Doing Your Research: The Query Trenches Part Three

Hey all, Hannah here! Last week, I spoke in depth about how to summarize your novel for a query. The month before, I gave some tips on little ways to take yours to the next level. Today, I’m going to go into a bit more depth about some of the larger mistakes I often see that might give agents a reason to reject a query.

This is a hard truth: many agents receive hundreds of queries a week, and yours will, someday, be among them. When an agent reads so many queries every day (if they are lucky enough to find the time among all of their other responsibilities), it sometimes becomes easier to find reasons to reject a query, rather than reasons not to.

The number biggest reason a query gets rejected, aside from simply not fitting an agent’s list or tastes? A query that betrays poor to no research. So without further ado, here are some mistakes I regularly see that tell me a querier has jumped the gun.

Mistake: Telling instead of showing.

Yes, this is true in queries as well as fiction. Every so often I’ll see a query that has a very short summary, often even more like a logline, detailing the very broad plot points of the story, followed by many paragraphs explaining character motivation and themes.

For example:

When a girl and a boy are thrust into an emotional situation, they are forced to confront the realities of friendship and go on a search for the meaning of life.

I wanted to write this book because the themes of lost love and identity speak to me, and, as someone who has experienced a terrible breakup, I felt I was the best person to tell this story. Michelle and Tony are best friends but I wanted to drive an emotional wedge between them in the form of a third love interest.


This tendency comes from not knowing how to summarize your story. Rather than over-explaining to the point of confusion, the story is under-explained to the point of being too broad. Anyone who still doubts their ability to summarize their novel well should check out last week’s post for guidance. Because an agent should be able to tell quite clearly from the stakes you outline in the summary what your character’s motivations are.

Mistake: Explaining this is the first book you’ve written/that it’s recently completed OR calling this your debut/yourself a debut writer

This is a mistake because it highlights you as possibly inexperienced whether you are or want to be framed that way. It isn’t pertinent information – it changes nothing about your story, how you summarize your story, or anything within your bio. The only thing it does is tell me that there’s a possibility you haven’t done your research.

There is no need to point out if this is your first book or your fiftieth. Let the work speak for itself.

Mistake: Confusing “personalizing your query” for “restating the submission page on the website”

This actually a very easy mistake to make. We often see advice that suggests personalizing a query by telling the agent why you chose him or her. This shows the agent that you didn’t just mass email your query – you took time and put thought into who you contacted.

But what I often see instead of “I noticed quirky, adventurous middle grade on your #MSWL, and felt my manuscript fit the bill”, is: “I went to your website and saw that you are looking for thrillers and upmarket fiction and romance and that you enjoy working with new authors. Therefore I am emailing you.”

Here’s the thing: the agent knows what’s on the website. Don’t waste valuable query space repeating it. That space should be for you and your story. And if you don’t have something more specific to personalize with, that’s okay! If you chose the agent based on what the website says he or she wants, just start with your hook and go from there.

Mistake: Naming more than three characters.

A long, confusing summary often gets that way when too many characters are named in a query. The moment you name a character is the moment you tell a reader that character is important. Perhaps you have more than one main character – maybe you have five, or seven! It doesn’t matter. Pick your most important character, the one whose struggle your book is ultimately about, and focus your query on him or her. After that, only name those who absolutely must be named in relation to the summary. If you can help it, try not to name more than three characters. The person reading your query will (hopefully) be far less confused.

One of the things I struggled with when querying was exactly this problem – knowing who to name and who to leave out. But trust me: it can be done.

Mistake: Using bad comp titles.

This one is actually really hard to get right, in my opinion, and if you aren’t entirely certain, just don’t use them. Do they help? Only if they’re spot on.

Using books that are huge sellers/extremely well-loved is generally a no-no. Why? Because comparing yourself to J.K. Rowling or Suzanne Collins or Stephen King goes back to the haughty or poorly researched issue. It’s much safer to use titles that do/have done well enough and are known, but not so huge that you look arrogant or ignorant of other good books. It’s also generally best to use something more current – more than a couple years old and they begin to lose relevance.

See? Told you it was tough.

Another question I sometimes get: can a querier use TV shows or films as comp titles? The answer is…yes and no. Tread lightly here. I wouldn’t use more than one TV/film comp title, and if you do, it’s often helpful to balance it with a book title. Lots of agents feel differently in this category – some hate when queriers use TV/film titles, and some really like it. If you aren’t sure, do your research. Check out an agent’s twitter, interviews they have done, etc. If there are no answers to be found and you aren’t 110% certain of the titles you’ve chosen? Skip them. This is another area where it’s best to err on the side of caution.

It’s true that there are writers who make mistakes like these and still get agents. All of publishing is subjective – what bothers one agent may not bother another. The format one agent loves, another might hate. But being informed and well-researched shows in a query, no matter who you’re querying. And that is far more valuable than you realize.

Once again, I hope this has been useful. Good luck to everyone in their querying endeavors!


2 Responses to Doing Your Research: The Query Trenches Part Three

  1. Marina Oct 16 2015 at 7:54 am #

    It was really helpful. Thank you so much!

  2. Marc Vun Kannon Oct 16 2015 at 8:49 am #

    I like the idea of using movies as comp titles. I did it myself in my last query, placing my novel between Half-Resurrection Blues (a really good urban supernatural novel) and Van Helsing, the movie with Hugh Jackman. It didn’t work, but I don’t know if the comp titles had anything to do with it. The agent’s page showed him to be very tolerant that way. The novel was recently released and had been represented by the same agency, different agent, so it looks like I hit most of your bullet points here.
    Still working on the synopsis.

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