Nathan Bransford, Author

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Thanksgiving Leftovers: Anatomy of a Really Bad Query Letter

In honor of Thanksgiving week I'm joining the television networks and offering up some re-runs. Gobble gobble!

Now, you probably read the title of this post and assumed that I'm about to be mean to some poor author who was unfortunate enough to send me a letter. But never fear! No authors were harmed in the making of this blog. I wrote this really bad query letter myself. I know, I know. You can save your applause until the end.

I thought it might be helpful to post a letter that includes some of the common mistakes people make in query letters so you can avoid them. Don't do as this poor, hapless writer did. Er, I mean don't do as I did. Do as I don't.

rip pffffffffffffffffffffff cough cough cough cough oh god get it out of here [Since I can't include smellovision in my blog posts, that is my reenactment of the experience of opening a query letter that smells like old, stale cigarette smoke. Let's just say it's not a happy smell.]

Dear Miss Snark, [As much as I enjoy seeing which agent you queried before me, it's probably not the best strategy to forget to change the salutation.]

Have you ever wondered what it would be like if there was a race a heartless zombies who ate, nay enjoyed, human flesh? [Mayday mayday. My epic war against query letters beginning with rhetorical questions is not going well. Please send reinforcements.] In my 250,000 word novel, the first of a million word trilogy, a race of homicidal zombies target literary agents, gleefully spilling their vile literary agent blood all over their computers, enacting revenge on behalf of mankind for all of the query letters they have rejected over the years. [250,000 words is waaaay too long. Also you might want to avoid plot lines that involve literary agents dying at the hands of crazed zombies. I'm just saying.]

Drew Diggler was born in Denver, Colorado. His best friend was named Charlie. His dog was named Fred. He once had a crush on a girl named Susan. Susan dumped him. Then he went to high school. In high school he had a dream about zombies. But he didn't meet any actual zombies until much later. He went to college. In college he saw a movie about zombies. Then after he graduated from college he actually met a zombie. The zombie told him it was his mission in life to stab every literary agent in the world with their staplers. [Too much information. Where is the plot? Also, I'm not a big fan of excessive gore. Especially gore that involves literary agents.]

Meanwhile, Drew Diggler realizes that he hates his corporate soul-sucking job, he has grown weary of his wife and their two children, he hates like, his existence, man, so he quits his job/travels around the world/goes on a homicidal killing spree. [The whole man-suffering-crushing-ennui-and-subsequent-mid-life crisis plot is just a tad played out. Also, what happened to the zombie? He was kind of growing on me.]

And then after he quits his job/travels around the world/goes on a homicidal killing spree, he discovers Jesus' DNA and decides to clone him while uncovering a centuries old plot that is protecting the hidden meaning of life just as he stumbles upon a government conspiracy concealing the existence of extraterrestrial life, all the while being chased by the bad guy, who is an evil albino. [You might want to avoid these plotlines as well. And this letter is going on too long.]

This is just one of seventeen unpublished projects I would like you to represent, all attached here. [Writes about more than one project, attaches a file]. I'm so so so so so so sorry I'm a first time writer, I know I'm not qualified, I genuflect before you, but see, at least I know the word genuflect so that has to count for something, right? I know there are better qualified writers out there than me, but I hope you will please give me a chance. Please? Will you? I hope you will. [Don't apologize for being a first time writer -- I like first time writers! They have that new author smell.]

My book is kind of like THE DA VINCI CODE mixed with THE LOVELY BONES meets THE HISTORIAN mixed with a dash of HARRY POTTER and ERAGON. Oh, and it's also like FANCY NANCY and THE FIVE PEOPLE YOU MEET IN HEAVEN. Now that I think about it it's exactly like a lot of other bestselling books out there, so it is guaranteed to be a #1 New York Times Bestseller. [Don't compare your book to a bunch of other bestselling books -- it's ok to reference other books, but you probably want to avoid big bestsellers]. I did not include a SASE in my letter, nor did I include an e-mail address, in fact I'm also not going to include a phone number, just so you cannot possibly get in touch with me. [This actually happens -- I have a file full of letters with absolutely no contact information. Sadly I was not even able to reach the authors using telepathy.]

Let's make some money together. [Whenever people say this I always imagine that we're starting a used car dealership.]

Nathan Bransford, Author

Hmmm..... on second thought, maybe there is a market for literary agent hunting zombies. I'm going to request a partial from myself.


Mark Terry said...

Gee, I don't know. I might really enjoy reading about zombies that go around attacking literary agents. Are the zombies hanging out in New York or California? I mean, they're not, like, Kansas zombies, are they?

Linnea said...

Nice one, Nathan. It would have been good with my morning coffee if I hadn't shot the darned stuff out of my nose!

Isak said...

Great post!

If you ever decide to write a book, it should definitely be humor. Maybe one about a literary agent who loathes rhetorical questions until a mysterious query letter poses such a puzzling rhetorical question that it thrusts the protagonist into a plot as absurd and contrived as the most painfully novice novel.

Hm, on second thought, maybe that's been done already...

Josephine Damian said...

Nathan, LMAO.

However, like any writer, I can't resist a few editorial comments/addidtions:

"In my 250,000 word fiction novel..."

"Let's talk. Here's my number so you can call me on my homeboy phone."

"You're making the biggest mistake of your career if you don't offer to represent me."

"Everyone in my writer's group/family says it's a work of pure genuis."

"Three book doctors and five book nurses have done a supreme edit job on my book."

Have a happy turkey day, Nathan! Enjoy the blog break.

Miss Meliss said...

You know, there's a craze going around the teenaged set entitled "seriously preparing for the 'imminent' zombie attack of 2012".

They'd probably read it if it was fifty times shorter and Diggler's dog wasn't named Fred.

Vinnie Sorce said...

Hehehe, that really made my day. Have a great T-day Nathan!

Note: I just discovered voice recognition software. I recommend it to every writer in the universe!!

Anonymous said...

How about a book where literary agents attack zombies? That would be a twist. "Zombie Hunters Among the Literati." Or something.

Anonymous said...

Everyone needs a Zombie Apocalypse Plan. It's just good sense!

Dr. Dume said...

Languishing as I am in the throes of query writing (why is it so much harder than the book?) any snippet of advice is gratefully received.

I wondered though...what about...

'Did you ever wonder what happened to that agent who disappeared recently? Well, that was the agent who turned me down. I'm wearing his face as a mask as I write. Now, about this novel...'

Would that rhetorical question work, or would I have to have another of those interviews where stern men with badges interrogate me?

Dr. Dume said...

Reading it again, it's not actually rhetorical. But it is a question. I was half-right.

Or was I?

Aimless Writer said...

Okay, how about a novel of zombies who hunt literary agents but from the zombie's point of view? Perhaps this zombie was once rejected by a literary agent he was truly in love with? Could this be a story of love lost and revenge????
Nuff questions?
Thanks for the laugh! I'll try to remember the contact information--who could forget that??? sheesh!

Mark Terry said...

Hmmm, or spin it... a literary agent by day, a Zombie Stalker by night.





Kim Stagliano said...

Happy Thanksgiving, Nathan.

Tom Judah said...

Happy Thanksgiving Folks....


Julie Weathers said...

That was a gem.

It does remind me of the Red Vs Blue Zombie Plan clip. Who knows? Maybe we should have a plan just in case.

Perhaps we can distract them with leftover turkey.

Happy Thanksgiving to all.

The Anti-Wife said...

Only a partial? You should definitely request a full and send a contract with your request.
Happy Thanksgiving!

Kaleb Nation said...

They've got to have a dash of Stephenie Meyers with a twinkle of Buffy TVS and just a teaspoon of Lemony Snicket mixed somewhere in that book...

#1 Dinosaur said...

Happy Thanksgiving, Dude.

I have a question for the blog, and wasn't sure whether it was legit to use the email address or just to ask in the comments.

Does a blog count as a writing credit? I know it's not a true pub credit, but if one has a regularly updated blog that seems to attract a following (modest or otherwise) is it appropriate to mention it in a query? My thinking is that if nothing else, it allows an agent to get a sense of me as a writer (albeit not as a novelist, of course.)

What do you think? Thumbs up? Thumbs down? Thumbs sideways?

sex scenes at starbucks said...

They have that new author smell.

You're making me giggle.

Kimber An said...

Very funny!

Zombies can be fun in the hands of the right author. We're throwing a Cyber-Launch Book Party for Linnea Sinclair's DOWN HOME ZOMBIE BLUES at my Enduring Romance blog next Thursday (11/29.)

Roxan said...

I'll wait until the movie comes out. LOL

Lupina said...

Just to throw a ray of hope back into the picture for all those thinking the perfect query is the be-all and end-all of making it into publication: Art Carey of the Philadelphia Enquirer just wrote a great article about mystery novelist Robin Hathaway, winner of the coveted Agatha award. She did not start writing til she was 50 (!), and spent ten years querying agents and publishers without even a request for a partial. At the age of 60 she entered a St. Martin's Press mystery novel contest and won a contract and advance. At 73 she has published 8 highly acclaimed novels.

This doesn't mean I don't think we should forsake trying to write the perfect query (and Nathan, your "Anatomy" was very helpful), just that we should keep on pitching and believe in what we're doing. Hathaway's quote: "It's a matter of taste and luck and whether you hit somebody at the right time."

Josephine Damian said...

Nathan, did you see on Paper Cuts that the "Times of London" named On Chesil Beach as best novel of the year?

Anonymous said...

So what length is your maximum for a literary novel? What's the cutoff number?

Also, I know a lot of agents automatically reject long manuscripts, but not ALL agents do. If you are one of the agents who auto-reject long, does that mean you're not interested in the next David Foster Wallace, Tom Wolfe, Jeffrey Eugenides, Donna Tartt... etc? (And if we think that we *are* as good or better than the above, do you suggest any young, actively-seeking agents?)

Thanks, Nathan.

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