5 query-writing tips you can learn from my horrible experience

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Facepalm! [img by striatic]

Years ago, naively believing my novel was finished, I submitted a draft of a query letter to an online community called Writers Net for feedback. The query was horrible, and several people offered advice.

I wrote draft after draft based on a myriad of tips, but never seemed to make any progress. We all got frustrated, zingers were exchanged, more patient folk tried to explain again and again, and eventually I stupidly decided to go with an excerpt of the book, and left the forum. To my chagrin, you can still find the entire conversation when you Google my name.

But now that I have a successful query letter (if not a finished novel), I stopped to wonder what went wrong on that forum. To find out, I trekked back to the scene of the crime and reread 4+ pages of facepalm moments and harsh reminders of the gross literary inadequacies of my youth (which wasn’t even that long ago).

Here, I pinpoint where things went wrong—and explain how you can avoid the same mistakes.


1. We didn’t understand one another

We were all writing English, but I didn’t really understand what they were telling me and they didn’t understand why. I should have realized this when, after several drafts, I wasn’t getting any closer.

Lesson learned: If you need feedback, don’t post your work on a public forum (or blog) run by strangers. Get to know the people first. Read their other posts. Make sure you understand their semantics and respect their opinions before you ask them for advice.


2. Conflicting advice

Some said to focus on the protagonist, forget the alternate story; others said to focus on the way the two stories fit together. Some said to simply state the connection between the two; others said that was boring. Some even posted examples of successful queries that broke major rules. And since I didn’t know these people, I didn’t know whose opinion to choose.

Lesson learned: If getting advice from a group, don’t try to please all of them. See if you can identify and solve one general problem they all agree you have. (I had two: the hook was confusing and boring.)

3. I didn’t know what “show, don’t tell” meant for a query letter

I asked how “just tell us what it’s about” fit in with “show, don’t tell,” but they didn’t understand the conflict. I’ve since learned: Telling in a query letter refers to fluff language like “gripping,” “page-turner,” “heartwarming,” or anything that tells the agent how the book is going to make them feel.

Lesson learned: Don’t tell the agent how to feel – tell them the parts of the story that will make them feel that way. (Read more about showing vs. telling here.)

4. They kept telling me what was missing, but not what was needed

Chop a book down to two paragraphs and of course things will be missing. Anyone can point out what isn’t there, from the villain’s motive to what makes the protagonist relatable. But that doesn’t mean these things belong in the query. I kept cramming facts in, but the real problem wasn’t that it lacked information: it was just boring.

Lesson learned: Write down the most interesting (yet plot-relevant) facts about your characters, world, and story. Try building your hook around those things.

5. I attempted to tell what the story was really about

This is what everyone tells you to do, and what they told me to do. But it’s wrong.

Lesson learned: If your plot is complex, you cannot tell what it is “really” about. You don’t have the space. Instead, tell what the story seems to be about, in the first fifty pages of the book. (More on that in this post about hook-writing.)

Have you ever had a bad experience with an online writing community? What did you learn from it?

About Stephanie Orges

Stephanie is an award-winning copywriter, aspiring novelist, and barely passable ukulele player. Here, she offers writing prompts, tips, and moderate-to-deep philosophical discussions. You can also find her on and Pinterest.

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  1. Nothing frustrates me mire than trying to master the “show, don’t tell” rule. Sometimes I can nail it without thinking, other times I need someone to point it out.

    Great thoughts. I’ll keep this in mind when I get to the querying point. 🙂

  2. Reblogged this on Abstract Novels and commented:
    Great tips on writing a story query.

  3. I am a looong way from writing a query. A depressingly long way, in fact, but ah well. This post is interesting to me, even so. Communication is hard, especially when it involves words.

    • Yeah, I’ve got my query all down, but the book is far from ready. *Sigh* As Anne Lamott would say, it’s like trying to put an octopus to bed.

      • I’ve not heard that before, but it’s an apt description!

        While not having dealt with query-issues, I have posted some of my earlier work before and I can agree that it is essential to mind who you listen to and why. I’ve had some very helpful feedback and some that was, in my opinion, completely off-base. I’ve had everything from people telling me what fantasy creatures are “really” like, to a suggestion that I have a narrator wax poetic about the merits of a story’s protagonist. Then again, I have had very insightful comments on plot holes and whether or not scenes accomplish their goals.

        • Wow. These people evidently can’t grasp the concept of “fantasy” and probably think “show don’t tell” is when you bring your favorite toys to school. It’s kind of scary when you think about what other bad advice you may have trusted through the years.

  4. Goodness, I felt like I was reading an autobiographical account of my online querying experience. I clashed with people on Abolute Write Water Cooler. My arse was handed back to me over and over again by some, while others really did try to genuinely help me.

    I found that the main source of the problem was lack of a dialogue–you want to be able to ask questions on point, but it is impossible in that kind of an atmosphere. The biggest complaint about my query kept coming back to the novel–the general consensus was that my novel was not ready and that’s why my query flopped all over the place.

    I ended up leaving the site having learned little and struggled on my own to figure out my query.

    I think I’m okay now, I have what I think is a query that will work but it isn’t something I learned through an online writing community, that’s for sure.

    • I don’t think a flopping query necessarily means an unfinished book (though that was the case for me).

      I suppose the problem with online writing communities is that you don’t really know who you’re talking to. They can tell you what worked for them, but unless they are literary agents themselves, who read dozens or hundreds of queries a day and know what’s good and why, they can’t really help. I found better help on blogs like Nathan Bransford’s (who is a former lit agent himself, so there you go).

      Maybe we should warn people away from seeking query advice on writer’s forums altogether? I wonder if it’s actually helped for anyone…

  5. I had a very very similar experience with the Absolute Write forum. When I had another novel to query, I got so much more out of reading Janet Reid’s Query Shark archives than I ever got from all the conflicting opinions from the forums. Can’t recommend her site highly enough!

  6. “Wow. These people evidently can’t grasp the concept of “fantasy” and probably think “show don’t tell” is when you bring your favorite toys to school.” Pretty much. Thankfully I’m stubborn enough not to take advice easily. Sorting out good advice that doesn’t pertain to me and good advice that does, is much harder, though. Because, of course, not every tool is right for every task, and not every rule applies to ever piece. Complicated!

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