Monday, April 05, 2021

6 Problems Your Query Letter Reveals About Your Novel

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

How much can you really tell about a novel from its query? A lot, actually.

It's the rare writer who actually enjoys writing a query (I'm one of those now, but that wasn't always the case). Say the word query around a group of writers and you'll most likely hear groans. Odds are, someone in that group will ask, "Why do we need to do this? It's not like an agent can tell anything about the book from two paragraphs anyway."

Would it surprise you to hear you can tell a lot about a book from the query letter?

As a writer, I've critiqued more queries and novels than I can count, and I don't even come close to the number agents and editors see every month, if not every week. But I can tell what problems I'm likely to find in a manuscript after reading just the query letter.

While plenty of writers write brilliant novels and terrible queries, chances are, if your query letter has problems, the novel probably has the same problems.

Are you prone to passive voice? I bet there are several examples, and more than a few “to be” verbs in your letter. Are you fond of clich├ęs? Odds are there's at least one in that pitch paragraph, maybe even a "little did they know" or "things aren't what they seem," and possibly a “has to risk it all to survive” by the end. Does the manuscript need tightening? That'll show, too, with overwritten sentences and a repetition of words.

If you spot problems in your query, it’s a good idea to check your novel for the same issues.

Here are six common query problems that could be holding your novel back:

1. It Sounds the Same as Every Other Book in its Genre

This query might do everything right, but if the story isn't original, that's a good indication the novel itself doesn't offer anything new (even if it is well written). It’s possible you just didn’t choose the right details you show the novel’s uniqueness, so check there first before revising. With luck, it really is just the query that has the problem.

If not, fix this by finding what's unique about your book, or revising it to add a new twist.

(Here’s more with A Common Reason Novels Fail)

2. There's No Focus

This query rambles on and introduces five characters and six plots in three paragraphs, has multiple points of view, tons of subplots, and none of them connect to any one major storyline. This suggests the novel rambles as well, and probably doesn't know what it's trying to be.

Fix this by pinpointing what your core conflict is, identifying you protagonist's goal, and being clear what the novel is truly about.

(Here’s more with Building Your Core: Internal and External Core Conflicts)

3. There's No Sense of the Stakes

This query can't tell you why the plot matters. Sure, maybe the fate of the world is in the balance, but why exactly should the protagonist (and the reader) care? This implies your characters are acting for plot reasons and not because they have a personal stake in this story, so the novel will likely feel pointless.

Fix this by raising the stakes and giving the protagonist a personal reason to want to solve the story problem. And real consequences if they fail.

(Here’s more with Three Questions to Get to the Heart of Your Story)

4. A Weak or No Plot

This query spends more time talking about the idea of the story, or just lists the events that happen in the book. There's no sense of what the core conflict is or how the protagonist has to solve it. This suggests a novel that feels episodic, where the chapters feel disconnected from each other and there's no sense of a protagonist trying to solve a big problem.

Fix this by pinpointing your core conflict and the goals your protagonist needs to take to resolve that conflict.

(Here’s more with On Tonight's Episode: Fixing Episodic Chapters)

5. It's Not Edited Enough

This query will have extra words, repetitious phrases, weak nouns and verbs. There may even be misspelled words or the wrong word, such as their instead of there. This suggests the manuscript is likely riddled with the same errors.

Fix this by revising and proofing thoroughly.

(Here’s more with The Spit Shine: Things to Check Before You Submit (or Publish) Your Novel)

6. It's Got the Whole World in its Pages

This query spends most of its time talking about the world, the history, and the backstory of the characters, but never actually mentions the plot. This suggests the novel will be filled with too much world building, excessive backstory, and a lot of infodumps.

Fix this by cutting what isn't necessary for the story, and focusing more on the plot and character development.

(Here’s more with Why Your Novel Isn’t Hooking Your Reader)

The Good News

Just as the flaws stand out, the strengths also shine through. That's why a not-so-great query can still catch an agent's eye. A well-written, original story with a compelling plot can stand out even if the query stumbles a bit.

(Here’s more with Deciding What to Put in Your Query Letter)

A query letter is a fantastic diagnostic tool to know what your novel is about, as well as spot potential problems in that novel.

Queries can be useful diagnostic tools to help you find—and fix—problems before your manuscript is sent off to agents and editors. Take an objective look at yours and see if you're showing the best parts of your novel or letting the flaws sneak in.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and analyze your query letter. Be objective, hard as that is. If you can’t be (and that’s okay), find some writer friends to review it for you.

What does your query letter say about your book?

*Originally published January 2013 on Query Tracker. Last updated April 2021.

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Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Hi, Janice,

    This article makes me realize that the questions you pose, intended for those with completed manuscripts, can be used to even better purpose by applying them to one's WIP in the early stages of its development. A great exercise to refine one's vision for one's story, isolate the focus and story arc, and so forth. This one's a keeper - it's already gone into my own files and I've forwarded it to a fellow writer who is working on her first novel.

    1. Oh absolutely. I write a query before I write the novel to make sure I have all the key elements. It's a great tool for that.