Sunday, April 05, 2009

Query Letter Faux Pas

A couple of times a week on one of my writer loops, newbie writers will ask for feedback on query letters, or else I'll get an email, asking me to vet a query letter.

This week I saw several letters with the same errors in common. I thought I'd mention them here:

1) Using vague language to describe a manuscript. Three of the letters I read this week used generalized terms to describe a novel. Each barely mentioned the actual plot or protagonist.

While the following lines weren't in the queries I read, you'll get the idea: "My manuscript is about the ultimate triumph of mankind." "This is a novel of redemption and loss."

The phrase "The ultimate triumph of mankind" could apply to War of Worlds, Schindler's List, Clash of the Titans or Splendid Solution: Jonas Salk and the Conquest of Polio. It tells the agent or editor nothing about the story.

Cluestick: If I'm trying to sell a novel, I need to describe specifically what the story is about.

You could describe To Kill a Mockingbird as a tale of racial oppression and injustice in the South. However, if I were writing the query, I'd probably talk about the two parallel threads: Scout describing her challenges in growing up in the 1930s at the same time she is observing the adults of Maycomb County, Alabama during a politically explosive trial.

Remember the journalist's "who, what, when, where, why and how." Resist the urge to use nebulous adjectives more suited to a book review.

2) While I'm on the subject of book reviews, it's not a great idea to offer your own review of your unsold manuscript. Don't make grandiose promises that "every reader will love this novel" or "my manuscript is a guaranteed best-seller." Don't describe the reactions of your beta readers or critique partners.

Let the agent/editor make his/her own judgment of the worth of the manuscript.

3) And, finally, resist the temptation to describe your entire family, your job or your educational achievements . . . unless they have specific application to your manuscript. If your five adorable children, Schnauzer and goldfish have no bearing on your manuscript, don't mention them.

2 comments:

Lynne Connolly said...

Could it be a mistaken attempt to get the high concept of the book? Generalising it in order to make it universally appealing, and instead just blanding it out?

Maya Reynolds said...

I think you may be right, Lynne, that this is what is intended. However, the problem comes when a query focuses on theme to the total exclusion of plot.