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It Starts With a Q-U and It Makes Me Face-Palm (Or, They Shoot Writers, Don't They?)

I'm warning you in advance: this post includes a damn lot of face-palming gifs. Prepare to be face-palmed. Face-palm.

So, I know what you're thinking: Q word? What are you talking about, Nina? The only word you deal with is the R-word. Revision. That's why I'm here, that's why we're all here. Ah, you are quite correct, faithful reader. But now, here comes my end-of-school-holidays news.

I finished.

Well, I finished in the uncommon sense of the word. The whole it's never really finished even when it gets on the shelf sense. But in regard to plot, character, pacing, blah - Yeah, I'm finished. As far as you're concerned, and as far as my search browser as of Wednesday is concerned: Yeah, I'm finished.

So, do we have any bets on the dreaded Q-U word?

Oh yeah.


Oh, it makes you shiver in fear, in anticipation, doesn't it?

Even if we're stuck in the perpetual cycle of idea-writing-editing-drop-repeat or we're editors forever, we have that innate understanding as writers to both fear and treat the query like some fabled creature that's eating our livestock and devouring our children on a quarterly basis.

To begin with, we really need to just understand two things:

1. Queries make writers go:

2. Queries make agents go:

Yeah, basically.

It took me about eight hours to write my first query, with research in-between, and then it took me two days to write a new query, and then a couple hours to write another one, and then another day to write a new one, simmer in self-hate, edit, get critiques and finish.

For the purpose of this exercise, let us believe I have emerged masterful.

So, what is it?

A query letter is a single-page cover letter that introduces you and your book. Really, that's it. It isn't a resume, it isn't a verbose recount of how you came to be an aspiring writer, it isn't a friendly poke in the arm of, "Whaddup, babe? I'm the next JK Rowling. Got the next bestseller AND trend for ya. Whaddaya think of krakens?" Yeah, no.

You need to introduce your character, your plot and the stakes. It's that simple.

But at the same time: it's that hard.

Think about it. You've got at most 300 words to convey a hook, a summary and to include that little "[TITLE] is a [GENRE] completed at [WORD COUNT]" spiel, as well as a little itty bit of a resume if you've been published in some way or form before.

300 words is an itty bitty space.

Angst aside, there are two places you need to go always, whenever your fingers are hesitating over the keys and wondering why URLs relevant to what you need don't just materialise in your head. One is Query Letter Hell SYW over at AbsoluteWrite and the other, well, two, are the forums at AgentQuery and Query Tracker.

Remember when you were learning how to cook/sew/make coffee/juggle a football and the best way to learn turned out to be watching your mum/dad/sibling/relative/neighbour of questionable morals do it? Well, it's kind of actually really is the same with query letters.

Basically, go and find someone with a similar genre to yours, even better if they have a similar kind of concept to yours, and see how they approach their query. See what people correct them on, identify what seems to be the outlying factors that people hold in high regard. Read finish products and latest drafts and see what floats your boat and what doesn't.

And above all, find these (AgentQuery link) and these (AW link). Seriously. Queries that filled people with success are the kind of queries that may fill you with hot rage, but they're your best ticket to, well, a meal ticket. Some of the queries will make you face-palm and wonder why? WHY? It's a terrible idea! or they'll make you face-palm and wonder why you didn't include transforming robots from Mars or an automaton with a black sense of humour or an overweight character who embarks on a mission to make the universe fatter than they are so they can make fun of everyone else. (Wow, that last one sounded like a NaNo idea)

But now you're thinking Nina, what? WHAT? There are, like, a trillion of these.

Well, sure, okay. If you put it like that.

So I suppose you're wanting me to spill the beans and tell you what helped me the most, what could possibly help you. Well, my faithful reader, I shall. The ones who helped the most were authors, published authors, whose books I have read or marked to read on my account.

Cue: "Um, what?/How?/Why?"

Well, when you look at an agent or go about writing something that is going to (hopefully) get you published, shouldn't you peruse their (published) client's blogs for their posts on how they acquired said agent/said contract? If you said no, I bequeath to you a face-palm.

But now you're thinking but how do I find these shiny gold nuggets? Some of those blogger/livejournal archives go on for absolutely ever and for the most part talk about arse-tasting fast food coffee and someone's three cats or the author answers the question by directing me to another site which has no helpfulness at all or a broken link. I mean God, I am not looking for 404 so stop telling me you can't find it.

Yes, but you can look anywhere to someone, and I tell you now: *anyone who's made the NYT Bestseller List no matter how crapulous their crap still made the list above you and your nonexistent publishing contract. But Nina - WHAT? We hate these people. Remember? Yes, but go back to the asterisk and read forth to the italics.

You may detest their novel but there was some sort of an X-Factor toward its publication. Some of that essence may have been captured in their query. Ergo: read said query, study said query. And remember: there may be a few you detest, but there will be quite a few you'll jump up in your seat and go Really? Awesome! for.

A quick perusal of my browser history surfaced: Beth Revis (ACROSS THE UNIVERSE, then titled LONG WAY HOME), Brenna Yovanoff (THE REPLACEMENT, then titled FE), Aprilynne Pike (WINGS, though I'm not entirely certain if this is WINGS), Heather Anastasiu (Upcoming GLITCH) and Elana Johnson (POSSESSION; and, she has a how-to on her blog and a free PDF download of an eBook about queries).

And then there are things like Jodi Meadows' Query Project, and if you look, you'll find a whole lot more by a whole variety of different people. Basically, readers send her their queries and she either critiques them or writes down her impression as she reads. It's quite similar to Miss Snark's Crapometer, except, Miss Snark has a seemingly unlimited number of entries that you can lose an entire day in.

Some of the entries will make you face-palm because they are just so fucking bad. But others will most definitely make you face-palm because really, they're kind of similar to yours and/or you would or have already done that and apparently snarky people do not approve.

Learn from what she says, and get the basic peeves under your belt so not doing them is innate to you and your query writing process.

In the writerly blogosphere, there is an abundance of posts by agents about the singular things they like or want or strongly despise. I know it can seem overwhelming but really, just read them. From what I've learned, there's a general consensus. As Sarah LaPolla said: "No need to over-share or be overly coy".

In her recent post, Rachelle Gardner mentioned how she often reads queries where the author forgoes the story and instead pitches the emotional journey. Big no-no. Instead of talking about a girl's angst in her brother being sacrificed to barbarians and her mustering of courage to go and face the unknown beyond her home, you need to talk about how she learns her brother's been sacrificed and she ventures out into the wild to rescue him from barbarians. I know they sound kind of similar, but when you read over your query, look for that distinction.

And you should know that just by looking up the do's and do not's, you're already placing yourself far above those who don't. So, yes, there is a reason why you keep hearing that you shouldn't, and even if your itty-bitty voice that is usually putting you in the most face-palm of situations is trying to coerce you to, send in cookies and long, wordy life stories and describe yourself as the next second richest woman of England or an invoker of such a new enormous trend that people will get plastic surgery to emulate their kraken idols.

So, if you get any cravings to do any such things:

Did you know not all agents are going to give you a reason for rejection? In fact most won't. The general consensus is that it's highly unlikely for them to give any reason or anything aside from a form rejection.

Why? Well, Rachelle Gardner does specify here that really they don't have time. There's a more thorough explanation at the link, but it really does come down to the fact that if they ran off a few sentences for every query, it would take hours that they really don't have.


Okay, brace yourself.

It's film reference time. And it has nothing to do with shirtless actors or shirtless actors in character. No, it's because that's how we do things here at nindogs. We insert film references into book talk.

Now, I love trailers. I watch them all the time. Even for dreadful Disney Channel Original Movies that I'm not even going to consider watching. I watch trailers for movies I have at home, for movies made in 2003. I watch fan trailers about nothing. (Now, I do believe Janice Hardy recently did something similar so I'm going to model off of hers) Basically, it's incredible how different trailers cover different aspects of a film, from the action to the world-building to the characters. Kind of like those things that usually make a query not work.

(Oh God, I can hear you saying, Nina's going to start linking us again.) Yes. I am.

The world-building query Janice Hardy gives is the third Green Lantern trailer. It goes backstory of how the world functions, and how the magic of it works, and then it goes into the bad guy who was the film's catalyst, and then it introduces our hero Hal/Ryan Reynolds (Okay, maybe there is some shirtless actor business involved.) Anyway, for those unfamiliar to this mythos, your patience may or may not be strained to find out what the bloody hell this film is about. Kind of like those query letters where it's all backstory and you're wondering who you'll be following around during the story and what's going to happen.

For the all action, no story trailer Janice listed the Adventures of Tintin, but I'm going to give you David Fincher's the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trailer. If you're unfamiliar with Stieg Larsson's story, you're going to look at this, swoon a whole lot over some spectacled D. Craig, but think it's a whole lot of 60s flashbacks, walking, morose looks and perhaps even running with some landscape thrown in. It's called the feel bad movie of Christmas, sure, but why? If I haven't heard the specifics of the story, why? Can you see the frustration when an agent reads a query that gives a lot of cool flashing but no meat. It's great if you have expensive salad dressing, but it doesn't help if you don't have a bowl, or, well, salad.

The working query is the upcoming Captain America: The First Avenger, where an itty-bitty weakling with a big heart volunteers for an experimental program where he's jabbed by Stanley Tucci and becomes a supersoldier in WWII, fighting the Nazis (and Red Skull Hugo Weaving) and getting a little some and some from a girl who fires a gun at him. This trailer gives you the characters, the setting, the conflict and stakes and the antagonists. You mightn't know your Captain America shield from your Batman batarang or your Green Lantern ring or your Superman fortress of solitude, but you still get some idea of what's in store.

There are definitely some other links and thoughts worth your consideration, but I honestly do believe that if I look any further into my Google Reader archives, I'm going to develop a twitch in my left eye. So, my final offering to you is this: Jessica Lei made a sort of checklist, which is very helpful.

My last piece of advice is to network with others. Ask your peers, read their posts, their Twitter feeds, about their experiences. You'll only learn from others, truly. So make the most of the fantabulous writers blogosphere we have here.


You can get Holly Black's WHITE CAT audiobook, read by Jesse Eisenberg (Yes, that twerp from Zombieland and The Social Network) for FREE. Just click on this, go to Holly's blog and then follow her instructions. I read the book ages ago, but it's definitely the last YA I thoroughly enjoyed. And I quite like Jesse's work.

Um. Game of Thrones started down here in Australia last night. So guess what I did? Indeed. I did watch the first two episodes and then ordered the first book in George RR Martin's series off of Book Depository. (As well as AMERICAN GODS, which I've been meaning to get around to for, I don't know, four years now?) All I'll say is, firstly, OMFG, and secondly, I want a Dire Wolf. Like, now.

*cough* Anyway.

So, here's where I present you with another announcement alongside some Firefly cast members: I sent out a query this evening. Uh huh. Cue the No! and You didn't really?! and But you're meant to be the logical and sensible one who guides me! But alas, in the sense of the ending school holidays spirit and the end of my final draft spirit, I figured: Yeah, just one. Not my dream agent. Just a pretty rad so that's why she's on my list agent. I figured I may as well have one rejection on this query so I can motivate myself to work on it.

I sound rational now, I know.

Tomorrow? I'll probably be more:

But, meh.

Anywho. I apologise for the excessively long post, and I hope that I haven't frightened any of you or scarred your querying experience in any way. I know I'm certainly emotionally scarred after absorbing that information.

Leave a comment below, please do. What's your experience with querying? Any links or tips you'd like to share? What do you find most difficult about writing a query and why do you think we struggle so much to achieve a solid pitch?

See you next week, folks! I'm going to go rewatch some Game of Thrones and, unfortunately, get up for school tomorrow morning. Yuck. Face-palm.


  1. really great post! I love all the gifs too :P
    my favorite things when querying, in no particular order: (so many great examples of how NOT to query. And a handy list of "yes"s along the right-hand side that show you the good ones) (best. thing. ever. lets you search agents right in it and also keep track of who you queried and when, and if they responded and how they responded and if they requested pages, how many pages, etc. etc.)

    I think the hardest thing about writing a query for a writer is to step far enough away from the story to write it. It's the back-flap summary -- not our entire plot. But we get so caught up in our story (oh, but this part is so perfect! and this other thing is a great selling point I have to mention it in the query! and this other part agents will love, so I need that too...), and forget that we're not SUMMARIZING, we're pitching. that's when the babbling sets in. or that's my experience, anyway ;)

  2. I agree with everything that you've said. Have fun rewatching Game of Thrones. I just finished A Dance With Dragons.

  3. @Ellen
    I agree about the babbling. I remember how I respond when someone asks me about what my novel's about and I just panic and start talking because I don't really know what to talk about.

    I most certainly will!

  4. I haven't entered the query trenches yet, but I've written (and rewritten) the query for my current WiP. What helps me is to experiment with form and structure. The paragraph that comes last from draft 1 to 10 might actually work better as the first paragraph. After reading my query over and over again, I tend to get stuck on how it should be, structurally, that all I change from draft to draft is the wording. It helps to set it aside and attack it afresh.

    Good luck with your querying journey!


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