QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Five Query Mistakes That Make You Look Like An Amateur

A query letter is a declaration, of sorts. It says your book is ready for the world and that you are ready to be its author. Whether you query agents or editors, the query is going to tell its recipient two things: whether your book is worth reading, and whether its author is professional enough to back it up.

I know this sounds intimidating, but it’s got to be if we're going to listen. Many of us writers are still trying to make our debut. We've written our books out of passion, rather than obligation to a creative writing degree. Quite simply, many of us are simple folk who dream of seeing our hard work, our literary sweat and tears, our home-schooled writing craft bear publishable fruit. We came into this game as amateurs.

But amateurs don't become published authors.

Professionals do.

That doesn’t mean that home-schooled writers (such as myself) can never break into the ranks of the published. It just means we have to work all the harder to school our brains to the business side of writing…because the query letter is our final exam.

And as with all final exams, there is the risk of failure.

Your query must speak for both you and your book, a single shot to garner a second, deeper glance at your work. One thing is for certain: if your query appears to be the work of an amateur, it gets a rejection. End of story.

Here are five query mistakes that will make you look like an amateur. These mistakes may keep you from making the grade—and that final, big step towards publication.

1) QUERYING MORE THAN ONE BOOK A query is a pitch for a single product. It’s not a peek at your entire collection of unpublished manuscripts. I’m not an agent, but I imagine agents would have a list of opportunities and publishers and editors constantly circulating in their heads. As they read queries, they scan their internal list of possible markets and decide whether or not each book fits their current connections. Your first line—containing genre and word count—helps them sort your book against their outlets. If they think they can pitch the book, the query makes the first cut.

Pitching more than one book messes with that flow. Small wonder why this reason shows up on a lot of agents’ pet peeves lists. It also pegs you as an amateur because who writes a dozen books and doesn’t publish any of them? A professional would have either sold them or kept quiet about them until they were ready to sell.

2) QUERY IS TOO LONG A rambling query tells the recipient that there’s a solid chance your book rambles, too. You’ve probably spent twice as long editing as you did writing, so don’t let your query give the wrong impression. A query letter template is the perfect place to start—it will make sure you include all the requisite info about your product and yourself.

If this is your first query, follow the template. (See this classic QTB post here for a great example.) Unless you are touched by the hands of the writing gods, a template will suffice. You don’t need to be brilliantly unique; you need to be concise and professional. A query needs to tell everything the agent wants to know at a glance. Remember--they are professional skimmers. Be a professional author who helps the process instead of hinders it.

One page query. Intro, pitch, bio, thanks. That’s it. No conversations, no anecdotes, no bribes. Short and sweet is all you need to sell it.

3) BLANKET QUERIES Imagine: your dream agent receives hundreds of queries a day. You want yours to stand out, right? You want your book to be THE ONE that an agent cannot turn down. Why wouldn’t you give an agent the same consideration?

Don’t start with “Dear Agent.” You know how much you hate getting form rejections that begin “Dear Author”, so don’t inspire an immediate reciprocal response. Don’t query every agent in the company. If an agent gets a query that might be a better fit for one of their partners, they’ll pass it on because no one wants the Next Big Thing to get away. And don’t send one email to a slew of cc’d agents. If an agent doesn’t deserve their own query, your query doesn’t deserve individual consideration.

A professional author will send an individualized query to a single agent because ultimately, that’s who goes into a contract: one agent, one author.

4) NOT FOLLOWING GUIDELINES Every agent has guidelines. What they want in a book. What they want in their submission. How they want it sent. Don’t assume that one query package fits all because it doesn’t. If you want a particular agent to look at your work, show them what they want—no more, no less. Only an amateur thinks they don’t need to play by the rules. Are rules annoying? Sure. But they are in place for a reason.

A hallmark of professionalism is the query that shows you’ve read the guidelines and put effort into following them. Would you want to work with someone who thinks they are above the rules? Me neither.

5) NOT BEING READY And by ready, I meant completely ready.

Is the book ready? Is it finished? If not, DON’T QUERY. Remember that queries are marketing tools—and if you don’t have a product ready for market, you’d better not waste the salesman's time.

A query isn’t a cotillion. It doesn’t announce you and your nearly-complete wonder to the world. It’s not a proclamation that says Here I am, get ready for #mindblown. A query says I have a book, this is what it’s about. Can you sell it for me? Nothing about a query screams amateur louder than the realization that the author doesn’t even know what a query is for.

Not only that, is your query ready? If not, tweak it. Critique it. Run it by the other writers in the QT forum. And for the love of all that’s holy, proofread it.

And still not only that, are you ready? Because if an agent says yes, you’d better be. Everything changes. You don’t want to be the guy in his pajamas typing and fooling around on Twitter. You want to be the professional author, ready to debut.

A query letter tells an agent that you have a great book that’s ready for the market. It also tells the agent that you are a professional author who’s ready to promote it. Those are the two things that an agent is looking for—a product to sell and the professional client behind it.

Are there other mistakes? Goodness, yes. However, a slip-up may be overlooked if you present yourself and your work in the most professional way possible. A great book with a pro behind it won’t be passed over for the sake of a mere infraction. A great book with an amateur might be because, despite a great product, an agent wants to work with someone who is willing to make themselves easy and professional to work with.

And it’s important to remember that even when you present you and yourself in the most professional manner, you may still get a form rejection or three. It’s not you. It’s them.

And it’s okay, because you want a champion to say yes to your query. You want an agent that is the perfect match for your book and for you. Taking care to stand out from the amateurs will make sure that you avoid those amateurish first impression rejections.

If an agent or and editor is going to say no, make them say no for all the right reasons. Being an absolute professional makes it harder for them to say it.

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Ash Krafton is a speculative fiction writer who, despite having a Time Turner under her couch and three different sonic screwdrivers in her purse, still encounters difficulty with time management. She's the author of the urban fantasy trilogy The Books of the Demimonde as well as WORDS THAT BIND. She also writes for YA and NA audiences under the pen name AJ Krafton. THE HEARTBEAT THIEF, her Victorian dark fantasy inspired by Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death”, is now available.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015


Sometimes, it’s hard to be genuinely, selflessly, happy for someone else’s success, especially when you have been striving and failing to meet the same goal. In the querying trenches, writers can fall prey to the belief that getting an agent is a zero sum game. In game and economic theory, this term refers to a situation where each participant’s gains or losses are exactly balanced by the gains or losses of the other participants-- essentially, if one player obtains something of value, that means another player has lost that same item. There comes a point in every writer’s querying journey where the virtual claps and hearty congratulations we offer our fellow writers comes with a healthy dose of “Why not me?”

Why do we harbor this notion that when someone else gets an agent, your chances of getting an agent necessarily decrease? Perhaps because we know that agents reject up to 99% of queries they receive, including the good ones that they just “didn’t connect with.” (Raise your hand if this ubiquitous critique makes you want to scream) This is the reason we obsess over a typo in a query that can’t be un-sent and slap our heads in frustration at “blowing my ONE AND ONLY chance.” With that mindset, it’s no wonder that we battle with inner jealousy when our friends hit a career milestone: We assume that their success is not just their success, but also our loss. Conventional wisdom, also known as Twitter, reinforces the belief that only a select few will ever breathe the rarified air of traditional publishing. Naturally, with so many talented writers in the world, there just can’t be room for everyone, right? So if someone else gets a spot, that means one fewer spot for you, right?

In my opinion, this mindset is wrong and counterproductive. A writer connects with an agent because of timing, market trends, personalities, and a million other variables, including luck.  And that’s just the first stop. An agented writer doesn’t always get a publishing deal. Books often don’t earn back their advances.  Some writers get three book deals and some get digital-only one book deals. There is simply no point in equating another writer’s success with a commensurate failure on your part because everyone succeeds differently and at different times in their life. So if your “dream” agent picks up a new client, that new client hasn’t taken your spot any more than your promotion or pregnancy announcement means someone else is going to get demoted or be childless.  It stinks that publishing is not always a meritocracy but still, you’ve lost nothing by the fact of someone else’s success.  When your path to traditional publishing seems to be a series of dead ends, don’t be tempted to buy into the zero sum mentality and miss out on the celebrations.

Kim English - A native Floridian, Kim is the author of Coriander Jones Saves the World and the upcoming Coriander Jones On Assignment at Sabal Palm Academy. She lives in southwest Florida with her family and an ever increasing number of rescue pets.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Saving Grace of Brackets

I really really suck at writing endings. I rush into them, and the conflict that built so well through the Black Moment just... disappears. And boom, happy ending. Or at least, I stop writing. I have hated my first draft ending for everything I've written in the three years that I've been writing seriously.

So when I got close to the ending for the manuscript I just completed, I decided to do something different: I didn't write it. I knew I was going to get stuck writing the conclusion, and that whatever I came up with would suck, so I got 2/3 through the story, wrote a terrible ending that was way too fast-paced for the story, and started revising.

As I revised, I was better able to understand my plot and wrap my mind around which of the three different endings I'd thought of would work best with the story. I planned more conflicts for the second and third acts as I rewrote the early parts, and by the time I wrote the ending for real, I was pleased with it.

I realize that not everyone sucks at endings like I do, but I think everyone has their own Achilles' heel. Even the best writers have the part that they're least-awesome at. Maybe it's witty dialogue. You know you need some, but when the moment comes to write it, it always falls short. Maybe it's scenery—you see it in your head, it just never makes it onto paper. Maybe it's sentence rhythm. No matter what you do, your sentences fall flat when read aloud.

My advice: skip it. Even if it were beginnings or middles that I struggled with, I still would have skipped my weakest part (with only a vague sketch to get out my worst ideas) as I wrote my fast draft. If you really need witty dialogue, but slowing down to think of something will take you a few days, just write "[insert witty dialogue here--Karen zings Horace]" and come back to it later. If you can't picture a scene, but you need your reader to, write "[insert fitting description of room]" and then keep going. That's the important part: understand why you're stuck, make a note to fix it later, and keep going.

In my most recent book, I had so many brackets--research I needed to do, names I couldn't remember offhand, dialogue I couldn't get right the first time... and missing scenes after the midpoint. When I did my first revision, I could just search for opening brackets and look at what I needed to fix. With my editing brain on, I was able to come up with a solution that I wouldn't have managed during the original drafting.

When I remember that not everything has to go down perfectly in the first draft, and give myself permission to save research and "hard stuff" for later, then the most important part of the process happens: I get the book written.

Rochelle Deans sometimes feels like the only writer on the planet who rushes through the writing so she can start editing. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and young daughter. Her bad habits include mispronouncing words, correcting grammar, and spending far too much time on the Internet.