I belong to several writers' loops and, every week, I receive at least a couple of requests from newbie writers asking me to read their queries.
Recently, it's felt as though someone is churning these query letters out on an assembly line. This is what I mean:
_________________ (novel name) is a journey of ________________ (discovery, redemption, forgiveness) in which _________________ (main character's name) learns to ________________ (accept, overcome, look beyond, triumph over) _________________ (adversity, a tortured past, fears, disability, ugly rumors).
I ask you, beyond the title of the book and the main character's name, what does the above tell you about the manuscript?
I usually send the writer an email in which I say (as kindly as I can), "I'm sorry, but I have absolutely no idea what your book is about. And if I can't tell, an agent won't be able to either. You're going to have to get a lot more specific in your description."
Invariably, I get an email back, explaining that the writer was describing "the manuscript's theme."
I appreciate books with themes as much as the next gal. However, I need to know that the theme is accompanied by a PLOT. Theme alone ain't gonna hack it.
If you need further convincing, check out Jessica Faust's post on BookEnds here. In giving feedback to a writer, Jessica said, "Few readers care what the theme of a book is. We don’t buy a book based on themes. We buy because we’re looking for a riveting plot and engaging characters."
Listen to her. Put some active verbs into those query letters. Get specific. Tell us that Grandpa began smuggling prescription drugs into the U.S. to help his neighbors in the nursing home--without telling his son, the customs agent. Or that while trying to impress a cheerleader, Tim Macklin gave her kid brother a stray puppy--that just happened to be a vampire. Make us want to know what happened.
Yesterday, Nathan Bransford said he received 81 query letters and requested four partials. That's only 5%.
If you think that's bad, take a look at Jonathan Lyon's blog. Jonathan says he read over 200 queries and requested two partials. That's only 1%.
Re-read your query. Is it vague? If so, start over. And this time be specific.