Guest Post: Common Query Issues

1 Sep

Guest Post by C.A. Marshall


Thanks for having me ladies! I ❤ the LTWF blog!

When I graduated with my MA two years ago, I had the beginnings of my first novel, a MG about travellers and faeries in the woods behind the house of a kid named Ben. My dissertation included the first 15,000 words and over the next six months I finished writing it. I also started querying it. Widely. At the same time I was writing it.

I remember getting rejection after rejection until I finally got two requests for full’s. Yay, I thought, maybe I’ll get an agent! I was wrong. Both full’s came back with form rejections.  I’ve since learned that querying a book that is unfinished and unpolished is a huge faux pas.  We’ve all got to start somewhere, right?

Fast forward two years and a bit of education that an MA can’t give you and I now know more about the query process, how it works, and what the standards of querying are.

As a query-reading intern, I’ve had many writers ask me to look their query over and give them some pointers. Most want to know if I would forward it if I had seen it in the queries inbox. Over time, I’ve noticed a few things that these queriers have in common.  Here are some of the issues I see most often:

Formulaic personalization. Saying something like, “I saw that you represent _________ and ________ and so I’m querying you.” Anyone can plug in a couple of names. Get more in depth. Read a book that they represented and talk about it for a sentence or two, or at least that you’ve been following their blog/twitter and mention a recent posting. Something that says you actually know who the agent is and that you’ve tried your best to get to know them.

Being too “list-y.” Giving a list of characters or themes that you cover in your novel doesn’t tell us anything about the plot. It’s how those characters interact that make the story, show us that.

Lack of voice. When writing my own query and struggling with voice, I was given the advice to try writing the query in first person from the main characters’ POV. Let a bit of their personality show through. Then, turn it into third person, keeping those bits of voice in.

No plot. Putting in a bunch of hypothetical questions or a list of things that your character worries about doesn’t equal plot.

Lack of cohesion. While chopping down your plot to fit into the available space, watch that you don’t lose the connection between the action and the characters reaction. If they’re happy and shopping in one paragraph and in another they are frightened and in a different country, it pulls the reader right out of the mini “story.”

Third person bios. I don’t know where this comes from, but a bio in a query that you’re writing should not be written in third person.  I think it’s creepy and awkward.  Third person bios go on jacket flaps and on websites, not in queries.

Irrelevancy in bios. It might matter to you if you’ve got six kids, three cats, and a husband named Steve, but it doesn’t matter to us. At least not right now.  There will be plenty of time later to get to know all about you but for now just focus on your book and what you have done to make YOU the best person to write this book. If you’ve got an MA/MFA, list it. If you’re a lawyer and you write about a lawyer, list that. If you’re writing about a teenager though, we don’t need to know that you’ve got three of your own and what their names are.  Why would you want that information out there anyway?

Too long/too short. It’s generally expected that your query will be about three or four paragraphs long. Use that space wisely. Don’t condense it down to one paragraph, use that extra space to show us your characters’ personality. On the other end, if you’ve got an inch, don’t take a mile.

Writing to trends. If you’re writing something that’s trending, be sure to point out what makes your story about vampires different from other stories about vampires. Don’t just say that yours don’t sparkle. That’s not enough. I’ve seen plenty of Twilight knock-offs that have non-sparkly vampires.

Speaking of vampires, try not to use the word vampire at all. Use “undead” or “blood-suckers” or “night hunters” or some other vampire-esque euphemism. The sad truth is that after seeing vampire query after vampire query that are rip-offs of Twilight or True Blood, as soon as interns see the word vampire we’re already looking for hints of which other vampires you’re copying.  The same goes for Angel/demon books with character names like Gabriel and Michael.

If you’ve got a cop story, don’t name your cop Jack. There are a million ways to die, and most of them have been done before. A cop who’s wife has just died, or a detective who didn’t see that his ex was cheating on him, FBI agents for some secret undercover operation… those have been done to death. Get a new angle. Surprise the reader. Make the story truly terrifying, not one I can guess the ending of by reading the flap copy.

If you’re going to write a memoir about your life, make sure you’ve done something interesting. Just because you’ve got a few funny stories to share doesn’t mean that the world will rush out to read them. We’ve all got funny stories and most of them are “you just had to be there” moments. Read other memoirs. Make sure something truly unique has happened to you and you’re not just writing because you like to hear yourself talk.

You can’t control trends, but you can control the quality of your own work. Read lots of your genre/topic and make sure to make your book unique.

The number one biggest mistake that I see is that the author doesn’t follow guidelines. I usually ask for the first 250 words to follow the query and sometimes authors will send the entire first chapter as an attachment. Do your research and make sure to follow each agent’s guidelines exactly.


C.A. Marshall is a freelance editor, lit agent intern, YA writer, and loves to play with her dog Mollie. She dreams of one day owning a small house near the water, preferably in England, with a shelf full of books she has written and has helped others to write. She can be found in Emmett, MI and at


21 Responses to “Guest Post: Common Query Issues”

  1. svonnah September 1, 2010 at 12:21 AM #

    Thank you for the detail, Cassandra! Oh if only I knew then what I know now…

  2. Gabrielle September 1, 2010 at 12:50 AM #

    Thanks for the very helpful post! I will keep this in mind and try not to make mistakes when the time comes *nods head*

  3. Jenn September 1, 2010 at 1:24 AM #

    “You can’t control trends, but you can control the quality of your own work. Read lots of your genre/topic and make sure to make your book unique.”

    Amen to that! Great FYI article.

  4. e6n1 September 1, 2010 at 4:27 AM #

    A writer could really go insane trying to keep up and follow trends. But the really enduring trend is a great story that hooks readers.

  5. authorguy September 1, 2010 at 8:50 AM #

    The synopsis was always the hard part for me. I never know what a story will be about when I start and even if I know when I’m done I may not be able to put it into a single paragraph.

    I would like to find agents of books that are like mine but the problem is finding books that are like mine. The more specific the quality, the less likely I am to see it in someone else’s book. If I get around to querying in the future I’ll have a lot of advice to try out. Thanks.

    Marc Vun Kannon

  6. Rowenna September 1, 2010 at 9:20 AM #

    Great tips! I’m editing my query now, so I’ll definitely use these to double-check my work 🙂

  7. Vanessa September 1, 2010 at 10:02 AM #

    I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again – this is such a great article!! I remember seeing so many of those exact same problems when I used to intern at a literary agency.

    And thanks so much for guest-posting for us 😀

  8. Sammy September 1, 2010 at 10:14 AM #

    Fantastic post, Cassandra! Spot on. I see so many of these problems at my own internship, and you’re right about everything. As soon as I see ‘vampire’ in a query, I’m already expecting it to be bad :-/ I’ve tried to change that, but it isn’t easy, I’ll admit.

    Thanks again so much for guest posting for us!

  9. Michelle B September 1, 2010 at 10:27 AM #

    Great advice, Cassandra! Thanks for sharing your own experience, too.

  10. Theresa Milstein September 1, 2010 at 12:03 PM #

    The query has been the hardest part to master in the writing process for me. I read all the tips I can to keep improving. Thanks for the post.

  11. Kairee-Anne September 1, 2010 at 12:54 PM #

    Thank you for this ^^ I’m starting to understand about query letters now

  12. Janet Johnson September 1, 2010 at 1:07 PM #

    Thanks for the post. It’s always helpful to see what mistakes are commonly made. Now, to put it into practice. 🙂

  13. jenn fitzgerald September 1, 2010 at 1:13 PM #

    Great post, Cassandra! I wish I’d had it to read before I sent my first queries!

  14. Launo September 1, 2010 at 1:19 PM #

    This will be helpful when I do begin to query 😀

  15. CA Marshall September 1, 2010 at 1:50 PM #

    Thank you all for your kind words! I’m so happy to be helpful!

    And thanks again to the LTWF ladies!

  16. Sarah J. Maas September 1, 2010 at 2:43 PM #

    Ahhh! This was SUCH a fantastic article with absolutely wonderful advice! Thank you SO much for guest-posting for us!! 😀

  17. Madeleine September 2, 2010 at 1:06 AM #

    I have a few questions:

    1. I’m a teenager, and it’s highly likely that I will query in my teenage years. Should I mention my age or that I’m a teen in a query?

    2. Most people tell me to include the first five pages in the body of the email of *any* query. I hear this incessantly. Here, however, you contradict that. So… you disagree?

    Thanks for the post!


    • CA Marshall September 2, 2010 at 3:14 AM #


      1. Your age doesn’t matter. It’s the quality of your books. If you’re underage to sign a contract, you and your agent/publisher can worry about that when the time comes.

      2. Yes, I disagree. Always read the submission guidelines. Some agents want just a query, some three pages, some five, and some ten, some want the whole MS up front. If you’re querying an agent that wants the first ten pages and you only send half, what does that say about you? That you can’t follow directions. That doesn’t bode well for you. On the other hand, attaching the whole MS to your query for someone who wants the query only, is a HUGE no-no. Also, some agents delete emails with attachments unread. You wouldn’t want that to happen to your query! If there are no guidelines at all, then five or ten pages is the standard to send. But ONLY if you can’t find ANYTHING ANYWHERE that says what they prefer.

      • Madeleine September 2, 2010 at 11:03 PM #

        Thank you!


  1. Saturday Grab Bag: Mashup and Quotes « Let The Words Flow - September 11, 2010

    […] lovely C.A. Marshall (whom you might remember from her wonderful guest post on querying mistakes here) is actually having a FREE EDIT CONTEST! It ends Monday, September 20th, so get your entries in […]

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