I have critiqued a lot of queries over the years, through my participation in Backspace, an online community that has been invaluable to my development as a writer. In doing so, I have observed several recurring problems or bad habits that render their queries far less effective – and thus, far more likely be rejected or ignored. These aren’t just newbie mistakes, either. Some very experienced writers still fall into these bad habits, perhaps succumbing to the enormous pressure that surrounds these letters.
So for those of you who are ready to pitch your manuscript to literary agents, I invite you to check in to my little Query Detox center. Don’t worry, it’s not a 12-step program, and you won’t have to wear an ankle bracelet to track your movements (although that might be an effective way to ensure we keep our butts in a chair when it’s time to write). I’m simply going to identify a few of the query problems I encounter most frequently, and offer some possible remedies.
One of the most common problems I’ve seen is writers resorting to what I call “movie trailer language.” You know, that profound-sounding narration full of powerful-sounding words, which you can usually imagine being spoken by the incredibly deep voice of that guy who does all the movie trailers: “In a world where robot weasels rule…”
Writers often use this sort of language in their queries in an effort to A) be brief, and B) sound dramatic. For example, they might summarize their story like this:
“When two worlds collide, one woman has to face her own demons, or pay the ultimate price.”
Sounds great, and you can just imagine the really-deep-voiced guy saying it. But what does it mean?
[pullquote]This breathless-but-vague language relies on sounding powerful and profound without actually being either.[/pullquote]
The problem is that this language is incredibly vague. Although the words seem powerful, and the phrases themselves are familiar to us, they leave us with no idea of what the story is actually about. This breathless-but-vague language relies on sounding powerful and profound without actually being either. And the unfortunate result is that by using language that’s too high-level to connect with, you actually put your readers at a greater distance, rather than drawing them in.
Yeah, but it works in movie trailers, right? Maybe so, but here’s a key point: movie trailers are accompanied by images, action, music, and often other characters talking. That’s why we can intuit what the story is about when we watch one. But a query is just a simple email or letter. No exploding buildings. No choir singing ominous Latin passages from Carmina Burana. No smirking Emma Stones or shirtless Ryan Goslings. All you have is your words, and they need to tell the reader a story.
[pullquote]Tell your story. Don’t talk about your story. Even if you think it would sound cool when spoken in a really deep voice.[/pullquote]
To avoid this problem, make sure your query makes it clear what actually happens in your story. One warning flag for movie trailer language is that it often relies on cliché. So you’ve got characters facing demons and paying the ultimate price, while they race against time while choosing whether to accept their destiny, please consider clarifying. Tell us your character is (for example) facing her alcoholism, with the threat of losing her child (or her life, or whatever “the ultimate price” would be to this character), and so on. Tell your story. Don’t talk about your story. Even if you think it would sound cool when spoken in a really deep voice.
The overly furrowed brow
Some writers are obsessed with being perceived as A Serious Writer, and you can almost see their furrowed brow and feel their condescending gaze as you read their words. Often they’ll try to hit the agent over the head with how deep and brilliant their themes are.
The problem is that this almost always takes the reader away from the specifics of your story, and puts them at a distance, which is never a good thing. And chances are those deep themes will likely only make sense to you, since you’ve already read the manuscript.
I suggest that you get to the point. Save the thematic stuff for your Oprah interview. Don’t believe me? Here are a couple of examples for you to consider:
- A well-credentialed academic faces an ethical choice of whether to pursue pure science, or possibly subvert his priorities to add verisimilitude to a megalomaniac’s theme park for the uber-wealthy. The issue of whether history and evolution should be tampered with is thoroughly explored, all against a lush tropical backdrop rife with danger.
- A scientist finds a way to produce live dinosaurs on a remote island. But the dinosaurs break loose and begin killing people.
Now, which of these two grabs you more?
Writers of the lost arc
Many queries read like shopping lists: a series of events or plot points that don’t necessarily offer a sense of increasing tension or identify the climactic conflict. This doesn’t give the agent a sense of the dramatic arc of your story, and that’s bad, because agents want to know that you understand the basic principles of compelling storytelling before they invest any time in reading your manuscript. So how do you show the increasing tension within your story?
Here’s a very basic formula that you may find effective for showing your story arc within the confines of a brief query:
- Introduce your protagonist – who is she, and what does she want?
- The protagonist has a problem.
- To make matters worse, the protagonist actually has a bigger problem.
- And as if that weren’t bad enough, now the protagonist has an Unbelievably Big Problem. Holy crap – what on earth is she going to do?
[pullquote]Agents want to know that you understand the basic principles of compelling storytelling before they invest any time in reading your manuscript.[/pullquote]
That’s a very simplified structure, and may not be a fit for your story, but it might help you get your plot points in a row, and demonstrate to the agent that your story has a clear arc leading to a climactic conflict. Note that this construct will also force you to leave a lot of stuff out – subplots, secondary characters, the fact that your protagonist minored in English literature and has three unpaid parking tickets.
Remember: the goal of the query is not to tell the agent your whole story. It’s to make the agent want to READ your whole story. Big difference.
The dreaded self-induced query psyche-out
Maybe one of the biggest problems writers face when working on their queries is a sense that it’s a daunting – hell, damn near impossible – task. I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard frustrated writers say, “Writing this @#$%^ query is harder than writing my @#$%^ novel!”
Nonsense. Your novel took months, maybe years, and is made up of many thousands of words. Your query is going to be 300-400 words, tops. Probably shorter. Sorry, but there’s no way that should be harder.
[pullquote]It’s just writing, dammit.[/pullquote]
You just need to remind yourself that all the same principles of good writing and good storytelling apply to your query. Character development. Voice. A clear arc of increasing conflict. Strong, vibrant sentences. Rhythm, created by sentence length and paragraph breaks.
Folks, remember: this is stuff you already know how to do if you’ve got a book of publishable quality on your hands. Don’t psyche yourself into thinking this is something different. It isn’t. It’s just writing, dammit.
More to Come
Next month I’ll address a few more problems that I frequently encounter when critiquing queries for other writers. I hope you find this helpful.
In the meantime, let’s 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 help others with?
Please share your problems – and your cures. And as always, thanks for reading!
Image licensed from iStockphoto.com.