Fiction Writing Made Easy

10 Querying Mistakes (and How to Avoid Them)

May 18, 2022 Episode 58
Fiction Writing Made Easy
10 Querying Mistakes (and How to Avoid Them)
Show Notes Transcript

In this episode, I'm sharing the 10 most common querying mistakes I see writers make and how to avoid them. Here's a preview of what you'll hear in the episode:

[02:45] Mistake #1: Your story isn't 100% ready to send out just yet.
[04:25] Mistake #2: Sending your query to the wrong person.
[06:15] Mistake #3: Not following the submission guidelines.
[08:45] Mistake #4: You forgot to include your metadata.
[09:50] Mistake #5: Your word count is too high or too low.
[11:10] Mistake #6: The genre of your story isn't clear.
[12:30] Mistake #7: The comp titles listed don't make sense.
[14:25] Mistake #8: Your story summary is too vague.
[16:35] Mistake #9: You've tried to fit too much stuff in your query.
[18:55] Mistake #10: Your query letter is unprofessional or weird.
[21:00] Final thoughts and episode recap

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Hey there. Before we dive into today's episode, I wanted to share something super exciting with you. I have a brand new masterclass called the five little known mistakes that most fiction writers make and what to do instead. And I'd like to invite you to sign up in this masterclass. We're going to talk about the most common mistakes I see writers make so that you can avoid them and write your draft in the most efficient way possible. Now, of course, we're all going to make some mistakes, but fewer is always better, right? So come join me for this masterclass. You can sign up@savannahguilbeau.com forward slash masterclass. It's totally free. And there are a few different dates and times I'm going to be going live with the class. It's going to be super fun. And I hope to see you there. The same thing goes for, if you use something like the catcher in the rye, as a comp title for your young adult novel, that could be a red flag to agents or editors that tells them that you might not have read a young adult book in a really, really long time. So the point here is that comp titles only work if they're culturally relevant in the current marketplace. And if they are truly comparable to your book, some agents even say that they prefer titles that are less than five years old. And I think that's a great filter to put all your possible comp titles through. So if it were me, I would be looking at titles published within the last five years to use as my comps, welcome to the fiction. Writing made easy podcast. My name is Savannah Guilbeau, and I'm here to help you write a story that works. I want to prove to you that writing a novel. It doesn't have to be overwhelming. So each week I'll bring you a brand new episode with simple, actionable, and step-by-step strategies that you can implement in your writing right away. So whether you're brand new to writing or more of a seasoned author looking to improve your craft, this podcast is for you. So pick up a pen and let's get started in today's episode, we're going to talk about the 10, most common querying mistakes I see writers make and how you can avoid making these mistakes when you're ready to query. But before we dive in, let's just make sure we're all on the same page. And let's talk about what it means to query agents or editors. So what is a query letter? A query letter is basically a way to introduce yourself and your story to literary agents or editors. So it's a way to make connections with agents or editors with the goal of garnering interest in your novel. And if the agents or editors that you query, like what you've said in your query letter, they will ask to see your work. And that could mean sending your full manuscript or just a few chapters from your novel. It depends on the agent or the editor that you query. Now, I've worked with a lot of writers to prepare their submission materials, including their query letters. And I can tell you that writing a good query letter is something that many writers struggle with. It can be a super nerve wracking task, which is funny because a query letter is usually so short. So it's usually only a page long, but if you've ever written one yourself, you know that it's not always the easiest thing to do, but I wanted to do this episode today to help you avoid some of the most common mistakes I see writers make in their query letters and to maybe help take some of the mystery and overwhelm out of the process, if you've already been querying. And if you haven't been getting the responses you want from your query letter, then take a good hard look at your query to see if you've made any of the mistakes that we're going to cover in today's episode, because I'm also going to offer some suggestions for what to do. If you realize that you've made one of these mistakes. So with that being said, let's dive into mistake. Number one, the first mistake I see writers make all the time is that they're not actually ready to query. So they're querying too soon. And what I mean by this is that I see a lot of writers, either query when they're not even finished with their first draft or they've finished their first draft done a quick revision, and then they've gone straight into querying. And the problem with this is that if you rush the writing and the revising process, you won't have enough time away from your draft to know whether it's really the best it can be just yet. So you should really only query when you can say yes to these three questions. Number one, have you finished your manuscript? Number two, have you received some honest objective and constructive feedback from people who aren't your loved ones and number three, have you incorporated that feedback into your draft to make your story the very best it can be? So if you can answer yes to all three of those questions, then you're probably okay to start querying. But if not, my advice is to take your time with this process, finish your draft, let it sit for a while and then do a revision when you're ready, get some outside feedback from beta readers or a developmental editor, and then do another revision. You don't necessarily need to go through line edits or copy edits before you query, unless this is something that your beta readers or your developmental editor suggests before you take the next step. So that's mistake number one, querying before you're ready. And instead of rushing the process, I just want you to take your time and get some outside feedback so that your story is the very best that it can be before you start querying agents and editors. The second mistake I see writers make is that they just don't do their homework or their research when it comes to choosing which agent to query. And this mistake shows up in a few different ways. So I see writers send their queries to agents that are either closed for submissions or that don't represent stories in that authors genre. So if they're closed for submission or if you're writing horror and you send your story to someone that only represents sweet romance, you can't really be surprised or upset when that agent says, they're not interested in your story. So that's the first way this mistake shows up. The other thing I see quite often is a situation where a writer will send out a batch of queries that are kind of just generic. So in addition to making sure that the agent or editor you're querying is a open for submissions and B is open to stories in your genre, you'll also want to your query letter to each person that you're submitting it to. So instead of writing something like to whom it may concern, make sure you include the agent or the editor's name and make sure you include the reason why you're querying that particular agent or editor, for example, maybe they represent another book or another author that you love reading. If that's the case, feel free to mention it in your query letter, it's worth the effort and the extra time it will take to tailor your query letter to each specific agent or editor, because it'll go a long way in catching their attention. So that's mistake number two, sending your query letter to the wrong person or not doing your homework or your research when it comes to choosing which agent to query. And like I mentioned, I just want you to do your homework and really research the person you're going to query because it will pay off in the long run and it will be worth the extra time and effort. It takes to research each agent and personalize your query. The third mistake I see all the time is not following the submission guidelines. And this relates a bit to what I said a few minutes ago, but it goes even deeper than just querying an agent who doesn't represent your genre. So different literary agents and editors have different submission guidelines. And it's crucial that you abide by their rules. Agents and editors are more swamped than ever with overflowing inboxes, editorial work with current clients, endless negotiations over contracts and so on and so on. If you don't follow their submission guidelines to a T your query letter will probably be disregarded simply because they're too busy to deal with queries that don't follow their rules. Also, a lot of the intake process is automated on the back end these days. So for example, if an agent or an editor asks for a specific keyword in the subject line of your query email, the system might dump that into a very specific spot for them to read. If you don't include that keyword, then who knows where your query will end up, and there's a good chance. It will never even land in that agent's inbox or where you want it to land. So, as an example, of some things that agents or editors might ask for, they might ask for just a query letter while other agents or editors are going to want five, 10, or even 50 pages of your story. In addition to your query letter, some agents and editors will want a synopsis of your story. And that could be a one-page synopsis or a two to three page synopsis, or even up to five pages. Some agents and editors might want all three of those things. So a query letter, a synopsis, and a set of your opening pages. So you really do have to pay attention to every single agent or editor that you query and read their submission guidelines two or three times to make sure that you're delivering all the things they're asking for. Plus here's the thing, getting the specifics right, is a really strong indicator that you're able to figure things out on your own and an author like this is always going to be a welcome addition to any agents, editors, roster of talent. So just keep that in mind. So that's mistake number three, not following the submission guidelines. And instead, I just want you to read them and pay attention because remember agents are busy people, they receive countless queries on a daily basis, and they're looking for a quick way to clear their inbox. If they scan your email and they see that you haven't followed their guidelines, your query will most likely end up in the trash. And nobody wants that. The fourth mistake I see writers make is that they forget to include their metadata in their query letters. So metadata is basically stuff like your genre, your age category in your word count. So are you querying a fantasy novel, a cozy mystery, a thriller, like what kind of story is it that you're sending them? And then what age range is that story intended for? Is it intended for middle grade readers, young adult readers or adults? And then how long is your actual completed draft? Is it 50,000 words, 80,000 words or 120,000 words? You can't leave this information out because it helps set the story up in the agent or the editor's head. And it lets them know what to expect before they dig into the meat of your query letter. So just a little tip for me. I always recommend putting this in the first paragraph of your query letter, unless an agent specifically says where they would like this information. So that's mistake number four, sometimes writers forget to include their metadata. And instead, I just want you to make sure you're including it, usually in that very first paragraph, unless an agent states, otherwise the fifth mistake I see writers make when it comes to querying, is that their stories word count is just too far off. And what I mean by this is that their word count is either too low or too high compared to the commercial length. So most commercial fiction is somewhere in the 80,000 to a hundred thousand word range, depending on the genre. If your novel doesn't fall within this range, it's most likely going to result in an automatic rejection. For example, if you've written a 200,000 word romance, that's way far over the commercial range for romance novels, same thing goes, if you've written a 30,000 word fantasy novel, or a 100,000 word middle-grade story, they're just too far outside the commercial range for those genres. It's also important to understand that agents are not likely to want a debut novel over a hundred thousand words. And that's simply because it's too risky of an investment for them. If the author doesn't have a proven track record, that doesn't mean that you can't or shouldn't query a debut novel, but if you do just keep it under a hundred thousand words, so that's mistake number five, querying, a novel that's too far over or under the commercial word count range. Instead know your genre is word count range and aim somewhere between 80,000 to 100,000 words. The next mistake I see writers make in their queries is that whatever they've written, doesn't give agents or editors a clear sense of the stories genre. And there are two parts to this because like we talked about earlier, you will want to include your genre in the metadata. But beyond that, I've seen query letters where the author lists the commercial genre as something like a thriller, but then the summary of their story reads more like a romance, or I've seen writers say that they're writing horror, but the summary of their story reads more like a thriller. I've also seen summaries that read like parts of two or more genres. So imagine a summary that starts off like a thriller, but then ends up like a romance. If an agent or an editor sees this kind of mismatch in your query, they're going to assume that your story suffers the same problem. So in the example, I just mentioned where the beginning of a summary reads like a thriller, but ends up like a romance. Imagine if the summary started with Jack so-and-so's son being taken by the government, and then in the end, you read that Jack gets together with Holly and they live happily ever after that would be a little bit of a head-scratcher right. But I see it happen all the time. And like I mentioned, if an agent or an editor sees this mismatch in your query, they're going to assume that your story has the exact same problem. So we just want to avoid this and make sure that your main genre is very clear when you write your story summary. So that's mistake number six, the seventh mistake I see writers make when it comes to querying is using the wrong comp titles or using comp titles that don't make any sense. Comp titles are comparable titles. So stories that are similar to yours and well selected comp titles can help an agent or an editor start to envision the market for your novel. They might even help agents get an idea of which editors to send your novel to just based on those comp titles you've selected. So they're really important. And if you choose the wrong comp titles, this will highlight that you either don't read in your genre or that you have an overinflated idea of your books potential. So what I mean by this is that let's say that you say your book is the next Harry Potter or the next Twilight. That might be over-inflating your story's potential. Don't get me wrong. It's great to have confidence for sure. But you would be better off picking fantasy or paranormal titles that reflect the content or the tone of your book rather than the best-selling potential. The same thing goes for, if you use something like the catcher in the rye, as a comp title for your young adult novel, that could be a red flag to agents or editors that tells them that you might not have read a young adult book in a really, really long time. So the point here is that comp titles only work if they're culturally relevant in the current marketplace. And if they are truly comparable to your book, some agents even say that they prefer titles that are less than five years old. And I think that's a great filter to put all your possible comp titles through. So if it were me, I would be looking at titles published within the last five years to use as my comps. So that's mistake number seven, using the wrong comp titles. And like I said, my advice is to just do your research and find recent comp titles that are relevant to the current marketplace, and that are truly comparable to your book. The next mistake I see writers make when it comes to query letters, is that they write a summary of their story that is super vague. So they'll use vague and non-specific language, or they'll hint at things in a way that doesn't make sense to someone with no knowledge of the story. So for example, I read a query last week that said something like when the protagonist goes to XYZ land, his powers will be tested, but that doesn't really tell us anything. So we can't imagine what that looks like or why this person's going to be tested or what being tested even means. So instead of doing something vague like that, the author could just tweak it and say, upon arriving in X, Y, Z land, the protagonist will have to use every ounce of her telekinetic powers to save her sister from XYZ. So of course, fill in the specifics for XYZ, but I hope you can see that example's a little more specific and it hints at the protagonists goal. And what's at stake. Now, as I mentioned earlier, the sole purpose of your query letter is to give agents and editors just enough information about your story so that they will want to read more. So at the very, very least, you need to include these things. Number one, a character that readers can care about. Number two, an indication of what that character wants and why number three, the conflict that gets in their way. And number four, what's at stake. If they don't get what they want, if you're not clear about those four things in your query letter, it's most likely going to fall flat and out of those four things, the one that I see left out the most is what's at stake. So if you're writing a query letter, or if you've already written one, go double check that you've included, what's at stake. And that what's at stake is clear enough to somebody with no knowledge of your story. So that's mistake number eight, writing a story summary. That's too vague. When in doubt, it's always better to be more specific than vague. So just keep that in mind. And also I'm going to throw in a bonus tip here, please don't ever enter your query with any variation of, if you want to know what happens, you'll have to read the book, just trust me. And don't include that in your query. Moving on to mistake. Number nine, mistake number nine is trying to include too much in your query letter. So in a way, this is kind of the opposite of what we just talked about. I see writers who try to include way too many characters in their queries, or they spend too much time talking about themes, their story explorers, or they attempt to fit in every single detail, including plot twists and the ending. But here's the thing to remember. You only have one page to sell your book to an agent or an editor. They do not have time to read through a ton of pages just to figure out what your book is about. So even your personalization, metadata, and bio, the query should still fit on a single page because remember the purpose of a query letter is to entice the agent or the editor to read your book. It's not to include every little detail or every little scene. So to help you do that, here are some quick high-level tips. First focus on one character, maybe two max, you don't have to reference or name every character. It's okay to call character something like his best friend or her parents or whatever you need to do to allow the agent or the editor to digest what they're reading without getting too bogged down in too many names. The second tip is to focus on the plot and your characters growth arc. Instead of your theme, if you write a good query letter agents and editors should be able to infer your theme from what you write about your plot and your character. So what do I mean by not focusing on theme while you don't want to say something in your query? Like this story shows how my character heals from grief. You don't need to explicitly say that if you've written a good summary of your story, including the plot and the characters arc, you should be able to show that through what you've written. So that's one of the most challenging parts, but it's definitely not impossible to get, right. The third tip is to try to keep the pitch portion of your query to 250 words or less. And the reason for this is that that's about the length of the copy that appears on the back cover of a book. So it's definitely enough to capture your whole story and to capture an agent's attention if you focus on the right things. So those are three quick high-level tips for you, and that will help you avoid making mistake number nine, which is including too much in your query letter. Mistake. Number 10 is writing a query letter that's weird unprofessional, or that includes too much personal information. It's always a good idea to convey your own unique personality, especially in the bio section of your query, but be careful not to take this too far. I say this because a query letter is first and foremost, a business letter. You don't need to try super hard to be cute or clever with the way you write it, just get to the facts and get to the story and be professional. You'll also want to do a spelling and grammar check before you send your query off to agents and editors, a single typo isn't really going to make or break your chances. But a query riddled with mistakes is most likely going to make an agent or an editor assume that your draft will also have a bunch of mistakes. And if they're on the fence about whether or not to request a full manuscript from you, this might tip your query over into the reject pile. So just something to keep in mind. And on that note, please don't use all caps or weird fonts or colors when sending your query. When in doubt, just use black 12 point times new Roman font. And in terms of spacing, you can double space between paragraphs, but otherwise your query should just be single-spaced. So again, just it simple and professional because here's the thing sending agents or editors, a query that is professional well-written and compliant with their submission guidelines, that shows that you're taking your writing and yourself seriously. It's the first step in demonstrating to a prospective agent or an editor that you're someone who will be easy and professional to work with, which is what they want. It's a business relationship. So treat it that way from the get go. And you'll be setting yourself up for success in the long run. So that's mistake number 10, sending a query that's weird or unprofessional. And instead, I just want you to focus on writing a business letter that will hook an agent and make them more interested in reading your full manuscript. That's your query letters, only job. And that wraps up the 10 most common querying mistakes I see and how to avoid them. So let's do a really quick recap before I let you go. Mistake. Number one is querying too soon. And instead of rushing the process, I just want you to take your time, get some outside feedback and revise your story so that it's the very best it can be before you start querying agents and editors, mistake. Number two is sending your query to the wrong person. And instead of doing that, I just want you to do your homework and really research the person you're going to query the extra time and effort it takes to do this will be so worth it in the end. Mistake. Number three is not following submission guidelines. So instead of doing this, I just want you to really pay attention to each agent or editors, submission guidelines and follow them because remember agents and editors are busy and if they scan your email and see that you have not followed their guidelines, your query will most likely go in the trash, which none of us want. Mistake. Number four is forgetting to include your metadata and to avoid this. You just want to make sure you're including stuff like your genre, your age category, and your word count, probably within that first paragraph, unless an agent states otherwise mistake number five is that the word count of the draft is off. So it's too high or too low. And to avoid making this mistake, just know your genres, word, count range, and aim for somewhere between 80,000 to a hundred thousand words, depending on your genre. Mistake number six, is that the genre of the story isn't clear in the story summary to avoid making this mistake, just make sure that you are clear on your genre and make sure that it's reflected in the summary that you include in your query letter. And when in doubt, have a writing partner, a friend, a developmental editor, or whoever have them read it, and just reflect back to you what they're seeing so that you can make sure it's ready for the eyes of an agent or an editor. Mistake. Number seven is choosing comp titles that aren't helpful, or that don't make any sense. And to avoid making this mistake, just do your research and find some recent comp titles. So anything published in the last five years that are relevant to the current marketplace, and that are truly comparable to your book. Mistake. Number eight is writing a story summary that's too vague or using non-specific to summarize your story. So to avoid making this mistake in your summary, make sure that you've included a character that readers can care about an indication of what that character wants and why the conflict that gets in their way. And what's at stake. If they don't get what they want. And remember when in doubt, it's always better to be specific than vague mistake. Number nine is trying to include too much in your query. So this is the opposite of what we just talked about. And to avoid this, I have three quick tips for you. Number one, focus on one or two characters, max, you don't have to reference or name every character that you mentioned. Number two, focus on the plot and your character's growth arc, not your theme. And number three, try to keep the pitch portion of your query to 250 words or less. This is enough room to help you catch agent's attention. If you focus on the right things, mistake number 10 is writing a query letter that's unprofessional or weird. So remember you don't have to try to be super cute or clever in the way you write it. You just want to get down to the facts in the story, because again, this is a business letter. That's only job is to hook an agent and make them interested in reading your full manuscript. So make sure it's professional, make sure you do a spelling and grammar check. Make sure it's well formatted and make sure you follow the submission guidelines. Now, with all that being said, I also want to remind you that writing an effective query letter takes practice and you will not get it right on the first try. You will make some of these mistakes, but at least now you know what to look out for and how to course correct if you do. So, if you're querying or if you're about to query, or if you know it's in your future somewhere, don't give up and keep going until you're satisfied that your query letter is doing its job to sell your story to agents and editors. So that's it for today's show as always. I want to thank you so much for tuning in and showing your support. If you want to check out any of the links I mentioned in this episode, you can find them over@savannahguilbeau.com forward slash podcast. And if you haven't done so already, make sure you subscribe to the show because there's going to be another brand new episode coming out next week. If you're an apple user, I'd really appreciate it. If you took a few seconds to leave a quick rating and review your ratings and reviews, tell iTunes that this is a podcast that's worth listening to and in turn that helps the show get in front of more fiction writers, just like you. So that's it for today's show. I'll be back next week with a brand new episode until then happy writing.