How NOT to Write a Query

Once it became painfully obvious that I had no clue how to write one of these query thangs, I decided I'd better at least figure out all the things I shouldn't do in a query. See, I had this teacher in college that liked to define things by including what they aren't and.... Anyway, this series was born.

If you'd like to peruse my past entries for private enjoyment/enlightenment/self-actualization, here's what I've done so far:

How NOT to Write a Query: My first foray into deconstructing a good book blurb--from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone--into the kind of drivel a new query writer might produce. Mostly I did this by swapping all the cool magical details with mundane, confusing ones.

How NOT to Write a Query 2: I took Jessica Day George's very cool book blurb for Tuesdays at the Castle and screwed it up as best I could.

How NOT to Write a Query 2: Breakdown: Using the comments from HNTWAQ 2, I described in detail exactly why my Tuesdays blurb was sub-par. Mainly: no sense of conflict, too much back story and world building, and, well, no point.

How NOT to Write a Query 3: As part of my ongoing fangirling of Brodi Ashton's Everneath, I set out to completely destroy the description of her book. 'Cause that's the kind of friend I am.

How NOT to Write a Query 3: Breakdown: Comparing Brodi's good blurb and my bad blurb side-by-side, I figured out how to start the tone in the first line, how to continue it throughout, and how to choose the right details to include.

How NOT to Write a Query 4: As part of the A-Z blogfest in April 2012, I bad-i-fied the book blurb for Stephenie Meyer's The Host.

How NOT to Write a Query 4: Breakdown: As part of my A-Z tribute to Twilight (don't hate--you at least have to admit it's better than 50 Shades), I explore why my Host blurb was so bad: like opening with a question, focusing on the wrong conflict, and describing unnecessary story elements.

How NOT to Write a Query 5: Trying to teach myself how to be specific about my story details, I took a very famous book's blurb and made it as vague as possible. Sadly, most of the commenters identified it anyway. Hey, I tried.

How NOT to Write a Query 5: Breakdown: I added sentences back into the famous book until it became obvious. The main take-away here is that query sentences that apply to books other than yours . . . don't help you.

How NOT to Write a Query 6: Using Dan WellsPartials, I demonstrate how someone can query for a year without realizing something quite essential about querying. Seriously. So. Dumb.

How NOT to Write a Query 6: Breakdown: An exploration of why, really and truly, you should include the actual story stakes in your query. Fer reals. Not even kidding. Would that I were.


What? You want more? Okay, fine.

It started out as just me reverse-engineering good book blurbs into bad queries, so we could see how they can be done right and wrong, but recently I've had some real-life writers volunteer their real-life queries, so now we have How NOT to Write a Query: Practice, too.

How NOT to Write a Query: Practice 1: My brave friend Randy Lindsay volunteered his own query for rippage-and-tearage on my blog. I pointed out the parts where I got confused and preached the gospel of identifying: 1) Who the protagonist is, 2) What he wants; 3) What stands in his way; 4) What happens if he fails.

How NOT to Write a Query: Practice 1 Rewrite: To my shock and delight, Randy was still speaking to me after I tore his query apart, and came up with a vastly improved version. I helped fine-tune and cautioned him against letting someone else's comments override his voice.

How NOT to Write a Query: Practice 2: My next victim volunteer was Robin Hall, who, in addition to having an awesome name, also has an awesome premise for her book, Lovesense. I thought her original query was a bit scattered and suggested ways to pull it together better. I went through the four questions again to show what I learned from the query, and suggested a few more details to tell me more.

How NOT to Write a Query: Practice 2 Rewrite: Robin did a great job solidifying her world-building. I had a few more suggestions for her, but she's well on her way.

***How TO Write a Query: A Practice 2 SUCCESS STORY: Robin is back one more time to share the query that landed her an agent. The announcement comes 99 days after my first critique. :)

How NOT to Write a Query: Practice 3Tara Tyler's sci-fi thriller sounds sooo cool. I gave her advice on how to shorten her query and how to pinpoint the most important parts of her story.

How NOT to Write a Query: Practice 4L.M. Miller's YA Fantasy has all the elements of an awesome book--a war, a rebellion, a magical spy. Good, good, good. My advice was about narrowing the focus to one plot line and providing details to support it.

How NOT to Write a Query: Practice 5Mara Valderran's Epic Fantasy reminds me of an extended version of Escape to Witch Mountain. I love the main conflict, but advised her to try to hone her details to show the story more clearly.

How NOT to Write a Query: Practice 6Catherine Scully's modern ghost busters query has an awesome premise, but doesn't tell me enough about the actual conflict. I also give advice on which of her alternating POV's to use, and why.

How NOT to Write a Query: Practice 7:  Kristen Strassel's rock-vamp story promises a rocking good time, but didn't tell me much about why the MC wanted the two guys or what the bigger plot might be. So I crossed out the query that had already earned her a full request and advised focusing on one main character, making her long-range goals more clear, and revealing her personality more. UPDATE: Kristen landed an agent before she was able to implement my brilliant critiques. Which goes to show that, sometimes, your awesome story can shine through no matter who thinks it should be improved. If a query can get the agent to ask for more, it's done its job.


If you want to play along at home, here are the five questions I go through while picking queries apart into little tiny pieces:
  1. Who is the protagonist? More than just a name, I want to get a feel for who they are as a person, how strong they are, what their background might be, etc. This will help agents and readers predict how the MC will react to the conflict. If the character is clearly doing something out of character, the reasons should be hinted at in the query.
  2. What does the protagonist want? This should be big enough and specific enough to drive the whole plot. Think beyond the immediate goal. Why does the protag want this goal? What kind of life does s/he envision for him/herself? 
  3. What stands in his/her way? This, naturally, is where the conflict comes in. Normally this will be the antagonist, so we need some idea of how strong, driven, ruthless, etc s/he is. If this isn't in the query, all you have is half a premise, with no story. Conflict = story.
  4. What will happen if s/he fails? The worse the consequence, the more exciting the story. Some stories will be okay with a consequence that only affects the protag. Others need something more global. Make sure your consequence matches the genre and tone you want to set.
  5. What will s/he have to DO to succeed? This element helps project the action of the story. Will it be full of meditation and debate or heart-pounding sword fights? There is no wrong answer, here, but different levels of action are expected in different genres and will attract different readers and agents. DON'T relay the plot. Go a step or two beyond the inciting incident only. Foreshadow danger. Describe the nice soft meditation rugs. Whatever. Just make sure the action level is clear.


I've decided to make this a regular feature on this-here blog. Once a month (sometimes more), I'll tear apart someone's query and point out all the things the author is doing wrong--or, if I don't have any victims volunteers that month, I'll tear apart a book blurb again and explain what did wrong. It'll be fun.

If you want to submit your own query for rippage-and-tearage, please observe the checklist:
  • Thick skin a must. I'm no good at identifying what you're doing right, so there will be few to no positive comments on your dubious query-writing skillz. At most, I'll say what I like about your premise or characters. What I can tell about them that is, through the muck of your awful, awful query. Be warned.
  • Don't send it a week before you want to start querying. I can't guarantee any kind of fast turn-around. If, however, you've sent out your query to over ten agents with no bites and you're just starting to realize something is wrong, I'm totally president of that club. You're welcome to join.
  • Read the archives and edit first. Since it takes me 2-3 hours to do each crit, I'd sure appreciate it if you'd improve it as much as you can on your own first. Also, there's a chance that while you're reading, you'll realize you don't need (or want) me! :)
Still wanna play? Have you read the archives? Edited accordingly? Okay. Send your query in the body of an email to robinambrosewriter [at] gmail [dot] com. For the subject, put: HNTWAQ Practice: [Title of your book] by [Your Name]. I can't guarantee that I'll critique every query sent to me, but that will completely depend on how many suckers takers I get.

Also, if you volunteer, please return and report. I love my new "Success" badge and want to use it more.:)

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