Lessons From a Failed Query Letter

(Reed’s Playlist for the occasion: Mehna Mehna from the Muppets Show)

Query letters. They suck.

You’ve just written yourself a beautiful 80,000+ word novel and you have to condense it into a single squished trash-compactor pitch. Gone are the days of grandiosity; you now have to showcase your work, establish your tone, share your previous experience, and hook in an agent whose job it is to literally go through dozens of these daily… and all in three to four paragraphs.

Nobody enjoys writing query letters. Well, I shouldn’t necessarily assume that – there are some sickos out there. But a query letter is as important as the work itself; it is the barrier to entry to that exclusive club without a name, where literary agents and publishers share drinks with established authors and book deals are signed.

As you might expect, I have had no success with query letters. I’ve queried for two books, one serious, the other just on a whim when I was getting started writing. I’d like to use this space to examine my serious query and try to interpret (in the lack of any real feedback) why it didn’t work so well.

Here we go:

I’d like to submit for your consideration the first few pages and synopsis of my 109,000-word high fantasy novel, Sleeper, which I consider to be the union of Mistborn and Inception. It’s the story of a young assassin searching for the cause of a citywide conflict, and consequently unveiling a conspiracy that leads to an unlikely place—the city’s well-known but oft-overlooked dream realm.

As Kalin’s youngest blade in the night, Melira Canton isn’t in the practice of lending aid to her city, or even obeying its rigid social laws. That notwithstanding, she’d never assassinate a man who held the king’s coin, symbol of his favor—unless she wasn’t aware of the fact until afterward.

As she races to understand how she could have made such an egregious mistake, Melira stumbles upon a sinister conspiracy involving Kalin’s king. After swearing off his addiction to magic five years ago, King Artura VII has since reclaimed the power of the monarchy and used it to strengthen his hold on the city. Now, his newest ordinance escalates racial tensions and threatens to undermine the entire social hierarchy of Kalin.

With the threat of civil war drawing nearer, Melira’s investigation leads her to the heart of the subterfuge—Kalin’s malevolent dream realm, where the shadowy creatures known as incubi lurk. Though dangerous at night, the incubi are largely disregarded by the Kalinites during the day; it is commonly known that the incubi are restricted to an existence inside of the dream realm.

Commonly known, and not entirely true.

Readers of modern high fantasy will enjoy Sleeper, a fresh and dark twist of the classic fantasy world. Although the novel stands alone, it can be extended into a series.

I am a recent graduate of UCLA with a degree in neuroscience. My writing cocktail is equal parts Brandon Sanderson, Suzanne Collins, and Brent Weeks. I hope it goes down smooth.

Thank you for taking the time to read this query, and for your consideration of Sleeper. I’ve attached the 1050-word prologue below.

So let’s start off with the few things I did well.

First, I didn’t give any extraneous details. I had no previous writing experience at that point, and I didn’t waste time trying to explain why my agent should consider a first-time author. The reality of it is that agents are always down to consider first-time authors – just not the ones who have to try to explain themselves.

I kind of stuck to the three-paragraph format, which I cannot emphasize enough. Unless you are some kind of genius (and then it really doesn’t matter what kind of query you write), you must stick to that format – hook, synopsis, author bio. My synopsis was multi-paragraph, but otherwise, I got to the point quickly and kept the pace over the course of the letter.

I also pointed out that the novel was stand-alone (a white lie, in this case, as it was intended to be the first installment of a series). If you’re a first-time author, agents are more likely to pick you up for a single book than for the beginning of a series (or at least that’s what I’ve heard).

So what did I do wrong? Well, to start, I didn’t establish much of an authorial tone. Sleeper is saturated with dark language and witty characters trying to stave off an oppressive, malevolent force – that should have come across here. Otherwise, we just feel like this is yet another standard fantasy novel about “assassin is forced to save city”.

Also, there was almost a clash of tones with the later portions of the letter. While I loved the “writing cocktail” bit, it gave the letter this dash of humor that seemed really out of place with the darker themes of the synopsis. I need to learn to pick a tone and stick to it.

Finally, the cardinal sin of sins in writing – I told instead of showing. “A fresh and dark twist of the modern fantasy world” is something that should come across through the synopsis and the sample chapters, not from me telling my agent so in the letter.

Not all of these things might have led to the rejections from publishers and agents. It’s possible that it just wasn’t a good time for them, or that the market was saturated. But I really believe when you write a killer query letter, an agent will perk up in their seat and say, “Screw market saturation – this can sell regardless.” And that’s what you’re going for.

Yours, developing a new obsession for pistachios,

-R.R. Buck

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8 thoughts on “Lessons From a Failed Query Letter

  1. Thanks for sharing this. Query letters are certainly hard and they will be the death of me. I’ve written quite a few myself and haven’t gotten anywhere with them. I’m going to (hopefully) get back on that horse with my children’s book this week. But then the thought makes me cringe.

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  2. I hope to one day write a query letter and this has been really informative. Great points you picked out there and it’s definitely a learning curve for me. Good luck on your future writing.

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    1. Hey, thanks Nthato! I don’t think I’ve met an author in my entire life who described the query-writing process as anything but difficult. Do you have a project in mind you’re going to be pitching?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Not yet. I’m still in the process of actually completing the novel first. Once that’s done and I feel it’s of an acceptable quality, I’ll move on to query writing etc. All in due time 🙂

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