Friday, September 30, 2016

10 Reasons I said no to someone who is not you

Here are ten queries that didn't get to yes.
If you queried me recently, and didn't get a yes, these aren't your queries. I've been keeping this list for a while.  [The reason you didn't get a yes is because clearly, I've lost my mind.]

1. Tepid writing. The query was so-so, but I read the pages just in case. It was like a weather report. Weather can be interesting of course; it requires dynamic writing.

How you will avoid this: if you need to set the scene remember to use vivid, vibrant language. Infusing your story with energy at the start really helps snag my interest.

2. Bad writing. The query wasn't great, but I started the pages just in case. It's just bad writing.

How you will avoid this
: You probably won't, because most people start out as pretty unskilled writers, and learn their craft the old fashioned way: practice. The trick here is not to assume that agents are out to get you, or you are clearly misunderstood in your brilliance. Keep writing, keep querying. Get better.

3. A book I have zero interest in reading.

How you will avoid this:
you won't and don't try to. You never know what will catch an agent's eye. This is why you query widely, you do not have a "dream agent" and you don't quit after 10, 25, or 50 passes.

4. A book that describes plot or characters in hyperbolic terms

How you will avoid this: if your novel is set in contemporary times, it has to start out from a place where I can believe the initial elements. Something like "a child prodigy in chess AND ice skating" fails that test. Characters don't need to be child prodigies to be good at something. They don't need to be good at everything. In fact, if they are, they become two dimensional and un-interesting. Same for any kind of flaw: Felix Buttonweezer is addicted to cocaine but manages to be a world class brain surgeon at the same time. Even if you know someone who fits that bill, you'll need to remember that truth can be stranger than fiction, and the characters in your novel need to sound real not BE real. Get the difference?

5. a book I've seen a million times before.

How you will avoid this: Know your category. Be able to identify to yourself at least what separates you and your novel from the pack, and then show me that difference in the query. There are a gazillion novels about hitmen, but Chris Holmes did a nice twist on that trope with a hitman who hits only other hitpersons. (The Killing Kind by Chris Holm)

The other thing that will make your query stand out is vivid writing. A plot and characters that are run of the mill can't survive tepid writing.

6. The log line in the query was so awful I didn't want to read the query.
How you will avoid this: don't sabotage yourself by starting with a log line. If you think writing a query is difficult (where you have 250 words to tell me what the book is about) why the HELL would you think a log line of fewer than 15 words would be just the thing? Don't feel stupid if you can't write good log lines. They're insanely hard.

7. Category is something I don't read much of and don't particularly like

How you will avoid this: you won't, and don't try. You never know. Any agent who shames you for querying something they don't like to read should be required to post all the rejection letters s/he gets from editors. Trust me, we're all working in the dark here about what people like to read. I get a lot more information about my subject's (editors) tastes than you do, and I can still get it wrong sometimes.

8. The writing was stylized in a way that made me crazy

How you will avoid this: again, you can't. And don't worry. That's why there are a lot of us.

9. Query for a book in a category that's just not selling

How you will avoid this: either write something that sets the category on its head, or write something else. You have to really know your category here. If all the best selling authors have been published for 20+ years, that's a good sign new authors aren't getting much traction here.


10. Querying more than one book at a time. (I stop reading these queries at the point it's clear it's for more than one book)

How you will avoid this: don't do it.


nightsmusic said...

Log lines...the bane of my existence. If I never have to do one for real, I'll be a happy camper because I have a notebook filled with possibles and they all suck. There's no way I'd try to include one in a query.

Anonymous said...

I've gotten some pieces of advice about how the market is doing for books I'm working on. Usually to duck and cover because that ogre is kicking newcomers into the pot for stew. I tend to reply with gratitude for the information, but I'm going to keep writing it. It may very well get rejected based on the market. But I can't write to the market: I'd never keep up, and I'd be miserable trying to. If the book I'm working on now won't sell, I'll write another one next that might. I sure still need the practice.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

I love my log line. I guess that makes me a reject.

Hey Colin, get Felix into rehab. I need his services, although I don't think he can operate on stupid.

OT, hey Donna, how's your bangin' sump-pump?

Colin Smith said...

All good advice. And possibly some of the best and most needed advice is where you point out writers can't fix something (e.g., writing in a category or style with which the agent doesn't connect). I agree with lucia--you have to write what grabs your gut. Writing to the market is like trying to write the wind... or something... I took Nyquil last night and I don't think I've quite recovered... :)

Speaking of which, 2Ns, don't forget Felix is Carkoon's most famous son. They don't have rehab on Carkoon. To Carkoonians, cocaine addiction is seen as a good thing. In fact, brain surgeons are required to snort before surgery. They believe it enhances their creativity. ;)

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

I can't explain why I like reading lists like this as much as I do. I also occasionally seek out #10queries on Twitter (and some are great and others make me take that agent off my list, that's still useful in the long run).

I've been writing, but writing short, and thus slacking. I have revisions to do, other novels to finish/polish....sigh....

Lisa Bodenheim said...

Vibrant verbs and twisted tropes assembled in sentences to create a plot with surprise slants that are meaningful and realistic.

#9, a category that's not selling isn't something I've seen addressed before. Or it skipped over my head. Set it on it's head. Food for thought.

And now I'm trying to remember the difference between category and genre. Genre tells us<a href="”>what a book is about</a>and category refers to age range.

Time to get back to practice.

Lisa Bodenheim said...

*sigh* third try at hyperlinking. I give up. Sorry Colin. I used to be able to do it.

AJ Blythe said...

I had no idea people might query more than one book in a query! I'm flat out getting my query into the word limit for one book - no chance of doing it for two.

Unless you meant it was a series and they mentioned it was part of a series? Because I do have a mention of that at the end of my query. But only because the genre is traditionally written in series format. So I thought I should identify I understood and was prepared for that. But maybe I shouldn't? Hmmmm... Janet? You there? Heeeelp!

E.M. Goldsmith said...

I tell myself that I am going to query our queen with my newest book, The First Idyll, when it is all ready to go. If nothing else, our dearest attack shark will be able to post 'The top 10 reasons I rejected THAT query.'

It will be a service to the community, and should I be cursed into Carkoon, I will grab Colin by the ankle and we will finish off The Terrible, Really Awful and Smelly Chronicles of Carkoon, and query that as a cooperative Dino-porn, thriller, romantic memoir fiction novel. I have heard rumors you can pay Colin to in kale to co-write.

Hope springs eternal here at the Reef

S.P. Bowers said...

AJ mentioning that it has series potential at the end of the query is not what I believe Her Sharkiness is talking about. I've seen many agents say that people with query multiple books in one query. Doing a pitch for each one in an 'in case you don't like that one, here's another option' type thing.

It's distracting and it takes up too much room. The agent can't get a good feel for any of the books, and really, how would they even respond to that? Not to mention that it would be easy to assume those people didn't take the time to write either book well enough to query them separately.

Donnaeve said...

More than one book in a query (which takes some panache to do) sounds like "Hey, I got this, but if you don't like it, I've got this too!"

Spaghetti on the wall sort of thing.

I too love reading these lists. They're useful as reminders about what NOT to do with my writing - even now. Especially the ones about creating new ways to look at the overused story lines. The perfect example QOTKU provided - THE KILLING KIND. I love the title too.

2N's - it's still doing it's job - so ya know what that means. "huuuummmmm, BAM! Bump, bump, bump," only every min or so, instead of the every 5 secs like it was doing yesterday. The flooding in the area has been historic. A road was washed out about five miles away, several dams, (same distance) are threatening to breech. If it happens, we're far enough away it won't affect us - but now they're talking about the "eerily similar" track of Matthew to other hurricanes in years gone by which caused tremendous loss of life and damage. The "cone of possibility" is a bit disconcerting.

Adib Khorram said...

Colin and Lisa: Yup, it was smart quotes. Certain word processors (well, pretty much all of them) automatically replace normal quotation marks (" ") with smart quotes (“ ”) based on position in a sentence. Except the software doesn't always get it right (Blurgh!) and programming languages like HTML don't recognize smart quotes as a valid characters in code.

Colin Smith said...

Adib: Thanks. I thought it might be smart quotes, but I wasn't sure. Odd that it was only on one side, though. Perhaps Lisa accidentally (or unwittingly) hit some kind of key sequence, or the magical unicorns sprinkled awesome dust on her fingers that sparkled, oh so sparkly... Sorry!! Nyquil still lingering... :)

Donnaeve said...


Colin The quotes were what prevented me from hyperlinking in the past. I think...

I keep your code handy, which was provided on your "How to Hyperlink" post. That's why it wouldn't work for me. Now that I know to take them out - voila! It works.

I'd enclose your example here, but when I tried, Blogger said, "Your HTML cannot be accepted: Reference ""http:" is not allowed: A

LOL! Doesn't even like it when I try to simply show the example.

Janet Reid said...

Here's the scoop on category/genre.

Genre is how fiction is subdivided:
Science Fiction/Fantasy

Category is where your book fits inside a genre.

Mystery: police procedural, OR private detective OR thriller, etc.
SFF: contemporary, space opera, dark fantasy, high fantasy, steampunk etc.
Western: I have NO idea what the categories are here but I'm sure there are some.
Romance: dear god, they have categories here, too many for me to know.

YA and adult aren't category or genre. They describe the intended audience not the book.

Adib Khorram said...

My manuscript is full of sentences with one smart quote and one regular quote. Not sure why it happens.

I should probably turn them off, but it looks so pretty when they are working properly.

Janet Reid said...

Actually, now that I've had a second cup of coffee and focused my eyeballs, here's a better rundown on category versus genre.

I was wrong to say YA isn't a category. It is.
I blame Obama, of course. He failed to explain it properly.
(ok, no more political jokes for awhile, I promise)

Ly Kesse said...

Me, too. I love these lists.

They remind me, in a very succinct way, of what constitutes good writing. What I should pay attention to while revising my novel.

K White said...

Janet: Thank you for the explanation of genre versus category. I believe you've mentioned it before, but this version crystallized it in my brain for some reason.

Lisa Bodenheim said...

Adib and Colin and Donna: Smart quotes?! So that's what my problem was. Is. And, lol, I wish I did have magical sparkly unicorn dust on my fingers. You keep drinking that Nyquil, Colin!

Janet: Thank you for clarifying the difference between category and genre. I think I've got it!

LynnRodz said...

Great insight, thanks Janet.

JulieWeathers said...

I read a lot of queries from people working on theirs and Number 1 is usually the main problem. That or the query is confusing. They try to put so much in it's impossible to keep it all straight.

Years ago my ex rodeoed with Gary Leffew who went on to become a multiple world champion bullrider. Gary started out as a long-haired hippy from California wine country who went to a rodeo and thought, "That looks like fun." It wasn't much fun until he got hold of a book on positive thinking, which shows what positive thinking can do for you.

Anyway, they had several misadventures in a Cadillac convertible that was broke down about as much as it was running, but hey, it was one of those big, old mafia convertibles and it was 1960 something. Times were good. When they finally got to California, Gary decided to take them on wine tasting tours, tours where you're supposed to taste the wine. I'm sure they might have tasted some of it as it flew down the hatch.

There are probably still people talking about the day the cowboys came to taste.

My ex got the only hangover he would admit to on the wine and never drank it again aside from good brandy.

So it goes with queries, the taste is supposed to be intriguing enough to make the reader want to buy the bottle. It doesn't need to be an overflowing glass to do that.

Bethany Joy said...

I love some info on genre vs category to start my day off right!

I have been pondering this lately because I see more and more categories cropping up these days. It’s downright puzzling at times. There’s been some chatter about domestic noir, which I now divine is a category within the mystery genre.

(I hope Dr. F. Buttonweezer pulls it together because that’s a malpractice lawsuit waiting to happen. A very sad tale indeed.)

Colin Smith said...

Bethany: I'm afraid you have the wrong impression of our dear Felix Buttonweezer. He doesn't hold a doctorate. You don't need to have a doctorate to be a brain surgeon on Carkoon. Just a sharp knife and a good dealer. ;)

DLM said...

I tell you what, I needed a Julie Weathers story on the power of positive thinking this morning. Thank you most kindly.

(Not saying this to indicate a bad day. Sometimes, you just need a boost anyway.)

2Ns, my suspicion is that your log line is splendid. No auto-reject for you!

It always strikes me, when Janet does these particular posts, how often her advice is to not worry about what SHE wants etc. There are some agents I've seen who may not be aware that their query preferences are not one-size-fits-all, but I would hope that more do acknowledge their individual needs as just that. Hence the old "this is not for me, keep querying and remember this is a subjective business" rejection. Janet is by far NOT the only agent who knows she's rejecting work all the time that isn't unpublishable, it's just not right for HER to represent.

Colin and Bethany, my boss got himself a new paring knife this week, which he has been using gleefully against grapefruit in a bit of a frenzy. He literally came out of his office saying he loves his new knife this morning. I am going to get him a t-shirt that says "Jeffy the Grapefruit Slayer" ...

But I do believe he is a Carkoon board-certified brain and plastic surgeon.

Beth said...

THe category vs. genre discussion is useful. I write romance, and category can mean the subtype, contemporary vs. historical for instance. Of course within historical there's Regancy, Gothic, Norse, etc. Category can also mean a book that's published in a specific line (Harlequin Western Romance). You'd think writers' words would be more specific.

About multiple books, I get not to say "Here's everything I ever wrote. Pick one." But I'm still not clear about sequels. If, say, a mystery is the first of a planned series, is it better to mention it in the query or concentrate on that book and talk about the series after the agent is in love?

I can see if it's one of those books that ends on a cliffhanger halfway through the story you'd need to mention the ending is in the second book. Still, I can't imagine an agent could sell half a story anyway.

Colin Smith said...

Beth: Let me see if, through my medicinal fog, I can attempt a helpful comment on sequels in queries. The thing to consider is the fact that publishers like sequels, but as a debut novelist it's good to know that your first novel can be stand-alone in the event the publisher decides against picking up the series. SO, make sure the novel can be stand-alone, and query it as "Stand-alone with series potential." If the novel simply can't be anything other than serialized (and I have a novel in my drawer that can't be stand-alone, unless someone wants to publish a 300,000 word tome), you can always give it a spin (after all, the query police aren't going to haul you away for querying a series), or maybe write a stand-alone, query, and save the series for when you have some sales under your belt and your publisher has the confidence to take it on.

Let's use Harry Potter as an example. I'm pretty certain JKR pitched it as a series, but really Book 1 could be stand-alone. Readers might wonder what became of Voldemort--did he die along with Quirrel? But the story ends with Harry knowing who he is, and where he belongs, which is very different to where he started out.

Claire Bobrow said...

Love the list today. Now for some meditation:

#5, OM. #5, OM. #5, OM.

Cheryl said...

I wonder if #10 comes from people thinking they've only got one shot at an agent's attention, that if they get rejected for the first book the agent will block their email address because obviously everything they write is crap.

BJ Muntain said...

Lisa: You can avoid the smart quotes by writing your comment in Notepad, then copy-pasting it in. I love Notepad.

AJ: Some people will query more than one book per query letter. Mentioning it's a series is okay, though some agents prefer you don't (others prefer you do - read their info, just in case). The query letters with more than one book probably aren't as well written as yours, for that reason.

The queries for more than one book are usually authors who have more than one book in genres the agent represents, so they're hoping that one of them will catch the agent's interest, for example:

Dear Agent,

I am seeking representation for the following novels:

Dire Rhea is a 300,000 word medical drama about a nurse who goes rogue, killing her patients with salmonella.

Child of the Nomads is a 200,000 word historical romance about a young woman who falls in love with a hunky gypsy and has to decide if she should let this fellow inherit her father's multi-million dollar company.

What's wrong with me? is a 100,000 word YA novel about a teenager who can do everything he wants to. It's really weird... until he meets his mother's parents and finds out he's really part alien.

Please let me know which you prefer, and I'll be happy to discuss the specifics.

JulieWeathers said...

3. A book I have zero interest in reading.

It's amazing what you find out by reading an agent's twitter feed or even better if they do #tenqueries.

One agent passed because it was WWII and she was just burned out on it. I checked her site and it didn't say anything about no WWII. I assume she didn't change because she may change in the future and if something came along that knocked her socks off she might change her mind.

Mostly you won't know unless an agent plainly states, "No more Carkoon Kale mysteries, please. I already have three in the line."

I remember reading a Queries that Succeeded blog and was surprised at the number of times agents said, "I didn't know I was looking for this, but I couldn't resist."

Query widely, as Janet says.

4. A book that describes plot or characters in hyperbolic terms

Perfect characters are boring unless you're Patrick Rothfuss apparently. I love his Name of the Wind series, but being the best at everything it getting to be a bit much. There are some authors I've completely sworn off because of their perfect characters. I guess people like them, they are best sellers, but they just irk me.

There was a loud crash in the tavern below and someone bellowed her name. She had stripped everything off except her boots because of the bedbugs. A bloodcurdling scream. She flew from her room with her companion. Two of them against twenty armed men! No problem. She had her trusty sword and her boots (and perfect boobs)!

"Even if you know someone who fits that bill, you'll need to remember that truth can be stranger than fiction, and the characters in your novel need to sound real not BE real. Get the difference?"

Yup. That's one thing I'm battling in The Rain Crow. People have very preconceived notions about the way things were. A spy wouldn't have done that! It's exactly what this spy did in 1862. It just means I have to do some careful educating without letting the people know they are in school.

5. a book I've seen a million times before.

There's really nothing new under the sun, just new ways of writing the same story.

We're having a discussion on Books and Writers about William Marshal, deemed the greatest knight who ever lived. He's a character in umpteen fiction books, but a new, very well researched non-fiction about him is out that is supposed to be better than most fiction books. His true life was remarkable. I'm sitting on my hands to keep from ordering several books that have been mentioned about him.

My collection of, I think it's nearing 500 now, Civil War books is proof there is a never ending supply of books on any given subject. The trick is to stand above the crowd. Hat tip Shelby.

Western category, modern, old west, rodeo, I think there it might even break further into Texas as there is a large section there.

This is always a treat when you do these, thank you. I know everyone else appreciates it also.

Now I must go do battle with a a blue alligator. I asked his minion last night if they were trying to drive me insane. "You don't have a right to drive me insane. I didn't give birth to you." Apparently the crazy lady frightened them so badly they were afraid to return the call this morning as promised.

Melanie Sue Bowles said...

I wrote a comment expressing my appreciation of these lists, and also thanking everyone for all the thought provoking feedback... but it disappeared. Not gonna rewrite the darn thing. I'll just offer another "thank you" and leave it at that.

Colin Smith said...

Melanie: I particularly liked the part where you called each and every one of us a genius, and granted us all rides on your snowy white Pegasuses...Pegasi... *sigh* I just popped some cold and sinus meds. Can you tell? :)

JulieWeathers said...


Back in another life I did query more than one book in a query. I was young and stupid and didn't know any better. That was before all this great information was on the internet. My, how times have changed.

Regarding a series, I just say it has series potential. When I pitched FR the agents asked me if it had series potential and if so how many books did I foresee. So, they are interested in that information, but just be brief about it in a query.


Here's a short talk Gary gives on positive thinking.

Craig F said...

#9? #9? Plan 9 from outer space?

The rest are simple. Don't test query waters with one toe. Jump in with both feet. Moderation is for monks.

#9 though. My Queen, I respect you and you have said that there would always be a market for thrillers. Then some jerk of an advertising guy decides he could use a boilerplate template and just change the names to pump out a book a week.

Screw blowing him out of the water. I want to blow him off the planet and past the edge of the solar system.

JulieWeathers said...

"If all the best selling authors have been published for 20+ years, that's a good sign new authors aren't getting much traction here."

I wonder how well Tacitus is selling. I just ordered one of his books.

Colin Smith said...

Julie: Surprisingly well considering he doesn't maintain his blog, and he never replies to email. :)

JulieWeathers said...


The man is positively in the dark when it comes to some things.

Colin Smith said...

This popped up in Twitter from P.S. Literary Agency:

QUERY TIP: Writing or have written a series but are pitching book one? How to say it: "This is the first book in a planned series."

Jenny Chou said...

It makes me sad to see agents shame writers on Twitter for sending a query for a subject they happen not to like. Just say no thank you and move on. This sort of information is just not helpful and writers get scared they might make a mistake and really, we writers worry enough. As a reader, I never know what I might like. I recently put aside a YA novel that's getting fabulous reviews because I'd tried twice to read it and couldn't get into it. And the best book I've read this year is a nonfiction account of poverty in America, which is so far from my usual cup of tea that it might as well be coffee!!

DeadSpiderEye said...

A rejection arrived recently, I thought it was dad who was in the rag trade but the wording seems to belie that idea. There is the possibility though that I'm misinterpreting and that fit means something else entirely; gosh if that's the case, I wonder what a good day at an agent's is like? A messy prospect there I think, no wonder acceptance is allusive.

Melanie Sue Bowles said...

Ah, Colin... You managed to read my original comment before it slipped into the ether. Splendid!

RosannaM said...


Guess what I will be doing this weekend? Snuggling up with your book. It arrived a few minutes ago, and I am so excited! Thank you so much and congratulations. I hope you have a non-sump pumpy weekend and Matthew doesn't add more woe.

Lennon Faris said...

Thanks for this list! they always interest me.

Joseph Snoe said...

After reading RosannaM’s post, I checked my mailbox.

My copy of The Education of Dixie Dupree didn’t arrive today.

But my Royalty Check did.

And so did my Property Tax Notice.

Oh well, easy come, easy go.

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

Julie, I love your stories!

Anonymous said...

I love these lists. They take that nameless, formless, ever present writerly dread and transform it nicely into an insurmountable fear of screwing things up on an epically precise and specific and unforgivable level. I mean, why settle for vague fears about being tepid and boring when you can instead dial it up to 11 and worry about ALL THE THINGS.

OK, yes, I'm kidding. Sort of. I do love these lists. I derive great comfort from them. *twitch* Really.

Speaking of doctors (not entirely off-topic, seeing as how Janet mentioned Felix and all) . . . my son-in-law just received an offer of employment from a *somewhat* well known hospital here in Durham and, once he finishes his Boston residency in June, he and my daughter will be moving back to NC. My daughter texted me earlier: "It's real. I'm coming home." I'm so happy, I have no words.

AJ Blythe said...

Thanks SP, BJ, Julie and anyone else who responded to my plea for clarification of multi-querying in a query letter. Wiping my brow in relief and double checking my letter says series potential =)

BJ Muntain said...

Yay, KD!