Friday, December 5, 2014

Queries: What Not To Do, From Someone Who Did It Wrong

Recently, I was cleaning out my email and happened upon an old folder called "Queries." A folder that used to inspire fear and panic every time I clicked on it (and used to be called, "Do Not Open Without Chocolate"), as it holds all of my rejections from agents whom I had asked to represent me and my books.

It holds 125 emails.

But the point of this post is not to go over query numbers or how many of those were for my very first, very unready book, or that I know that folder is missing more than a few "no's." The point is, I couldn't NOT blog about being "that person" after I read one of the very first queries I ever sent:

Dear Ms. [redacted],

I am a new author seeking representation for a fantasy adventure novel I've completed at 74000 words. I am targeting a young adult/adult audience, and after reading that you represent fantasy and young adult fiction, believe that my work may interest you.

THE AETHER STONE: DARIEN'S SECRET takes place in a parallel world where wielding one of the four classic elements (Earth, Fire, Water, or Air) is as natural as breathing. That is, for everyone except 18-year-old Water elemental Trey Reaver, who has somehow managed to get the short end of that deal. If that wasn't enough, he's spent his entire life in the shadow of his exceptional sister Andi — an elite Secondary who can use both Earth and Fire — who makes even the most competent wielders look foolish. And despite his parents' encouragement that he is defined by more than the ability to dry off without a towel, Trey struggles to find purpose in a society built around a skill set he lacks.

Things start to change when Secondaries begin to disappear in surrounding towns, and his family is ordered to evacuate for Andi's safety. After a rough journey to their assigned safehouse leaves them questioning who to trust, Trey will get the chance to prove he's more than what he seems, and Andi will come face-to-face with a dark secret that changes all the rules.

THE AETHER STONE is a fresh look at a familiar but magical world, and combines elements from both contemporary and high fantasy. DARIEN'S SECRET is intended as the first book in an open-ended series (I have planned out at least four books; as the story evolves, that may increase).

Thank you so much for your time and consideration. I hope I have the opportunity to discuss the project with you further.

In my defense, here are the things I did right:
  • Addressed the agent by name, and got the spelling of it, and her gender, correct
  • Sent one email per agent (no mass emails)
  • Researched enough about this agent to know she represented YA AND fantasy
  • Included my word count and genre
  • The format of the query is pretty standard - though it needs a bio at the end

And here are the things you now know not to do, because I messed them up first:
  • Don't say you're a new author. 
    • Not a huge deal, but unless you've been published, it's best to just say you're seeking representation.
  • Don't say you're targeting more than one age group. 
    • Either you've written a young adult book, or an adult book, or a middle grade, etc. Of course the hope is that your book might appeal to more than one group, but the agent is much more interested in where your book will sit on the shelves at the bookstore. The category your book belongs in largely depends on the age of the main character. If you're not sure what kind of book you've written, research the requirements for each category or confer with your critique partners.
  • Personalization is NOT "I read you represent young adult fiction so I think this YA book will interest you."
    • The agent expects that any queries he/she receives will be in the categories and genres he/she represents. Go deeper. Find an interview the agent did where she mentioned she was looking for books with some specific quality that only your manuscript and a few others would meet. Or mention you enjoy her blog posts and that [this blog post title] was particularly of interest/helpful to you. If all else fails, check her Twitter or her agent profile and find out if you share the same favorite movies (if you can relate it to the book you've written, even better!). You don't have to personalize your queries - the story wins over all - but if you're going to do it, do it better than I did.
  • Vague book pitch is vague
    • And has some rather awkward sentences, to be honest. I'd had a little help from the writing community at this point, but clearly not enough. Also, sentences like these need DETAIL: After a rough journey [What made it rough, specifically?] to their assigned safehouse leaves them questioning who to trust, Trey will get the chance to prove he's more than what he seems [How does he intend to do that?], and Andi will come face-to-face with a dark secret that changes all the rules. [What dark secret? What rules? And most importantly, what are the actual stakes? What happens if Trey or Andi fails?]
    • Basically, add details. And stakes. Stakes are good.
  • Don't use words like "fresh look."
    • Just don't.
  • For the love of all that's holy, do not say you are writing an open-ended series.
    • Unless you are George R.R. Martin, and you are not. (Yet.) Agents are much more concerned with seeing if this single book you wrote even qualifies to stand on its own - series talk comes after you sign with an agent and mention that you have grander schemes. Those grander schemes might include two or three or five books, or an open-ended series, but in a query ... I feel like it made me sound very new (which I was) and unrealistically ambitious.
  • Just thank the agent at the end for her time and consideration.
    • Looking back on it now, I feel like "I hope I have the opportunity to discuss the project with you further" is kind of ... forward. Not a deal-breaker by any means,  but anything you can do to keep from sounding overly eager is a good thing.

The other point of this post is to show you we've all been at the beginning of the line. I clearly needed to learn a few more things before this query was ready. And that's fine - it all comes with time. With sending out queries and being rejected. With realizing it's okay to get those rejections because each one is teaching you something new. As I scroll through my old "Queries" folder, I see this query morphing. Slowly I tick off each of the problems I listed above until I start entering a sea of titles that are no longer "Query: THE AETHER STONE" but "Requested Materials: THE AETHER STONE." And when I finally switched projects to DUPLICITY, I start seeing "Offer of Rep".

What are some early query mistakes you've made?

For examples of successful queries, check out Amy Trueblood's Quite the Query series!

Want another set of eyes on your query? Comment on this post with your manuscript's age group and Twitter handle, and I'll pick 3 people to win a query critique! Open to A/NA/YA/MG queries. Winner to be chosen by random number generator end of day 7/24. Turnaround time: 1 week from receipt.


  1. Yay, so awesome you're doing this!

    YA Contemporary Thriller


  2. Hi

    I have an adult novel, twitter handle @wordsofrablack


  3. It is so nice to see how you learned from your mistakes and you made it! This was an eye opener. Thank you for airing your pitfalls so we can avoid them!

    I have a YA novel.

    Thanks for taking the time to do this!

  4. Valued information!
    As I'm continuing my querying journey, I would love a critique to help guide me in the right direction.
    Thank you!
    Twitter: @_HarmonyLee

  5. I would love a critique for my Adult contemporary with a touch of fantasy.
    Twitter: @MeAngelaD


  6. Well... made at least 4 of the above mistakes, so thanks for passing on sage advice.
    The query quest continues.
    MG fantasy

  7. Great post! Thanks for doing this.
    Adult Crime/Mystery

  8. Thanks for this!

    YA Contemporary

  9. YA Eco-thriller with a fantasy twist! @dananuens

  10. Very helpful post :)

    My novel is Young Adult. My twitter handle is: @AJCypher

  11. I enjoyed the look into your old query. It's always helpful to see how to apply all the dos and don'ts out there.

    My manuscript is adult and my twitter handle is OhShesArtsy.

  12. I need help with mine for sure.

    MG Fantasy
    twitter: heidi_schroder

    Thanks so much for offering this!

  13. I feel like I know some of what not to do, but not enough of what to do. My novel is YA.
    twitter: @CobbWriters

    Thank you for demystifying this valuable process.

  14. Ooh, I made a bunch of these mistakes.
    Thanks for the opportunity!
    I have an adult novel.

  15. I sent a query once with an agent's name spelled incorrectly. It sucks.

    YA Southern gothic

  16. Thanks for the opportunity! :)

    YA Fantasy

  17. Oh, the pain and horror of reading old queries... Thank you for the critique opportunity!

    NA Contemporary Romance

  18. Thank you for doing this! Writing queries is a bit walking to the washroom in the middle of the night. We know where we're going but are bound to stub our toe or walk into a door along the way.
    I have an Adult MS.

  19. Thanks for this. I've rewritten my query so many times, I can't see it anymore. Could really use a fresh set of expert eyes.
    YA Contemporary Romance

  20. Good reminders.
    A, commercial fiction

  21. This has been very helpful as I begin the query process. Thanks for sharing!!
    YA science fiction

  22. Thanks for all the great tips! @bklobster

  23. Great article! I've been in the query trenches for a long time and am hoping my new manuscript will be The One. Would love to get your opinion on my query. Thank you!

    MG Animal Fiction

  24. Thanks for that helpful post. @SujaSukumar YA Contemporary Thriller

  25. This is a helpful read. Thanks!

    YA dark contemporary

  26. This is so great!
    I've written a YA contemporary. My twitter is @Mic_Domenici
    Cheers :)

  27. Thanks!

    Adult Fantasy

  28. Winners have been drawn! @KateBegins2Rock @wordsofrablack @bklobster please email your query via the Contact page at your convenience. Thanks everyone and best of luck to you!



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