Monday, May 9, 2016

Frequent Query Mistakes

Before the submission window for Query Kombat, I wanted to list a few of the frequent "big picture" sort of problems I see in query letters. (The feedback I did recently in the Spring Query Extravaganza highlighted some of them also. You might take a look at those posts.) Maybe this will help you avoid some of the problems. They will ruin a query a lot faster than a couple of typos.

This is my subjective opinion and I don't claim to be an agent, but I have read thousands of query letters. So here goes:

Themes: Every contest I see a few entries that spend too much space in their query letter talking about their themes. Maybe they want to help kids thinking of suicide. Or perhaps they want to talk about bullying. Or maybe they want people to consider setting aside their screens and spending face-to-face time with family. Themes are wonderful. Even noble! You do need them in your stories. But it's not really what I want to hear about in your query letter--or at least not for the majority of the letter. Limit listing the themes to one or two sentences, please, or less.


Because when your are detailing the story--the plot, the characters, the stakes, and obstacles--that should SHOW me your themes. So keep the theme discussion short and show me the story in about three paragraphs! Spending paragraphs on the themes means I don't get to hear about the plot.

I want to know about your characters and your plot, not what you are trying to teach readers. That I should be able to infer.

Synopsis: A synopsis is different from the query letter. For instance, it reveals the ending of your book. Most people know not to put the ending in a query letter, but there are always a few queries that sound more like a synopsis than a query.

This happens sometimes when the author writes too many step-by-step sentences going "first this happened, then this, then this" and trying to give a whole sequence of the events with nothing else in between. The query letter becomes a list of what the characters did. And that's usually not very interesting. 

Or another way the query can feel like a synopsis is when there are too many details given. For most stories we probably don't need to know the city and state it takes place, nor all the names of all the characters, or just a lot of details that don't reveal something about the characters or relate to the main plot. You want to add personality while not filling the query with facts that don't matter. It's a delicate balancing act, but getting other eyes on your query can help--so ask a friend.

We encourage you to polish your entry before entering Query Kombat.

Sub-Plots: Having smaller plots within the main plot is essential to making a story interesting. Characters should have many goals and things that motivate them. But the query letter is not the place to delve into them. You have a limited space of 250 to 300 words. Adding in those subplots takes up valuable room. Plus, it usually makes things confusing, and suddenly your query has too much going on. 

Say your main character has to save the world from zombies. We don't also need to know their cousin wants to become the next president and there's a whole part about how they depose the current president and paint the White House blue--unless the cousin is the antagonist. So, yeah, it can be hard to tell whether something is a subplot. 

Here again, more eyes on your query can help. And if you don't have critique partners, ask yourself if you took that part out of the story would the entire book fall apart or would there still be a basic plot? Keep subplots out of the query letter will make your letter more easy to follow and less cluttered. 

Keeping it secret: This is the query problem that irks me the most because it leaves me to guess at what is happening! And I see it in every contest! If your query is full of "dark secrets" and "family problems" and "troubling circumstances" and other generic phrases, then you are most likely leaving me in the dark.


A query letter's job is to entice. If there are no specific details, then it's not going to entice. When I see a main character who has a dark secret and they need to solve a troubling problem to save the situation, I have no idea WHAT THAT MEANS! (And yes, I'm yelling. It's for your own good.)

Maybe writers don't want to reveal too much in their query of the story. But that's not a good idea. If an agent is not enticed by specific details, they aren't going to read on and get to end of the manuscript to find out those details because they won't ask for pages. 

The last story paragraph of the query should set out the CHOICE the main character must make. Which way the character will decide IS the part you shouldn't give away (the part you keep hidden), not what they are fighting.

Will they decide to save the world from zombies and give up their friend's life, or will they save their friend and let the world get eaten? That's sort of what I mean by the mc choice.

The reader needs to know what the secret is they are fighting against. Without that the reader isn't going to care.

I'm not sure I'm being clear on that, so feel free to ask questions in the comments. You can probably get away with one generic phrase, but don't hide all the unique points of your story from the reader. If you have a lot of cliche phrases in your query, then I would do a rethink and probably a rewrite.

So those are some of the big picture mistakes I see in every contest. #QueryKombat on twitter is a great place to ask others to take a look at your query and get some feedback. Mix. Mingle. Help each other get ready!

See you on May 16th with some awesome queries! 


  1. The main character's choice above is phrased in the form of a question. I've flipped flopped between ending the story detail paragraphs of my query letter with a question or rephrasing said question into a statement. From what I've read on the hashtag, some contest judges advise against using questions in a query--does that apply only to opening a query with rhetorical questions or also closing the query with a main character choice question such as this one?


    1. You want to try and avoid using a question in a query, though I have seen them at the end. It's that upfront rhetorical question you want to avoid, like Who likes a good facial? The agent may be feeling fractious and answer it the opposite of what you'd like.

      The choice can be rephrased as a statement. To stop the zombies MC sees no way out that won't sacrifice the love of her life. She must decide if the world is her responsibility or she will let the world burn and have love.

  2. I have seen advice similar to yours regarding the MC's question, but am not sure what to do when the challenge is less optional. In my MS, Bernie's parents are taken by giants who may eat them for dinner. So, he has a choice about whether to try to rescue them or not, but it is not much of a question. The real question is whether he will be able to rescue them. In other words, he is not torn by his decision, but may be torn apart by giants. How would you handle that in terms of the MC's question?

    1. That's fine and quite common. Sometimes you have to use the stakes in place of an MC choice. Bernie must reach his parents before they become giant yo-yo's and keep from becoming their very own boy-pinata.