Pub Rants

From The Query Inbox

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STATUS: I can finally hear out of my left ear! This may not sound amazing but try living without for a week. Anyone talking to me on my left side constantly got an annoying “what?” In other great news? That YA author decided to sign with me. Yea! Welcome aboard.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? SEVEN YEARS by Natalie Merchant

1. Here’s a query with a first sentence that highlights that the heroine loses everything because of addiction, betrayal, and loss of control.

And yet the heroine has a whip-smart comedic tone.

Can’t see how that’s going to be pulled off so it’s a NO.

2. A romantic suspense query. Woman in jeopardy plot outline. Very common so I’m looking for something that will make it stand out. Oops. Phrasing misfires and yes, they do stand out but I was thinking more along the lines of a hook.

We have a “malevolent machinations of an assailant” and “arresting passion that burgeons.”

I’m thinking “malevolent” and “burgeons” probably shouldn’t both be used in the same sentence.

3. A query for a novel that specifically targets the non-reading pre-teen and early teen boys. But it’s 100,000 words.

Eyebrow raise.

4. This writer describes the novel as a romance with historical, thriller, and fantasy elements. It has chick lit elements but is also highly literary.

Folks. No. You cannot label your work everything but the kitchen sink. If uncertain, commercial mainstream can work just fine.

5. In this query, the writer has created an alternate world sans cars as a setting for a romance.

I can’t tell why this story needs to be told in this alternate reality. It should somehow be central to the romance unfolding or why it is needed becomes the big question.

I also read two fantasy YA queries that I literally had to read twice because I couldn’t follow the convoluted plots that were outlined.

And normally, I wouldn’t read it twice (time constraints and all that) but it’s a little late, I was a little tired, and I thought maybe it was me.

Nope. On second reading, the two queries were just as unclear.

I know fantasy query pitches are often the most difficult to capture as you have to sum up the story and the world in a very short bit of space but don’t try to cram too much in. Confusion might be the result.

Happy querying!

29 Responses

  1. Anonymous said:

    Are most people querying about women’s fantasy/sci-fi and chick lit this all over the place with their letters? In repping primarily romance and things with that slant, have you noticed that queries are in any way “painted with the same brush”? A lot of the stuff you report looks like the work of bored housefraus with low-level addiction to Harlequin romance novels.

  2. WarHammer said:

    I love how people in their responses like to make fun of the people Ms. Nelson points out with these queries while at the same time are more than likely feverishly typing on their own keyboards rapidly trying to change their own queries because of making the same mistakes…;)

  3. Anonymous said:

    Sorry, Ms. Warhammer- it just seems that most of the people agents talk about are essentially being made fun of. Ms. Nelson represents fantasy/romance, and it just seems that the folks writing fantasy/romance all tend towards trite material, and write trite query letters using hackneyed cliches in a vain attempt to get attention. They end up being made fun of here; first by Ms. Nelson, then by her blog readers.

  4. JDuncan said:

    I don’t believe Ms. Nelson is making fun of the queries. She is merely pointing out why they don’t work. It’s not our place as writers/bloggers to make fun of them here either. Folks aren’t querying to be made fun of, and while some might have put little effort into the query or not done adequate research to form a good one, I would bet most are putting a good faith effort into getting her to be interested in their material. I think she posts about the queries she receives in order to inform other writers about what works and what doesn’t. They aren’t fodder for us to be picking on.

    Speaking of queries, I have a ms that I’ve been calling paranormal suspense. While it has a romantic element, it isn’t a romance. It also likely tends toward commercial stuff too. Would I be better off labeling it as commercial mainstream?

  5. Anonymous said:


    Although I appreciate learning what does and doesn’t work for you, I cringe when I see you quoting an author’s query (even a sentence or two). This author may simply get the “intriguing” form rejection, and might appreciate that you’ve addressed the issue here. BUT, I think not. I think the author will wish you had spent the time describing the problem in the rejection instead of here. I realize there’s no violation of confidentiality because you have no contract with this writer, but as an aspiring writer, I’m quite bothered by this. And I totally feel for this writer.

    And you aspiring writers…resist jumping in here to lynch me in your kiss-butt defense of a desirable agent. Kristen will not offer you representation if you your writing sucks. PERIOD. So spare yourself the bad writer’s karma.

  6. Chris Redding said:

    Dear Anonymous,
    Let me preface with the fact that I’ve already received my rejection letter from Ms. Nelson. And it was a form and it didn’t say “intriguing.”
    Ligthen up.
    I saw reference to my query letter here and it actually gave me insight into why no pages were requested. I learned from it.
    As writers we need much thicker skins and that’s even with realizing the Ms. Nelson is not making fun. The commentors may be doing that but the agent is not.

  7. Patrick McNamara said:

    You answered a question I didn’t know I had. I tend to blend genres so some of my stuff would probably be best classified as commercial mainstream. I always thought that mainstream refered to non-speculative fiction so fantasy was out. But my stuff often is a blending of fantasy, science fiction, romance and comedy.

  8. Anonymous said:

    Always love to hear about the queries! Although I can’t believe the debate about the topic is beginning AGAIN. Anon, nobody gets ticked off at Rachel Vater when she does queries. Nobody gets ticked off when Rachel Vater quotes from the letters. So what’s the problem? Kristin is taking time out of her very busy day, while she is very sick, to post something that could help you get published, and you want to COMPLAIN about it? And why would you think that anyone coming to Kristin’s defense is just trying to kiss up? Isn’t it possible that some of us are actually nice and will say something about how you’re being hard on her just because it’s the right thing to do? Well, fine; I’ll play it your way and post anonymously just to prove my point, since I haven’t sent my query yet. But if you’re smart, you’ll stop being offended and glean something useful from the queries Kristin posted.

  9. RyanBruner said:

    I’m not questioning Kristin’s judgment…but the reason she gave for rejecting the first one doesn’t sit well with me. It is entirely realistic to have someone dealing with addiction, loss of control, etc., by using comedy. I’ve known folks like that, in fact…who use humor as a way to hide the pain inside themselves. To me, it would make for a VERY VERY interesting read. Very believable, and in my limited experience, rather original.

    (And no, it wasn’t my query! 😉 )

  10. Clarice S. said:

    ryanbruner – I agree that the first query sounded, to borrow a word from Ms. Nelson, intriguing! It struck me, though, as one of those queries that would excite some agents and make other agents’ eyes roll. I hope it finds a good home somewhere, because it sounds like something I’d like to read, too.

    (She didn’t specify, but there could have been other problems with the query, too – typos or awkward phrasing or something else that tipped her off to the possibility that the writing in the manuscript would not be sound.)

  11. katiesandwich said:

    Agents, just like all of us, have differing tastes, so maybe author #1 will find an agent who’s interested in such a strange pairing. Personally, I agree with ryanbruner, but that’s just me. Not to mention the fact that I didn’t read the query and don’t know what else was wrong with it, so I can’t make a judgement on it.

  12. Anonymous said:

    I agree with Ryan that the first query sounded interesting. Yes, it would be hard to pull of that tone with serious subject matter, but the fact that it’s difficult means that if it’s done well, it could really ‘stand out’ and work. I’d at least want to see sample pages from that before ruling it out completely. Unless of course it’s just not her idea of interesting, and in that case, she should pass. Which is likely what she did.

  13. Catja (green_knight) said:

    Kristin, sorry to highjack your blog comments:
    I followed Miss Snark’s link to the ILAA website (an organisation of literary agents that lists Barbara Bauer as a top agent, ahem) and randomly followed the link to the ‘Sligo Literary Agency’ which purports to have as a member of staff ‘Dianne Nelson, Co-Agent, Nelson Literary Agency’. To the best of my knowledge, there’s only one of them, and you don’t employ anyone by that name – so you might want to know that your good name is being highjacked.

    Word verification: sukkz. No, I’m not making that up.

  14. whitemouse said:

    it just seems that the folks writing fantasy/romance all tend towards trite material, and write trite query letters using hackneyed cliches in a vain attempt to get attention.

    How nice, a blanket insult for all the writers Ms. Nelson works with.

    I suspect agents who handle other sorts of fiction would tell you that the sample pages and query letters they get also tend to be trite and use cliches. Bad writing is not the exclusive domain of fantasy and romance writers.

    Go produce something of merit yourself, rather than slagging off others.

  15. S. W. Vaughn said:

    Malevolent burgeons… heh. 🙂

    It’s definitely hard to write a fantasy query that makes sense! The more alien the world you create, the more difficult it is to convey in a few paragraphs. It’s tough to strike a balance — you have to write so that your odd terms sound perfectly natural, yet make it clear exactly what those terms are referring to without bludgeoning the query-reader over the head.

    (You know, like: The Q’Flxaq, an alien race who relies on WordVerf technology to name their children, take over the Internet in an attempt to enslave humanity.)

    Kristin, do you have any examples of clearly written fantasy queries?

  16. FighterGirl said:

    Kristin, just happened upon this blog and it’s awesome. Helpful to know what works and what doesn’t, plus, sorry, bad queries can be funny. Unless they’re mine. Not that I would ever have a bad query…um…yeah. Also, I have stumbled across an epidemic of “burgeoning” lately in my online travels of procrastination. Like “burgeoning passion.” Am I the only one who thinks this sounds painful? “Argh! It BURGEONS!”

  17. Beth said:

    Anon 5:55–

    Actually, if I had been rejected by Kristin, and she mentioned my query here along with a reason for that rejection, I’d be thrilled. So much better to know the problem so it can be fixed, rather than to stumble blindly on toward the next rejection.

  18. Anonymous said:

    #1 sounds interesting. just because you can’t see how it can be pulled off doesn’t mean it can’t.

  19. Anonymous said:

    “#1 sounds interesting. just because you can’t see how it can be pulled off doesn’t mean it can’t.”

    Uh – that’s why every agent blog tells you to keep querying, the business is so subjective, etc.

    It’s a no for Kristin, not a no for everyone. Hence the popular form responses: Not for me. I didn’t fall in love. I couldn’t rep this well. Another agent will love this. I’m sure this will find a home.

    Move on.

  20. Yahzi said:

    If Kristen is going to make fun of my query letters… I want to know about it.

    Because it means the rest of them probably are, too.

    And how can I change it if I don’t know?

    Rachel Vater reduced my query letter to the stupidist possible one-sentence version. It was cruel, yes, but now I know why the query letter didn’t generate any responses. Now at least I can change it. (I would say fix it, but that seems unduly optimistic. 😀 )

  21. GutterBall said:

    And you aspiring writers…resist jumping in here to lynch me in your kiss-butt defense of a desirable agent…. [S]pare yourself the bad writer’s karma.

    My, someone got up on the wrong side of the bed. You might have been making a reasonable point until you went there. More power to you for speaking aloud in disagreement of the subject matter, but in preemptively attacking anyone who might disagree with you, you’ve completely abandoned your high ground.

    Besides, how else are we writers supposed to get “real-time” commentary on what goes through an agent’s mind at any given sentence? How else are we supposed to know what’s been done to death or what might be considered fresh and interesting?

    Sure, it might cause a writer to cringe a bit, but as a whole, I’d rather cringe anonymously (because none of the agents/editors who blog pillory queriers by name) and learn something than stare at a form rejection and wonder why.

    And no, I’m not defending Ms. Nelson. I haven’t queried her and don’t plan to. I’m defending all of them — Ms. Vater, Miss Snark, Evil Editor, etc. Not one of them would look with favor on a query just because I stood up for them — as if they need my help! — in the comments section.


  22. WarHammer said:

    Let me clarify, I do not think Ms. Nelson is making fun of anybody. I rather like it when she makes these posts on query letters as it is always helpful to know what not to do.

    I do think it is quite hillarious however to see people leaving comments putting down the people who sent these query letters. I am willing to bet the majority of you folks who tend to get such a thrill at the misfortune of others have made the same mistakes or seeing these query letters have gone back and changed your own because you had written the same thing. That is comical.

    This business is tough enough, and writers should not be trying to shred each other, but should be working togethor to create a better product. How many of you actually have novels sitting on bookshelves? I am guessing not many of you. For those that do, I say congratulations because you have beaten the odds. Those that do not,you really have no right to pick apart anyone elses queries, ideas, or anything else as technically you are in the same boat.;)

    And for the record, it is MR. WarHammer

  23. LadyBronco said:

    Warhammer, you really need to lighten up. It’s called having a sense of humor. Not everyone who makes a silly coment is doing so to tear down someone else. It’s funny ~ we laugh. Period. And I quite happily admit that I was fortunate enough to be asked to send pages to Ms. Nelson, even though she eventually said no. The story wasn’t for her. I remain happy I was even asked to send anything, and I will try the next agent. If I send out something that sounds silly, so be it. I have a thick enough skin to be able to take it, and any other rejections that come my way. It just makes me work that much harder when I see folks in the same basket as I am, and that we are all able to get a chuckle over it now and again.

  24. WarHammer said:

    Lighten up? I was talking about finding things hillarious and comical. if I lighten up anymore I would float away.

    I too have had paseg read by Ms. Nelson but I really do not see how that is relevant to what io was saying. I was just making a comment that many people post snarky responses concerning others query letter while more than likely have the same things in their own query letters. I just think it is wrong to laugh at the expense of others no matter if it is funny or not especially when you are guilty of the same mistake. Its unprofessional in my opinion.