◎ What I Learned from Reading the Entire QueryShark Archive

April 22, 2013

Last month, I did something I didn't think I had the patience to follow through with: I read the entire QueryShark archive. QueryShark is the query-chomping blog brought to you by literary agent Janet Reid (who also runs an excellent personal blog). As I read through the QS archives, I took notes—lots of notes. Although some of her opinions do not reflect those of other literary agents, her advice is killer. You're welcome.

  • Don't begin query with a rhetorical question.
  • Don't begin query letter with a clause.
  • Don't mention if you have self-published past works or if the work was previously self-published.
  • A query is not a synopsis.
  • A query should entice an agent to request the full manuscript.
  • Don't tell agent the themes of the work, the intentions behind the work, or what inspired you to write the work.
  • Your query should be around 250 words.
  • Get the plot on the page!
  • If you bring up an author that the agent reps, do it with good reason!
  • Character needs to be actively involved with the plot.
  • Use plain formatting.
  • No need to mention where you live.
  • No need to disclose age. (If you're a young writer, don't.)
  • Reflect your character's voice as well as the vibe/language of novel itself.
  • Show the agent to whom the work would appeal, don't tell!
  • Don't ask the agent to "consider your book for publication" or to "consider your query."
  • Don't talk about yourself in the third person.
  • Write your book title in ALL CAPS.
  • Include your final word count.
  • Avoid using log lines.
  • Make readers sympathize with your character by compelling them through the content of your query, not by asking.
  • "In a world where" is cliche: avoid it!
  • Don't offer exclusivity.
  • Avoid coming off as wanting to make a point with/teach a lesson through your book. The story should always come first!
  • Don't say "and would be humbled."
  • Define the antagonists: "they" doesn't cut it!
  • Don't use "meanwhile."
  • Don't quote from the book itself.
  • Publication=writing credit.  Mention it!
  • Use present tense in query.
  • Specific is better than general.
  • Protagonist must CHOOSE what to do.
  • Don't focus on physical characteristics of your characters.
  • Cut out unnecessary ands and thens.
  • Begin query with the story.
  • Don't introduce too many names too quickly! 
  • Don't call what you've written a "fiction novel." Agents HATE this!
  • Plot doesn't equal what happens. Plot equals how characters REACT to what happens. 
  • Don't use movies as comp titles.
  • If you're using comp titles, know exactly HOW and WHY those titles relate to your novel.
  • Don't use generalities (i.e. "All Joe Haldeman fans will love this novel") when comping titles or authors. This shows you have unrealistic expectations and will make an agent less likely to want to work with you.
  • Don't include a copyright date.
  • Use a professional-looking email address to submit your query. (authorname@gmail.com versus jinxiebooplala3949@lala.com)
  • Remember to include your name in the query! (Yes, this actually happens.)

I made so many mistakes when I queried Creation. I opened with a rhetorical question, queried too short of a work (20K), focused on the themes instead of the plot, used "in a world where," expressed that I wanted to convey a message with the work, and spent too many words discussing my (irrelevant) background and the work being 'book club' material.  Suffice it to say I did not hook an agent with my lackluster query! (That's not to say I don't think Creation is good—I do, damn it, I really do!—but novellas are a hard sell, especially for first-time authors. I should have known that.)

Reading through 150+ posts in the QueryShark archive took several days and was time well spent.  Do note that the comments I wrote down along the way are by no means comprehensive—definitely check out Janet's blog and dig in for yourself.

There's a lot to be said for sitting down and reading real queries from real people and seeing what works and doesn't work. The insights gleaned from QueryShark could easily make the difference between you and me getting (or not getting!) an agent someday.

Are you querying a novel? About to? Let me know!

P.S. I wrote this entire post on my iPad and in my parked car without a Bluetooth keyboard. Mad skills, people. Mad skills.

P.S.S. Go read Fire Country by David Estes. That guy is a terrific world-builder. 


  1. I'm totally bookmarking this page. Thanks so much for sharing!

  2. Hey, Kat. It's Cimone. This post is really helpful! I have one question: What do you mean by "Don't begin with a clause"? Is this referring to an appositive clause?

    1. Embarrassing confession: I'm an English Major who was never able to nab a spot in an editing class! Basically, I have no idea. I'll have to look through the sharkives and give you an example.


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