Does Your Query Info Dump?

Welcome back! Today, let’s look at a partial query for a YA sci-fi.

Before: In the year 2201, seventeen-year-old High Princess Jane Smith finds herself graduating from the Commando Academy a sergeant in the Six Worlds of Genesis Fleet. It’s unheard of for a princess or prince to graduate a commando. And it’s even more unheard of for anyone to graduate with such a high rank, which she accomplished by breaking every record in every course at the Academy. Jane also carries two secrets with her: the first, she has the ability to see glimpses into the future and read minds. The second is so horrible it could destroy what’s left of the human race.

After: Seventeen-year-old High Princess Jane Smith is the first royal to graduate from the Commando Academy. Not only that, but she’s the first graduate to be awarded the rank of sergeant—a rank she earned by breaking the academy’s every record. But as Jane accepts her commission with the Six Worlds of Genesis Fleet, three secrets threaten her hard-won status. First, she can glimpse the future. Second, she can read minds. And third…well, the third could destroy the human race.

Commentary: 1. This is nitpicky, but I omitted the year because the rest of the query screams futuristic fantastical world! The year seemed unnecessary.

2. Whenever your query has a character “finding herself,” that’s an opportunity to tighten. Does she find herself graduating, or does she simply graduate?

3. Just like you don’t want to info dump in your manuscript, you don’t want to info dump in your query. This author asks the slush reader to unpack a lot of information in that first sentence: a year, an age, a title, a name, a school, a rank, and a military unit. Whew! Break that up a bit. Here’s what I suggested in the after:

  • First sentence: age, title, name, school
  • Second sentence: rank, Jane’s tendency toward overachievement (character development)
  • Third sentence: military unit, threatening complications (hinting at plot/conflict)…etc.

See what I did there? In your query, as in your manuscript, weave expository details together with character-development and plot details! Get to goal and conflict ASAP.

4. Speaking of conflict, the before doesn’t have much. Look closely. The fact that Jane has secrets is introduced with “Jane also carries two secrets with her” (which could be tightened to “Jane has two secrets,” but I digress). The word “also” means you’re making a list. What you need to make are connections. How are Jane’s secrets going to spell trouble for her as she moves into her new role as sergeant? Conflict, conflict, conflict! Get it on the page. Here, in an attempt to make a connection, I suggested that her secrets will “threaten her hard-won status.” But, sadly, I don’t know if that’s what will actually happen in the manuscript.

5. I had some trouble with this author’s math. Jane’s “first” secret is actually two secrets (she can glimpse the future and she can read minds), so why not call them out as such? Also, TOO MANY WORDS! “She has the ability to see glimpses into the future” is the same thing as “she can glimpse the future.” Tighten, please.

Join me next time!

Your Query’s Icebreaker

A lot of writers seem to struggle with how to open their query letter. So today let’s look at killing the awkward icebreaker and getting right to the point:

Before: I am writing in hopes of finding literary representation. The story I am submitting is called My Awesome Book. It is the first piece of a larger overarching story I have worked out, but just as well stands on its own. This title is an action-fantasy written for teens and young adults with 61,779 words.

After: My Awesome Book is a YA action-fantasy complete at 62,000 words. It’s a standalone with series potential.

Commentary: First, everyone who sends us a query letter is “writing in hopes of finding literary representation.” Why waste words telling us what we already know?

Second, look at how many different ways you refer to your project. Here, I count five!

  • The story (I am submitting)
  • My Awesome Book
  • it
  • first piece (of a larger overarching story)
  • this title (is an action-fantasy)

Combine to cut! Limit yourself to two references. (Hint: One should be your title.)

Third, just tell us it’s a YA rather than that it was “written for teens and young adults.” Look how many words we just saved! Wheeeee!

Fourth, just round your word count to the nearest thousand. Another way you can keep things simple.

Finally, “it’s a standalone with series potential” is a stock phrase, one that’s 100% OK to use because it’s immediately 100% clear. You don’t have to try so hard to come up with a unique way to express this. Use the stock phrase. Embrace it. Slush readers can scan it in a microsecond and move the heck on to your actual pitch paragraphs.

Thanks for reading. Join me next time!

The Pregnant Boyfriend

Welcome back! Here’s another partial query in desperate need of tightening:

Before: Having become pregnant as a college freshman, Jane Smith’s boyfriend, Tim Jones, has promised to marry her so they can raise their child together. His wealthy lineage would be able to support their desire to remain a loving family, and she is happy to know they can both move forward to fulfill their dreams of graduating from Yale and doing great things. But the patriarch of the Jones dynasty will not allow it to happen, his devastating announcement that she will never be accepted into their family tearing the couple apart from what was supposed to be their happily ever after.

After: When Yale freshman Jane Smith discovers she’s pregnant, her wealthy boyfriend, Tim Jones, promises to marry her. But just when Jane dares to hope she can have a husband, a child, and a college degree, Tim’s father announces that he’ll never allow her to be part of the Jones family dynasty.

Commentary: First, according to the rules of grammar, Tim is the pregnant one. Grammar alert! The first noun following an introductory phrase is the thing that phrase is about. You might think “Jane” is the first noun after that introductory structure, but nope. “Jane Smith’s boyfriend” is a compound adjective describing Tim Jones, which is the noun.

The very pregnant noun.

Second, holy sentence length, Batman. Even if your narrative style tends toward lengthy sentences, remember that your query pitch is sell copy. You’re writing it to convince an agent that she can sell your book to a publisher for money. So. Sell copy should be brief and to the point. Shorter sentences, please.

Finally, look for factoids you can combine. The before leads with “college freshman” and later mentions “Yale.” Easy enough to combine “Yale freshman” to describe Jane as soon as she’s introduced.

That’s all, folks. Join me next time…

Three Quick Demos

Wordiness in the slush pile. It’s a problem. One thing I’ve learned: Lurking behind every overly wordy query letter is an overly wordy (hard to read, hard to sell) manuscript.

My hope in writing this blog is that writers can use these bite-sized demonstrations in brevity to trim the fat not only from their queries, but from all their prose. Writing that doesn’t need a hefty line edit is writing that has a better chance at selling. So for this first post, here are three tighten-your-query demos:


Before: My manuscript can be compared to books like Jaws and other man vs. nature type of novels and movies.

After: This man-versus-nature tale will appeal to fans of Jaws.

Commentary: This one’s pretty self-explanatory. Or it should be. I hope. The before is how an author would describe his story to a new friend at a party. It’s conversational. The after is how you demonstrate clarity and conciseness in a letter to an agent or editor.


Before: Jane Smith is happily married with two children, a son and a daughter. There are only two people in the world who know her secret: her only true friend, Sally, who now lives in Europe, and the FBI agent who helped her get a new identity.

After: Jane Smith is a happily married mother of two, but the only people who know who she really is are her friend Sally and the FBI agent who assigned Jane her new identity.

Commentary: Cut irrelevant details from your pitch! Does the agent need to know that Jane’s two children are a son and daughter? Nope. Does the agent need to know that Sally now lives in Europe? Nope. Plus, “know her secret” introduces the possibility for confusion: Is her assumed identity her secret, or does she have another secret she’s keeping from her family besides her assumed identity? The after makes it clear that her assumed identity is, in fact, her sole secret.


Before: My novel begins the day after graduation when Jen Smith immediately starts packing for college. […] But then Jen meets Tim. While on the surface he seems to be another bad boy influencing another good girl, he is actually the first person to challenge Jen’s perception of her life and the lives of those around her. What started as a summer of waiting to leave, results in a summer that transforms Jen in ways beyond what she ever expected.

After: The day after graduation, Jen Smith starts packing for college. […] Then Jen meets Tim. At first, she thinks he’s just another bad boy. But when he challenges her perceptions in unexpected ways, her summer of “can’t wait to leave” becomes a summer of “never let me go.”

Commentary: “My novel begins…” Nope. Nope. Nope. These cluttery phrases can always go. And what’s the difference between “she immediately starts packing for college” and “she starts packing for college”? Not much, if anything. Cut. The rest of the before is not only wordy, but vague. What does “results in a summer that transforms Jen in ways beyond what she ever expected” mean in terms of plot? In other words, what specific events happen to Jen on the pages of your manuscript that you could pitch here instead? Because this query was so vague in terms of story, I made up “a summer of never let me go” in the after to demonstrate specificity. But based on this query, I have no idea if Jen and Tim actually end up together in this book, or if being together is actually a motivator for either character. Dear writer, don’t make agents guess what your characters want.

Join me next time!