QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Have You Ever...?

Posted your blog entry by accident? Yeah, that happened to me on Sunday. Sorry for the unintended sneak peek. I'm sure you were all on the edge of your seats to see what that link was going to lead to.

Today, I wanted to talk about the use of questions in queries. I’m not going to go Nathan Bransford on you (click here to see how he feels about opening with a question), or even Tina Wexler (who also has an opinion on questions to start a query), but those are great reads for opening your query with a question. Or rather, not opening your query with a question.

I posted on the QueryTracker forum a while back about starting with a question. A lot of people say don’t do it. But as I was researching for this post, these were the only two agents I could find who have actually said this. This hardly constitutes “a lot” even though Mr. Bransford is quite popular (and we love him here on the blog) and Ms. Wexler is nothing if not fabulous. So if you know of any more, please post their blog links in the comments.

No, what this post is about is questions in the consequence section of your query. At the end. I’m going to go out on my limb and say: don’t do it.


Because the question can almost always be answered—and not in a good way. It’s not thrilling. It’s not a cliffhanger. It’s not enticing me to read more. And, you run the risk of the agent answering incorrectly. All of these are bad, in my opinion.

Let’s look at some examples. I made these up, so if you see any relation to your own work, it is purely coincidental.

Example: Will she make it in time?
Answer: *yawn* Yes. Form rejection.

Example: Will she follow the sexy Diesel and become the Dark Lord’s protégé, or will she use her abilities to save Vin, the man she has come to love?
Answer: Ugh. Who cares? Deletage.

Example: Will Clarence find the will to survive?
Answer: Undoubtedly, or you wouldn’t be writing it. And...reject.

Example: Can she outwit the murderer and find James in time?
Answer: Yes. Next.

I think asking a question as the consequence robs your entire query of power. You want that last section to be screaming “Read me! Request and read me now!” You don’t want the agent to already know what’s going to happen because you failed to entice them with a powerful ending sentence that includes a consequence.

So let’s change those blah’s into powerful statements.
Example: Will she make it in time?

Powerful statement with a consequence: Penna will have to find a way to outwit her tax advisor before he makes off with her ginormous return. If not, it won’t matter how much money she has—the dead don’t need accountants.

It must have a consequence. In this one, Penna will die if she doesn’t thwart her tax advisor. (Toldja I made these up.)

Example: Will she follow the sexy Diesel and become the Dark Lord’s protégé, or will she use her power to save Vin, the man she has come to love?

Powerful statement with a consequence: Annika is faced with the impossible choice: become Diesel’s protégé or use her abilities to save Vin. Either way, her newfound power could end up consuming her.

Example: Will Clarence find the will to survive?

Powerful statement with a consequence: Clarence must search inside himself to find the will to carry on or risk losing his daughter forever.

Example: Can she outwit the murderer and find James in time?

Powerful statement with a consequence: On the run from the mafia, Hannah will have to call the one person she detests—her father—in order to save James. Better that, than six feet under.

So here’s the QT Blog challenge: Open your query. We’ll wait. Read it. Any questions? Eliminate them. All of them. Write powerful statements instead. Questions should be saved for when you get The Call.

So…questions? (lol) Post them in the comments!

Or if you've got an aura of questioning about you today, don't sit down to write your query, simply click here to enter your questions in our current contest. We're dying (literally, dying) to hear from you!

Elana Johnson writes fantasy and science fiction for young adults. When she's not doing that, she's blogging, facebooking, eating out, or wishing she could do any or all of those things.


Stina said...

This is so true. My query for my first novel began and ended with questions. Groan. One request.

My query for my second novel. No questions, many more requests. Okay, plot may have also played a role here, too.

As usual, great advice, Elana. :D

Unknown said...

That was incredibly insightful. I hadn't thought of it like that before. I would have assumed those questions to be rhetorical, but when you're mind sees a question, it automatically begs a response. Like playing a scale and leaving off the octave, your knee jerk response is to resolve it. In the case of questions in a query, you wouldn't want the agent to get the wrong impression and be disappointed or put off. Thanks! That's very good advice!

Anonymous said...

I've tried tried tried to eliminate the questions at the end of my query, but everything comes out blah, and I actually got great responses to my question-ending over at dearauthor.com awhile back.

Still, reading a post like this makes me feel I'm deluding myself my ending is ok. I don't know what else to do.

Can I post it here for bludgeoning or is that a no-no?

lisa and laura said...

We absolutely started the query for our first book with a question and we queried WIDELY. We honestly had no idea that there were agents who advised against it, so I guess ignorance was bliss.

We actually ended up getting a decent amount of requests with our annoying rhetorical question, although probably best not to try this at home...

Here's the first paragraph:

Remember when you were a teenager and humiliated by performing even the most mundane tasks? Things like taking the bus, riding your bike, and carrying an umbrella were mysteriously embarrassing. And if you think your life was bad, imagine yourself in Elle Bennet’s shoes. Her youngest sister is the prep school slut, her family is drowning in credit-card debt, and her mother’s only hobby is social climbing.

Elana Johnson said...

MDavis, email it to me. I'll take a look at it... My email is in the sidebar. :)

Lisa and Laura, I really have to read that novel...just sayin'. ;)

Thanks Stina and Janyece!

Tess said...

Great post. Funny how I wasn't sure I agreed with you until I read the rewritten versions of the questions. Much better. Now where did I put that red pencil....

JC Falor said...

As soon as I started reading, I'm doing the forehead hitting over my own query. Think I can fix it though. Thanks for the heads up!

Windy said...

Thanks, Elana!

Holy cow, I didn't realize how weak the question thing sounded until now and as I read through my query, definitely have some reworking to do.

Amanda Bonilla said...

Great post!!! I'm wondering..... did any past experience with a new friend prompt this ;) I so agree and want to thank you for pointing out to me that questions don't fly. Thanks to your advice, my new query is much better and I think has been better received by agents.

H. L. Dyer said...

Colleen Lindsay has also blogged against query questions:

How Not to Begin a Query Letter

H. L. Dyer said...

And Rachelle Gardner:

How to Avoid Impressing Me

And Jonathan Lyons:

Pet Peeves

Eric said...

This is really helpful advice. I haven't yet had to write a query (hopefully soon), but I can definitely see how your examples are much better than the alternative. Thanks alot.

Elana Johnson said...

Mandy, never. ;)

Heather, I knew I should have come to you first. I was scouring Pubrants. That place is squeaky clean.

Thanks Eric!

Angela Ackerman said...

Great post!

Amy Kinzer said...

Nice work Elana. I always tell my writer friends: "It's a query, not a quiz."
Great examples of how to fix this all too common query faux pas.

Danyelle L. said...

Very nice post. I especially like how you illustrated your post with examples and explanations. Great job!

Terri Tiffany said...

I had to come back here and read this as my query still stinks--yeah, I had an ending question but thanks to your examples--it is out of there!! Thanks!

Unknown said...

I ran my query through the QueryTracker forum and on advice from another writer ADDED a question into my query letter. And it's all moot because I just sent that query to the last couple of agents on my list for this novel.

Oh, well. Next novel query I'll keep it in mind.

Christopher Francis said...

Great post regarding questions, however I wonder what your thoughts are if you open your query with a question? E.g., How far would you go to teach your school a lesson? or How would you stop the most feared bully from humiliating your new best friend?