Nathan Bransford, Author

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Why Writers Shouldn't Be Paranoid About Having Their Query Critiqued Online

Not sure what's in the water lately, but I've heard both directly and indirectly from authors who are suddenly extremely worried about posting their queries in forums to get feedback.

I'm sure, somewhere, there are actual horror stories of people having their ideas pilfered and profited off of based solely on a query, but I've long felt this is kind of like getting struck by lightning while breaking a mirror as a black cat walks by.

Here's why I wouldn't personally be paranoid about sharing your query:

1) The success of your book will hinge on the quality of its execution, not on the originality of your idea

High concept is great and everything, but whether your book succeeds or fails has a heck of a lot more to do with your execution than its premise.

When was the last time you read a book solely and entirely because it was describable in a sentence? Probably not often.

There were vampire books before Twilight, there were wizard books before Harry Potter, there were books that were like whatever Fifty Shades of Grey is like before Fifty Shades of Grey.

What's more, there are often books with very similar ideas that are published around the same time. Same thing happens in movies. Even if (extreme hypothetical) someone does steal your idea, goes and writes it, and gets it published, that doesn't even mean yours won't work too if it's really good.

2) Posting your query online does not count as first publication or anything that will hinder your chance at successful publication

No agent or reader that I know of is going to freak out if you posted your query online. It's not going to mess up your shot at getting your work published elsewhere

If you're worried about showing how the sausage is made and don't want your query Google-able later, change the title and identifying details. 

3) You're helping fellow writers by posting your query online

Not everyone is brave enough to post their query online - not because they're afraid of having the idea stolen, but because posting your work is a bit scary. If you are the type of person strong enough to weather public constructive criticism you can do a world of good for your fellow writers, who can observe the feedback process.

If your book is so ground-breakingly high concept and the world hasn't ever heard your idea before and you can't possibly bear to share it.... okay. I won't judge. But my guess is that somewhere in the world someone with nearly your exact idea is online getting feedback on their query as we speak.

All that said, I would be careful about posting too much of your actual work, and make sure you always possess all rights. I personally believe submitting short excerpts for critique is totally fine (and I promise to do an opening critique soon!), but I wouldn't post more than a brief chunk.

And if you do wish to get feedback on your query, check out the query critique forum associated with this blog. You can both give query help (which helps you spot what works and what doesn't) and submit your own query for critique.

Art: The Cunning Thief by Paul-Charles Chocarne-Moreau


Anonymous said...

There were vampire books before Twilight, there were wizard books before Harry Potter, there were books that were like whatever Fifty Shades of Grey is like before Fifty Shades of Grey.

Um... Twilight fan fiction?

Anonymous said...

I'm not concerned about my idea being stolen, but I wonder if someone who hasn't read a book can REALLY critique a query. I mean, how does the reader know if you really captured the essence of your book? They can tell if the query piques interest (which is maybe all that matters) but not if it is an accurate query.

Mr. D said...

In all of my online experiences, I have found that writer's forums have been the friendliest and most respectful, whereas political forums and sports forums are the most disrespectful and downright brutal.

Lillian Archer said...

Excellent post. We are all experts with a lack of evidence. Meaning, we all think our work is just fine, as long as we only show it to people who will tell us what we want to hear. Another option is to avail yourself of one of the many freelance editors out there othe internet- still counts as feedback, but can be more private.

Anonymous said...

I suppose there is always the chance that someone with a similar book will steal the bulk or entirety of your excellent query letter and get it out to agents before you.

Matthew MacNish said...

Is this really trending? The query critique service I offer on my blog has no lack of requests. Hmm. It's certainly an interesting thing to be afraid of, though.

Something similar did come up the other day, though. Some friends and I were brainstorming the way one of them could go about paying it forward, and the idea of synopsis critique came up. I do think that's something you'd have to be more careful about making public.

Oh, and Anon @7:45. You'd be surprised. Of course the tone and the voice of the query should match that of the manuscript, but you really don't need to read the MS to fix the query. Counter-intuitive, I know, but true.

D.G. Hudson said...

You have to have some faith in those who are doing your query critique, and respect their judgment. That often means knowing or feeling comfortable with that group.

There are also 50 shades of people who do critiques. Some are very good at it, some are not. Some will make you think you can't write at all. (more often on public sites than forums)

Some lit agents have said they don't want to see 'workshopped' query letters, polished by a group, but lacking the personal touch of the writer. I've read this in posts on blogs.

So, there's differing opinions on whether it's a good thing to post your query online.

Good discussion topic, Nathan.

vic caswell (aspiring-x) said...

thank you mr. nathan for this post of sanity in a paranoid world. from personal experience, i would say that the feedback given in the forums here (and privately from people i've met in your forums) has been invaluable. quality feedback is a necessity for quality writing. and helping others only hones your craft more.

that said, i understand paranoia and shyness(too well).
in those cases, people really, really need to find a critique partner or group.

your forums also allow for these kinds of connections here:

distance is crucial to see the flaws in a novel, and as the writer, we do not have that necessary distance.

Krista Van Dolzer said...

Anon 7:45, I actually think it's more helpful to get query advice from people who haven't read the manuscript, since they'll be able to tell you what makes sense and what doesn't if you know nothing about the story going in (which, of course, is the perspective from which every agent will read it).

A. M. Perkins said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
A. M. Perkins said...

My biggest fear was having someone be horrifically brutally mean when I posted it.

Within the first couple of replies, I got one that was not just mean - it was downright sadistic and personally insulting.

Good thing, too, 'cuz I obviously survived - and it cured my fear in one fell swoop :-)

Josin L. McQuein said...

Posting your query online for critique, or even on your blog if you're an active participant on others, can be very VERY good for a writer. You never know who's reading at the larger sites or who trawls blogs and will click over to your own blog if a comment happens to snag their attention. Agents and editors DO hang out in places most writers wouldn't expect to find them, and they'll contact you if your query catches their attention, even without an official query. You can also snag invitations to query those who are "closed" publicly.

JeffO said...

@Anon 7:45: A person who hasn't read your book in some ways is better than one who has, because the agent or editor reading your query hasn't read your book, either. If some random commenter on the internet doesn't 'get' your book based on your query alone, there's a good chance the agent/editor won't, either.

Ideally, you'll get feedback from people who have read it (to make sure you've gotten the essence of your story) and those who haven't.

The only potential negative I really see to these mass critiques is that you might get overwhelmed with seemingly conflicting information. In those cases, it can be hard to sort through it all.

Anonymous said...

Hmm, I see everyone's point, but I guess I'm coming at it from the experience of reading a friend's query. I'd read her book and her query, while decent, totally missed the point of her book. When she re-wrote it, it was much better. So maybe first stab is someone who has read it to make sure you have the right focus and then the forums.

Anonymous 7:45

Caroline said...

Posting your query online is one of the best things you can do for yourself as an author. There are a bazillion other writers out there who do not know the first thing about writing a query, so do yourself a favor a get ahead of the game. No matter how good you think your query is, there is always room for improvement. And the query board on Nathan's forum is an excellent place to start as the folks there are generally nice and very helpful. *End of PSA*

Steven J. Wangsness said...

It's one thing to have an ego, quite another to think that your idea is so original/brilliant/sure to result in a bestseller that someone's going to steal it.

Sommer Leigh said...

Anon @ 9:37: I think your comment goes to show that it's valuable to have people who've read your manuscript and ones who haven't give you critiques!

Nathan's forums are an excellent place to have your query critiqued. I've never seen anyone be insulting or mean. All the comments always seem to be meaningful and useful. We try to be honest and fair, but respectful too.

And of course, anyone acting villainous and I send in the robots.

AlvaradoFrazier said...

#2 gave me my morning laugh. is a good place to learn the nuts and bolts of query letters.

Anonymous said...

I think D.G. Hudson has a good point. What if an agent googles your work, finds the forum where you received help, and judges you for your previously terrible query?

By the way, this is a small thing, but I want to thank you, Nathan, for allowing us to post anonymously. Very few publishing blogs allow you to do so for fear of trolling. However, it's great when you want to post something that you know is an unpopular opinion (but relevant and respectful).

Nathan Bransford said...


I can't imagine an agent judging someone for getting help on their query. They're not easy to write. And in the end, it's always the manuscript itself that's going to win the day.

Sharon Bayliss said...

Very helpful. I've run into a few people with this concern. My thoughts are, writing a book is really hard. Someone is not going to be able to do much with just a query.

Bryan Russell said...

I totally posted a query for a post just like this...

Vicki Orians said...

I think it's smart to have as many people critique your query as possible. Agents read the query first without having read the book. If you want them to read the book, you have to have a good query. Otherwise, you will never get signed. I think you should start by having your critique partners (aka: those that have read your book) review your query, and then post it for others to read. It's the best way to make sure agents will be as interested in your book as readers. Just a thought. said...

If you think of it too, if you are querying, your novel is finished. It would be a heck of an author who'd be able to beat you to the finish line and get there novel "out there" if they were getting their idea after you'd already finished and polished your manuscript, right?

Anonymous said...

Good post, again. I think this is something authors learn to deal with in time. It's a good topic to talk about openly.

wendy said...

I agree with you, Nathan, that in a novel it's not so much the ideas, it's what you do with the ideas - how you execute them technically - that makes or breaks a story.

However, the story that contains an original concept has more prestige, sometimes more validiity, and often more popularity than the story idea that is derivitive. The Lord of The Rings is one such case in point. Tolkien started a new sub-genre of sword and sorcery, I think, which won himself and his epic trilogy much acclaim and ever-lasting popularity - although there's no doubt he spent the time and effort to produce something that was excellent and huge in scope and concept.

However, from a brief query it'd be difficult to make something of the idea because the reader only has a vague idea of the execution. It's when both the idea and the execution occur in another work that it becomes devestating for the writer. An unlucky coincidence (universal mind?) did occur where I felt my main story idea and around twenty similiar plot points emerged in a recent published work. (I've often complained about it, and long-time visitors to the blog must be sick of hearing about it. Repetition on a theme!) I was upset because the ideas in my stories are their greatest strength as I'm an inspired writer but a poor technition, I think. Also, these ideas are usually built up over a long period while I struggle with syntax and dialogue, etc.

But, in reality, it's not the end of the world if someone beats us to publication with similiar ideas. I think the real challenge for us is that we keep a positive outlook and attitude about ourseles, our talent and the future. :)

Mira said...

Completely agree, Nathan! Nice post, reassuring.

Anonymous said...

I so much want to believe this post. However, I have just heard of yet another author who has been turned down because his book is too similar to something already on the market. I also know of an unpublished writer whose intellectual property was openly copied by a published writer on a writers workshop, as they said 'ideas are free'. And an editor told me in person that if a brilliant concept came in from an unknown, they would ask a well known author to write the book.
Sorry to appear negative,folks. I know we have to get our work out there somehow, and get feedback, or leave it in a drawer gathering dust forever!

John Stanton said...

If all you have is a brilliant original idea and nothing else, you might be in danger of another writer swooping in to take your idea, turning it into a completed work and getting to the market before you do. However, if you're a better writer and create a better work of art built around the same idea, you will still win.
If all you have is a brilliant idea and nothing else, you are in danger of someone else getting it to the market before you can simply based on the huge number of writers writing. Given enough time, if a million monkeys are typing on a million typewriters, one of them will come up with your idea. As Nathan said it's about execution (how can one guy have such wisdom AND awesome hair!). Of two similar ideas, the better book will win.
I am fortunate to be part of critique group with some very talented writers. Sometimes the feedback hurts, sometimes the group feedback is divided right down the middle, and sometimes it's unanimous. We always say, "If the feedback is negative, you want to hear it in this room first rather than out in the world."
I would be nervous about posting anything new on the internet for critique unless it was a forum that I knew well. In the past, I've seen that internet feedback is sometimes extreme and anonymous. They either love what I've written and I am great or I suck and should be banned from writing anything ever again.
I don't think an agent would have an issue with an extremely polished query, whether it was an individual effort, group effort or a professionally assisted effort. Maybe it happens, but I have a hard time imagining an agent researching you as a potential client, finding an old version of something you posted then deciding to pass you over.
Thanks Nathan!

Megan Duff said...

As someone who fears writing a query (it is the future...the far future) this is a very comforting post. I don't know about others but I don't have a lot of people in my life who would be able to assess a query.
When that point comes I will need that feedback and most likely I will turn to the forum on this website or QueryShark or YALitChat.
Point taken, get help!

Ken Ashe said...

I was just thinking about this topic the other day. First I put my query online and then I took it down...

Ted Fox said...

I really appreciate you making that first point, "The success of your book will hinge on the quality of its execution, not on the originality of your idea"--not so much because of querying but just the idea generation process in general.

I'm one to freak out if I get excited about an idea for a new project and then find something somewhat similar via a Google search, even though logic dictates exactly what you said: Someone somewhere at some point has likely thought of the same thing.

Thank you for soothing my insecure artist soul. :)

Christian Frey said...

You can still get valuable feedback on whether the query piqued their curiosty, and what their expectations of the work would be. Sometimes that type of feedback is easiest to give when you aren't familiar with the work.

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