Tuesday, November 22, 2011

How NOT to Write a Query

One of the lessons that stuck with me most strongly from my college years was from my History of Civilizations class, where I learned that, in order to give a complete definition to something, you must also define what it is NOT. For example, an apple is a fruit, but it is NOT an orange.

I've found that this works for all sorts of things in life, and I want to try it with queries.

Now, there are lots and lots of bad query examples on the internet. Stop by Query Shark for just one small sampling. I'm not here to reiterate the many, many common mistakes newbie queriers will make. Instead, I want to explore some of the deeper mistakes. The ones that don't seem like mistakes at the time. Like describing your story wrong.

Take, for example, a little international bestseller like Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.

I have no way of knowing how JK Rowling queried Harry Potter, but she was rejected, so we can assume that, like all of us, she didn't immediately hook every single agent she queried. Even if she used the blurb below, we can assume she would have faced rejection, but let's pretend that the blurb drawn up by the Scholastic marketing team is the blurb she used in her query, huh?

This is the front flap blurb in my copy:
Harry Potter has never been the star of a Quidditch team, scoring points while riding a broom far above the ground. He knows no spells, has never helped to hatch a dragon, and has never worn a cloak of invisibility.
All he knows is a miserable life with the Dursleys, his horrible aunt and uncle, and their abominable son, Dudley--a great big swollen spoiled bully. Harry's room is a tiny closet at the foot of the stairs, and he hasn't had a birthday party in eleven years.
But all of that is about to change when a mysterious letter arrives by owl messenger: a letter with an invitation to an incredible place that Harry--and anyone who reads about him--will find unforgettable.
For it's there that he finds not only friends, aerial sports, and magic in everything from classes to meals, but a great destiny that's been waiting for him... if Harry can survive the encounter.
Can you think what this might have been like in the hands of someone who hasn't been trained in marketing? Have you thought about how you would write a bad blurb for Harry Potter?

Consider if you knew nothing about the book except this:
Twelve-year-old Harry Potter is the Boy Who Lived... but he doesn't know it. Oh, he knows he's alive, of course, but he has no idea that he is the only survivor of a terrible evil. He thinks his parents were killed by a car accident, a fiction his horrible "muggle" relatives are eager to promote. They hate all things dealing with the magical world to which Harry truly belongs.
Then one day a mysterious letter arrives, and his uncle panics, going to extreme lengths to prevent Harry from reading it--or any of the hundreds that follow. Harry does his best, but can never read more than the strange green address on the front. He doesn't know that his life is about to change. That he is about to discover a powerful heritage... at a magical school called Hogwarts.
That's awful, yes? Still mildly interesting, but confusing (what's a muggle?), and utterly fails to convey the magical wonder of the actual flap blurb.

If you've been around the writer blog-o-sphere or following this blog for a while, you've probably stumbled upon many variations of my own query... and you know I know how to write confusing query blurbs. I'm still working on it, and I'm getting closer with every wonderfully helpful comment, but man, this has been a long journey.

So I'm challenging myself and all of you: write a really, really awful query. Either for one of your favorite books or for your own. Make it sound like something that someone might actually write, but remove all the most important concrete details. Use terminology the reader will know... once they read the whole book. Make it mysterious (read: confusing) and hint at all your twistiest secrets without explaining any of them.

Maybe, once we can really see what goes into a bad query, we can learn how to write a good one?

Leave your bad queries in the comments, please. I can use all the negative definition I can get.


  1. Ugh. I don't even have to work hard on this one. Just my first query attempt for ACoP. Oh, and every one since then.

  2. Oh, come on, Donna. You can write a worse one! I KNOW you can! ;)

  3. Um, I wrote a book about a kid who gets his world turned upside down when he falls into a hole in a public bathroom. It's really good I promise, and I know it'll be the next Harry Potter or Percy Jackson and make us both tons of money. What do ya say?


  4. This was pretty funny! I think feedback is good for queries; sometimes we're so close to the source we over edit and make it worse. :) I haven't crossed this bridge yet but I've practiced a few times and promptly deleted my attempts.

  5. This is an idea I've never thought of before. I haven't actually queried yet (still not ready) but when I do, I'll keep this in mind.

    (and btw, Harry was 11 in the first book, not 12)

  6. great proposition!
    we'll see what i can do...

  7. Cassie--LOL Winna! Who doesn't want to be rich?

    Steph--I edit the voice right out of my queries. And, probably, my first page. Brevity, it seems, is the antithesis of voice. And clarity.

    Jenna--doesn't he turn 12 the day Hagrid comes? Donna? :)

    Tara--please! We need more bad examples!

  8. Scout is a precocious little girl who lives with her brother Jem and father Atticus. She likes playing with her friend Dill and getting into mischief. She's also afraid of her neighbor Boo Radley because he's mysterious and weird.

    Then something happens that will cause Scout to question all her previous beliefs in life. TO KILL A MOCKINBIRD is about good versus evil, friendship, morphine addiction, the fallibility of the legal system, and agoraphobia.

    Thank you for your time.

  9. Katniss Everdeen is just a normal teenage girl--she's got a crush on her best guy friend and she hates her mom. But then one day her little sister is picked to be a tribute on a reality show where kids kill each other. Katniss knows she has no choice but to take her sister's spot.

    Fortunately, Katniss Everdeen is not just a normal teenage girl. She knows how to shoot a bow and arrow and rock a couture gown made of electrical filaments. But when Peeta Mellark, who is NOT her dreamy best friend, announces he's in love with her, Katniss must decide whether it's more important to go back to her home town with honor and a guy she's not all that into yet, or shoot him in the head.

    THE HUNGER GAMES will appeal to fans of Stephenie Meyer's TWILIGHT and Stephen King's THE LONG WALK.


  10. Ru: ROFL! Those queries rock the badness. Thanks!!

  11. Just found this post. Most excellent!