Query Don’ts

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: Apr 18 2011

There are no rules to queries. I repeat, there are no rules to queries. A query should come from you. It should be written in your voice with your own personal writing style, and it should not just tell me what your book is about, but it should wow me with your book. That being said, there are some common mistakes I see all the time, things authors do that don’t work in a query.

  • Telling me what your book is not: I don’t want to hear things like, “this isn’t another Twilight,” or “I’m not writing another boring Da Vinci Code” — that’s like sitting down in a job interview and immediately telling the potential employer that you’re not going to be another star worker, but . . . I’ve already tuned you out.
  • Claiming your query is just another piece of unwanted work in my inbox: frequently authors start queries by saying things like, “the last thing you probably need is another query . . .” You’re right. It is the last thing I need, and since even you don’t think yours is important enough to stand out from the rest, I think I’ll reject
  • Highlighting what doesn’t matter: I don’t care that you have three kids, are a lawyer, or play golf with George Harrison. I don’t. I care about your book and that’s really all. The rest is icing, bonus material. Don’t start your query with what really doesn’t matter. Start with the one thing you are trying to woo me with: your book.
  • Themes: does your novel (note I said novel) embrace themes of philosophy, bring to light the important topic of human trafficking, or connect to readers spiritually? I don’t care. Nobody buys a piece of fiction because the cover copy says it will discuss important philosophical teachings. They don’t. They might like that they learn that from the book, but they buy the book because, well, really because someone recommends it, after that they buy a novel because they are looking to read a great story.


19 responses to “Query Don’ts”

  1. Avatar wry wryter says:

    Well, I guess the opening paragraph of my query, so perfectly relating a theme interwoven throughout my novel, will have to be scrapped.
    Funny how becoming fixed on something which feels so right, but considered by those in the know as ancillary, kind-a makes me feel dumb.
    Jeez, I really thought it worked.

    But wait, there are ‘no rules’, does that mean I can take a chance and go with my gut?
    Chewing nails and wondering.

  2. Avatar Suzan Harden says:

    @Wry Writer, think about it this way:

    If you have a eight-ish son or nephew who's just seen Transformers, what's he going to tell his best friend about the movie?

    "The theme of this movie is sacrificing yourself for the good of everyone."


    "It's about this kid Sam who doesn't know he has the info on the location of the Allspark, and these evil robots are after him and they can turn into cars and then the good guy robots…"

    Except you'll want to do the adult version. *grin*

  3. Avatar Ben says:

    I find it interesting that a lot of your list of errors are highlighting a lot of ego-driven mishaps. I still know very little about writing, but I know it's a Buddhist Sport.

    "Must have no need, but to write this goddamn story. No need for acceptance, no need for status"

  4. Avatar wry wryter says:

    Susan Harden, now I get it, thanks.

  5. Playing golf with George Harrison in 2011 might be an interesting novel, though. 🙂

  6. Avatar Jessica M says:

    Makes things a lot simpler, thank you.

  7. Avatar tiggy says:

    Good post. I find the hardest thing to do in a query is to show and not tell. I've reread and redone my query about 8 times LOL

  8. Enjoyed the post. Query letters are the most difficult thing for me to write, therefore, usually the poorest piece of my writing. I am always up for some advice. Thanks!

  9. Avatar Robena Grant says:

    Thanks, Jessica. This is very helpful.

    Sometimes I set a story in a country, (other than the USA) and make the mistake of spending half of my query showing setting and no plot. I always have a plot but the way I enter a story, what causes me to want to write it in the first place, always has something to do with having been in that setting. It's my Achilles heel. And, it has taken a lot of years for me to hold back on the descriptions, and just name the country…trust the reader to envision the setting.

    Loved your comment, Suzan.

  10. Thanks, Jessica. I was just working on a query letter and had a paragraph about theme. I'll take it out!

  11. You know what would be great? If agents had an online form, where you just check off boxes. Type of work: literary fiction, length: 90,000 words, etc. Then maybe a place to paste a paragraph-long synopsis, then a place for the first portion of the writing. To try to write queries that will satisfy the caprices of different agents is frustrating. Let the writing stand for itself.

  12. I was going to suggest what Mary did, although I'm sure there'd be problems with that, too: "My novel defies genres", "The space isn't big enough for me to say everything I have to say", and so on.

    @Wry Writer: It might work OK if you are able to show us your themes (although in a form as short as a query, it'll probably be more like hint at them) instead of telling us about them. Maybe you could try something like QueryShark or one of the many writer's forums out there to get some feedback.

  13. *snort* I keep wondering when you'll draw a blank when blogging… looks like I'll be wondering for a while.

  14. Avatar girlseeksplace says:

    Thank you for posting this. It's timely as I'm getting ready to write my first round of letters.

  15. Great post Jessica. Thanks for sharing! Although since we are all competing with 'ten-zillion' other potential authors, I'd assume brevity would rule the day. Now to work on not making it too brief…

  16. Avatar Lucy says:

    @ Mary Vensel White

    Actually, I have seen an agent do that, though I can't remember who it is now. I'm not in love with the practice: it feels a bit too much like applying to your insurance company and hoping they don't turn you down because you checked the wrong box.

    @ Ben

    I've never heard writing described as a Buddhist Sport, but that's a perfect way to put it. 🙂

  17. Avatar Rachel says:

    A bit harsh but useful piece of advice. Publishers always emphasis the power of the opening paragraph and the flow and pace of the query.

    Yet you say there are no rules. I think those guidelines are still rules put together in a flexible way.

  18. I was thinking along the same lines as Richard Gibson: if someone wrote to me and told me they play golf with George Harrison, I'd definitely want to know more of that story, particularly if this person writes horror. Golf Of The Dead has a nice ring to it, don't you think? Or perhaps non-fiction: Teeing Off With Non-Corporeal Beings.
    Heck, I don't even like golf, and I'd still be interested in one of those! 🙂

  19. Avatar Tony DiMeo says:

    Wow… George has been dead for ten years and someone playing golf with him wouldn't be enough to capture your attention, Jessica? You're a tough nut to crack!

    You raise a really great point. I've always thought of a query as a tease of your novel. Just whet the agents appetite with a hook and just enough detail to leave them wanting more.

    I think about it like this… why would an agent, whose job it is to sell your book, care about any personal information about the author that doesn't pertain to the book she is trying to sell?