Thursday, May 16, 2013

Five Common Querying Mistakes

Hey! I decided my new blog's first writing-related topic would be Five Common Querying Mistakes.

Now, if you're an author looking for literary agency representation, there's plenty of information on querying around the Internet. A lot of it comes from the blogs of great agents or other publishing professionals. Nathan Bransford has a good basic query letter map, and Rachelle Gardner has a top ten mistakes list posted.Colleen Lindsay shows you a good example and explains why it's good, and of course Miss Snark and Query Shark have plenty of poor examples dissected.

So why would you want to listen to MY ramble on the subject?
  • I'm a writer who's been through the whole thing, so maybe other writers will like my spin on this more than they like the advice from the agents themselves. Who knows?
  • My query letters worked. I'm represented by agent Michelle Johnson of Inklings. I was signed less than a year after I started, after querying fewer than thirty agents, and my query letter prompted five full manuscript requests (and more partials) before I got out of the trenches.
  • While I don't make a habit of critiquing queries (I'm ridiculously busy! Argh!), I have seen many in my time and in fact even judged a contest last year. Some of my specific advice for the querying authors in the contest, with letter dissection, was posted here and here.
So, without further ado, here is my short list of the most common mistakes I see in developing query letters and what you should do to fix them.

Mistake #1: Language errors!

Most people laugh this one off, and they shouldn't. Some writers (wrongly) believe that perfect spelling/grammar just isn't necessary anymore, and that the agent will overlook their errors if they truly see a diamond in the rough. But you shouldn't be handing them ANY "rough." Just give them the diamond!

When an agent sees that you make typos, employ misused homophones, or write awkward sentences, they don't think "Hey, writing craft isn't the most important thing anyway; it's the STORY that counts!" They are businesspeople. And they're likely to be thinking about how your query's poor writing is probably an early warning of a poorly written manuscript. They'll be thinking about how much work they'd have to put in to clean it up for the acquisition editors if by chance they offered you representation. And they'll certainly be thinking about how lazy you are if you couldn't even send them 200 words without making a mistake. This should be your most polished work. It's like a job interview. Why would you convince yourself that editing doesn't matter when this is the agent's first impression of you?

So if you struggle with language, how do you fix it? Show it around to other writers and critique partners, post it on a writing forum, or ask a language professional. Spell-check just doesn't cut it. And don't ignore formatting.

Mistake #2: Too much detail!

This is by far the most common querying mistake I've seen. Authors are desperate to tell me what happened in what order and how it all came to be, and they don't understand that I don't really care. I don't want them to give me an outline or a play-by-play. I want them to give me a concept. Think overview. Think sales statement. Because after all, that's what this is. You want your agent to invest in your work.

You have to be able to sum it up so they can see the big picture, and make it compelling enough that they want to see how you work your magic. If you find yourself explaining a lot, or filling in back-story, or falling into a litany of "this happened, then this, then this," you are probably guilty of this.

So if you struggle with detail, how do you fix it? First, back up. Think of it like a movie trailer, where you give them an idea of "what it's about" and who's involved, plus some glimpses at why it's awesome. Second, look at your favorite authors' synopses and think about the difference between their book and their summaries. Maybe try writing test summaries for other authors' books that you're not too close to, and see if you can duplicate that style for your own work. Focus on who your story is about, what their problem/conflict is, how it might be solved, and what's at stake. But dump all the unnecessary world-building and step-by-step explanations. And dump your belief that you're expected to tell the whole story now. You just need to get us interested.

Mistake #3: Vague, over-dramatic, and/or cliché phrasing!

I've read queries in which the author seems to be telling me his character goes around and does stuff. Failing to explain the shape and forward motion of your story makes it too vague. I've read queries in which the author attempts to use very colorful or attention-grabbing language to make the book look thrilling. Dressing up the language instead of trying to sell the concept makes it too over-dramatic. I've read queries in which the author uses stale platitudes or hypes his action with heavy-handed, overused catch phrases. Borrowing concepts and sayings that have been around longer than your grandmother makes it too cliché.

Do not make the mistake of being vague to avoid "spoilers." No, we really do need to know what the book is about. Do not "tell" us that your book is edge-of-your-seat action, or that it is a tour de force, or that it is spine-tingling, or that it contains life-changing wisdom. And please do not use any of these cheap phrases in your query:
  • Everything depends on whether he succeeds. (Obviously he will. What is "everything"?)
  • She has to decide whether to do X or follow her heart. (Of course she'll follow her heart. What fun is it otherwise?)
  • The world hangs in the balance. (What, specifically, is at stake? The world, or fate, "hanging in the balance" tells me nothing.)
  • Can she put everything right before it's too late? (Yeah, she can. "Before it's too late" for what? What will happen? Say that instead.)
So if you struggle with your phrasing, how do you fix it? I suggest trying to become sensitive to when a sentence doesn't add anything. Put each sentence on trial and ask it, "Well what are YOU for? What do you tell my prospective agent?" And then fire all the bits and parts that fail the test. Is there a word in there that is jumping around trying to get attention, spoiling the integrity of the sentence? Shoot it. Is there a hypothetical question that most reasonable readers would expect to answer "of course" to, like those listed above? Try making them "how" questions instead of "whether" questions--in other words, kill "will they save their parents in time?" and replace it with "they must develop a plan to save their parents before the villain turns them into robot slaves."

Mistake #4: Braggy, bratty, and clueless author bios!

Oh look, it's another author who says she's got the next Harry Potter. Delete! Hey, fancy that, another author who rambles about what a bestseller this is gonna be. Bye-bye! Well what have we here, another author who's telling me his life story! See ya.

Relevant. That's the word you need to keep in mind. Relevant. Agents care if you have a publishing history. Agents care if you have some kind of personal connection to or knowledge about the material you're submitting. And agents care if you have some applicable information about how your book will fit into a nice waiting readership pocket. Other than that? They aren't likely to want to hear it. Save your information about your family, your cats, and your non-writing passions for the jacket flap author bio. And just so you know, you shouldn't include information about what an avid reader you are or how long you've been reading voraciously. If you have only recently started reading or are kinda lukewarm on reading, you are by far the exception in this industry. Agents assume you love books. We all do; that's why we're here. And you certainly shouldn't suggest you're the next J.K. Rowling or Stephen King. If you think so, it doesn't matter if it turns out to be true; you shouldn't say it at this point, because you'll look like you have an ego the size of a planet.

So if you struggle with what to put in your author bio, what do you do? Well, you could always write nothing. Bios aren't required, though it's nice to have something. But I promise, if you're "reaching" to find something to claim as a publishing credit or you have to exaggerate to make yourself look good, it'd be better if you just don't put anything. Mention it if you've won any awards or been a finalist; mention it if you have/had a book- or editing-related career; mention it if you're in an organization or group; mention it if your MG pet school series was inspired by your being the child of two veterinarians. But when in doubt, just keep it very brief. And if you'd like to compare your work to existing successful work, don't. Say it will appeal to the same niche audience, not that it's as good as or similar to their work.

Mistake #5: Unoriginality and Overdone Themes!

Sometimes you write a really spanking awesome query and still nobody bites. And why is that? Well, have you considered that maybe you're doing the pitching right, but you're pitching the wrong thing? Of course, this can be super painful to accept if it's the case. But let's face it: Agents aren't necessarily turning projects down primarily because the authors are bad query-letter-writers or because they lack professionalism. They turn them down because they don't want that story. And other than being a poor fit for the agent, sometimes it's a poor fit for the market because everyone's already done it.

Romance: Heroine is torn between off-limits man and her obligations, or between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Paranormal Romance: Same thing, except they're supernatural creatures. YA: High school kid explores identity and has a romance and learns it's okay to be herself. Mystery: Somebody dies or goes missing, and an unlikely pair teams up to figure things out. Thriller: Somebody dies, and whatever killed that somebody is coming after the hero. Fantasy: Warring nations with good pitted against evil. Science fiction: Robots or aliens clash with humans in spaaaace. YA fantasy: Of course there's a portal, and the protagonist is the chosen one. YA science fiction: Kids get superpowers for a pseudoscientific reason and save the world. Le sigh. Some things have just been done so often that if you try to make it sound exciting when you boil it down, it's probably going to be poorly received.

So if you struggle with your concept sounding too generic, what do you do? Well, you need to examine what motivated you to write "this" kind of story again. Why is yours different? HOW is it different? Ah, that's it. Highlight how it's different from every other portal fantasy or bodice-ripper out there. It's tricky, because readers (and agents, and publishers) do like a taste of the familiar in there so they have some reason to believe they'll enjoy your book too. But first ask yourself what your book has that's different from all the other books like it, and then ask yourself how you can call attention to that in what's supposed to be a punchy, concise capsule view of your book. Sound tricky? It is! Welcome to the writing biz, where stringing together words and making it look easy is part of the job description!

This concludes my "most common" list, but if you'd like more in-depth querying instruction from me, check out the On Querying essay on my official website or my illustrated YouTube video on how to query.

And if you want to laugh at some truly absurd examples, I highly recommend subscribing to SlushPile Hell for some giggles. Throw questions or clarification requests into my comments and I'll see what I can do for you!

Good luck, queriers. :)

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