Analysis of a Query

When a truly horrible query letter comes in (written in crayon, vampire erotica for toddlers, etc.), publishing assistants usually just mock it until it cries. Sorry to be so blunt, but it’s true. But what about a poorly written query letter that still shows a hint of potential? This is treated with more care, meaning the “mocking” is then called “judging” and instead of making it cry, we, instead, force it to question its decisions with equal parts shame and understanding.
(It should be noted that when I say “it,” I really am talking about the inanimate query letter, and am in no way suggesting that we come up with horrifying rejections for its author. Breathe easy, writers!)
Today, a query letter arrived in a sister-assistant’s inbox and, from it, a request for a partial was born. But, she severely questioned this decision and enlisted the help of the other sister-assistants to figure out why she had instantly regretted her request. While keeping the identity and dignity of the author safe, here is what we came up with (so that you do not fall victim to these potentially fatal mistakes):
Get a real email address. Generally, .edu or @aol.com are red flags that a query probably will be less than stellar. Also, avoid things like FlrtyGrrl69 or MetsRule86 (unless you are a sportswriter). By all means express your personality, but do it tastefully and in the right context.
Be controversial without being out of touch. If you’re writing YA, it’s common to put your main characters in adult situations. Just make sure your characters handle these situations the way teenagers would. Making them act too old, or too young, puts you at risk of seeming clueless to the teenage experience, and your target audience will see right through you.
Delete irrelevant personal details. Really young writers and more, shall we say, seasoned writers tend to put their ages in their query letters. To the twelve-year-olds and ninety-three-year-olds: if you can write, you can write. If you can’t, you can’t. Knowing how old you are is rarely, if ever, put into consideration.
Avoid vague plot summary. Call it the “yada, yada, yada” of synopses. When key elements to the plot (and therefore, our level of interest in that plot) are glossed over, it makes it seem as if they are not good enough to be mentioned. We want specifics! We want to be dazzled! We do not want “after various events take place, Character A and Character B realize their destiny and fall in love.”
DO NOT compare yourself to Twilight. I repeat: Do. Not. Do. This. EVER. See also: The Da Vinci Code, Harry Potter, anything by John Grisham, or using the phrase “Oprah-appeal.” Confidence in your work is good. Calling yourself the next major trend in literature, pop culture, and the world… kind of a turn-off. Also, it’s up to your agent and/or publisher to decide where you fall on this spectrum of popularity, not you.
So, you may be asking yourself why I’m telling you to avoid all of these things when the person who did do them still got a request. It’s because as a writer you never, ever, ever (ever!) want to give an agent or publisher more of an incentive to reject you. It’s a harsh reality to face, but the odds are already against you. What works for some will most likely not work for you. Don’t let your brilliant manuscript see the inside of your SASE just because you insisted on using the words “great for film.”
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