Query Letter Mishaps – Part 1

As a freelance editor, I see a lot of query letters. Not surprising, considering I offer query letter and synopsis critiques. I figured it might be helpful to take a look at some of the common mistakes I see writers make in their query letters.

The Blurb:

-Too long. A query should only be one page. This includes a personalized intro (where you’d say why you’re querying this particular agent), 1-3 blurb paragraphs, a short bio, technicalities (word count, title, whether or not it’s a series, etc.), and your contact information. This “formula” can be moved around somewhat, but those elements should be found on the page.

-Too short. If the query blurb doesn’t have enough details, the agent may not see how your story is different from all the others like it.

-It’s a jumbled mess. This is when the query doesn’t seem to be organized. It doesn’t flow well, even if all the necessary story elements are mentioned.

-Lack of voice. The query is dry and boring. If the agent struggles to get through the query, she won’t request more pages. In fact, she wouldn’t finish the query. Make sure to add your voice so she can get an idea for how you write.

-Wrong voice/tone. The voice and tone in the query should match the story. Why hook an agent with a light and humorous voice if your story is dark? This sets up wrong expectations and throws off an agent who requested the manuscript because she fell in love with the author’s voice in the query.

-No GMCs. When an agent reads a query, she is looking for the main character’s GMCs (goals, motivations, conflicts). They are what make the story’s skeleton, so if they’re missing, the agent will wonder if they’re missing in the story, too.

-The ending is revealed. While you must show the ending in a synopsis, you don’t reveal it in a query letter. Agents want to know what’s at stake but not how the character will resolve the conflict.

-Stakes aren’t clear. Something like, “or he will lose everything” doesn’t tell an agent anything. Be more specific. Not only does she want to know exactly what the character stands to lose, she needs to understand how this will affect the character. For example, if Joe doesn’t figure out the mistake, he’ll lose his job and won’t be able to pay his kid’s tuition. With this example, we know his goal (that he must figure out the mistake), we know what’s at stake (his job), we know his motivation for wanting to figure out the mistake (he doesn’t want to lose his job), and we know how this will affect him (he won’t be able to afford his kid’s tuition). Now, all we need is the conflict. What’s keeping him from figuring out the mistake?

-Naming/mentioning too many characters. The agent needs to know the main character’s name. If there’s a hero, heroine, and villain, it’s okay to name them in the query. That’s it. Nobody else. If you have to mention someone, use her title (like Joe’s wife or the baker). Otherwise, it’s hard to keep track of everyone.

-Talking to the reader. This is when the author writes the blurb like a book report. This style is stilted and won’t hook the agent.

-Too much setup. If you write in a genre that allows for different worlds, you may need more setup than others, but most writers should keep the backstory out of the query.

Come back next week to learn about common mistakes authors make when writing their query letter bio section.

Check out my query letter/synopsis critique services.

If you’re looking for a developmental/substantive edit of your manuscript, where I’d look at the big picture issues with the plot and characters, contact me for a sample edit. I have two slots available in October.

If you’re looking for copyediting, I have several copy editors on my editorial team. Most have worked with Harlequin, Carina Press, and Entangled Publishing, and are available within a few weeks or sooner. Ask for a sample quote today!

Lynnette Labelle

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