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How Much Can You Really Tell From a Query?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy




It's the rare writer who actually enjoys writing a query (I'm one of those now, but that wasn't always the case). Say the word query around a group of writers and you'll most likely hear groans. Odds are, someone is that group will ask, "Why do we need to do this? It's not like an agent can tell anything about the book from two paragraphs anyway."

Would it surprise you to hear you can tell a lot about a book from the query?

As a writer, I've critiqued more queries and novels than I can count, and I don't even come close to the number agents and editors see every month. But I can tell what problems I'm likely to find in a manuscript after reading just the query.

Are you prone to passive voice? I bet I see several examples, and more than a few to be verbs. Are you fond of clich├ęs? Odds are there's at least one in that pitch paragraph, maybe even a "little did they know" or "things aren't what they seem." Does the manuscript need tightening? That'll show, too, with overwritten sentences and a repetition of words.  

Here are six common query problems that could be holding your novel back:

1. It Sounds the Same as Every Other Book in its Genre
This query might do everything right, but if the story isn't original, that's a good indication the novel itself doesn't offer anything new (even if it is well written). Fix this by finding what's unique about your book, or revising to add a new twist.

2. There's No Focus
This query rambles on and introduces five characters and six plots in three paragraphs. Multiple points of view, tons of subplots, and none of them connect to any one major storyline. This suggests the novel rambles as well, and probably doesn't know what it's trying to be. Fix this by pinpointing what your core conflict is, identifying you protagonist's goal, and being clear what the novel is truly about.

3. There's No Sense of the Stakes
This query can't tell you why the plot matters. Sure, maybe the fate of the world is in the balance, but why exactly should the protagonist (and the reader) care? This implies your characters are acting for plot reasons and not because they have a personal stake in this story, so the novel will likely feel pointless. Fix this by raising the stakes and giving the protagonist a personal reason to want to solve the story problem. And real consequences if she fails.  

4. A Weak or No Plot
This query spends more time talking about the idea of the story, or just lists the events that happen in the book. There's no sense of what the core conflict is or how the protagonist has to solve it. This suggests a novel that feels episodic, where the chapters seem disconnected from each other and there's no sense of a protagonist trying to solve a big problem. Fix this by pinpointing your core conflict and the goals your protagonist needs to take to resolve that conflict.

5. Not Edited Enough
This query will have extra words, repetitious phrases, weak nouns and verbs. There may even be misspelled words or the wrong word, like their instead of there. This suggests the manuscript is likely riddled with the same errors. Fix this by revising and proofing thoroughly.

6. It's Got the Whole World
This query spends most of its time talking about the world, the history, the backstory of the characters, but never actually mentions the plot. This suggests the novel will be filled with too much world building, excessive backstory and a lot of infodumps. Fix this by cutting what isn't necessary for the story, and focusing more on the plot and character development. 

The Good News
Just as the flaws stand out, the strengths also shine through. That's why a not-so-great query can still catch an agent's eye. A well-written, original story with a compelling plot can usually be seen even if the query stumbles a bit.

Queries can be useful diagnostic tools to help you find--and fix--problems before your manuscript is sent off to agents and editors. Take an objective look at yours and see if you're showing the best parts of your novel or letting the flaws sneak in.

What does your query say about your book?

Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy THE HEALING WARS, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her books include THE SHIFTER, and BLUE FIRE. DARKFALL. She lives in Georgia with her husband, three cats and one very nervous freshwater eel. You can visit her online at www.janicehardy.com, chat with her about writing on her blog, The Other Side of the Story, or find her on Twitter @Janice_Hardy.

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12 comments:

On January 21, 2013 at 7:42 AM , Veronica Sicoe said...

AWESOME breakdown of how queries represent novels and writers' voices! Love this, Janice. :)

 
On January 21, 2013 at 8:37 AM , Sarah Pinneo said...

So true! The one thing that is often (legally) missing from queries, though, is POV. It's not Standard Operating Procedure to let on if a book is written in 1st person, or limited third.

 
On January 21, 2013 at 9:43 AM , Natalie Aguirre said...

Thanks Janice for the suggestions on what to look for in your query before sending it out. I'm definitely not one of those persons who loves writing them.

 
On January 21, 2013 at 11:07 AM , Hera Black said...

Not to be a jerk but...

wouldn't "Here are a six common query problems that could be holding your novel back" be "Here are six common query problems that could be holding BACK your novel?" Back after holding...

 
On January 21, 2013 at 11:10 AM , Andrea Mack said...

Thanks for this! It makes me look at queries in a whole new light.

 
On January 21, 2013 at 2:56 PM , Janice Hardy said...

Veronica, thanks!

Sarah, very true. Though that's usually clear when they look at the first page.

Natalie, I didn't for the longest time, but I eventually found an appreciation for them. :) They can be very helpful diagnostic tools.

Hera, the "a" is definitely a typo, (thanks for catching that, I'll see if they can fix it) but the "back" could go either way. There's no rule there.

Andrea, they're really useful for more than just getting someone to pick up your book. I use them all the time to help plan my novels.

 
On January 21, 2013 at 3:03 PM , mooderino said...

Great insight and advice. Thanks for sharing!

mood
Moody Writing

 
On January 22, 2013 at 6:33 AM , Stella Deleuze said...

Couldn't agree more. Both on the 'love writing queries' (and synopses for that matter) and also on how much you can spot in a query or synopsis. Very good post and probably a real eye-opener for many.
I hate 'little did they know', by the way.

 
On January 23, 2013 at 8:03 AM , Tracy Campbell said...

Hi Janice,
So great to see you over her on Query Tracker. Great advice as usual!
Thanks,
Tracy

 
On January 23, 2013 at 11:30 AM , susielindau.com said...

Thanks for sharing!
I am going to save this link! I don't think I'll dread it at all, but don't want to make any mistakes either... I can't wait until this sucker is done and on its way into the world... :)

 
On January 23, 2013 at 4:24 PM , Laura Stephenson said...

Great advice! I just posted some advice on querying as well, that might make the prospect less dreary to those who don't care for it.

My query...says my book is snarky, action-packed, and all the characters start off at some degree of evil. I think. Which is exactly what I want it to say.

 
On January 24, 2013 at 3:16 PM , Janice Hardy said...

Mood, thanks!

Stella, oh cool, another query lover :) So few of us out there, hehe. I hope it helps folks. Spare them that "send the query too soon" heartache.

Tracy, thanks! Good to be here. It's such a great site.

Susie, I know that feeling :) Best of luck with it!

Laura, sounds like a fun books :) I'm quite fond of evil myself. (at least in books)