Nathan Bransford, Author

Friday, December 26, 2008

Holiday Cheer: Anatomy of a Really Bad Query Letter

I am currently on blog holiday, and am re-posting some refreshing concoctions from Christmases past.

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.



SozinTara said...

I am so glad you've posted this. I am in dire need of learning to write a query letter the right way, and you've introduced the "What Not to do" in a fun fashion.


Adaora A. said...

First time authors have a smell? That's pretty cool Nathan. I'm sure we've all be properly turned off by the idea of spilling an agents blood and using rhetorical questions. Cheers to you.

Deaf Brown Trash Punk said...

lol.. oh come on, man, give us first-time writers a break! not all of us write awful letters like that...


Kat Harris said...

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

Would you like to buy my Yugo?


I hope you don't get a lot of queries like this. I couldn't even get through the first paragraph.

A Paperback Writer said...

Oh no! It's that rhetorical question bit again!!

Seriously, Nathan, with the publishing industry the way it is right now, maybe you should consider than used car dealership on the side....

debtink said...

These are hysterical.
I am sitting here giggling.

David said...

I don't have an appropriate old comment to recycle, so I'll have to write a new one!

Smokers should take note of the problem with the smell of stale cigarette smoke. Smokers tend to not be aware of that smell or of how offensive it is to many (most?) non-smokers. So an author who smokes should be especially careful about that. Maybe that would require a separate, non-smoking office or den!

Parenthetically (he added, forgetting the parentheses), I once went into a new, small bookstore whose owner chain smoked the whole time I was there. I bought a couple of books, but they turned out to be saturated with that same awful smell, and I never went back. The place went out of business not long after. Not coincidence, I'm sure.

Jeanie W said...

You are too funny!

Vodka Mom said...

oh sweet jesus, was that my query?

(THANKFULLY not.......)

Lady Glamis said...

Gave me a good laugh today. Thanks!

BarbS. said...

[Applause, applause]

Gaaaaa... That was nearly as horrendous as cover letters I received from wannabe reporters!

Nancy D'Inzillo said...

While I can see why this would be rejection-worthy, I might read a book about zombies that were created by someone who had found and cloned Jesus's DNA. *lol*

Alex Moore said...

laughing out loud funny...thanks for re-posting. your gems always produce laughter or thought or contemplation. thank you for that. peace to you & yours.

tiana said...

Reinforcements needed here!

They specifically tell you to start your query with a "what if" question. Egad!

Marjorie said...

I think the whole process of sending these query letters and sample pages and getting loads of rejections is demeaning. Honestly, today authors do not need agents' approval for validation. There is self-publishing and the option is quite empowering.
I am a stand-up comic in NYC comedy clubs and a retired teacher. I will evaluate your sample query letter. It is sort of funny and well-written. I give it a B+.
My blog (pentimentos) IS my book.

Leis said...

Um. I can't decide if the above is tongue in cheek? Someone please tell me?

Nathan, i remember reading this last year; it's just as funny now! Thanks for reposting it, and Happy Holidays to you.

Miss Snark said...

I'm totally in favor of agent-flesh eating zombies, as long as I get to pick which agents get eaten!

Should we start with the ones who want exclusives? Don't respond? Use rejection letters to pitch their own books on writing or querying?

So much flesh, so little time.

Word verification: readacha!

Anonymous said...

I have written eight query letters, all enclosing the first three chapters of my autobiography. Each was replied to and gave encouragement, but, alas, went no further. Perhaps Chanel No 5 would help. I have now started posting my book on a blog so at least someone will get to read the entire book eventually.

Stephen D. Covey said...

Okay, now you've queried yourself. Do you (agent) really think that you (writer) have completed that 250,000 word novel?
Or does receiving the query mean that you (the writer) have got to finish the novel (agent requested full) or at least write the beginning (agent requested first three chapters)?
Hey, the hard part is getting the agent to respond; anyone can write a novel.

Lynne said...

You're a great agent but if the zombies chase us, I'm tripping you.

Anonymous said...

Nathan Bransford wrote: "Do as I don't."

What a terrific tagline!

Polly Kahl said...


PurpleClover said...

I'm pretty sure you plagarized my query letter. But it's okay, I've got another one I can send.

Anonymous said...

Maybe query writing--and book writing--should be required in high school English classes. That way everyone can learn the professional standard,instead of submitting bad stuff that gets rejected and laughed at.

Word verification is COODIE!

Scott said...

Thanks for that, Nathan. It's nice to experience the Jerry Springer equivalent of a query letter; you know, how your letter has to be somewhat decent because it could never be THAT bad. Although I would think that someone who is so comfortable with taking up so much of someone's time has to have almost Tolkien levels of self-esteem.

To nudge the subject a little, I'd like to mention that I still hope the blog in the coming year allows for questions from the peanut gallery, as I have a couple I would love to ask.

Hope you had a great holiday, sir.

Word var: senese v. 1. to assess with uncommon levels of sensitivity. To senese the dilemma of her homelessness would be to truly understand that she suffers from a number of exacerbating illnesses.

RW said...

Have you addressed word counts in another post? Thankfully I'm not up to 250k, but I'm concerned anyway. I imagined my novel as 100k when I started it, but it has crept up to 170k in the most recent draft. Right now, I'm having trouble seeing what could be cut without a significantly different vision of the story, but part of me is concerned that it MUST be cut.

J. M. Strother said...

What a hoot. You need to work on that telepathy thing. It could come in very handy.

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