8 Query Mistakes You May Not Realize You’re Making

Writing a query letter to pitch an agent, editor, or mentor is one of the most nerve wracking steps to becoming a published writer. And a query letter is so short! Ask most writers if they’d rather write a query or a whole entire new novel, and you can bet lots will say the latter. And no matter how long a writer sweats over those three short paragraphs, there are a few inadvertent mistakes that can stop her reading in her tracks. If your query hasn’t been getting the traction you want, take a good hard look and see if you’ve done any of the following:

You’re too casual.
All agents, editors, and mentors want you to sound like a human. And these days it’s easier than ever to look up publishing pros on Twitter and learn everything from their dog’s name to their favorite flavor of ice cream. But a query letter is first and foremost a business letter. Sending a solid query that is professional, well-written, and compliant with any peculiar parts of an agent’s submission guidelines shows that you take your writing—and yourself—seriously. It’s the first step in demonstrating to a prospective agent, editor, or mentor that you’re someone who will be easy and professional to work with.

You didn’t follow directions.
Query directions can be maddeningly specific: attachment! No attachment! Five pages pasted in! But agents ask for those specs for a reason, and whatever that reason is, you gotta follow it. At a time when agents are more swamped than ever—overflowing slush inboxes, editorial work with current clients, endless negotiations over every last clause in the contract—agents are, frankly, too busy to bother with queries that don’t follow their rules. (Remember, every minute an agent spends reading submissions is a minute she can’t use to sell books—i.e., to make money.) More than that, getting the specifics right is a strong indication that you can be trusted to figure things out on your own. An author who is a self-starter and a fast learner is always a welcome addition to an agent’s stable of talent.

Your comp titles are outdated, huge bestsellers, or missing entirely.
“Comp” titles are books that are similar to yours (i.e., the COMPetiton, or those that are COMParable). Well-selected comp titles help your agent begin to envision the potential market for your novel, which is a huge help to them—they may even start envisioning which editors might want it! But comp titles only work if they’re culturally relevant in the current marketplace and truly comparable to your book. If you say your book is like The Catcher in the Rye, that’s all well and good—it very well may be—but to an agent, that can read like a major red flag that you haven’t read a YA book in decades. Similarly, saying your book is like Harry Potter or Twilight is more or less meaningless; you’d be better off picking more niche fantasy or paranormal titles that reflect the content (as opposed to the bestseller potential) of your book. Don’t have comps? Poke around Amazon and read through a few books in the category to see who’s doing a similar thing, then add them to your third paragraph: “my book is a YA high fantasy that will be enjoyed by readers of X title and Y title.”

You have a wonky word count.
How long is your book? Know what’s expected for your genre (check out this post for YA and MG guidelines), and know that word counts over a certain amount (around 90,000 words) will raise eyebrows. Also, always round your word count to the nearest thousand words: word counts calculated in word processors aren’t precise, and a rounded off word count is more professional.

You waste time.
“I’m querying you because…” “Have you ever wondered if…” “My novel is about…” “What would you do if…” Axe it! Get to the meat of your plot and characters, and avoid rhetorical questions like the plague. You want your query as lean as possible.

You’re too vague—especially about your ending.
You shouldn’t give EVERYTHING away, of course, but avoid using vague, nonspecific language whenever you can. “Her powers will be tested” is much weaker than “She’ll have to draw every ounce of her fire magic to save her brother.” And never end with any variation on “if you want to know what happens, you’ll have to read the book!”

You include too many characters.
Queries don’t have a ton of space. Even if your book has a wonderful ensemble cast, not every character is an A-lister. It’s fine to call characters “her best friend” or “his parents” and allow the reader to digest the information without getting bogged down in a sea of proper names.

You don’t end with a call to action—or say thanks.
This isn’t a mistake per se, but it’s good form (and polite!) nonetheless. All you need is a quick “thank you for your time and consideration. May I send you the manuscript?” Boom. Done.

 

Want a free eBook guide to querying? The Coffee Break Query Letter is our free workbook for brainstorming, drafting, and polishing a killer query.

How to Write A Fairy-Tale (or Other Story!) Retelling That Sells

There’s a reason readers flock to retellings of fairy tales, folk tales, and other classic stories: they already love them. In fact, most writers of retellings probably start those projects because they love the source material, too.

A retelling takes a story that everyone (or many people!) knows, and changes some key elements (setting, for example) so that it becomes a new, but still recognizable, story. Authors like Gregory Maguire, Marissa Meyer, and Danielle Page have seen huge success taking these beloved tales and making them their own, and readers are consistently excited for more. So how can you craft a retelling that’s intriguing, entertaining, and original?

Pick a story you love.
Don’t settle on a tale for retelling just because it seems like it’d sell. (That pretty much never works, even if you’re not writing a retelling!) You should have some personal connection with this story, whether it’s one you loved as a child, or one you’ve newly discovered.

Make sure you can use that story.
Not everything is fair game for retelling. Anything that isn’t in the public domain is unlikely to get a go-ahead, because you’re infringing on someone else’s intellectual property. So more recently published books—or pretty much any original movie—are out. Double check before you invest too much time into a project. However, all fairy tales, folk stories, Arthurian legends, Robin Hood stories, Shakespeare, and so on are totally fair game.

Make sure it’s not too obscure.
Readers connect to retellings because they already have expectations going in. If your readers don’t recognize the obscure Grimm’s fairy tale you’ve chosen to adapt (The Girl Who Trod On The Loaf, say), it’s not going to resonate with them. Think broadly when you pick source material so that you don’t lock your potential readers out.

Figure out what to change.
A retelling has to have some element that’s different from the original—that’s what makes it retold. You have an arsenal of craft techniques at your disposal: you could update the setting to modern times (or set it in a different historical era), you could change the POV from the hero/heroine to the villain (or another side character), you could change the format (a diary, a novel in verse), or switch genres entirely (sci-fi, anyone?)

Tinker with the plot.
Some (okay, most) fairy tales hinge on paper-thin motivation and nonexistent stakes. Think hard about what could get your characters into the starting situation, and what kinds of emotional depth will motivate them to take the actions that set the story in motion. Don’t count on the source material doing all the work for you—in a fairy tale, that’s fine, but in a novel? No way.

Think of what’s done before.
The downside of the popularity of retellings is that there are a lot already out there. Is yours really bringing something new to the table? If you have, for example, a Cinderella retelling where Cinderella is part cyborg, it’s going to be tough to make the case to an agent, editor, or even reader that your story is appreciably different from Cinder. 

Know your audience.
If you’re changing genre or age category, be sure to keep in mind what your readers will expect. If you’re writing YA, for example, eon’t get too bogged down in the source material to forget to include all the appropriate tropes that draw readers to those books: romance, teenage awkwardness, banter, etc.

Decide how to adapt (or update) details.
Some stories are, for lack of a better word, hella dated. Old tales run rampant with misogyny, sexism, racism, and other damaging tropes. If you’re going to contend with those in your story, work carefully, do research, and consider hiring sensitivity readers to help you navigate your changes.
Also, your chosen story may have magical or otherwise logistically impossible elements that don’t fit in with your chosen retelling setting. Are you going to leave them in, craft an alternate explanation, or bend the plot to skirt them entirely?

Make sure it’s truly a retelling.
Finally, not all stories that use recognizable tropes really are retellings. If your high concept pitch is “Romeo and Juliet, but in present-day, and the families aren’t actually fighting, and they end up happily ever after,” you don’t have a retelling on your hands—you have an original story. And that’s fine! Things adapt and change and grow as you write them, and that doesn’t mean your idea is any less feasible. You’ll probably just want to remove the source material from your pitch, or risk confusing potential readers when your novel doesn’t deliver exactly that.

 

Want a free eBook guide to querying? The Coffee Break Query Letter is our free workbook for brainstorming, drafting, and polishing a killer query.

Should You Write A Sequel to an Unpublished Book?

When you create characters, conflicts, and a world within your novel, it can be hard to let them go after you type the end. Sequels are a great way to give yourself more time with the story world you’ve created, and maybe even deliver a satisfying next volume to readers. But does every book need a sequel? Here are some things to consider before opening up a new document.

You should write a sequel to your unpublished book if:

  • The story is inherently a series—for example, a cozy mystery series featuring the same sleuth in the same setting over a few books
  • The first book will be published for free, and you’re intending to use it to build an audience with further books in the series
  • You feel confident about what the story will be—there’s something in it you must write about
  • There is a theme or structure inherent to the series: for example, a series with a cast of narrators established in the first book, or a series where each volume is inspired by a different type of magic in a magical system, etc.
  • You’ve published book one and readers are begging for it—give them what they want!
  • You’re really trying to build the series into a brand and market it heavily

You should consider whether you really need a sequel if:

  • You don’t know exactly what will happen in the second (or third!) books
  • You’re planning to query the first book for traditional publication—agents and editors will more often than not work one book at a time (at least until they know how the first book sells) so your efforts are probably better spent on a fresh new project rather than continuing a series that may or may not sell multiple volumes
  • You’re writing in a genre that doesn’t typically have sequels featuring the same characters (e.g., romance, YA contemporary)
  • You don’t feel invested in marketing the series any longer
  • You’re just scared of trying new characters, settings, or ideas (it’s okay, it happens!)
  • A new idea is tugging at you, and writing a sequel feels like a chore

If you’re unsure, you can always set your sequel idea aside and try something new for a while. The sequel will always be there—and no one else can write your sequel for you!

5 Signs You’ve Revised Your Novel Too Much

Everyone knows revision means CHANGE—sometimes deleting characters, merging subplots, or even ripping your novel up by the roots and starting again. But how can you tell if your revision is changing too much in your story? Here are 5 warning signs to be on the lookout for.

1. Your characters are becoming inconsistent.
If personalities are changing from scene to scene, that’s a bad sign—you’re hopping around too much and not considering the throughline of your character’s growth arc. But a revised character can also become incompatible with the plot of a novel, especially if the stakes or motivation hinge on something personal: a revenge plot, for example, won’t make any sense with a character who’s mild-mannered. This is especially true for romance: if one character changes, their love interest needs to adapt to remain compatible with them.

2. You’re losing sight of your novel’s genre.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with blending two genres (who doesn’t love a good romantic thriller or humorous fantasy?) but if your edits are making your novel unrecognizable to fans of the genre, you’re not going to hook readers. It’s not about being cliché, but rather about catering to the expectations of your book’s readership, and delivering the satisfying plot tropes and characters that make them fans. Have a reader take a look at your manuscript and help you decide if it’s still got a hook.

3. You’re adding words.
Sometimes revision does involve lots and lots of new scenes, especially if the plot isn’t hanging together. But if you’re ballooning up more than a few thousand, or to over 100k words total, you might want to re-examine what you’re adding. Is it necessary, or just more fat you’ll need to cut.

4. You’re deleting too much.
There’s a flip side, naturally: sometimes, in a rush to get your novel as lean as possible, you end up cutting plot points or details that are necessary to make the whole thing make sense. Removing too many plot dominos can lead to the narrative falling flat, or falling apart. An outside reader will be able to tell you whether things are still lying logically.

5. You don’t care about the book anymore.
Revision is a long haul, and if you work your manuscript over and over and over, your writerly passion can die away. You’ll never finish a project that you don’t care about, and if you hack away at it too much, no matter how focused you are in the beginning, you’ll end up losing steam by the end. Bottom line: any revision course that sucks away your inspiration isn’t the right one for you book. Take a break, maybe work on another project, and revisit when you’re feeling more fresh.

Trying to finish your draft? Download our free eBook with useful software—not just Microsoft Word!—that’ll help you finish your novel fast: