Pub Rants

The Latest Trends in Query Letters and Sample Pages

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STATUS: Importance of proofreading. I sent out an email with a sentence that featured the same word three times. Sheesh. It’s a Monday…

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? ONE FOR MY BABY by Jack Jones

I have to say it’s getting a little gruesome in our query letters and sample pages. We’ve received an inordinate amount of queries where the poor main character has to be killed off before the novel can begin.

(1) Main characters dying and then being sent back to earth to redeem themselves or finish one last task.

(2) Teens dying in car accidents and then narrating their story from the other side.

(3) Main characters that become a ghost and narrate the story from that perspective.

I’m sure writers are simply trying to find a cool hook or an interesting framework in which to tell their stories but in the last month, we’ve seen a hundred of these.

Some other trends?

(1) Greek mythology characters in a modern setting (Thank you Mr. Riordan.)

(2) In women’s fic: 30-40 something women facing a choice between (1) a happy but mundane family life and (2) a new romance/exotic adventure; We assume most of them choose their families in the end. Also, we’ve been seeing a lot of stories about women who have discovered their husbands cheating, getting divorced, and then moving to a small town where they start their own business—like a B&B. They always move to the small town as the key feature.

(3) Adult novels with bipolar characters (not sure if this is relevant since we haven’t requested any of them, but it’s amazing how many of these queries we’ve seen).

(4) Psychics (both YA and adult) who solve a mystery or save someone or other people’s lives

(5) vampires (still) – in romance and YA (fewer werewolves, but amazingly still those pesky vampires)

(6) people (adult and YA) who “see” things in dreams that are real and lead them on an adventure (all sorts of genres, but same concept).

66 Responses

  1. Livia said:

    These posts are always scary to scan. But thus far, my “Man eating pizza monster goes on a journey of self discovery” WIP is safe…

  2. Anonymous said:

    Well, CRAP. There goes every idea I’ve ever had. Off to find a job as a barista then, hopefully in a non-chain coffee shop off that new B&B down the street rumored to be haunted by the ghost of a 30-40 year old women with one earthly task left to accomplish…

  3. Anonymous said:

    Maybe you get these kinds of queries because they are things that people are interested in reading. Vampires are still being written about (they will ALWAYS be written about, and have been since Bram Stoker put pen to paper and made them sexy) because the books are still being bought and people still read them.

    I get that agents probably get tired of the same queries over again, but when some of you tell writers to “write what you love, not what’s hot”, then this is what you get. Writers don’t have crystal balls, but we still want our books out there for people to read. Should we abandon these projects – what may very well be unique books past the query – because they’re popular?

    Not trying to stir anything up here, but I’m genuinely curious. I’d imagine this is a difficult situation for anyone who wrote a manuscript with those very elements you mentioned and are now being turned down by dozens of agents because they didn’t foresee the craze.

  4. Joseph L. Selby said:

    (1) Greek mythology characters in a modern setting (Thank you Mr. Riordan.)

    GAH! No, no, no, no. What’s your book about. Poseidon living in St. Louis. Oh, just like Rick Riordan. No, not like Rick Riordan. I wrote the original short story in 2003 and never heard about Percy Jackson until 2010!

    *head explodes*

  5. Alleged Author said:

    Anonymous–you do have a point, but there is something you need to remember. These agents are receiving what probably equates to hundreds of queries a month with vampires in the spotlight. While people do love to read about vampires, there are only so many vampires allowed so the market doesn’t become completely saturated. Plus, Ms. Nelson has to submit to editors who are ALSO no doubt receiving a million books with vampires. I doubt any agent is going to say, “On no! No more vampires forever!” But maybe it’s just a “not right now” sort of thing. Plus, how many ways can one truly write a high-concept novel using vampires? Just something to think about. I do understand your frustration though!

  6. Reye said:

    You’ve definitely hit the nail on the head by mentioning vampires. I think about 80% of all up-and-coming YA books at the moment revolves around vampires (and they all abide by at lease seven different plot formulas).

    The catch is this: I’m not happy about it.

    I know that vampires are “hot” right now, but it’d be nice if writers could get a little more creative. Why feed off the Twilight craze when you could start a new craze of your own?

    So, I definitely understand your plight here. Hot topics are great, but they get old pretty quickly when you’re an agent (or avid reader/writer-to-be like me).

  7. Erinn said:

    I’m glad my current Greek mythology book will take at least three years before its ready, maybe by then the tread will be over.

    Even if you’ve written a book that falls under this trend, remember, write the book YOU want to read. Good news other people want to read it too.

  8. Christi Goddard said:

    Wow. So if ‘a friend’s’ *ahemcoughminecough* MS is two of these things, I’m basically better off tossing the idea and starting all over again with something else.

  9. The Writers Canvas said:

    Hmmm…interesting to read this. I have a B&B in mine, but it’s not in a small town!

    Interesting overview of queries/pages overall. Thanks for sharing 🙂


  10. Jill said:

    Okay, freaking out here, because mine falls into one of the categories.

    I’m holding out hope that you’re just pointing out trends, not telling us to stop querying these particular stories.

    I say this because of all the categories, you mention that you didn’t request from one trend (the bipolar MC trend). Does that mean you are requesting from the others?

    I suddenly feel very insecure. Maybe I need to toss away the novel and open a B&B.

  11. Dawn Embers said:

    This is a great topic to read and has some good points mentioned. It’s not easy to have a main character die in the beginning of the novel but for some it sounds like a good idea. I’m surprised so many actually go through with the idea and submit it to agents.

    If someone is writing in one or two, it’s not that big of a deal because it will take time for them to finish the draft enough to get it published. For those who are already submitting, that could be discouraging but then again there are a number of agents and publishers out there to consider. Plus, while working out the queries and sending options why not work on another novel.

  12. Eric Riback said:

    I don’t go for the ghost stories, but then I don’t go for anything supernatural so I’m clearly out of step with the times.

    The teenager thing reminds me of those gruesome hits like Teen Angel, Tell Laura I love Her and Laurie (Strange Things Happen in This World). Yet I do like Long Black Veil. Go figure.

  13. Anonymous said:

    Mine doesn’t fit into any of these categories, yet it was still rejected. I guess it must be bad on its own merits. 😉

  14. Anonymous said:

    This should be a guide to every would-be writer out there. “Trending” or trying to trend does not equate creativity. It just means you know how not to be original. You shouldn’t be belching out a story anyway. It seems regurgitation is the new IT thing in entertainment. How refreshing it is to start from scratch, some people will never understand. A story doesn’t have to be about vamps or wolves or pre-teen ghosts (or ghosts period) to be considered interesting. It certainly isn’t ground breaking. Ugh! It’s just so irritating when I walk into the bookstore and I see the same thing over and over and over again.

  15. Jeannie said:

    One afternoon when we were doing read-aloud stories, my students became obsessed with killing characters. I got so tired of the gore that I forbade them to butcher one more hapless MC, on pain of no points for the assignment.

    Mean teacher…. 😀

  16. The Alliterative Allomorph said:

    I think sometimes you have to give a typical story line a chance. In summary it may be ‘typical’, but maybe the way it is executed isn’t! Maybe they have put a whole new slant on it; one that can’t be pinpointed in a query.

  17. Anonymous said:

    Hey, I’ve got a good idea. There’s this guy from a small town where the sun shines all the time. (No, not from a certain part of his anatomy . . .)

    He goes to a new school and meets a hot chick, except she turns out to be a vampire and neither of them want to do it for different reasons even though they’re hangin’ out for it real bad.

    And then they find out that pigs really can fly.

    Bet you got one of those as well.

  18. Anonymous said:

    Anon, 9:57 mentions “trending”. I’m not writing in one of the above catogories, but I do have a novel that is suddenly in the ‘trend’ catogory, much to my dismay because when I started writing the novel over a year ago, it wasn’t trendy and nor was I trying to be trendy. The point is: sometimes novel ideas that come to writers just get swept up in the trend.

  19. Anonymous said:

    How about this?

    Fly By Night

    by Dave Kuzminski

    The sun had just set and the coffin opened. A figure stepped from the coffin and faced his waiting servant. “Renfield, I have reached an unhappy conclusion and am serving you with notice of your discharge.”
    Renfield shook his head. “Master, I don’t understand. I’ve served you loyally all these years. It just doesn’t make any sense for you to fire me now.”
    The Count replied, “Renfield, I must. I’m sorry. You’ll have to leave the castle and find other work. Should you need a letter of recommendation, I’ll gladly provide you with one. Surely, there must be another vampire in need of someone loyal like yourself . . .”
    Renfield spotted an insect on the wall, smacked it dead while catching it before it could fall to the floor, and then popped it in his mouth. Seeing that, the Count flinched.
    “You were saying, Master?”
    “Uh, yes, I was saying surely there must be another vampire in need of someone loyal like yourself to tend to the castle during the day. It’s not easy, I know, finding someone to keep the cobwebs neatly arranged, insure that the dust is undisturbed, and . . .”
    At that point, Renfield spotted a fly and smacked it before gobbling it as well.
    “Renfield, what you’re doing disturbs me. Must you eat right now?”
    “But Master, you never mentioned my eating disturbed you before.”
    “True, Renfield, I hadn’t. However, that was before I dined at the house of a British explorer just back from Africa.”
    Renfield asked, “Has that something to do with my discharge from your services?”
    “Unfortunately, it does, Renfield. I was unaware Sir Mallory had been stricken with Tse-tse fever before I dined.”
    “But Master, I still don’t understand.”
    “It’s quite simple, Renfield. We’re simply no longer compatible. Since that particular dinner, I’ve discovered I’m a fly by night.”

    }|{ the end }|{

    Just thought I’d share. By the way, it was published several years ago.

  20. Kaela said:

    I think the whole main character dying off and narrating from beyond the grave thing is an attempt at boarding the Lovely Bones train. Any book interesting enough to make the transition to the big screen is the kind of success that writers want to replicate.

    I have to agree with some of the above that I’m quite relieved the book I’m writing doesn’t fall into one of these categories. But I can’t help but wonder – if it did, would I start over? Re-tweak to create a more interesting angle even if I feel like I’m on a good track? Or would I just forge on, risking the idea that it would never see the light of day?

  21. Peni R. Griffin said:

    “Originality does not consist in saying what no one has ever said before, but in saying exactly what you think yourself.” James Stephens

    That’s the best advice I ever got. It was on the dustjacket for one of the original “blank books.” They used to be plastic comb bound and have dust jackets with titles on the front like “Some Incredibly Important Trivia” and inspiring quotes on the flaps.

    Anyway, it’s true. Everybody works within a tradition and from a set of experiences. The query well rises from a vast aquifer of common tradition and experience. Of course these trends appear. They can’t be predicted or prevented. So they shouldn’t be worried about. If you write a good enough query that even a vampire romance plot can arouse the jaded vampire romance sweet tooth in an agent, you too can crowd the shelves with your black and red covers.

    By the way, vampires? I’ve been waiting for that trend to crash since 1997, but it gets worse and worse every year. God, I hate vampires. But I read Charlaine Harris. So there you go. A long-term perspective is a good thing to have.

  22. Mochi said:

    Oh thank goodness my stories are nothing like these. But it’s for this reason I am finding it harder and harder to find a good book at the book store these days. D:

  23. Suze said:

    Problem is – my step-daughter and her friends won’t read a new book unless it has vampires in it. Sigh. There IS still a market for it because that’s what (some) kids want to read right now. We might be bored of it – but they’re not! My WIP falls into one of those overplayed categories – not the vampire one though – and I, too, was writing it before the ‘trend’ hit. My bad for being slow!

  24. Wm. Luke Everest said:

    Wow. Seems there’s some advantage to slight bitterness–I’ll never try to copy really generic fiction, because I think I can do better. If I didn’t, I’d get a real job.

    I believe there’s a difference between “loving” a genre and just “liking” it. When you truly love something, the idea of a work failing to capture its beauty/coolness/profundity/horror (basically its potential psychological resonance with the reader) is simply horrific. At least, that’s why when I finish a story that honestly doesn’t compare well to the best my beloved genre has to offer, I chalk it down to experience, and I don’t submit to the likes of Kristin Nelson… yet.

    Here’s to the sanctity of your inbox, m’lady. *Raises glass of water, gets back to work.*

  25. Amy B. said:

    Y’know, I’m trying to find the part where Kristin says, “And we will reject anything with anything resembling these plot lines because we are so bored of them and clearly the book must suck.” Because I can’t find it, but clearly that’s what a lot of the commentators seem to have read.

    Relax, folks. Saying this stuff is trending in the queries does NOT mean an agent won’t sign on any such book. It just means you have to make it that much better, that “girl meets boy but boy is a VAMPIRE” or “boy tells the story after he’s DEAD” isn’t a hook by itself.

    Kristin’s post is an FYI, not an edict demanding you burn such manuscripts on sight.

  26. Heidi J. Johns said:

    I echo Amy B. in that I don’t believe Kristin is telling us to not write and submit a MS from those genres.

    There will always be trends, and we shouldn’t worry about them. We should be concerned with quality writing.

    So, write the story that you’ve been given. Make it shine and query with confidence. When you are rejected (yes, I said, when), dust yourself off and query again. Remember, publishing is a business…one that caters to the millions of readers in this world who have vastly eclectic tastes.

    …and my teen and I (and a whole group of her friends and their moms) will be going to the midnight showing of Eclipse tonight. Vampire’s are not, ahem, dead. 🙂

  27. Robert Michael said:

    Supernatural horrors with a romantic bent are going to popular for a while.

    I fail to understand romance novels that center on infidelity–that isn’t romance, it’s infatuation and lust. Unhealthy, selfish ambitions seem disconnected from my sense of what romance means.

    But, writers tend to be behind the crazes. Vampires are big in 2008 and I may not finish with the inspiration/observation of success/write outline/write draft/edit twice/prepare query until late 2010. At that snail’s pace, I could probably put away the manuscript for six more years in a vault and submit with better success. By that time, I would be ahead of the vampire curve…theoretically.

  28. The Alliterative Allomorph said:

    @ Robert: Women’s fic and Romance are two completely different kettles of fish. In women’s the fish are trying to breathe out of water. In romance the fish are fried and served with lemon. ;o)

  29. Tina Lynn said:

    Now, I’m tempted to write the story of a psychic bi-polar vampire who has a dream that her husband is cheating and moves to a small town where she finds out that she’s actually the daughter of Zeus.

  30. Wm. Luke Everest said:

    Most books fail to earn out the publisher’s investment in printing costs, author’s advance et cetera. Publishers (and agents) are looking for the NEXT Percy Jackson, the NEXT Twilight, NEXT Harry Potter and so on.

    You’re absolutely right that there’s nothing wrong with formula, and it’s true that generic stories can shine when well told. If Gene Wolfe had written Percy Jackson, it would have been far more engaging, and it probably would have sold better too. Focus on craft and on your story ideas, and focus honestly. Everyone here is offering great advice.

    But listen to Robert Silverberg and Neil Gaiman when they talk about creating new ideas. They both talk about flipping the idea, being aware of what the most obvious way forward is, and doing something else. Ray Bradbury talks in “Zen and the Art of Writing” about diving deep into yourself, and enjoying an intimate, candid dialogue with your own creativity. If you enjoy doing this, you might just enjoy being a professional writer.

  31. Kelsey Sutton said:

    I agree that vampires are becoming painful to read about. It’s just been done so many times, how can there possibly be any uncovered material left for this topic? As to the Greek mythology and the rest, I haven’t really seen, but maybe that’s just because I have certain bookshelves I visit in B&N.

  32. Anonymous said:

    I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s post about unique queries for completely unmarketable books that will never find an agent.

  33. Melody said:

    Hmmm, that’s very interesting! Some of those trends make me wonder what started them!

    Also, I was holding my breath as I read, hoping I didn’t see mine. And now I comment with relief. 🙂

  34. Helena said:

    You may be interested in an article in THE ONION. The repoerter interviews a publishing insider who’s predicting that vampires are on their way out and the next hot literary topic is minotaurs.

  35. Anonymous said:

    Does this mean I have to stop working on my bipolar vampire dies in a car accident and comes back with psychic dreams and romances a 40 something with a B&B????

  36. BorneoExpatWriter said:

    Thanks for the trend tip off, which I fell into by accident when I shifted the opening pages of my epilogue, after the main character dies (his death triggers a series of revelations to bring the novel full circle and a happy ending), into the first chapter (as an opening frame). So, now it’s going back to the epilogue to avoid this trend. I now wonder how it’s going to do the Faulkner-Wisdom contest. Two years ago it was listed as “almost finalist” before I made the shift to chapter one.
    Results will be out July/August…

  37. Isabella_CY said:

    To tell the truth, I dislike stories based on vampires. They always seem to end up with the vampires being perfect, and their only fault being that they can’t portray their emotions.

    However, I believe that authors should write what they like.

    But boy am I glad that the novel I’m working on doesn’t fall into these categories…I was reading through the whole thing with bated breath.

    Now I’m going to start working on the novel before it can fall into the trending topic…0.o

  38. JEM said:

    Blurg, I had a great Greek mythology characters idea! Fiiine, I’ll shelve it for now.

    I figure once someone’s done the “other side” story, there’s no need for everyone else to hop on that train.

    Thanks for the trending, I love to see this stuff!

  39. Rhyanna said:

    well I have to say that in one ms, i do have en empath, but she doesn’t solve the case.
    In another ms, the evil dude feels Omnipotent, but the guardian protector is very much alive, just has special abilities.
    In another, not so much vampire as —oh my love…etc…just the vampire queen came to an ‘understanding’.
    I don’t really care about werewolves or vamps, so many are portraying them as senseless and stupid, without any real substance to them.
    I guess I liked “Angel-David Boreanaz” too much…and glad that he’s on bones, though wondering what’s he doing in the military with Bones going off on a dig?

    Anyway, all that you’ve stated are good tips about what NOT to query, let alone write about…just my opinion.
    I think the last real vampire show that I liked was Dark Shadows, Barnabas Collins, too bad I missed the final show, where they showed who the real vampire was.

  40. Anna said:

    Hm. Bummer. I do happen to have a romance I’m working on that features vampires. :/ It’s just kinda.. different.

    And it’s hardly YA. Haha. 😛

    I’ve always been into werewolves and vampires (the shirt I’m in now says “I *heart* werewolves.”) Funny thing is, I was working on this manuscript before Twilight blew up. Ugh.

  41. Jourdan Alexandra said:


    I doubt you’ll have the time to answer this, but if you somehow find it, that would be AMAZING.

    My question is this: How hopeless are YA vampire novels at this point? I’ve seen you write many times (like you did in this post) that you’re not completely closed off to them, and that you would ask for sample pages if it was somehow fresh and original. But do you end up requesting sample pages from the myriad of YA vampire queries that you receive? And, has the human female/male vampire avenue turned into an absolute graveyard yet, or would agents still be open to that sort of setup if the remainder of the plot had something strong going for it?

    I ask because (as I’m sure you could tell) I am the author of a YA vampire novel. At times it seems so hopeless because of the current vampire craze–especially when considering by the time I am querying agents the book probably wouldn’t see publication until 2013 or something. I’m still in college, and I’m wondering if I should put this novel on hold and work on something that would enable me to have a better chance of landing me an agent while I’m still able to write all the time (before I graduate and have to find a job!)

    I am aware that this was a very long-winded question and that you’re incredibly busy all the time, so I completely understand if you do not have the time or energy to answer it. Thanks so much for all your time and effort that you devote to the blog though! It keeps me going when times are tough 🙂


  42. Anonymous said:

    Personally, I love these kinds of blog posts where Kristin discusses what she’s seeing.

  43. Bill in Detroit said:

    Trends are good. Trends are what are selling. Trends mean money … find one you like and lead it.

    Actually, I want to thank you for this overview. I am working on a three-fer that has nothing at all to do with the occult or spies and very little to do with war, infidelity or Hera.

  44. Elizabeth West said:

    I don’t mind vampires, but I’m sick of the romantic angle. This has been going on since Interview with the Vampire and frankly, Anne Rice did the best work there.

    What I like is the gory, scary vampire, that no one has done well since Stephen King. I predict a turn back toward that. The movies are already on it. See 30 Days of Night and Let the Right One In (Swedish, and a book first). I’m still looking for a vampire that actually scares me. Haven’t found it yet.

    Let that be a challenge to you!

  45. Toby Neal said:

    Thankfully, mine is none of the above. When you summarize plots that way, they do sound ridiculous… *cringes* Oh, and i like how one of your commenters slipped a query in here! LOL we authors are INCORRIGIBLE.

  46. justin smith said:

    Although my first novel had the dream-thing, one agent actually said it was “too original” (!?). She said a book should remind people of others books and movies they’ve experienced recently but have a slight twist. I eventually wound up publishing it with a small press.

    Question: If I were to find a publisher (on my own) for my latest novel “Eye of a Fly”, would Nelson be willing to represent me in negotiations (movie and foreign right might be very significant).

  47. Ariel Swan said:

    This is frightening – both for those who are writing these and for the fact that there is so much similarity out there. I qualified for 1/2 of one – I have a 20 something who leaves a relationship for a small town – no leaving a family – no B&B – it is more coming of age and she is not a ghost – but she does find one.

    So…sorry to those of you who got hit right on the nose. I am pretty close I guess. It makes us feel so…underappreciated I think. But it is true we don’t want to be just sheep – following trends – but trends do fade out and come back – so don’t worry.

    As far as the vampire thing – I don’t begrudge the recent hysteria – I was a teen Anne Rice fan. But – it is a little bit much – I saw a Brit series yesterday about a 20 something vampire, a werewolf, and a ghost living together in an apartment and having epic battles with others of their kinds in parking garages and such.

    Can anyone tell me – what is the exact name of this ‘Twilight’ genre called? Paranormal fantasy teen angst? And what is the difference between paranormal and supernatural as genres?

  48. She Wrote said:

    As to vampires, ghosts and the sort: Catherine Coulter (a wonderful & succesful writer) is one of my favorite writers – especially her FBI series. And yet, one of her recent novels has a ghost show up early in the novel. I got that far. Put the book down and haven’t picked it up since. I’m sure I will at some point – but…not all of us are fascinated by the supernatural. Reality can be scarey enough if you are a mystery fan.

  49. Marygana said:

    The heartbreaking thing for writers is when you have spilled your guts writing something that ISN’T currently hot, and just as you get ready to query, an established writer comes out with a book in your same genre, and suddenly you look like a wannabe trend follower. Even if your storyline is completely different, that one factor you have in common is now an impediment to getting someone to take you seriously.

  50. Rachael Harrie said:

    It’s fascinating to see how many of us accidentally write a story that is based on a “common” theme that agents/editors may consider to be overdone. None of us do it on purpose, but I guess it just goes to show that there are only a certain number of ideas floating around out there. If you can’t come up with something new, unusual, which is a must-read for agents/editors, I guess the trick is to find some way to make an idea your own and hope that it appeals to those considering it.

    I must admit though, sometimes I think I have the best idea in the world, only to find out that it has been done heaps of times before. So how do you avoid that problem, I wonder? I guess it comes down to doing some research before you get too far advanced, and trying an “unobvious” approach.

    But I think a number of the above commenters are right – there’s no point trying to write your book to fit a trend or avoid a trend. Trends will change with time, and what is “in” or “out” today may well be the most wanted topic of all in the future.