Querying for Beginners

My name is Matthew. Matthew MacNish is the pen name I publish fiction under. You can visit my blog, The QQQE, if you would like to know more.

Misha asked me to write about querying for beginners today, and especially mistakes some beginners make. Before I get into that, let me tell you a bit about myself, and my history with query letters, and point you to some places where I learned about them.

When I first started sending out queries, I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t know any writers in real life, and I hadn’t met any on the internet yet at the time. So I crafted what I thought was a good query, and sent it out. I got a couple of requests (surely based more on the pages than the query), but I was inevitably rejected. I wasn’t ready. Neither was my query—or my book.

You can read some of my terrible old queries, and see many good examples of the mistake this beginner made, by checking the label “queries-rejections” at my blog.

So I decided to study query letters, and as much as I hated them, I decided I would get good at them. So I started my blog, and began by sharing my own mistakes, so others could learn from them. Then I started finding some great resources for helping to learn how to write a better query. First, was Nathan Bransford’s blog, specifically posts like Query Letter Mad Libs, and Anatomy of a Good Query Letter. Then it was Kate Testerman’s blog, and especially her service Ask Daphne! About My Query. Then I met Elana Johnson, read her e-book From the Query to the Call, and after getting to know her (and the other great hosts) for a while, I won a query contest at Write On Con, which you can read the results of, in which Literary Agent Joanna Stampfel-Volpe critiqued my query, here.

Once I figured out how to write a decent query, I started hosting and analyzing successful ones on my blog. They didn’t have to have earned the author an agent, just a full or partial request. The fun part though, is several of those queries are now published books. You can find a list of those posts, here. Then, once I became familiar with good queries, I started critiquing query letters on my blog.

You can find those posts by checking the label “queries-critiques” on it.

Now that you have some background let’s talk about query mistakes.

First and foremost is the Rhetorical Question. This one is so bad, and so famous, it’s almost an internet meme. Here are some examples of what people think of rhetorical questions in queries:

Tahereh Mafi makes fun of them

The Rejectionist answers some of them
The Query Shark threatens those who use them

Nathan Bransford writes some for classic novels

So yeah, don’t use rhetorical questions. In fact, I would advise you just leave questions out of your query altogether.

The next most common mistake I see is vagueness. Being vague in a query is even worse than being cliché. Well, okay, not always. A really bad cliché could probably ruin a query, but I don’t see that as often as I see people being vague.

When you write a query, get specific. Don’t say character x’s life flipped inside out when her mother came back into her life, show us how it changed, specifically, because even though we can all imagine hundreds of ways in which that kind of incident would change a person’s life, we need to know exactly how it change this character’s life, so that we can begin to picture the world within the story the query letter is describing, and not be left wondering what actually happens.

Not as common, but probably worse, is when a query has no sense of character. I often see people begin with the character’s name, but then just jump right into the inciting incident. You can have an awesome plot, with a perfect inciting incident, but if the reader does know what kind of person your character is, they’re not going to care what happens to them.

I could probably go on, but this post is long enough already, so I’ll leave it to your readers to ask questions in the comments if they have any, Misha.

Thanks for having me on today!

Thanks so much for this great post, Matt! I’m just there will be more than one reader who has been dying to find such a good list of tips and research links as this. I know I have. It was wonderful to have you here.

Anyone else interested in doing a Guest Post Friday? I have two in July and four in August open. If you are, please see this post for more information and contact me.

Have a great weekend everyone!

42 thoughts on “Querying for Beginners

  1. Common knowledge Matt? Not for this gal. Most of what I've learned about query letters if from your blog. Sorry, Query Shark, you've got competition.

  2. Nice to know the background on your own query letter, Matt. It's great that you share this knowledge. One of these days, that good karma will catch up to you.

  3. I agree with DG Hudson above. All this work you do for other people must be racking up one big positive Karma charge, and I hope you reap the benefits of it soon!

    Off to read the posts making fun of rhetorical questions!

  4. Matthew, you are a blessing to us Query Novices. Like D.G Hudson, I too believe that all the good karma you have collected will one day pay off.

    Thanks for an informative post.

  5. Matt has enough character for a dozen queries, and about the dreaded rhetorical question, saw this comment by an agent at Casey's just yesterday: “In terms of pet peeves, I'm not a big fan of query letters that pose too many questions about the work (please just tell me what happens).”

  6. Matt – you've become so good at sculpting queries. I love to hear that you struggled initially like the rest of us.

    Misha – this is a great blog! I'm so glad I stopped by! *new follower*

  7. Great advice, Matthew! (Especially about the rhetorical questions – lol)

    One great site I've come across is Slush Pile Tales. I love her feature Query Dice – it's been enormously helpful for me to look at what others do wrong (or right).

  8. Wow! I wish I'd seen this (and knew about Matt's site) a few months ago when I was on version #536 of my query. But two weeks ago – on my birthday – I finally received a “yes” with a request for my full manuscript.

    Now I'm waiting. And biting my nails. And trying not to check my email every three seconds.

  9. Great post, Matt! One thing I'd add is to avoid the mistake I made when starting to draft queries – you don't have to be linear! As long as you can summarise the crux of the story, you don't need to cover every major event.

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