Query Critique

by | Jul 30, 2007 | Critiques | 23 comments

Hope you all had a lovely weekend! Just a reminder to people querying me — if you receive a non-request missive from me (I’m still trying to think of the best euphemism for “rejection,” which is just so uncouth), and you would like to offer up your query for a critique on the blog, please send me a follow-up e-mail. Unfortunately I can’t critique every query, but if your query sparks some ideas for a blog I may take you up on that offer.

Here’s a query I received from a saintly soul who offered her work up so that all could learn. Thank you so much for that. And please, whenever you’re discussing someone’s work in the comments section please be as exceedingly polite as you possibly can. Because for some reason the Internet makes people MEAN and I’m instituting the Internet golden rule — Don’t say unto others what you wouldn’t say to their face. (can I copyright that?) Impolite comments shall be dealt with swiftly and with no mercy.

Here goes:

Since discovering your blog, I have appreciated your candid insights concerning fiction and the publishing industry. Although there are many wonderful blogs written by agents, I immediately related to yours when I noted that many of the books you have represented or admired are sitting on my own bookshelf. I am writing to you now in hopes that you will consider representing my novel, MOONBEAM IN A MASON JAR, which is literary fiction with a commercial bent.

When a renowned theater director’s carefully constructed world begins to plummet out of control, his impulsive reaction seems to be a detrimental detour from all he has worked to achieve. But as his path intertwines with the lives of strangers and repercussions of an unresolved relationship arise, a startling design emerges – he is forced to confront his own past culpability and to decide if the future will be one of regret or redemption.

Michael Roth is accustomed to calling the shots; he has spent the last twenty years directing hit plays and crafting his personal life in New York City. But when his wife abruptly leaves him after confessing a long-term affair, he is suddenly unsure of his past decisions and of his next step. In an effort to gain distance enough from Pat to alleviate the pain of her betrayal and to refocus his goals, he makes the spontaneous decision to move to his hometown of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. But back in the familiar southern community, his reprieve is destroyed when his first love reemerges and he is again blindsided by the far-reaching consequences of an abandoned heart. As he tries to deal with resurrected regrets, he begins to develop unexpected relationships that alter his perceptions of his circumstances. A recently widowed doctor unveils truths from Michael’s adolescence, a young mother’s addictions mirror his own thirst for hope, and a student in his theatre discovers that she may share more with him than just an interest in the stage. However, when Pat is diagnosed with a difficult disease, once more it becomes all too clear that leaving the past behind will not be as easy as Michael had hoped. As a devastating accident further pulls him into the lives of those around him and Pat makes a shocking decision, he must find a way to reconcile the life he hopes to create with the one he left behind.

I studied English at UNC – Chapel Hill and I continue to live in North Carolina, currently raising two children and working on my second novel. I am the author of three short stories published in InFuze Magazine , one of which was chosen for their 2006 anthology. MOONBEAM IN A MASON JAR, my first novel, is complete at eighty thousand words and is available upon request. Thank you for your time and consideration.

My reaction? This query is fine. It’s a little long and I think the plot description could probably use some tightening, but overall it’s fine.

But that’s kind of the problem. It’s fine.

There are a lot of things to like about this query. I really like the title MOONBEAM IN A MASON JAR, it’s personalized, it’s a blog reader, I think there are interesting conflicts at the heart of the story and it sounds like there’s a good climax. There are good elements here.

But I’m afraid it just wasn’t enough. The plot description? Fine. But it’s a somewhat boilerplate plot (man suffers tragedy, moves home and has to face past), and I just didn’t get a sense of a unique enough spin on that plot to compel me. The main character? Fine. He’s a famous theater director. But although there’s a quick description that he’s used to having control, his personality isn’t really infused into the query and he wasn’t exactly memorable. It’s all fine. I think she’s a good writer.

I receive a lot of queries at this level – they’re good, but when I’m reading so many queries, something really has to jump out at me. Maybe it’s a character that grabs me or a plot that grabs me or someone’s unique style of writing that grabs me. Something original and fresh and new and unexpected, even if it’s a fresh take on a standard trope.

Bottom line is that fine is something to be proud of, I think this query is good. I hope this writer is encouraged to strive for that next level. Because I’m afraid fine isn’t enough.


  1. DMH

    For the brave soul who allowed her query to be posted:

    One way to shorten this query would be to delete the second paragraph. It’s a summary of what you then go into specifically, and I think after your first P, the reader is ready for specifics.

    The body needs a paragraph break or two.

    In the closing, you say you studied English–did you receive a degree? Also, I would not mention raising two children. One author of more than a dozen books once stressed that it’s important to not look old; with small children, you’re obviously not elderly, but you don’t want to get pegged as a soccer mom or even worse–a housewife.

    Drop the “first novel” part–you’re already published; let that speak for you. (Don’t want to look like a newbie!)

    Good luck!

  2. C.J.

    thanks to the query writer for letting us look at this. the story sounds like it could be interesting. i’m curious to see what a rewrite of this query would look like if the author decides to shorten it or give it more intrigue or whatever. i think it can be tough to make a query “pop” (as tyra would say) because as the author, you know all the interesting little tidbits about your story and characters. so when you reference the protagonist’s name in your query, for you it carries all sorts of interesting baggage that’s tough to divorce yourself from to get an objective read on your own query. nathan, are there a couple quick and dirty questions that a writer can give to a friend who is reading a potential query to make sure it’s more than fine? thanks.

  3. Merry Jelinek

    For the query author:

    I love the title, that grabbed me right away. And I think it sounds like a good story. I agree with C.J., cutting the second paragraph will help and I think the third paragraph can be tightened up a bit. The only other thing that struck me was all of the sentences that started with ‘But’ – it might flow better if you edited those out.

    Good luck with this, I hope it finds a home soon

  4. Anonymous

    In the past few weeks I have been showing my query letter to anyone who will give me the time of day, though only people whom I’ve never spoken to about the plot. This has been incredibly useful.

    I then rewrite and find new readers. Rewrite, find new readers. Rinse and repeat. I’m not sending it out until it’s perfect.

  5. Liz

    For what it is worth, I too love the title of the book. Hats off to the writer brave enough to share this query with the rest of us.

    The one thing that struck me when reading it was the lack of specific details. Some of the novel’s conflict nitty gritty is mentioned, but not enough to grab me and leave me wanting to read more.

  6. DMH

    If you haven’t done so already, post it on Absolute Write. You’ll get lots of feedback!

  7. dr. love

    Hi Nathan,

    Is shorter better? In my query I have kept the description of my novel to one tight paragraph, which seems to work pretty well. What do you prefer seeing? Can you be hooked by just a few great sentences?

  8. joycemocha

    My reaction is much like Nathan’s. The query is well-written, but–it’s just fine. It doesn’t move me, and that’s a shame, because I think there’s an interesting story possibility there.

    What leaps out at me are the number of complex/compound sentence structures in the query itself. They’re grammatically correct, but they do nothing for prose effectiveness. They lie on the page. They don’t jump up and grab the reader by the throat. The style is completely understandable; it’s something we’re told to use and often cited in query examples. But I don’t think it’s an effective style (I pull my hair out with frustration when I read too many model queries on the Web because too many of them leave me cold).

    My sense is that the author is distancing herself from the story in this query when she should instead give herself permission to drag the characters into the query and make them live in the shortest space possible. I sympathize completely because I have to go back and beat myself over the head to keep from writing in the same style in my queries (which, Nathan, you’ll probably see from me this week if all goes as planned. Feel free to rake me over the coals as I commit the same offenses!).

    I’d recommend that all of us spend a little bit of time studying book blurbs as potential query models. Not all blurbs are well-written, but they’re written with the intent to sell the book to a reader. Study them all; identify the good, the bad, and the awful, and do your best to emulate the best of them.

    That’s what I try to do. Not that it’s gotten me very far–yet. But I have only begun to market the book!

  9. Dave

    The author seems to sink into unflattering and wordy descriptions. A query should snap like a fresh green bean and not like green beans stewed in tomatoes. Both are delicious but one is fresh and interesting.

    When Michael Roth, a renowned theater director’s wife divorces him, his carefully constructed world begins to plummet out of control, his impulsive reaction is to move back home. What he finds is old loves, old sorrows, and old troubles to haunt his troubled soul.

    And for the query, it’s either PAT or EX-WIFE but not both. Too few words for two names.

    Your third paragraph can start at “Back in his hometown of Chapel Hill,” because we already know that he is going somewhere. You don’t need the words before Chapel Hill.

    Now you need to say what he finds – An old love filled with regret, family addictions long surpressed, new friends with insights and students with his desires and needs. When his ex-wife is struck by a dread disease and (who is killed) a car accident claims someone close, Mikey Roth must find his soul and reconcile past and future.

    That’s clumsy. I’ll leave it to you. It’s like writing advertising copy – even bad news has to have snap, zip, fire and emotion. YOU (yes YOU) are writing about the next Pulitzer Prize winning novel. It is exciting, absorbing, emotional and uplifting. Make the agent believe that.

  10. Kathleen

    to the writer: I agree that the second paragraph should be dropped. I also think you need to add some more specifics to at least one or two of the plot points. The way it reads now, it is too vague to interest me.

    JMHO! good luck!

  11. tessa

    I think sometimes writers choke when writing query letters. They are so caught up with all the particulars, that they polish out the thing that makes their query special — the voice.

  12. phoenix

    Thank you, author, for sharing your work. As I read this query, I felt it was a bit vague and cliche: “Plummet out of control,” “confront his own past,” “unveils truths from Michael’s past,” “difficult disease,” “leaving the past behind,” “devastating accident,” “shocking decision,” etc.

    The amount of vagueness and number of cliches make me feel the story isn’t original. I think substituting vagueness with a few, well-chosen, specific examples and tightening the query (second ‘graph can go indeed) will go a long way toward making it more vivid and gripping. Add in some voice, and you’ll turn that non-request into a “send more, please.”

  13. Robert Henshaw

    Sounds like an interesting book, and I, too, love the title.

    Regarding the idea of tightening this query up – Is it true, Jonathan, that when you read a query that needs tightening, you’re also wondering if the novel needs tightening, too?

  14. McKoala

    Love that title. I would love to see more voice and character coming out of your words.

  15. JDuncan

    My first reaction was, “Holy crap, that’s a long query.” Having heard from numerous agents about being concise and to the point in one’s query, you’re stumbling out of the gate just from a purely visual standpoint. Nathan obviously didn’t seem to put off by the length, but I’m guessing you would get a wince from many agents from the moment the query was opened up.

    You should get a pretty distinct sense of the story from the first sentence or three. You want to hook the agent’s interest right off the bat. The first paragraph here doesn’t really do that. ‘Plummet out of control’ and ‘detrimental detour’ say very little about the story. Be specific. The same goes about deciding a future of either regret or redemption. This hints at some sort of conflict, but spell it out. There is no need to be vague here in order to set up or entice to read the next paragraph. You want the reader to already be thinking, ‘this sounds like a story I’d want to read,’ and you lose that by being far to general here.

    The next paragraph goes into way to much detail. We don’t need to know all of these things in a query. What’s the central conflict of the story? What is it that makes it stand out from all of the other stories out there about someone enduring a life-changing event and going back home to try and sort out their life? You don’t need to spell out all the little plot bits that happen in the course of the story. You just want the agent interested enough to find out and request your ms. Tighten this up and focus on the main conflict. This sounds like your fairly typical story of someone who is forced to come to terms with a past they left behind in order to have a ‘better’ life which wasn’t as good as they thought it was. There are tons of good stories out there in this vein, and this could be one as well, but you need to really focus things down to the core and work in what gives this its uniqueness.


  16. Lorelei

    Well, I’ll weigh in with a vote against the title. It sounds whimsical, and I don’t tend to turn to literature for whimsy. It sounds like the title to a Christopher Cross song, actually.

    I’d suggest more specificity in the query. Many things are implied, but I need more facts. What does it mean for this individual when his life plummets out of control? Is that a lost weekend or does he end up on skid row? Which movie: Leaving Las Vegas or Sideways? Which trip am I on?

  17. Kimber An

    I’d pick up the book based on the title alone! Of course, I always read the first few pages before I buy. Good query letters always seem to need one thing – revision. This one deserves a chance at becoming great. I hope the author doesn’t give up.

  18. Anonymous

    Thanks for the comments and suggestions. You’ve all given me plenty to think about…and lots to work on. 🙂 I appreciate the advice and I’m sure that my next attempt at this thing will be better because of it.
    ~the(now a little wiser)author of this query

  19. ello

    Thanks author and Nathan for posting this. And I really do love the title. It really grabs my attention.

    The “just fine” comment really got me thinking. Does the query truly represent the book and writer as “just fine” but maybe lacking that something? Because most queries like this are very representative of what is contained in the story. A fine story with fine elements. But sometimes stories like these are quiet gems that you really have to read further to fall in love with. How does an author portray a quiet book over and above the rest of the pack? Someone mentioned the author’s voice, is that what is missing? Or is the elements of the story themselves not unusual enough for it to matter what the voice is?

    Sorry for all the questions, but query letters are still my arch nemesis.

  20. Ben in PDX

    I think many of you are still stuck in “how to improve a query” mode. IMHO – the best query isn’t going to sell a book. There’s either a compelling, innovative story there, or there isn’t. I think what Mr. Bransford is trying to say with this post is to put your energy behind creating a kick ass story.

    The reality is that we’ve already read/seen/heard just about every compelling story ever. That’s why coming up with that new idea or twist is so valuable and so difficult. That’s what we should all be worrying about, not how to improve upon a query for a fine story, but working on that innovative twist on an old story so that it a “must read”.

  21. A Writress

    Maybe “decline” would be a more apt word for the agent’s no to the hopeful writer?

  22. Anonymous

    I just want a quick note to thank both Nathan and the brave author. Query letters are so hard! The little piece of advice that’s helped me is, think of “movie trailer” text. Watch out of course for too cliche, but closer to movie trailer than to synopsis-type writing for the query.

    I hope the author takes this to the next level. The title is great, you obviously know how to write, you’re honing your craft. Keep it up!!!

  23. Sarah Alice

    It said that you don’t like how it didn’t describe the character’s personality. Question, regarding that topic: What if your novel has multiple (multiple, meaning about a dozen) main characters? Should I not describe any character personalities, because twelve character descriptions seems like a little much. Should I just describe the most important character?


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Hi, I’m Nathan. I’m the author of How to Write a Novel and the Jacob Wonderbar series, which was published by Penguin. I used to be a literary agent at Curtis Brown Ltd. and I’m dedicated to helping authors chase their dreams. Let me help you with your book!

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