One of the most common shortcomings in some query letters (and in fiction by inexperienced writers) is an over-reliance on cliched phrases. The end result is a query that feels both unoriginal and strangely nonspecific, since in real life we use cliched phrases as a shorthand for bigger (and more interesting) ideas.
Here’s what I mean. In query letters, I often see the description that a character “has issues.” What does that mean, exactly? For instance, maybe the character has recurring nightmares about space monkeys. Now, in real life, we’d say someone “has issues” because we don’t really want to get into the whole space monkey thing. But in a query, wouldn’t it be more interesting to just say the character has recurring nightmares about space monkeys? (and hopefully space monkeys are relevant to the story if you’re mentioning it… also I want to see that query)
I was thinking of compiling a list of all of these dead phrases over time and putting them up on the blog, but 1) I got lazy about it and 2) I realized that these phrases can be used to a good end by the right writer, particularly because cliches can be funny when they’re used in a way that’s counter intuitive. So a full list would probably be useless. BUT, if I had compiled a list, these would have been some of the entries:
“in the worst way”
“to the bitter end”
“more than they bargained for”
“trials and tribulations”
“an incredible journey”
“he must (something) and (something) before (important object) falls into the wrong hands”
All of these phrases deaden a description that would have been far more interesting if the writer had just been specific about what they were describing.
So when you’re writing your query, pay close, close attention to the writing crutches you’re using to tell the story. The best way to write a succinct, compelling letter is to be specific and rid your query of cliches. To the bitter end.
Please add your favorite dead cliches in the comments section!