Last month I wrote a post exploring some of the problems I encounter most frequently when critiquing people’s query letters.
This month I’m going to continue down that path, identifying some more frequent trouble spots, along with some thoughts on how you can fix or avoid them.
The name game
Many queries are bogged down with an extensive laundry list of names, including the main character, her spouse, her ex, her best friends, the name of the town she lives in, the company she works for, the products they sell, where she goes to school, and so on.
Writers do this because they want the agent to get a sense of their characters, settings and situations, but the result is often information overload. Consider what happens when you’re at a party and you get introduced to half a dozen people in rapid succession. By the time you get to party guest number 6, chances are those first five names are long gone from your memory banks.
As a general rule, characters’ names are not important in a query; their roles are. Think about it: “Joe Smith” tells you nothing, but descriptions like “the local preacher” or “the meddlesome neighbor” give you a much clearer picture of who these people are. You can often get by with just the name of your protagonist.
In fact, you might even be able to avoid using any names in your query. Don’t believe me? Sara J. Henry, Anthony-award winning author of A Cold and Lonely Place, had excellent luck with a name-free query. Here’s the paragraph she used to describe her manuscript, in her query for what became her debut novel:
In Learning to Swim, a childless woman living in a small Adirondack town dives into icy Lake Champlain to rescue a young French-speaking boy, and discovers he was kidnapped five months ago. She accompanies him to Canada to help him adjust to a new life with the father he thought abandoned him. There she wrestles with her growing attachment to the child, and feels driven to track down those responsible for his abduction.
As a general rule, characters’ names are not important in a query; their roles are.
Sara’s query for Learning to Swim generated a fast and overwhelming response rate, leading to offers from multiple agents. Food for thought, eh?
Other variations of the name game include:
- Referring to your protagonist by more than one name within the query. It’s fine to do this in your book, but for this brief note, it’s best to skip the nicknames to avoid any confusion.
- Too many characters with similar names. This can be a problem both in your query and in your book, when you make the reader try to keep track of a group of characters named Jack, Jake, Jan, Jackie, Jason, and Jacob.
- Made-up names that are hard to read and/or pronounce. Fantasy and science-fiction writers tend to be the most frequent offenders. I mean, it’s great that T’paue-el is the Chosen pMak’Tong of the Mb’la-Zo’Lo tribe. But for your query, maybe there’s a simpler way to describe that character and his role without making agents think their email has been hacked by some weird auto-translating device. This is a perfect opportunity to follow Sara J. Henry’s example above.
The tweetable query
Many writers have somehow been peer-pressured into believing that the most important thing to do when writing a query is to keep it short. Concise powerful writing is one thing, but when you get to the point where your entire query could fit into a single 144-character Twitter post, I think it’s a sign that maybe you’re taking this brevity thing just a little too far.
Seriously, I’ve seen queries that reminded me of this famous Peanuts cartoon strip, where the perpetually annoyed Lucy pretends to read a book to her little brother Linus. In her impatience, she condenses the story down to this:
“A man was born… he lived and he died! The end!”
Tell a story. If you tell it well, they’ll keep reading.
While Linus may be too young and naive to realize he’s been cheated, the agent you’re querying won’t miss the fact that you’ve taken a few too many shortcuts. Take your time, folks. Tell a story. If you tell it well, they’ll keep reading.
The sentence that ate Nebraska
A surprising side effect of this exaggerated quest for brevity is the unconscious habit of trying to cram far too much information into each sentence. I’ve seen countless queries filled with line after line of info-bloated sentences like this:
Until she saw Zach Winslow, a hauntingly handsome pale-skinned young man sullenly nursing a cherry Coke and a black eye at the weathered counter of the soda fountain of the corner five-and-dime late one April afternoon, eighteen-year-old Marcy Blake believed that nothing interesting ever happened in the sleepy bedroom town of Middlebury, Ohio in 1967.
That sentence by itself may not seem too bad, but when you stack four of five of them together, it rapidly turns into information overload. But even worse, the writing becomes monotonous.
To fix this, make a point of varying the length – and the structure – of your sentences. For example, we could recast that 55-word behemoth of a sentence like this:
Nothing interesting ever happened in Middlebury, Ohio. At least that’s what 18-year-old Marcy Blake always believed – until the first time she saw Zach…
This is better, and there’s a bit of tension-and-release, as we set up the premise that nothing interesting happens, then show that this is about to change. Whether or not it’s a grabby query opening is debatable, but at least there’s some rhythm and variety to the sentences.
Here’s a tip for avoiding the dreaded Nebraska-devouring sentence: watch out for too many sentences with more than one action in them. In particular, scour your query for multiple consecutive sentences that start out with an introductory clause before getting to the meat of the sentence. For example:
- Exhausted from a hard night of river-dancing, she…
- Unaware of the deal his colleagues made with the one-eyed mime, he…
- Too late to save her partner from the Bog of Extreme Stench, she…
- When John’s training takes over and he kills two of the giant cockroaches, he…
- While the aliens are attacking the tollbooth with their sonic Jello-guns, she…
- Forced to choose between personal freedom and the lives of his pet sea monkeys, he…
- Devastated by the loss of her prized collection of parachute pants, she…
- Armed with his ukulele and a duffel bag full of sock-puppets, he…
- With the help of a three-legged alpaca and a dyspeptic nail technician, she…
NOTE: there’s nothing wrong with any of those clauses (other than maybe the second one, since I’m not a fan of mimes). A couple of these might be okay, but a string of multiple sentences sharing this construct will result in a dense and monotonous read. And that could keep your reader from ever finding out what happened to that collection of parachute pants.
Gimme a break
Similar to the previous problem, I also frequently see writers who are clearly trying to keep their query down to some self-imposed minimum number of paragraphs. The results can be pretty painful, leading to things like an info-crammed paragraph that squeezes seven different topics into one ‘graph.
Remember, the Enter/Return key is your friend. In addition to creating the rhythm of your prose, the way you break your paragraphs also helps to create a visual look-and-feel for your writing, through your use of white space. And it all serves to help demonstrate how well you write.
Don’t blow an opportunity to show how you write
That last point is crucial. In addition to hooking the agent’s attention, your query itself should show the agent how you write. It’s the first example of your writing that an agent sees.
If you don’t think a 300-word email can give somebody a pretty clear feel for your writing, I submit that you’re not reading carefully or critically enough. Seriously, you can usually tell within one page – hell, one email – whether somebody has some writing talent. But only if the writer puts enough effort into that page or email to make her talent evident to the reader.
How about you? I hope you’ve found this two-part series helpful, but now I’d love to hear from you. Have you found any of these “toxins” in your query? Or have you encountered other pitfalls and bad habits popping up in the queries you write, and/or the queries you critique? If so, please share your problems – and your cures. And as always, thanks for reading!
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