Friday, April 20, 2012

It's that time again! Query Letter Critique

Query letters arriving in droves this week!

Jumping right in...

Original Query Letter

Dear [Literary Agent],

I present to you a recipe for a 90,000 word high fantasy YA novel with
a scientific flavour named EVOLUTION: THREADS OF CONTROL.

1.      One average nerd (Jimmy Ranfaz) with fantasies of superpowers and adventure.
2.      Tree-descendant humans from another planet (Ulfitron) seeking new saviour.
3.      One old nemesis returning to wipe out Ulfitronians.
4.      One powerful native (Juvall Spelding) with utter disdain for nerd’s
cranial abilities.

1.      Activate nerd’s cranial abilities and send him to Ulfitron for training.
2.      Show his frustration at mastering cranial powers.
3.      Throw in one near death experience for nerd and native from attack
by nemesis.
4.      Introduce one lost source of knowledge on how to beat nemesis,
closely followed by a hazardous journey to locate the source by nerd
and native.
5.      Finish off with one complex deception of the Ulfitronians regarding
their beliefs and nerd’s true origins.
6.      Garnish with nerd’s dilemma of saving Ulfitronians or finally
rising above mediocrity.

Caution: Calling nerd average in front of him has catastrophic results.

The complete dish is available on request. Thank you for your time and

Kind Regards,
(Name redacated)

I’m not going to go in and line-edit this one because I don’t think it’d be beneficial. The problem here is (and I have to apologize to the author in advance for my candor) bigger than that.

While I appreciate the creativity of the recipe approach, I’m afraid that straying too far from the suggested format (three paragraphs, consisting of a hook, a synopsis, and a bio) might make your query stand out from the crowd in a not so good way.

The unusual format is a bit distracting from the story you’re trying to tell, which is the purpose of the query in the first place. I also worry about what it could tell the agent, which is that your story isn’t intriguing enough in and of itself to attract attention, so that you have to resort to what may be viewed as a gimmick (Again, I apologize for the honesty. This book might be AMAZING. It’s just hard to tell in this format).  

Yes, there have been instances where someone has broken ‘the rules’ and gone on to have great success, but my advice is not to bank on being the exception to the rule. Agents have seen it all. 

A query letter is, in essence, a business letter. In business, you want to be taken seriously. If you want to stand out from the crowd, I would suggest focusing on writing an action-packed, high-stakes, ‘voicey’ query letter…and stick to the suggested format.

I say all this even though it’s probably majorly disheartening to the author because a) I’d want someone to tell me, b) The book might be great and it would be a shame to get rejected because of a totally fixable problem, and c) I love my readers to death and want you all to be super successful authors (Yup, that includes you, reading this right now. I love you! Tons! I want to kiss you. ON THE MOUTH! Okay, too far. But you get the point).

Best of luck, author! 

And peeps, feel free to jump in with your comments or just to tell me to shut up :) 


  1. I agree, the recipe thing is distracting and you don't need it. When I started reading this I thought it was a query for a cookbook! Making a list doesn't really showcase your writing abilities, and you definitely want an agent to see those!

    Personally I ignored the "3 paragraph" thing (my writing style is short sentences and short paragraphs. I just went back and counted - technically my query letter was 9 paragraphs, several of them one sentence long). Feel free to make a query letter your own, but I'd shy away from lists and things that distract from your story pitch.

    1. Now that you mention it, Amy, my query is 4 paragraphs. My synopsis was two small paras. So yeah, totally agree. Also, the suggested word count floated around all the writing websites is 250 max, but I found a 350 max mention on Nathan Bransford's blog and decided to use that one instead because it suited my needs. So make of that what you will.

      Thanks for commenting, Amy! I'm sure the author appreciates the input. I know I do!

  2. Oooh! Thanks for reviewing the query in between the awesome agent interviews.

    I was expecting brickbats for this version of the query letter because it breaks the rules. I had tried the 'tried and tested' format but somehow I wasn't getting the voice I needed. Hence, this attempt.

    I guess its back to the drawing board for me!

    1. OMGsooooohappy you're not mad at me. So happy! I worried a bit (read: lots)

      Also, I won't name any names, but I know a writer who wrote no fewer than 80,000 query letters before she got hers just right. Now she's agented! So let that be some encouragement, though I do hope you gets your just right before that many attempts :)

      Have you joined absolute write? It's great for getting feeding on query letters.

    2. No ways can I be angry at someone who looks at my query!! Kisses and hugs instead for enduring the torture.

      And I hear 50,000 query letter attempts is the new charm, so making my way to it!

      I'll try absolute write as well. Thanks for the tip!

    3. I'm so offended. It was 80,473.

      But I do fully agree with Michelle's comments on this query. (Though as she knows, I HAVE to have three paragraphs on the actual story in my own and no more than 250 words otherwise THE WORLD WILL IMPLODE.)

  3. I actually found this version rather funny. It has a great voice. If you can transfer the humour in this attempt into the more standard format, I think you might have a winner. :-)

    1. I agree. I thought it was really cute. The format is really doing it a disservice.

  4. I think this type of query could go either way. You might find an agent loves this approach and the humour in it, and others who roll their eyes.

    Personally, I'd like to get a better feel for the setting and have a stronger connection with the main character, which could be better achieved in the paragraph style query.

    1. Good point, Xan. Thanks for commenting!

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  6. I completely agree with your crit, Michelle. I was majorly distracted by the format. It's a cute idea, but the value of the cute presentation doesn't outweigh the distraction it causes for understanding the plot synopsis. And I agree with Amy, it doesn't showcase the author's writing ability.

    The author has a great attitude towards the crit. Good luck with querying!

    1. Thanks for comment, Brandy! And yes, a great attitude indeed :D

  7. Going to have to agree with both Michelle about the query format seeming a tad gimmicky, and Amaleen about the voice being rather funny. This query has potential to be great and I see sparks of genius in the writing. I'd be interested in seeing a second attempt done in the three paragraph format.

    Good luck, author.

    1. Agree! And the author is certainly welcome to send along a second attempt if not scared away :D

    2. Oh! Don't worry Michelle. I am already working on it! 79,832 left :D

  8. Thank you for posting this, Michelle :) I'm a new follower to your blog so I'm only starting to read these Query Letter series now, but I appreciate and enjoy them. :)

    1. Yay!! So glad you like them, and thanks for following my blog :D

  9. I read over the query and then read it again–between the lines. Michelle is right, it's quite possible somewhere between those lines hides an exciting story, but it's hard to see in this format. I commend the author for his originality, and more so for seeing and being so accepting of the constructive direction offered in all these honest critiques.

    To me, a novel starts out as a lump of coal. Through the heat and pressure of critiques and query rejections, not to mention a rather large bucket of patience, eventually a diamond emerges. You appear to have a gem of a story ready to be discovered, so the hard part is done. Present it like Tiffany's and the world will queue up in anticipation of its release.

    Michelle, your blog was recommended to me by a YA author and I have to say I can see why, I'm enjoying the content. It has been a bright spot on a rather dreary and rainy morning. Hope you don't mind me tossing in my 2 pence.

    Cheers, Mike

    1. Someone mentioned by blog? That makes my day! Seriously. So cool.

      And thanks for commenting, Mike. Speaking for the author and myself, we really appreciate it!

  10. Michelle - I totally agree with your comments on this query. I love it when you do your query critiques :-)

    I am also stopping by to let you know that I finally did those 11 questions. Here is my post: Feel free to leave a comment.

    All the best-

    1. Glad you like it, Rachel, and going to check out your answers now!! Thanks for participating :)

  11. The only problem with "breaking the rules" is the millions of other writers who are trying to do the same thing. I hate to say it, but I can almost guarantee you they've seen the recipe format before.

    I think I went through several different forms of query letters before settling on the most simple thing of all: A couple sentences from the actual work. Then the requests starting coming in.

    1. Great point, Erin. Thanks for commenting :)