The Universal Query Designed to Guarantee Success Does Not Exist

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: Apr 29 2016

This came through in the comments on the post Simple Ways to Get Comments on Your Queries and since I know not everyone reads comments I thought it was worth sharing.

The author wrote a tongue-in-cheek query that she feels guarantees requests from most agents anywhere. I disagree.

Dear Jessica and Staff,
I had so much fun writing the following that I decided to send it , along with the knowledge that it will–and probably should–be moderated out.

THE UNIVERSAL QUERY: A query designed to produce an immediate request for a completed manuscript from ninety percent of literary agents:

Dear Agent,
This is a story of urban trauma, of the quirky and sometimes edgy experiences of Rachael, a young woman struggling as a barista in a popular inner city bookstore as she refuses to cave in to the racist malignant societal forces that are suppressing her.

Her frustrations reach a peak, when toward closing one day, a hunky guy walks in. He eyes her from the automotive section that features books with big glossy covers of cars and trucks…and her heart sinks. Yet, a few minutes later he stands in line and their eyes meet again. He orders an espresso. Good, so far. Maybe there’s hope. She decides to pen her ecumenical message of hope and love in the face of oppression on his paper espresso cup. She writes very small, using a .7mm fine-tip pen she liberated from a tabletop, and after a lengthy delay hands over his order.

She keeps an eye on her potential urban lover as he peers closely at her handwriting on the tiny cup, as if deciphering every nuance. She notes his bar code tattoo overlaid with the head of a snake behind his ear, and she breathes a sigh of relief—he’s been through the urban wars like herself, she realizes. Finally, someone she can relate to.

He comes to his feet after a while and smiles. Slowly, he saunters toward the rear of the store, and she watches closely. With a forthright, positive glance directly back at her, he makes an edgy, urban, and maybe quirky statement against oppression, and wanders into the women’s restroom. She sighs again. After all these years, she’s finally found her soul mate.

I know there’s a common belief that agents are all looking for the same boring book, the same book that’s already been published to rave reviews and huge sales. Just like any reader, when an agent reads a book she loves she wants to read more of the same. Editors are the same way. So it’s common for us to seek out something that matches a successful book, but that’s not all we’re looking for.

That being said, I also want readers to know that I do not consider this a successful query. If I were to critique it I would say you’re focusing too much on one scene and not giving us enough insight into who the characters are and what the story is really about. What’s the overall theme and the climax to the story? What’s the hook that makes this stand out from everything else that sounds exactly like it?

3 responses to “The Universal Query Designed to Guarantee Success Does Not Exist”

  1. Avatar Elissa says:

    Here is the query advice I see over and over: Who is the protagonist? What does she want? What (or who) is stopping her? What will happen if she fails?

    I never understand why some writers believe agents are bound to love any book that’s good. There are thousands of good books out there that I have no desire to read, mostly because the genre or subject matter doesn’t pique my interest. Why should agents be any different?

  2. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Dear Jessica and Staff, This seems to be the appropriate place to acknowledge Teacher Appreciation Day, May 3rd, if only because you were kind enough to include my last in your blog. The previous vignette was not serious; this one is. I will never forget my English teacher, Mrs. Phipps. And though my name is fictitious–and yes, I’m a guy–hers is not, though I’m sure she passed away many years ago. Thank You to English teachers everywhere. We all learned…

    Limericks and English Teachers

    Teddy Murphy scrunched down in his seventh-grade seat. The back edge of the desk top caught him at chest height when he did this, but at least the teacher couldn’t see him, not that she ever looked very hard. She was busy talking about gerunds and direct objects, whatever those were supposed to be.
    He pulled his pocketknife from his jeans pocket and extended the smaller of the two blades—the better to carve his initials with. The writing surface in front of him was already gouged and scarred with marks and figures, mostly from blue ball point pens, so his initials wouldn’t make any difference.
    He worked the ‘T’ into the desk top, made the bottom kind of curly, but not too fancy, ’cause the ‘M’ was going to require a bit more effort to look right. He tried to even things out, make the letters nice and straight directly under the trough designed for pencils and pens at the top of the workspace.
    At a point somewhere in the ‘M’, he realized the droning voice from the front of the classroom had stopped. No more talk of past participles and whatnot. The classroom was eerily quiet.
    He looked up with a start and saw Mrs. Phipps standing over his shoulder. She peered down at his handiwork for a half second, and then jerked him roughly from the seat by the scruff of his shirt collar.
    He yelped, more from surprise than pain, and the class howled with laughter. Mrs. Phipps was not a strong woman, at least he’d never thought so. She was not even ugly like most English teachers. She looked friendly and nice most of the time, but not today. Today she was mad, really mad, and she pulled him from the room and down the hall into the principal’s office.
    He was in detention. Again.
    Detention didn’t faze him though. Slouching in a corner chair behind the nurse’s station was better than being stuck in those stupid English classes.
    Mrs. Phipps came to see him after the bell rang ending class. She talked to him for a long while, and made him promise to put away his pocketknife and pay attention. He agreed, only because he realized that she was nicer to him than his mom and his dad put together.
    Back in the classroom, those dusty, old writings and plays moved sooo slowly, until Hamlet finally stabbed somebody, or The Rime of the Ancient Mariner put everyone to sleep with that albatross.
    Then one day Mrs. Phipps discussed limericks.
    Wow! Limericks. These were poems that actually rhymed! And they had sex in them. He knew that because, when the teacher read a few limericks from a book, she blushed and faltered, fanned herself, and then skipped over a lot of the parts. Limericks were simple and intriguing, and they only had five lines. The first one that she read started like this: ‘There once was a man from Nantucket…’ She didn’t finish that one, but everyone in the class started giggling just the same.
    Teddy found a pencil. He borrowed some paper from the kid behind him and tried writing a poem of his own:
    ‘There’s a girl in the front of my class,
    Who has a marvelous…neck? arm? forehead?’ Dang! For the life of him, he couldn’t think of another word that rhymed. He decided to skip that part and work on the rest of the poem:
    ‘If she’d smile back at me
    She’d fill me with glee,
    She’s really a beautiful lass.’
    There. That wasn’t so difficult. He stared at his work in silence. He had created something with words and he was amazed. He tried another and another until he ran out of paper. The kid behind him didn’t want to cough up any more, and Teddy found himself once again in detention.
    The following day he brought his own tablet to school, possibly for the first time that year. He sat through the boring morning, all the while thinking of limericks. At last the bell rang for English period and he took his seat in the classroom. The teacher struggled to impart her knowledge that day. She tried to explain poetry and literature, and the manner in which words could be used. He listened for the first time and looked at her, but not so she’d notice, and as usual her gaze passed quickly over him in the back row.
    He wrote another limerick that day:
    ‘There is something I feel I should mention
    I’m getting tired of this blank-blank detention,
    If you’ll cut me some slack
    And not send me back,
    I’ll promise you no more dissension.’
    He left this one on her desk when the bell rang ending class.
    The next day Mrs. Phipps explained more about words and literature and poetry. Teddy could feel her eyes on him several times during the lesson, and once when he looked up he caught her glance. She moved the corners of her lips upward. It might have been a smile, but then she looked away to the other side of the room.
    The teacher spent that entire week on limericks and short poems. She connected him with the language that way. And when she went on to prose and other literature he stayed connected. Her gaze no longer passed over his head, but settled, although sometimes with a perplexed expression, on his face. If at times it seemed she was teaching only for his benefit, that’s because, as he realized much later, she was.
    Oddly, as his English grades improved so did all of the others.
    Before he departed for that summer ending the seventh grade he gave her a last limerick. She read the rhyme in silence at her podium, then left the room abruptly with something in her eyes. Teddy walked to the front of the classroom, picked it up, and folded it neatly in her book. It read:
    ‘Here’s a poem from a kid that you know
    Who started the year kind of slow,
    How you could see
    The potential in me,
    Is something I never will know.’ Thank You.

  3. Avatar Hollie says:

    I think I’ll stick with the a similar approach

    Hello, I’m Hollie my book is X genre about Y character and is ABC words long, here is a short synopsis.

    Talking of synopsis, how long should they be? I’ve just made an attempt at a short one 380 words for an MS 65k. It hits the important points without taking each step, I tried a more in-depth version but I think that would run to a few pages. Or do I need to be finding a happy medium?