Weird things happen when you read 300 Query Shark queries

In preparation for querying agents, I started to read all 347 Query Shark entries. As I read, weird things began to occur. I blame the Great Cat.

Mysterious path through a forest

I see querying in my future. Yes, I’ve decided I’m going to have a go at getting an agent for my nearly-complete WIP. (Sign up for my monthly updates to get the inside story once I start.)

As I finish editing, I’m starting the next stage: writing my query. I drafted my first query for this book years ago. Actually, fifteen versions thereof. (Don’t worry, I never sent them anywhere.)

This time I’m doing it right. I’m following instructions.

I’m reading all 347 entries of Query Shark.

For the uninitiated, Query Shark is an archive of query critiques by a sharkly NY literary agent. Willing victims send in their query letters for public feedback. Some get more than they bargained for.

The instructions are simple: start by reading the complete archives and taking notes.

That’s what I’m doing.

The point is to learn how to write a query letter, but the more I read the archives the more strange and vaguely connected things happen. I sense interference from the Great Cat.

Querying writers are everywhere

Since I’ve been reading Query Shark, my Twitter timeline is suddenly full of querying writers.

I wonder if there’s a single writer left on the planet who isn’t querying, or moaning about querying being too hard, or celebrating finally having found a dream agent.

There might be three, but I wouldn’t put money on there being more than that.

I forgot how to write a sentence

Writing is rewriting.

Queries aren’t made on the first try. Or sometimes on the eleventh try either.

A lot of Query Shark’s critiques urge the writer to hold a magnifying glass to each sentence. Should the clauses be reversed? Can you rewrite that as subject/verb/object? Can you reorder for clarity and shave three words?

It’s incredibly valuable, but after a while it messes with your brain.

Editing yesterday, I discovered I’d forgotten how to string a sentence together. I was back to the infantile: They ran. A guard shot. The arrow missed. They slid. They ran some more.

Great Cat, please give back my ability to compose sentences!

An orange butterfly on a marigold.
This butterfly is judging my inability to write.

I realised the people saying my book is bloated are right

My last draft came in at 157,200 words. Then I changed the way one character was referred to, and it jumped to more like 157,800 words.

It’s high fantasy, so I’m allowed additional length for worldbuilding, but that’s still too long for a debut in the current traditional market. (Because paper’s expensive, today’s readers can’t stay off their phones long enough to read more than a paragraph, or something equally weird.)

They say most long books are bloated and agents won’t take them on because they need a lot of editing. I thought they were right. Just not about my book. My book was exactly as long as it needed to be.

Hah!

When I started editing with my query brain I noticed I over-describe every little action and say the same thing two ways, sometimes three. This round of editing, all that is going. Without losing content, I’m cutting 10% or more from nearly every scene and it feels so good.

Draft 13 might be the first to be shorter than the previous draft.

I reevaluated my chances (and yours)

Getting a novel traditionally published takes some hefty combination of skill, persistence, and luck.

If you have aspirations of publication, I’m sure you’ve seen the depressing statistics on the percentage of queries that get full requests and the percentage of full requests that turn into offers of representation. You might also have heard about all the things that can go wrong between snagging an agent and seeing your book on a bookstore shelf.

But if a lot of queries are like some of those posted on Query Shark, your chances (and mine) aren’t as bad as all that. So many people show a shocking inability to follow instructions. Read the archives before you submit, Query Shark says, yet writers repeat the mistakes from the archives over and over.

Not just tricky, subjective mistakes–like not making us care about the characters. Simple, objective mistakes–like putting their contact details at the top of the email. Like not giving any idea of what the story is about.

If you can follow simple instructions, and if you read the Query Shark archives, your chances of publication might be not be shockingly abysmal.

They might just be abysmal.

I’ll drink to that.

Have you queried a novel? Was the universe suddenly full of signs?

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Author: A.S. Akkalon

By day, A.S. Akkalon works in an office where the computers outnumber the suits of armour more than two-to-one. By night, she puts dreams of medieval castles, swords, and dragons onto paper.

8 thoughts on “Weird things happen when you read 300 Query Shark queries”

  1. Kudos and a warm weighted blanket to you for venturing into the deep dark forest of Query Land. A query letter is, IM (never H) O, the devil on earth, the very hardest thing there is to write, and something designed to torture authors. And yet it’s also a terrific, if brutal, writing exercise. Janet Reid’s Query Shark is a great education — with one caveat: she is maybe the only agent I’ve ever heard from regarding queries (and I’ve workshopped with a LOT of ’em) who does NOT want an opening paragraph that includes personalization (= why you’re submitting to that agent in particular) and has all the basics: genre, word count, comps or “mash-up” (as in, “Wuthering Heights meets American Psycho” or some such). I also strongly suggest you listen to the podcast “The Shit No One Tells You About Writing” where two agents dissect queries each episode. Most illuminating.

    1. And with those pearls of wisdom, you just revealed yourself as someone who might be able to tell me if my query letter is on the right track. 😉 I have heard of that podcast, but I’m not much of a podcast listener so I haven’t given it a go yet. I’m definitely going to do that now.

  2. I looked at Query Shark just now and realized I’d fail so hard at querying. 0_o I barely know how to write a short blurb for my books, and a query letter would have to be the next level of a sales pitch.
    No chance. But I really hope you’ll manage to convince the agents. I LOVE YOUR BOOK; it deserves all the cake and confetti! 😀

    1. Yep, query letters that work are certainly difficult, but–or so I keep telling myself–writing them’s a skill that can be learned. Maybe if I say it enough times I’ll start to believe it.

      Aw, thank you! I’m certainly going to try. 🙂

  3. That’s a great way to start learning how to write a decent query letter. And the extra bonus of learning to writer tighter is priceless. 10% is a great goal, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you exceeded that. Happy Editing!

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