my page sample... ;)

  22. Carolynn, I wrote a very similar query 3 years back. Still waiting to hear...

    And who let Evil Colin out of his cage?

    Susan, good story on how to overcome our pre-Janet days. And boy do I wish I discovered our Sharky queen years ago. Those of you who are already here at the WIP part of your journey, count yourself fortunate. And yes, most of you are cleverer than myself. Really wish I could just pretend my first attempts at querying never happened.

    And that's my 3. I am feeling particularly chatty today. I will be lurking for rest of day and resisting the urge to respond to each and everyone of you.

  23. I made all those mistakes and more back in a previous life. I still had agents crawling out of the woodwork to request the suspense, but things are different now. We don't buy high quality paper and print each query and set of pages fresh with each submission. No postage to pay to and fro. No trips to the post office. It's as easy as clicking "send" and off your query goes.

    According to one report, 458,564 books were self-published in 2013 and that didn't include Nook Press and Kindle Direct Publishing. I think it would be fair to assume many of those people tried to get an agent before they self-published.

    Combine that with people who didn't publish, but are actively querying or published traditionally, and those are some serious numbers to wade through.

    If we are serious about being writers and publication, we have to be not only professional, but use every tool at our disposal. Query Shark, Miss Snark, Agent Query, Query Tracker, are all readily available to study. Agent Laurie McLean exhorted everyone in her pitch and query master class to not only read Query Shark and Miss Snark, but also study them closely to see how people got to yes and apply the lessons.

    At Surrey, an agent said she peered out the peephole and there was a waiter. She hadn't ordered anything, but opened the door. He had a complimentary bottle of wine with an envelope attached. No problem, the hotel gifted her a bottle of wine. She doesn't drink, but she'd give it to someone.

    Oh, no, mon ami. The envelope contained a three-page, single space pitch and went on about how excited the person was to meet the agent. Fortunately, the agent was very kind and forgiving. She said it was definitely something she would read, but it put her in an unfortunate position. Do people think she requested it because the author sent her a bottle of wine?

    Just when you think everything under the sun has been covered, something new pops up.

    In today's day of such ready information, there's no reason to make glaring mistakes, but according to one editor just being professional and writing a decent query letter puts you in the top ten percent. I like those odds, don't you?

  24. I think I probably made all those mistakes and more on my querying journey.... My first query was awful. Unbelievably awful. But that was pre-interwebz, so I think I have an excuse. No excuses for the later ones that were equally awful.

    I think there is a definite reason the number of requests went from 0 for the first book I queried, to over 70% on the last one I queried (although that wasn't the book that wound up getting me my agent). Read everything you can and absorb that information. If you can follow instruction, you're probably already ahead of half the other querying writers out there.

  25. EM, I do count myself as fortunate. The internet is a blessing.

    I have worked hard being professional in a male dominated career for years, and in order to be/stay safe in Forestry, you must be prepared. I approach writing in the same way.

    Seriously, there is so much I can say about being prepared. Its what kept me and my husband alive when in 2012 Montana's largest wildfire complex blew over our homestead. We sat out the worst of it in one of our cut hayfields, then drove through flames into the black to sit some more. After the worst blew through, we then drove back to put out our house, and see if the horses survived. Couldnt save the haying equipment, lost animals and tried to save the burned ones later... And there was no evac because we were told later at a county meeting they forgot about us - 6 ranches total in about 8 sections. Some lost houses; everyone lost cattle. But there was no lives lost, because you prepare if you want to live out here. Basically there is no fire support either, because the Government does not allow its firefighters to fight fire after 9 pm for safety reasons. We were on our own.

    The wind switched direction at 9:05 pm that night. Blew in at estimated gust of 45+mph from 6 miles away; a running crown fire where the air burns before the ground does. We were already prepared to evac in our trucks, when we heard a roar. Halfway to the field we were enveloped with black rolling smoke and burning red cinder... I have a story to write.

    Im fortunate to be be alive. But thats what being prepared does for you. I think approaching the publishing world should be taken up in the same manner... ;)

  26. Back when Mary was lactating, I have written in queries:

    Dear Jenny, the agents name was Jessica.
    You are my dream agent.
    My mother loved my book.
    My horoscope said that today was a good day to write a very important letter.
    You are my dream agent.
    The daughter of a woman I work with, whose daughter edits legal papers, edited my book.
    This is my first fiction novel.
    I have received very good rejections.
    You are my dream agent.
    Just read my damn book.
    My writing group loved my book.

    And the all time winning butt-head sentence,

    Your bio says you’re not into New York Times bestsellers. Well rejoice, my book will never be a New York Times bestseller.

  27. "The wind switched direction at 9:05 pm that night. Blew in at estimated gust of 45+mph from six miles away; a running crown fire where the air burns before the ground does. We were already prepared to evac in our trucks, when we heard a roar. Halfway to the field we were enveloped with black rolling smoke and burning red cinder..."

    Yea, you have a story to write.
    I'm VERY glad you're here to write it.

  28. pssst--Janice: Janet represents narrative non-fiction too, ya know... *ahem* :)

  29. Janice, you are very fortunate to be alive. My dad was a fire watcher up into his 80's in the Lincoln area. In one fire a group of fire fighters were able to dig trenches and cover up. The fire was moving so fast when it blew over them they survived. Another group was not so lucky.

    Janet is right. You have a story to tell only you can tell.


  30. Thank you for the encouragement - two years ago I was not ready to write it - now I can view it with a different perspective. Visiting here has given me the right perspective in how to write it!

    Julie - You're right. Although we have worked prescribed burns before, this was a different beast altogether. We are knowledgeable enough to not hold a grudge against the USFS and BLM firefighters for not being here. No one could have stood in front of that initial blow and lived. We barely escaped.

    This type of life story can be very hard to relive through writing though. Sometimes I have to stop and go back to something lighter - bring "fresh air" to my thoughts - I have an outdoor mystery novel based on Forestry in progress that should be completed the end of this year. In January, I'll let that rest and work on finishing the fire story this winter. In the meanwhile, I am grateful we took notes, photos, and have a very healthy outline. It just needs to be fleshed out.

    Thank you again for the encouragement, we are working on it!

    Psst Colin - I know! ;)

  31. Janice,

    Thank you for saying fleshed out. It adds credibility to everything else you say.

  32. Also, I meant to say that even the blog titles are worth the admission to coming here.

    "More ways to query badly" <---- Who could stop reading there?

  33. Research long enough and you can get an excellent sense of what not to do in a query.

    What to do right in a query, that je ne sais quois that hooks an agent? That's much harder to define.

    I'm about to jump on the query train for my next project and I'm freaking out over my query letter. I believe I have written an excellent book. However, can my query letter adequately communicate my book's excellence?

    The only way to find out is to send the query. But if my query lacks je ne sais quois, it's not like I get a second chance.

  34. Like "fiction novel", is the term "query letter" redundant?
    Just asking because I use the term often.


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