by Jeff Seymour, Carina Press Freelance Editor
Ah, query letters. Bane of the budding writer. One of the most frustrating aspects of the submissions process.
And yet your first chance to show your stuff to an editor, as well.
Before I go any further, I want to be clear that a bad query letter does not kill your chance of getting published. I start reading every submission that crosses my desk, even if the query letter on top of it makes me doubt that I’m going to read very far.
There are lots of good places to get advice on writing a strong query letter (Nathan Bransford’s blog is a good place to start). I’m not going to cover that here. Instead, I want to share some query letter problems that often predict issues in manuscripts themselves. My hope is that if you find them in your query, you’ll stop and look for the corresponding problem in your manuscript before you submit. Or better yet, hand your book off to a beta reader or critique partner and get his or her opinion.
We all want your work to be the best it can possibly be when it comes to those of us on the other side of the desk.
So without further ado, here are some bad signs in query letters:
1.) “This book can be released as (insert number) books or as one.” I know this is occasionally true. I know there are great books that have been split into parts by publishers in the past. But when I see this in a query letter, I often find structural problems in the submission attached to it, and I suspect there’s a reason for that. If you find this in your query letter, take another look at the structure and pacing of your book. Make sure your chapters link together seamlessly, the tension never flags, and the reader is never left wondering where she is and why.
2.) Random punctuation. I don’t expect a flawless manuscript or query, though I love to receive them. But when an author hasn’t taken the time to study (and I mean study–read Strunk and White! Read the Chicago Manual of Style! Painful as both can be, you’ll probably only have to do it once) how to use colons, commas, semicolons, and other marks, he or she probably hasn’t taken the time to study other aspects of writing either. If you find this in your query letter, look at the writing in your manuscript and make sure it’s clear and grammatical.
3.) Boldface. I suspect that the use of boldface to direct attention to important aspects of query letters has its roots in advertising, but it raises red flags for me. If you don’t trust me to find the important elements in your query on my own, are you trusting your reader to recognize the important details in your novel? If you find this in your query letter, make sure you’re not overdoing the telling in your manuscript, like showing your reader an important detail and then underscoring it several times with dialogue or narrative.
4.) Repetition (“Dripping with power and wealth, Malcolm has a lot of money and isn’t afraid to throw it around to get what he wants.”). Repetitive descriptions in query letters tend to presage books containing the same. If you find this in your query letter, look at the descriptions in your manuscript and make sure you’re not saying the same thing two or more times.
5.) Excessive passive voice. I’m usually a defender of the passive voice. It has lots of good uses (establishing rhythm and cadence, varying the tone of a paragraph, allowing a character to speak or think in his or her own words, etc.). But, like other grammatical constructions, it has a time and a place, and every sentence in the first paragraph of a query is not it. If you find a lot of passive voice in your query letter, go over your book and see what happens if you strengthen some of your passive constructions.
6.) “My book is great because it’s full of great characters who do great things and have great relationships.” If you tell me this rather than show it to me, it bodes poorly for the show vs. tell ratio in your novel. If you find sentences like this in your query letter, have another read of your novel with an eye for showing details to your reader versus telling him or her about them.