#QueryFail: Clever Queries

Wendy Lawton

Blogger:  Wendy Lawton

Location: Books & Such Central Valley Office

Weather: 82º (Ten degrees hotter than yesterday)

Great comments so far on queries. Today we are going to get into some dos and don’ts. Let me say again, these are not rules, they are suggestions and they are subjective. My don’ts might just be another agent’s dos. But discussing it will only help us examine the process further.

When you are sending a query, don’t try to be clever. I know you want your query to be memorable, but humor is the most subjective art form there is. Think about what makes you laugh out loud. I’ll bet you have a friend who is annoyed by the very same thing. I love Garrison Keillor. If I could chose a spiritual hometown it would be lake Woebegon, but I have friend who finds him obnoxious. Go figure.

The only exception to this “rule” is if you are writing humor. Then your query needs to reflect that. Other than that, beware. Let me show you some carefully redacted “clever” queries. None of these even hinted what the book was about so don’t worry that I’m divulging any intellectual property.

My name is [John Doe] and I’m an enigma. I’ve also written a [umpteen] word manuscript or else this query would really be a waste of your, mine and our time.  I believe in capitalism but don’t want to work for the man.  I believe in freedom but don’t want to fight for it.  I’m against war but stay silent, mostly, on America’s practices of exploitation.  I grew up in an anti-Communist America, but think the government should help me out while staying out of my personal life.  In short, I am conflicted.

<SNIP a ton of superfluous details>

Suffice it to say, my [describes book]. It is stupid in its brilliance and brilliant in its stupidity…tragic in its verisimilitude and verisimilitudey in its tragicness…It is both an indictment of the vapidity of pop culture and a sentimental journey through a mind obsessed with it.  In short my new friend, my book saves lives.

<SNIP another two pages of stuff>

Right now—at this very moment—I am entering the stretch run of my college career.  I am [00] years old and am about to graduate from the [a university].  {The aforementioned dog is graduating from the [another university], with a degree in aeronautics or barking or something…it’s probably barking, which is where we dropped her off}

Okay. Clever? Did it appeal to you? Do you see the risk the writer took in trying to be edgy? Picture an agent trying to squeeze in queries at the end of a long, trying day. This doesn’t work. Clever is a huge risk. It may have worked for another agent but for me— it just made me cranky.

So how about this clever one. It’s a reply to the email I sent this writer telling him he just queried the wrong address and offering him the correct address:

Whatever. You have a “finger” right?, you can send it cant you? Geeeese. Just forward the message. This is one of the greatest stories EVER told. I dont have time to waste.

Now that’s certainly a humorous way to endear yourself to an agent. Or how about this one?

It’s almost not fair. Actually it isn’t fair. It’s so not fair.  Here I am, left with a page, one page, just one page, to grab your attention and set aside my query letter from the rest of the hundreds and maybe thousands that you get on a weekly basis, so you contact me back to read my manuscript. But that’s what they say about life right? It’s not fair, or is it that it’s like a box of chocolates? No, that was Forest Gump, good movie huh? If it was a true story then it’d be a great movie. I wanna be like Forest Gump, but I’m not slow, so I’ll be the smart Forest Gump and go on and do great things(have I gotten your attention yet?) Well If not then let me keep going….

You don’t know me, as an author, but you should. You know why you should? Well do ya? I’ll tell ya why, because I am a best selling author. That’s right a best selling author, if this was 8 to 12 months from now.  Ooops, I know I’m not supposed to say that, boast about the books. So I just broke the rules of querying an agent with that one. But hey I gotta get your attention some how right?

Well now let me stop making you laugh…be boring and briefly tell you about those several books I have.

Does this help you understand why agents get cranky about queries? I’m not disparaging these writers. I understand they are trying to find a way to be distinctive, but humor is subjective and therefore risky when querying.

Don’t do it.

22 Responses

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  1. Teri Dawn Smith says:

    Wow. Those were annoying. I feel your pain. Isn’t it best to just get right down to business? Tell you what the story’s about?

  2. Wendy Lawton says:

    Yes, Teri, It is important to get right to the book. Because I am not a project by project agent– I represent the author, not just one book– I look for the information about the author as well.

  3. Yvette Bagert says:

    Geeeezzz—Here I am reading all the proper material from Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market to almost investigating every website I can find and, wow, what an eye opener!! They all say–“get to the point”,
    “short synopsis” etc. Just when I thought I knew what to do, and how to do it!!!! Am I doing it all wrong???

  4. Wendy Lawton says:

    Yvette, you’re not doing it wrong if you get to the point, sum up the project in an inviting way and tell a little about the author. But remember– I keep saying this– every agent is different. You just need to do the best you can to sell the project.

    Look at all the books on the bookstore shelves. As daunting as the query process seems, it has worked for miles and miles of books. Be encouraged.

  5. Carla Gade says:

    I’m dumbfounded. These writers ought to collaborate on a book called “How not to win a book contract or influence literary agents”, but I doubt their egos would allow them to venture there.

  6. Michelle Ule says:

    Michelle jumping in here . . . some of this is the result of not closely reading our website for what we represent nor following our guidelines. And we understand how that can happen–you want to get your query exposed to the maximum number of people in the shortest amount of time because the process is so frustrating.

    That being said, cleverness and good humor can go a long way–if it’s not overdone. I’ve responded to people whose projects we can’t represent, to acknowledge their writing and lovely query just because it stood out from all the others and I laughed out loud.

    But you’re writing a business letter–so give me a witty one sentence hook–and then tell me about the project in one paragraph.

    And a word to the wise–Wendy may not remember your name, but I probably will . . .

  7. Cat Woods says:

    I found these examples to be ridiculous, not humorous.

    My current pitched project is defintely humor–which means the hook in my query is too.

    It was one of the most difficult queries I have written because I knew exactly what you are stating here: humor is subjective. And yet, it was written in the same voice as my book and actually pulled phrases directly from the manuscript.

    After much debate, I made the decision to save the agent and myself a lot of trouble by doing it this way.

    I figured that if my humor grated on an agent’s nerves in my query, there would be no need for them to request further material.

    *sigh* Hopefully I didn’t get too many agents cranky!

  8. Wendy Lawton says:

    Cat, exactly! You were wise in letting your query fairly represent the book.

  9. Ouch! Those were painful.

    But they were effective. They effectively conveyed something about the writers. They screamed, “I’m not funny and my wife has tried to tell me that, but I’ve never believed her.”

    I know I’ve been guilty of trying too hard in queries. I read some of them later and think, “Where was my brain? Why did I think that would interest anyone?”

    I think a lot of people try too hard.

    Well, not the guy who asked if you had a finger. He apparently didn’t think he needed to try very hard at all.

    I would have said, “Uh, yeah, I do have a finger. In fact, oh look here, I’m giving you the finger right now, dude.”


    Well, no, I wouldn’t really have said that. I am quite sure I would have wanted to say it, though.

  10. Holy smoke! Reading those was exhausting. The authors spent so much effort on trying to be flip and telling how great their book was, they never got around to showing it. Isn’t that a cardinal rule of modern writing? Show don’t tell!

    Thanks for the tutorial on what not to do. It does help! Any chance you could throw out some of the knocked-your-socks-off-they-were-so-good queries that you’ve received? I learn best by example!

  11. patriciazell says:

    I think there’s a big difference between trying to use humor in a query and trying to write a good-natured one. Correct me if I’m wrong, but a query that has a positive tone would probably have a greater chance of being considered than one that is negative or presumptuous. I imagine that since agents are humans, too, they respond to politeness and clarity just like everyone else. We writers might need to treat agents like people who we want to like us. Perhaps, that would brighten your days, too!

  12. Bethany says:

    Right. It’s not even so much about “clever” being subjective as it is about those letters simply not *being* clever. O_O

  13. Wendy Lawton says:

    Lisa, maybe I will at some point (with permission of course). The only potential problem is that showing good examples often leads to slavish copying. One of the reasons a query may catch my eye is that it is distinctive.

    Sometimes I get queries that I suspect have been created by a query service because I will get a stack of them in one day and they all have the exact same format. Authors should never farm out this process– the writer is the one with the heart, the passion and the personality. A sterile marketing-mill query will never stand out.

  14. Wendy Lawton says:

    You hit the nail on the head, patriciazell. Good-natured is what we are looking for– it’s a plus when it shines through. I like to see personality in a query.

    And Bethany, you are right. I probably should have put quote marks around the word “clever” each time I used it.

  15. It’s a little bit query this “failing” inside
    Depicting what to write as I try to decide
    Too much, too little, too wry, to debate
    Whether my writing will be selected
    Or quite possibly, huh? Rejected?!?
    So I closely examine my tale to tell
    Knowing its “one of kind” surely to sale
    Revamping my query… concise, direct
    Doing my best not to overly project
    The next I know, it’s done in a snap
    Yep, an author I am, with words I tap
    It’s a query success shining with much
    As Wendy debunks myths from BooksandSuch!

    Thanks for the inspiration, Wendy!

  16. Whew! I’m just glad that none of them appeared to be veiled variations of anything I’ve sent!

  17. Lucy says:

    Eeeouch! Those set my teeth on edge. I’ve seen humor used lightly and deftly and to very good effect in queries up for critique, but there wasn’t anything funny in the examples. Except in an ooh-that-had-to-hurt-but-he-should-have-watched-where-he-was-going kind of way.

    P.S. What I’m seeing here isn’t even “clever,” it’s more like cockiness and over-familiarity.

    *Cringes, and makes mental note never, ever to do that with own query*

  18. Eva Ulian says:

    I am always defending authors that they are not as stupid as some try to make them out to be. If such queries are true, then such writers have certainly let the rest of us down who conscientiously try to send agents a true representation of our work.

  19. Morgan Busse says:

    Yikes! Those were scary!

    The question I have is how professional should one be in a query? A couple months ago I did a lot of research to figure out how to write a query and as you pointed out, there are a lot of opinions out there. I chose to go the route where my query was very formal and professional. I had one publisher (who I knew, but wanted to put my best foot forward), jokingly comment on how formal it was. I laughed too because he was right, it was formal. But I didn’t want to come across unprofessional, after all, the relationship I am hoping to have would be a professional one.

    So how formal should a query be? Or can a query be too formal (and put you off as an agent?)

  20. If I may add, my attempt in sharing this rhyme was not to present overzealous abilities intertwined with loads of confidence and defiant assurance as a potential author. It was merely to add levity to the issue of query “failing.”

    To present a query using any format closely resembling my spar of verbiage would be cheesy to say the least, in my opinion. The poem was a reflection of my idea of an “ideal” process, with sincere gratitude and utmost respect to Wendy’s expert perspective.

    Thank you, BooksandSuch, for this terrific blog full of realistic advice and expectations.

  21. jane G Meyer says:

    To echo what Michelle said way up top, when I was a children’s book editor and received query after query, I kept a tally of all of the manuscripts that came my way. Most of the queries were passable and professional… But every now and then you would run across a snarky, or an overly confident or even ridiculous one. These authors were typically the ones who would end up back in my inbox, arguing with me, telling me why I should take their book to the Editorial Board for a vote. I never argued back, but I also never took their projects to the Board, and their names got an extra little note next to them on the tally sheet…

  22. This is painful. It gives me a much greater appreciation for what you do. Thanks. Condolences (for the painful stuff).