Friday, June 24, 2011

What I learned from Query Shark

In case you've never heard of it, Query Shark is a wonderful blog created by literary agent Janet Reid. The idea is, writers send in their query letters, and some of them get critiqued on the blog. A literary agent critiquing query letters, you say?! Yes. Very useful stuff. It's an extremely helpful and eye-opening blog.

Ms. Reid suggests reading through all the posts––which I did, and learned a lot of things about queries I didn't know. I recommend looking through the blog and reading all the posts if you have the time. But I figured that most people didn't have the time, so I thought I'd give an overview of the notes I took while I read through the blog. Some of these things I already knew, but others I'd never thought of before.

I know I said I'd try to cut down on such lengthy posts, but, this one required a lot of detail. And trust me, I cut it down a LOT. A lot of stuff goes into query-writing.

So, here we go. The rules of writing a good query letter.

- Remember: the query letter should not only tell what the book is about, it should also show how well you write and how your professional you are.

- DON'T put contact information at the top of the query letter, and don't include it in the query letter. Put it at the bottom, after you sign your name. (Include your full name, address, and phone number.)

- Don't put your title at the top of the query letter. It will be included within the query letter.

- Start off with a normal salutation. Not "Greetings!" or "Good evening!" Just plain old "Dear Mr./Ms. [agent's last name]. And NEVER "To Whom it May Concern" or "Dear Sir or Madam"; these just show you don't know who you're querying, and therefore you did not do your research.

- Immediately get into the story. Don't start with an introductory paragraph; don't put the title and word count in the first paragraph. Put this information in the last paragraph. Agents seem to be split about this, but according to Ms. Reid, "A quick drop into cold water is EXACTLY how you want to start a novel (and thus a query.)" She says the very first word in the query should be the main character's name. Describe what he/she wants and what is preventing him/her from getting it.

- Don't start with a log line––aka, a one-sentence summary of the entire plot.

- Don't start your query with a quote or random fact. (i.e. "Did you know that a thousand elephants turn purple every year?" ... Obviously this is just an example, and not actually true.)

- Don't start with a rhetorical question. (i.e. "Have you ever wondered what it feels like to be a purple elephant?")

- Don't start with clich├ęs. (i.e. "In a world ...")

- Don't start off by saying what kind of agent you're looking for; if you're querying an agent, it's understood that said agent represents the genre of your book. (i.e. "I'm looking for an agent who represents fantasy.") Yes, it's good to personalize queries, but you should cite specific articles/blogs/interviews/etc., not just mention what genres the agent represents, because that's vague and impersonal.

- Open with the important event, not with backstory. Don't start with a setting. Start with a character and an action/choice he/she must make. Also, don't start with a clause rather than the subject. (i.e. "Prancing through the daisy fields one day, Mary Sue makes an unexpected discovery.")

- Don't quote the book in the query letter.

- Make it clear who the main character is; don't mention too many characters, or it becomes too confusing. Focus on one or two characters; mentioning three or more characters is pushing it. Query Shark says, "Think of characters as headgear. One thing on your head is fine, two might work, and but three is too many. Plus three and you're past calling the Fashion Police, we're calling the guys with nets."

- Don't put the names of characters in ALL CAPS or put their ages in brackets; that's the format for scripts, not for query letters.

- Don't write in first person point of view of your characters. Avoid this and all other gimmicks. To an agent, a gimmicky query signifies crap writing; that is, you have to write a "quirky" query because your book is not good enough to speak for itself.

- No second or first person in the plot summary. Don't use "I". Don't use "we". As the Query Shark herself says, "There is no 'we' in querying, much like there is no crying in baseball."

- Make the main character sound like someone the reader can sympathize with, even if he/she is not a "good" person. If his/her motivations just don't make sense, the agent will lose interest. And if you can't make the motivations make sense, there might be something wrong with more than just your query; there could be something wrong with your book.

- The reader of the query should feel a connection to the main character. You have to do more than tell "what" the main is. (i.e. "Mary Sue is a teenage girl.") You have to show what the main character is like. (And I mean show, don't tell! Don't write, "Mary Sue is a very determined person." It should show, through her actions, that she is determined.) But don't spend too long describing what your main character is like. The letter is primarily focused on plot.

- Show and don't tell, and be specific.

- Only mention characters' choices if they are relevant to the central plot.

- Focus on the plot in the query letter. If you can't describe an actual plot, then there is something wrong with the novel itself.

- Sense of stakes and sense of choice are important. What choice does the protagonist have to make, and what consequences will follow?

- Basic form of the plot summary, provided by Query Shark: - Basic form provided by QS: "What does the protagonist want? What's keeping him/her from getting it? What choice/decision does he/she face? What terrible thing will happen if he chooses ____; what terrible thing will happen if he doesn't." OR "The main character must decide whether to ____. If s/he decides to do (this), the consequences/outcome/peril s/he faces are ____. If s/he decides NOT to do this: the consequences/outcome/peril s/he faces are ____." And don't just fill in the blanks; use it as an outline to get your information in the proper order. Don't give a list of events.

- Entice readers with what happens at the start of the book, not the end. That is to say, don't give an entire plot summary and definitely don't give away the ending.

- Keep it short and sweet, but long enough that the agent feels a bit of a connection with the main character (that is, understands why readers might sympathize with the main character). It should have a clear sense of voice.

- Story comes first. Don't sound as if you're trying hard to make a point or convey a certain message.

- Don't put random words in quotes. Query Shark says, "Quotes imply something is NOT what you say it is. Example: Oh yes, Cruella DeVill is a real 'dog lover'."

- Write in present tense, and don't switch tenses!

- Don't use showy, overcomplicated writing. Write in short, declarative sentences. Start by writing sentences that are 10 words or fewer, then revise into longer sentences only for the sake of clarity. Avoid rambling, jumbled sentences. And try not to use metaphors.

- Write the title in ALL CAPS (not in italics or underlined or anything like that) and try to avoid punctuation in the title besides commas. Don't say your book is "named" anything. It is either "called" or "titled". Also, do some research and make sure your title is not too similar to other popular titles.

- Read a lot of books in the category you're writing in; understand the audience. Make sure you know your genre. For example, YA books have teen protagonists. If your book does not have teen protagonists, don't call it YA––especially if you just want in on the YA market because it's hot right now.

- Genres should be one or two words, no more. Don't say your book is a "paranormal romance thriller", for example––choose either "paranormal romance" or "thriller".

- Don't say your full manuscript is "complete" or "immediately available"; it's expected that if you are querying, your manuscript is complete and available.

- Agents are skeptical from the start with unusual word counts. It varies based on genre. But generally, under 70,000 words is probably too short, and more than 100,000 words is probably too long. Some agents might even auto-reject based on word count alone. So before you start querying, check out your word count. You might not be done editing.

- Don't try to excuse or justify your word count. (i.e. "I know it's long, but ...")

- Writing credit has to be relevant. Publication is writing credit; nothing else is. Writing for your school newspaper and such is not enough. If you don't have any credit, it's fine. But don't struggle to make it sound as if you do. If you have none, don't mention anything, and don't tell the agent that you are inexperienced.

- Don't mention self-published or vanity-published books. Like it or not, agents generally don't respect self-publishing.

- You don't need to be qualified to write a novel; that is, you don't have to go through the same things as your characters in order to write about them.

- Don't tell the reader what your book will make them think or how it will affect them. And don't make your novel sound like a self-help book. That is, don't talk about how much it will "empower" readers.

- Don't compliment your own book. Query Shark says, "Telling me your novel is an altogether soaring tale is like telling me your kid is good-looking. I'm sure you believe it (I hope you do in fact) but I'm not going to believe you until I've seen the kid myself. In other words: show me, don't tell me."

- Don't mention test/beta readers. Sorry, but the agent really doesn't care what they think.

- Don't say how you think/hope readers will respond to your work. Don't say your book will appeal to both male and female readers. You don't actually know these things.

- Don't compare your book to other books; that's someone else's job.

- Don't say your book is part of a series––or if you must, say it's part of a "potential" series. Saying you've written a series makes the agent think you've written several "okay" books; it makes you sound less focused on revising one, good novel.

- Don't write about how your own story makes you feel, or about how attached you've become to your own characters. You think it will show the agent how passionate you are, but instead it makes the agent think you will take rejection too personally and that you are not a serious writer who will be willing to make revisions.

- Never offer exclusivity. And you don't really want exclusivity, either. It's best to query widely.

- Don't "recap" at the end of the query. It's not an essay, so you don't need a "concluding paragraph". Never repeat what you've already said.

- Don't dismiss yourself. Don't say you would be "humbled" if the agent asked to see your novel, etc. Just a plain old, "Thank you for your time and consideration" will do.

- NEVER, NEVER attach materials unless it's in the agent's guidelines to do so. Copy and paste excerpts, synopses, etc. into the body of the email. Attaching anything might make the letter end up in the agent's spam folder. Also, agents just plain don't want to have to open anything.

- Proofread. Don't misspell anything. Have other people proofread your query to make sure there are no stupid mistakes. Or at least read your query out loud to yourself a few times.

- Keep queries short but not too short. Around 250 words is a good length.

- Cut down your word count as much as possible. Start off by taking out all the uses of the word "that" which you don't need. Then change all the instances of "was [verb]-ing" to "[verb]ed" and you'll probably cut out a few thousand words. (Use Ctrl+F, aka "find") Take out adjectives and adverbs.

- Never use emoticons in queries. Ever. :)

- Only use plain text. No italics, no bold, no underlining. No weird fonts. No weird colors.

- Don't send in a huge-ass block of text. There should be double spaces between paragraphs, and there should be about 3-4 paragraphs, with the plot summary being the longest one. Make sure there is a lot of white space. Query Shark says, "White space is CRUCIAL."

- For e-queries, don't use weird subject lines. Include the word "Query" and your book's title in the subject line. Email to different email platforms to make sure the letter doesn't show up in a weird color.

Well, folks, that's about it. Of course, you don't necessarily need to follow all these rules, and sometimes breaking them might work in certain cases. This is just a general guide. I know it's overwhelming, but after drafting your query a few times you'll realize it may not be bad at it seems. I wish you luck!

As always, I appreciate your feedback. So if you thought this was helpful, or you have any comments/questions, let me know! :)


  1. She has some excellent advice and I've learned a lot from her blog. The only problem is that some of her advice conflicts with advice I've received from other agents. I guess the thing to remember is that they're individuals and tastes will vary a bit. Though Ms. Snark's guidelines are a great place to start!

  2. I agree with Heather. I'm definitely going to take some of these. At the same time, it seems most other examples require the statement that the book is complete and available upon request. Not sure which to believe... Great blog, though!

  3. Yes, I agree with you both. Some of the stuff I read on there surprised me, because––like Heather said––it conflicted with other things I'd been told in the past. But, her rules are a good starting point. I plan to follow them unless an agent requests/specifies otherwise.

  4. Thanks for this :) It's really helpful to have all these good pieces of advice in one place. I've bookmarked the post, and followed you!

    I love Queryshark :) It's nice to know that other teenagers are interested in the business part of writing, too!


  5. Sure thing, Audrey! And thank you! I'm glad to be helpful. :) Yes, QueryShark rocks! And I'm also always happy to meet other teens who understand the business side of writing!

  6. What an excellent compendium of QueryShark wisdom! I love that blog. Even though I'm not querying, I still rush to read every time she posts.

  7. I read a LOT of QueryShark last summer and still keep up with it. This is a really impressive and useful synthesis though!

  8. Whoa, great summary! Thanks!

  9. This was so interesting and helpful! Thank you! I'll be sure to keep this in mind. :)
    I am confused about what 'exclusivity' means here . . . help? :P

  10. Great post, Brigid! This will be very useful for me since I'm about to start querying at the end of this month. Good luck in your queries!

  11. So INCREDIBLY helpful! Thank you! Working on a new query now!

    1. You're totally welcome! Good luck with the query! :)

  12. Thank you so much! :) Very helpful, wow!!!

  13. Thank you for this excellent summary. I'm reading the Query Shark archives myself right now.


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