Any writer can google how to query, so contrary to the title of this post, I won’t be teaching you how to query. There’s tons of information out there regarding how to query a literary agent — what to say, what not to say, how to say it, and how to say it well.
No lie. Querying is hard. In a previous post, I wrote about how long it took for me to get my query letter to the point where I finally got more than a form rejection as a response. So what I aim to show you in this series of query posts is the difference between my beginner query, my “better” query, and my most recently revised query (that was said to be “solid” by established writers).
Are you ready for my beginner query? Prepare yourself. It’s pretty bad.
Translating prophecy is a tricky and inexact science, and one in which Moreina di Bianco doesn’t exactly place her faith, so when she finds herself at the center of a thousand-year old prophecy, everything she holds dear is suddenly threatened.
When Reina is chosen to accompany the White Sorceress candidates in their search for the infamous Faranzine Talisman, she quickly agrees to help. What she doesn’t realize is that her own life is about to take a drastic spin, and turning back won’t be an option. When the talisman unexpectedly chooses her as its wearer, Reina must not only accept the truth within the prophecy’s words, but also must find a way to save the kingdom from the malicious grasp of General Bruenner – a daunting task for a village healer who doesn’t even believe in magic.
Reina’s only help on her journey is her estranged and mysterious childhood friend, Quinn D’Arturio, as well as a dashing Captain who claims to be her protector…oh, and her second sight, which she insists is nothing more than a slightly heightened sense of perception. As if discovering the key to unlocking the talisman’s untold power, ending a war, and placing the rightful king on the throne weren’t enough of a challenge, Reina is also forced to address a most unpleasant section of the prophecy – the part regarding two suitors. For a quasi-hermit like Reina, the only thing more overwhelming than losing her much coveted solitude is the prospect of losing it forever, but Reina soon discovers that there are things more important than solitude, and that sometimes home can be found even afar.
The Tarrowburn Prophecies is a 91,500 word fantasy novel ideally suited for readers who enjoy tales such as C.S. Friedman’s Coldfire Trilogy or Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series. Though it is a stand-alone novel, it is intended to be the first of a trilogy. Initially, I decided to contact you based on your profile on AgentQuery.com, and upon reading more detailed information on your submission website, my decision was confirmed. Like you, I have a diverse background, having worked in many different professional atmospheres. Thank you so much for your consideration! I’d be happy to provide you with a copy of the manuscript upon your request, and I look forward to hearing from you.
L. Ryan Storms
Okay, so do you see the issues with this letter? I cringe just looking at it!
First off, it’s way too long and cluttered, and it rambles without focusing on the conflict and the stakes. It’s almost 400 words! (About twice as long as it should be!) There’s a lot of description here, but not much focus on what the book is really about. There’s no need for me to talk about Reina’s love of solitude. Is she a bit of a hermit in the book? Maaaaaybe. But that’s not really essential to the heart of the story. Why is the part about two suitors in the prophecy so distasteful to Reina? This query makes it sound like she wants anything but to fall for a guy, but in reality, that wasn’t it at all. (It’s because she’s so focused on figuring out a way to end the war!) I could go on, but you get the point. There’s a lot of ramble in this query.
Next, I made a rookie mistake in my first paragraph with the “…everything she holds dear is suddenly threatened.” In trying to hook your reader, the last thing you want to do is use the word “everything.” There is quite literally almost no possible way to be more vague. Then, I went with, “For a quasi-hermit like Reina, the only thing more overwhelming than losing her much coveted solitude is the prospect of losing it forever, but Reina soon discovers that there are things more important than solitude, and that sometimes home can be found even afar.” Really? Was losing her solitude that bad? Honestly, it wasn’t even a major part of the book… Why was I so stuck on this theme?
My point? Sometimes what we think the book is about isn’t really what the book is about at all. When I was writing this character, I wanted to invoke a sense of longing for home, a sense of loneliness, of a desire to return to the mundane, everyday life, but it wasn’t what the story was about. I hadn’t yet figured that out at the time I wrote this query.
I also used a lot of the formulaic “When X happens, then Y is the result…” Just look at my second paragraph. Surely there were better ways than utilizing the much overused “When X…” And yet, I used it not once, but twice…in one paragraph.
When I mention the title of my work in the final paragraph, I forgot to put it in all caps. You work should always be listed in all caps. (This is something I still have issues remembering even today!) This is not the most horrendous thing I could possibly have done, of course, but using the caps lock for your manuscript’s title is a good way to make sure it stands out right away and it’s generally accepted as the proper protocol for query letters.
Lastly, my comp titles are all wrong! To be fair, this version of my query went along with a very early version of the book in which I had the wrong age range targeted. I was trying to squeeze what was essentially a YA book into an Adult category. No wonder it wasn’t working for me. (And no wonder I had no idea how to summarize what it was really about!) When I finally admitted to myself that I needed to revise my entire manuscript to fit into YA, I was in a much better place, both with the book itself and with the query.
And for the love of God, please do not, under any circumstances comment on an agent’s appearance. That’s just…creepy. I am absolutely mortified to admit that I did this when personalizing an early query. (Like, so mortified that I want to crawl under a rock and never come out.) The agent had said something about her unruly curly hair on Twitter and I ran with it. I shudder when I think of what kind of creep I came across as. So… Just. Don’t.
I try not to be too hard on myself because I know learning the querying process is all part of becoming a writer, but I still cringe when I read my earliest query. And I honestly feel like I just published a couple of nude photos of me! (But then again, I just told you how I commented on an agent’s appearance. Notice how I didn’t post that query.)
If you learn can from my mistakes, it was worth all my discomfort in putting this out there! And perhaps this will help you gain a chance at getting something a little more personalized than the dreaded form rejection!
(Yep, that’s one I received on 2/14/2014. Feeling the love? Not so much.)