Over the past few weeks, I’ve spent quite a bit of time judging the entries for this year’s Query Kombat, which is hosted by the wonderful Michelle Hauck (@Michelle4laughs), Michael Anthony (@Ravenous Rushing), and SC (@SC_Author). In case you’re not familiar with the contest, 64 entries were chosen based on their query and first 250 words and then battled it out tournament style until one query was left standing. (Missed Query Kombat, but still interested in participating in a contest? Check out Michelle’s upcoming contest, New Agent. Details here.)
So, after reviewing a good chunk of those 64 entries, here are some of the common pitfalls I stumbled across.
1. The Rule of Three
In almost all instances, your query should never have more than three named characters. What you need to remember here is that the reader (agents) will just be familiarizing themselves with your story, so it’s incredibly difficult to keep track of too many names. Especially if your manuscript falls somewhere on the SFF spectrum where you’re utilizing new concepts, worlds, etc. Read through your query and see what names can be substituted with titles instead. For example, instead of saying Stacy, can you just call her your main character’s sister? Typically these three characters (if you’re including the maximum of three) will be your protagonist, your antagonist, and a love interest.
2. Word Count, Word Count, Word Count
Please, for the love of all that’s holy, know acceptable word count ranges for the genre you’re writing. Not sure what those are? Check out this super helpful blog post from agent extraordinaire, Jennifer Laughran. Agents are looking to love your story, so don’t give them a reason to start doubting you right off the bat. Yes, once you’re an uber successful author like J.K. Rowling or Stephen King you can pretty much to do whatever you’d like, but as a debut author looking for a home, you want to stay within these ranges.
3. Know Your Genre
Supernatural Historical Fairy Tale Retelling is not a genre. Neither is Literary Science Fiction Self-Help. Do some research and make sure the genre you’re pitching in your query letter is actually an acceptable genre.
4. Voice Is Everything
This one is hard, and one of those intangibles that you’re either able to instill in your query or not. We can always tell you when it’s missing, but can’t always tell you how to fix. Imbuing your query with voice will make it stand out from the pile and give agents a flavor of what they can expect in your manuscript. That being said, do not, DO NOT, ever write your query as your main character. It’s never a good idea. I promise.
5. Vagueness Is The Enemy
This is especially important when you get to the stakes of your query. Don’t leave us hanging! Don’t tell us: With danger looming closer, Emily must decide between saving a life and saving the world. What danger? Whose life? How is she going to save the world? Instead tell us: With the Devil hot on Emily’s heels, she must decide between rescuing the lost soul of her brother and unleashing Hell on Earth. See what I mean?
However, this doesn’t just apply to the stakes. Comb through your entire query, banish vagueness, and insert specificity. Curious whether you’ve done a good job? Send your query off to someone who’s never read your story before. They’ll be sure to pick out the spots that aren’t clear enough.
6. Proofread Until Your Eyes Burn
Not really, save your eyes. But double check, triple check, quadruple check. Have CPs, betas, and maybe the guy at the bus stop read it through for grammatical errors and typos. With so many queries landing in an agent’s inbox, make sure your query is bright and shiny. Adding to this, type up your query e-mail and send it to yourself for a dry run. You’ll be able to spot any weird formatting issues and get those fixed before sending out your first set of queries.
That’s it, folks. Any important tips that I missed? Let me know in the comments! Happy writing!