I’m participating in #QueryKombat this year. If you’re not familiar, Query Kombat is an annual competition run by this writer and this writer and this writer, where you submit your query and the first 250 words of your novel. For the first round, 64 selected Kombatants are paired off to go one-on-one (shout out to O.C. Shaw, who is a friendly and gracious writer whose book I want in my life). Judges read your entries, offer constructive criticism, and declare a victor. Get enough votes and you move on to the Agent Round where literary agents review your entry and decide if they want to ask for more pages, and then round 2. Entries can be updated before the agents get to see it.
To say the feedback has been helpful would be a gross understatement. There’s an expression in writing that says a writer often can’t see her work’s issues because she’s “too close” to the story. This counts for our queries, too. We know the story, so hints/teases/obfuscations/logical connections we understand are lost on others. This can be the difference between an agent wanting to see more of your book, or passing. Events like Query Kombat expose these issues, so even if you don’t win, you get valuable takeaways. Here’s a few of mine, some from feedback on my entry and some from others:
No questions (rhetorical or otherwise)
“What would you do if you woke up with no memory, under a bridge, covered in Nerf darts, with only an empty Code Red Mountain Dew bottle next to you?”
Agents don’t like questions in queries, especially the rhetorical kind. The query is just too short to waste words on a question, and agents don’t have time to sit there, pondering, putting themselves in the whacky situations we’ve put our characters. I knew this for the opening of a query already, but didn’t know it about the end. After describing my main character, what she wants at the start of the story, and the conflict, my query wrapped-up with:
“Can Jenna overcome her demons, revive the leader she was, and save the world? After the genocide committed against her people, will she even try?”
Every judge (and most other commenters) told me to not do that. Instead, the ending should be a statement about where Jenna now finds herself and what she faces. I can do that.
We must give insight into our MC, not just their name (or not even that)
People don’t connect with books, they connect with characters. That goes for agents, too. We have to provide info on who the MC is and what they want. We can also provide why they’re in the situation they’re in, why they’re qualified to deal with the conflict, etc. Leaving this info out is a red flag for agents and, unless the query is so good at doing something else it can break the rules (I did see one of these – it was like looking at a unicorn made of flowers and ice cream sundaes), the writer is running the risk of getting a fast rejection.
Be careful of going too deep into plot details
Besides making a query not fit on a single page (standard submission guideline), too many details can derail it. This one is crazy hard, and, I think, why most writers hate writing queries (and synopses). We love our books and think everything is important. “How do I describe my 100K story in 200 words?! I need to mention this, and put that in, and nothing makes sense without this!!!” The truth is we are able to convey our main plot without mentioning the MC’s sister’s boyfriend and his motorcycle, or how the Elf secondary character loves to spin daggers on his fingers (neither of these are real examples, but you get me.) Who the MC is > what they want > the conflict and stakes. Looks easy. Soooo isn’t.
“Out of left field”
I saw some “Then the <insert previously unhinted-to character/character trait/conflict/stakes> comes out of left field and I don’t know why that’s important,” comments on a few entries. I think this is related back to going too deep, but is different. These seemed to be main plot points that weren’t developed in the first two thirds of the query, but had to be in there, so were kind of stapled on the end. That’s probably a sign the beginning and middle need revising, or to be scrapped. I don’t even know how many different queries I’ve written for my three novels (structure wise). When you find the sweet spot you know it, though. You have all the requisite parts, in the right order, and it’s tight. After that, it’s all up to who reads it.
It’s all up to who reads it (see what I did there?)
I think one of the most heartbreaking yet truthful things (like the truth isn’t supposed to be heartbreaking) is that after we toil over our queries, lining everything up, crossing the Ts and dotting the Is, some people will still not like our concept/MC/plot/etc. “It’s subjective,” is a phrase we hear over and over and over as creatives, and it’s true. Sometimes we win on technique. Sometimes we lose not following guidelines. And sometimes we do everything right and still get a rejection. It suuuucks, but we’re all in the same boat. Only thing to do is keep writing those queries.
Get thee to Twitter!
This one isn’t about something from the contest feedback, but a general observation.
I respect going old school on things as much as anyone, but writers, I’m begging you, if you’re not on Twitter, go sign-up now. People keep saying it’s dying, but I just see the writing community getting stronger (What would you do if you woke up one day and the only people on twitter were writers?). If you’re not on there, you’re missing out not only on contests but also a tremendous wealth of knowledge, experience, and help from a great group of folks. We can all get better. Don’t waste the resource.
OK, that’s it (and I didn’t even talk about the first 250 words feedback, but I see you all spinning the ‘wrap-it-up’ finger at me). After round 2 I’ll write up how I did and more about the experience. Go read the #QueryKombat posts on Twitter and please check out the hosts’ blogs and books. They put a lot of effort into this.
Thanks for reading.