Why Your Query Letter May Not Be Working

Some may say that the hardest part of being an aspiring author isn’t writing the novel; it’s writing the query letter afterwards.

Getting 100,000 words compressed into 250 words is a lot more difficult than one initially assumes. Oh, sure, you say. I can do that. But instead of 250 words, it’s more like 400 words…but that’s okay because I need all those words to really explain the story.

Actually, you don’t. And if your rough drafts look anything like mine, you have no idea what to really focus on.

If you haven’t already, I HIGHLY recommend popping over to Query Shark to read the archives and see what an agent looks for in queries. She points out what works, what doesn’t, and is very (read: brutally) honest about the things that get you form rejections.

After researching this site, I’ve noticed three things that aspiring authors are doing that might put their queries in No Man’s Land:

1. No plot

I’ve personally experienced an existential meltdown when I realized that my query did not include a real plot—and neither did my book. Your query can reveal telling things about your book, so pay attention; the agent will catch these things as well.

In this instance, many writers don’t include the most crucial aspect in a query: a plot. I don’t mean explaining all the nuances (see below), but rather including the inciting incident that forces your protagonist to make an Important Choice. What does So-and-So want? What’s keeping her from it?

Entice the reader. Show them a sliver of the story—and then leave them hanging for more. (Note: Do not include the ending in your query).

2. No action

No, I’m not talking about car explosions and dragon attacks—although if those are central to your story, by all means, mention them. I’m talking about the character journey in connection with the plot you have already (you have, right?) introduced.

A lot of queries go on and on about backstory. So-and-So’s parents are dead, her boyfriend dumped her, her favorite restaurant is going out of business. Finally, after all that backstory, it’s revealed that she’s just witnessed a gruesome murder and now the killer is out to get her before she confesses.

The last is obviously the most interesting, because it includes action. It gives your protagonist a dilemma, which can lead to the Important Choice she will face: confess, or keep her mouth shut in fear? Focus on the inciting incident rather than what leads up to it.

3. Too long

Writers love words; specifically, their own words. One of the biggest faults I notice in queries is that they ramble, or explain something at length that can be summarized in one sentence.

Your query should be about 250 words. This is enough to explain what needs explaining—important characters and plot—without dragging you through a convoluted story point by point.

Rather than using a whole paragraph to describe how So-and-So ends up falling for the cop who’s protecting her, say instead: “So-and-So not only keeps her eyes out for the murderer, but also on the backside of Rugged Cop.”

Or, you know. Something like that.

What are the biggest struggles you face with writing your query?

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