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.


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.