Monday, July 24, 2017

Don't Say It: 15 things that should never be in your query

Before we get down to business, let's stop for a second and celebrate. This is my 100th post at YAtopia!

So we're talking about pitching this month at YAtopia (Just in time for Pitch Wars, too!). Rae Chang and I were just chatting on twitter about what phrases in queries are giant red flags for us. Some of these may seem obvious, but I guarantee anyone who has read slush has seen them more than a few times.

If you find yourself writing any of these phrases into your query, it may be a simple matter of ... you know, not writing them. However, some of these might require some research and maybe an attitude adjustment.

1) "All the YA books out there are poorly written, but mine is different" or some variation thereof

Well. Check out the ego on this guy.

Don't write in a genre/category you don't respect. Period. This may be a matter of you not reading widely enough in your genre, which is easily fixed. Otherwise, it's a lack of respect for the genre/category itself, in which case, why are you bothering? If you believe everything on the shelves in a well-established genre/category is trash, find another genre/category.

2) Putting down literary agents, whether as a group or individuals.

We all know the agent-publisher system is slow and frustrating. However, it's the best we have and we're just all trying to work within it. Why some people think it's okay to complain about literary agents' "greed" or response time or judgement or whatever while also asking those agents to represent them - I will never understand.

3) "There's nothing like this on the market"

Yes there is and I can name ten examples off the top of my head. Again, read more widely in your chosen genre; you don't know your market well enough.

Unless this is literally true, in which case, it's probably unpublishable. Hey, a guy in my first writing group tried to convince me that not having a single piece of punctuation for 9 pages was perfectly fine in commercial fiction (yep, not even literary or experimental).

HOWEVER, every time I've seen this in a query, it's been the former, not the latter.

4) "My book will appeal to readers of Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Divergent, Twilight, and Jane Austen."

Sure it will, Sparky.

If you can't find comp titles that aren't mega-bestsellers, you (say it with me, I'm going to be saying it a lot) don't know your market well enough.

And you really have to love the authors who are just a little bit bolder and say things like "this book is the next Harry Potter, a guaranteed bestseller."

Listen, not even Harry Potter was the next Harry Potter when it was pitched. Nobody knows whether or not a book will take off like that. Keep your expectations reasonable.

5) "I've loved books since I was five years old when..."

This isn't a turn-off so much as it's ... boring. Loving books doesn't make you special in this industry, so saying this in a query is a waste of ink/electrons. If you don't have a lot to put in the "bio" section of the query, that really is totally fine! You can actually leave it out if you don't have anything beneficial to add there. The book is the most important thing.

6) Drop the cliches

As much as you can, eliminate cliches from your query letter. You have such a short space to show how your book is unique, why would you want to use phrases that we see all the time? Things like "so-and-so was just a normal girl until..." and "will never be the same" and "more than he bargained for" and "an incredible journey" and "falls into the wrong hands" and "to make matters worse" and "will change everything" will make experienced query readers roll their eyes.

7) Your age

It doesn't matter and all it can do is create subconscious bias.

8) That your friends/family love the book

Of course they do. My friends loved the first book I wrote. And it was absolute crap. (Not saying yours is, but I'm saying the opinions of your friends/family (or even your old English teacher) will not sway an agent/editor.)

9) Personal information about the agent

Knowing professional information (the agent's clients & the books they've sold) is great. But when you mention anything that doesn't have to do with the agent's professional career, you've crossed a line. Stalking is a real thing that many agents have to worry about, so there's no reason to raise a red flag like this.

10) "Dear Agent"

Write out their name. To the agent, lack of personalization in the greeting, means that you are mass emailing every agent for whom you could find an email address.

11) "Fictional novel"

All novels are, by definition, fictional.

12) "doesn't really fit in a genre"

If your book sells, it's going to have to go on a shelf somewhere. Pick the closest thing so I know roughly what to expect.

And tbh, most of the time this is said, the book fits perfectly into a genre, which tells me you know don't your market very well.

13) First person POV from your character.

It's often creepy, but sometimes it's just confusing and clunky. All book and character descriptions should be in 3rd person present tense, no matter what the book is in.

14) Rhetorical questions

You are not the exception to this rule. Don't do it. Just don't. Please, trust us on this. They don't work.

15) "trend" and "diversity" in the same sentence.

Diversity is not a trend.
Diversity is not a trend.
Diversity is not a trend.
Diversity is not a trend.
Diversity is not a trend.
Diversity is not a trend.
Diversity is not a trend.
Diversity is not a trend.
Diversity is not a trend.
Diversity is not a trend.

While we're at it, you didn't write "an LGBT novel" unless you have lesbians, gay people, bisexual people, AND trans people represented in the book. You probably wrote a f/f romance or a novel featuring a trans character, etc. 


  1. You mean like this? Dang, now I have to rewrite everything....

    Dear agent,

    Seeing as you love middle-aged Shitzus called Matilde and losing your ATM card on Sinner’s Street, I’ve enclosed a proposal for my 250k word fictional novel called “Sticking It to the Agent,” a YA/NA/A/geriatrics diatribe love story that spans every genre in existence.

    While you may have read many books, you’ve never read anything of this caliber, and that’s because Agent X and Agent M of the SmartAss Literary Agency don’t recognize the amazingness of all 2,060 pages of this future bestseller. There's nothing like this on the market, especially with the ten POVs I have of every brand/diversity you can think of.

    My book will appeal to readers of Hemingway, Rowling (that’s pronounced Rolling), Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Dahl, and Stephen King; it’s a guaranteed bestseller.

    I've loved books since I was two years old, when my mother read Agatha Christie to me every night. I’m now 18, and the future is bright—for me and your agency, should you have the honor of representing me for the next ten decades. (I eat well.)

    I won’t deign to put a short synopsis of my manuscript here. Besides, it’s copyrighted, and I’d hate you to steal even the idea of it. Please sign the attached contract if you are willing to meet my need for security around this.

    All my friends love this book, and they’ve told me I have superb voice and give a lot of good information to my future readers.

    So do you hear me? You’d be crazy to pass on this tome. As Shylock, himself, said, “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?”

    You have been warned.

    Looking forward to hearing from you,

    Phillip Edward Princeton III