As promised, here is the list of 15 not so obvious query mistakes to avoid. These are a little harder to fix and will require extensive editing of the actual content of the query itself. Nevertheless, if you want the best query possible (and if you want to be published, you do!), then keep these points in mind.
Not So Obvious Query Mistakes to Avoid:
1) Query shouldn’t read like a synopsis.
This is characteristic of overly lengthy queries, the ones where the summary paragraph is more than a third of a page. Keep in mind that a synopsis is only supposed to be a full page, single spaced. Your query summary shouldn’t give away the ending and does not need to give in gory detail how your protagonist reaches that ending. Stick to the basic setup, the major conflict (not all the minor subplots), and how your protagonist is dealing with the major conflict.
2) Don’t mention characters that never appear again.
I see this one a lot, and it’s pretty easy to spot. Just look for characters mentioned in your query only once. Delete them. There should be as few names as possible in your query. In fact, the only name you need is your protagonist’s. Don’t mention minor characters, family names, pet names, villain names (except for the primary antagonist of course), or lover names. The exception to this rule is if another character plays a pivotal role in the plot alongside your protagonist, and without this character, your story would not exist. In that situation, make sure you integrate that character’s role with the protagonist.
3) Shy away from wordy-ness.
When it comes to query writing, brevity is golden. As in every single business, time is money, and an agent does not have time to read hundreds of even 2 paged queries a week. Keep your query short by reducing wordiness. Things that can be taken out are “I am seeking representation for…” They know this already. Also, credentials that don’t have anything to do with writing like “I am a fan of skydiving and bake super brownies on the weekends.” Like with your manuscript, edit out weak verbs and passive voice.
4) Don’t add unnecessary details.
Yes, in your story your protagonist may fly from Canada to
Antarctica in search of her missing twin, but do we also need to know the man sitting next to her has a cold? Or that they Penguin King is really a polar bear in disguise? Or that her twin is really her grandfather? No. No we don’t. Go through your query and ask yourself at the end of each sentence/phrase, “Is the main plot still clear without this line?” If the answer is “Yes,” or even “Almost,” then take the detail out. This also helps shorten your query.
5) Don’t try to say too much.
This takes focus away from main plot. This ties in to 1-4. Although this may be hard to believe, the more you try to explain your story, it harder it is to understand. Don’t believe me? Go and ask someone what their paper (I’m in college, there are a lot of papers) is about. They’ll start off with “It’s about whether the Supreme Court should review cases using the strict scrutiny or rational basis test,” (which is a great summary) and then they’ll go ruin it by say something like “but race is often a major factor in making the decision,” and then they’ll add “of course, economic status can be argued as a form of discrimination, which ties in the quality of education in certain districts.” While all this may be true, the listener will be absolutely lost at this point, and you don’t want to lose the agent. Stick to only the main plot. “It’s about whether the Supreme Court should review cases using the strict scrutiny or rational basis test.”
6) Don’t mention new terminology unless absolutely necessary.
The currency of your world may be the faroj, and the most popular dish could be rasqumt, but do we really need to know this in order to understand the main plot? Yeah, I thought not. There are certain archetypes that every plot builds on, and none of those involve new terminology. It is not a good idea to make the agent go “Huh?” when reading your query, so leave the new language out.
7) When mentioning new terminology, explain properly.
Now on the other hand, if your main character is a halmor, a gifted individual who can communicate with animals, and the entire plot is about him/her discovering/using/losing/losing then regaining her power, yes do mention it. Just make sure you explain clearly what a halmor is. If you don’t, the agent will again go “Huh?” Don’t assume everyone has the same mind as you (it’s a good thing we don’t!) and will know what you are talking about.
8 ) Quotes are hard to integrate.
No, that does not mean this is an absolute no-no, but the fact of the matter is you have a limited amount of space to explain your story. Do you really want to waste one line on a quote that is not going to contribute to explaining your plot? In general, quotes are used for shock, other wise known as the “Oh Snap!” factor. And as fun as “Oh Snap!” may be, it will only hurt your query if it’s not moving your plot forward.
9) Refrain from repetition.
This is probably prevalent in your manuscript before you edit it and works in the same way for your query, so I’m going to copy my post from my “Things to Watch Out For When Editing” article. Personally, when I am first writing, often I will find myself struggling to explain a phrase/action/thought/situation/etc. with the end result of repeating what I want to say in multiple forms. For example, “Cathy isn’t sure she can explain herself. She spends much of her time clarifying what she wants to say.” Those two sentences held the same meaning, but by cutting one out, I’ve not only made my [query] more compact, I’ve also focused more attention on the action because the narration cuts straight to the point.
10) You don’t need adjectives.
It’s amazing how much space these descriptions can take up. “The brilliant, long haired beauty Cathy has always wanted to scale the freezing, blizzard covered Himalayas with her trusty pickax and her unfaithful, but sexy female lover from another mother.” Unless the “unfaithful” plays an important role in the story, this can be shortened to “Cathy has always wanted to scale the
Himalayas with her female lover.” Now it is not only shorted, the main action is clear and not buried under layers of unnecessary descriptions.
11) Don’t make general claims.
I seen a few queries that say things such as “a heart warming tale of love,” or “an action packed thriller,” or “a bone chilling horror filled with mystery and intrigue.” You need to show how the tale is heart warming/action packed/bone chilling with the summary paragraph. Show us the romantic element of the plot, the non stop action, or what terrifying act occurs, instead of telling us. This will make your query much stronger, and much more believable. After all, you may think heart warming, I might think puppy murdering.
12) Transitions need to be smooth.
Please don’t jump from one idea to a completely different idea. Think of your query as a gentle slope, not the New York sky line. Each idea should build upon the one before it, aka relate to it in some obvious way. It shouldn’t hop from one thought to another, and though they may be related in the long run, writing your query with discombobulated ideas only serves to make you look like a shabby writer. And shabby writers don’t get published.
13) Pretend you know nothing about the book and are only reading the query.
This is a critical step. An agent doesn’t know your plot’s back story, the history the characters have with each other, what the character’s dreams/hopes/goals for the future are. All they know and want to know is how your protagonist deals with the conflict in the story you are seeking representation for. And that’s the mindset you need to have when you are reading your query for clarity. Does every line of your query make absolute sense if you’ve never read your story before? If the answer is remotely different from an emphatic yes, go back and edit/delete it.
14) Read out loud for awkwardness/smoothness.
Human minds are really strange (trust me, I’m a neuroscience major… >_<) and there are a lot of things that sound cool in your head, but only a handful of those translate well into speech. Think about this, how many times have you ranted your heart and soul out at a driver who cut in front of you, but only in the confines of your mind? How many times have you frowned in disapproval at someone making a scene in public but ignored them otherwise? Thank you, point proven. We don’t say half of what goes through our minds (or most of us would be in jail for disrespect ^_^), and the same is true for your query. Read it OUTLOUD. If it sounds weird with actual speech, then go back and rework it.
15) Don’t leave out credentials.
Okay, there are a lot of new first time writers out there who want to be published. You don’t have any credentials, but for pity sakes, don’t leave this blank! If nothing else, pay the $85 fee and join SCBWI or some other writer’s group. Aside from the benefits of being a part of a writing community where you can receive substantial help from others in the business, you can put something here so it looks like you actually care enough about writing to socialize with others. Agents want to know their clients are not hermits in a closed off quarter of the world, and can interact with others at speaking engagements. Not to mention, people who cloister themselves away from others are potential psychopaths in the making.
As with all things, these are not absolute rules, but guidelines. If you can skillfully integrate quotes, go ahead. If you can deftly slip in every single character’s name, don’t let these rules hold you back. I hope this, along with the Obvious Query Mistakes to Avoid article, helps all of you who are struggling with writing your query.
It is really really really really really hard to sum up the story on which you have heaped all of your dreams and ambitions up in less than a page, but in order for those dreams and ambitions to come true, it must be done. Good luck! ^_^