Query Critique Wrap-Up

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Now back to our regularly scheduled program: my Query Critique Week(s) is coming to a close — though there’s still another week of it on Let the Words Flow (with agent feedback!).

I critiqued a total of 25 queries, and I wanted to give a quick overview of some of the various issues I saw.

Biggest Issues

By biggest, I mean “most harmful”. These are the issues that mean instant death for your query. Think “box jellyfish of the query world”.

1) Not following the “formula”

Those of you who’ve really researched query letters know what I mean by the “formula” — it’s the information that’s expected in all queries (for fiction). If you need to know what I mean, then check out my own post on this or head over to the Query Shark and watch her feast away on poorly constructed queries.

2) Absence of specifics

You must tell your plot in your query letter, and you must be specific enough that the reader knows exactly what the story is about: the protagonist’s GMC, what is at stake if the protagonist fails, and how the plot escalates in tension as the story unfolds.

For example, saying, “When horrible events unfold outside of her control, Suzie-Q must make a difficult choice between following her heart and protecting her family.” Um, when you say something like this, I’m left wondering what these horrible events are, why they’re outside of Suzie-Q’s control, why Suzie-Q has to make a choice, and what it is in her heart that she’s following.

Each sentence should logically follow the one before it — cause/effect, decision/consequence. If you raise more questions than you answer, this is bad. There is only one question you should leave the reader with at the end of the query, and that is what happens next?

3) Telling not showing

This connects to #2. Often time the absence of specifics leads to telling. Declaring “Suzie-Q is a clever, strong-willed girl who wants to see her dad again” is not nearly as strong as saying “Suzie-Q, the local chess champion, will do anything to see her prison-bound dad again — even if it means getting herself landed in jail with him.” When we can see Suzie-Q’s characteristics according to the choices she makes and the goals she has, you kill two birds with one stone: you show us the story and you show us the protagonist’s personality.

Most Common Issues

These errors were frequent, but not so life-threatening. We’re talking dog bite versus cobra bite — these could really hurt your query, but they’re not necessarily kisses of death.

1) Too many unimportant details

On the other side of the detail-spectrum from Big Issue #2, there were those queries that had too many. I’m right there with you — my earlier query drafts were long and had too much unimportant stuff included. I finally managed to scrape away the dead weight by focusing ONLY on two things in my query:

  1. My protagonist’s GMC: what she wants, why she wants it, and why she can’t have it.
  2. The most MAINEST of MAIN external plots: only the events and choices that drive the entire story — the events that without which there would be no story.

2) Not snappy enough

This connects to #1, but it can also be a problem all on it’s own. Maybe you’re only sharing the most important details, but are you using too many words to share them? Each sentence should roll of the tongue if you read your query aloud. Your voice should shine through (without being overbearing! There is such a thing as too much voice), and the specifics should be laid bare in as few words as possible. Again, go back to the formula — start with the basics, and then add detail and voice in layers overtop.

3) Length

This builds off of #1 and #2. Though most people were good about staying under the 250-word pitch limit, there were still a lot who had too many words. Remember, it’s better to be brief and pack a punch than to be long and meandering. For example, I think Laura Pauling’s query was a great example of lots of bang for your buck — it was short, yes, but she enticed me enough to want to read the book!

4) Irrelevant credentials in the bio

This actually can be a killer. Kind of like if the dog that bites you turns out to be rabid, putting in that one wrong detail can mean instant death. What detail is that? Do not — DO NOT, I repeat — mention you are self-published unless the book you’ve self-published has sold over 5,000 copies. I realize the industry is changing and self-publishing is becoming more and more common, but it does not matter in the eyes of those who still follow traditional publishing (i.e. all agents, all editors, and most traditionally published authors).

Less “dangerous” items are those you mention that have no use in the query. If your credentials have nothing to do with writing, don’t mention them. If a credential is only tentatively related to writing, err on the side of caution and don’t mention it. For example, scientific publications or newsletters don’t count. Nor do courses in writing or a long-time love of writing. Save that precious word count for more important things: the story!

Finally, avoid quoting people’s comments about your book. Unless the person is ridiculously famous (read: Stephen King or J.K. Rowling) or a client of the agent you’re querying, don’t mention these blurbs. Ever.

5) Incorrect genre

Make sure that whatever genre you’ve chosen to label your book with is the correct genre. I’ve seen quite a number of mislabeled romances and books squeezed into YA that were not YA. Do your research, abide by commercial “formulas”, and find the perfect spot for you book. It exists, I promise!

The GOOD!

I don’t want you to think I only saw mistakes. In fact, it was quite the opposite. There was a lot of good in these queries! So many of you had really stellar queries or were off to fantastic starts!

1) So many great premises

All I can say on this is: WOW. I got to read about so many amazing stories, and all of them were unique. You guys are so creative, it just boggles my mind! I can’t wait to see your stories on shelves at my local bookstore — and I have no doubt that one day I will!

2) Fun voices

Oh jeez, I fell in love with some of these stories based on voice alone. When It shines through the sentences, it really shines. For those of you struggling with this, just keep practicing — tightening and rewriting will help you reach that point.

3) Strong writing

You peeps can write! Seriously, I was so pleased to see no one messed up grammar or screwed up those critical basics. This may seem minor to you, but as a stickler for grammar and punctuation, I found it to be a real breath of fresh air. Go team!

Thanks to everyone

And now a big, enormous thank you to all of you who participated or stopped by to read. These weeks of query critiques (that totally rhymed!) have been a huge success because of all of you awesome readers and writers. Thank you so much for sending your queries to me for feedback, for offering your critiques to the posted query letters, and for staying friendly and helpful the whole time!

I you all so much, and I can’t wait until we do this again!

NOW, everyone hang onto your hats because I have something new and different coming next week to the blog. Have I piqued your curiosity? There are ::cue dramatic music:: giveaways!

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You tell me: Did you find my critiques useful? Did the community feedback help you any? Would you like to do all this again in the future?