When choosing a novel or reading through the slush pile, readers, publishers, and literary agents make snap decisions about books. Below are my snap decisions about ten query letters written by Novel Boot Camp participants.
I stopped reading (and ended the excerpt) at the point that I was no longer interested in continuing. I also included comments about why the story didn’t catch my interest.
Please play along by tracking which books you would request to read based on the query. There will be a poll at the end of the post.
Volume 1 can be viewed here.
“I Stopped Reading When…”
1. contemporary romance
Thirty-one year old rock guitarist Conor Quinn has been gifted with good looks, book smarts, lifelong friends, and talent. Navigating matters of the heart is another story. Now, he’s mired deep in the wreckage of a betrayal that has damaged his friendship with singer Gavin McManus and threatens to break up their band. He’s desperate to take charge and fix things.
First step: swallow all pride and subject himself to Gavin’s resistance and lingering bitterness in an effort to repair their friendship and songwriting partnership.
The next five paragraphs of the query are not included in the excerpt.
The first sentence tells me about Conor’s life but it doesn’t give any impression of his personality or why the reader would enjoy reading about him. It’s not clear who did the betraying or why it affects his friendship or why his friendship matters.
2. middle grade, fantasy
Ten year old Joe is warned not to touch the dead snowy owl displayed in his neighbour’s house. It carries a curse: touch the bird and someone you love will die. When Joe’s hands accidentally plunge into the bird’s feathers and his granddad falls sick, he fears he’s set the curse in motion. On a visit to his local lake, Joe finds an injured barn owlet (Alba) and meets a girl called Pip who knows all about birds. Pip teaches Joe’s sick granddad how to care for Alba. As the owlet gets stronger, so does Granddad. Then, when Alba and the dead snowy owl meet, Joe begins to wonder if an owlet can break a curse.
This is the full query.
I like that this is short and doesn’t waste a lot of time. However the description makes this seem like a premise without a plot, which is a red flag. It seems from this query that Joe simply waits around to see if the owlet breaks the curse. What does he do? How is he proactive? What makes him interesting to read about?
Detective Rachel Boineau tackles a murder case that tests her faith in friendship and the people she has known all of her life. In the small town of Eastport, North Carolina, the body of a beloved teacher is found floating in a river. Forced to team with a burned out, ex-Baltimore detective who moved to Eastport to escape his own problems, Rachel and the old detective forge an uneasy partnership. As Rachel struggles to balance her single-minded commitment to track down the killer with the realities of single parenthood, she comes face-to-face with a father who abandoned her decades earlier and learns that her mother misled her about the reasons he left. Now Rachel’s estranged father holds the fate of her entire future in his hands while evidence is mounting that her childhood friend is a cold-blooded killer.
This is the full query.
There’s a lot going on in this query but it isn’t adding up. There’s a dead beloved teacher, a burned out detective/partner, her commitment to tracking down the killer, her single parenthood, her estranged father, and her childhood friend who might be a killer. Phew! That’s a lot of stuff. But I still have no idea what the plot is. What does Rachel actually do? Why is she so motivated to track down this killer? I think you’re getting bogged down in irrelevant details. Does it matter that the body belonged to a teacher? Does it matter that her partner is a burned out ex-big city detective (which, by the way, is a cliche)? Focus on Rachel’s motivation, the stakes for her, and what she actually has to do.
4. Creative nonfiction, comedy (back cover blurb)
A Canadian woman, an English man, and a terrier-mix named Rex; trade Suburbia for life on the road in a forty-foot fifthwheel without ever having spent a night in a bug-infested tent.
“Clueless in RVland is an understatement to describe our naivety,” says Smith. My tenacious husband brainwashes me to abandon Suburbia to become full-time RVers. How? Sell our home, business and belongings.
There are four more paragraphs not included in this back cover blurb excerpt.
The first sentence is tough to read. It’s clunky and awkward. The semicolon is not needed. “Forty-foot fifthwheel” is hard to read. “RV” conveys the same concept and is clearer. Why does it matter if they’ve slept in a bug-infested tent if they’re going to be living in an RV? Quotes should not be used in a back cover blurb. Why does the blurb suddenly switch to first-person POV? This is really jarring and clunky.
5. romantic suspense
Iris wants out of the game. Before she can trade in conning for luxuriating in her secret lover’s arms, she screws up an operation in Vegas and is blackmailed by her mark—for a million dollars. As if her new task isn’t enough to hold up her transition into a legit life, the man she targets to fund her million-dollar debt turns out to be Brooks, the man she’s been keeping from the other two members of her clandestine squad.
Iris is forced to make a complicated decision between love and loyalty. Either way she risks losing the first and only man she’s ever fallen for.
This is the full query.
There’s a lot of vague wording that makes this hard to follow. I assume by “the man she targets,” you mean that he is the man she intends to steal from? I’m also assuming by “the man she’s been keeping from the other two members” you mean that she is dating him in secret? I’m not sure how she accidentally targets her boyfriend. I’m also not sure why he is a secret boyfriend. She can’t deliberate on her decision for the entire length of the novel so I’d like more of an indication of what she actually does to move the plot forward. What obstacles (other than her decision) does she face?
Etheldreda Josse (19) comes from a discredited line of nobility yearning to live beyond the means of her father, and establish her own identity. Leobehrt (18-19) is a young, low-born man who is tormented by the shadows of the recent year’s troubles in the Nightseason. Benignus Iosephus Eligius (23) is a smuggler and freebooter, yearning for fame from lands far and wide. Roul Claire (16-17) is a young knight of some promise, taken to his vows of chivalry and eager to serve HIs Holyness in all ways. These four characters will cross and clash, inexplicably drawn by events surrounding the recent regicide of Barceria’s royal heirs in the wake of an ailing king.
Final paragraph not included in excerpt.
The ages in parentheses need to go. It looks unprofessional. The age ranges seem odd, like their ages are open to interpretation or are approximations. Listing four characters is too much for a query. Novels need to have a main character. Identify the main character and focus the query on that character’s motivation, goal, obstacles, and stakes.
7. Young adult, supernatural drama
Imagine this: a re-telling of Marilyn Monroe’s life in an alternate 1950s wherein Marilyn’s character is a faery – but it’s her biggest secret.
Sally Barnes woke up one day to find retractable wings in her back and her hair turned pink. Utterly confused and terrified of ending up in the psychiatric ward like her father, she flees to Paris to begin a new life as Devlyn Dubeau. Three years later she lands a big role in a musical as a co-star alongside the glamorous Hollywood star, Jacqueline Fayner. This is where the first book in the series begins.
Two paragraphs are not included in this excerpt.
You tell the reader to imagine a retelling of Marilyn Monroe, but your story is not about Marilyn Monroe, it’s about a fictional character, so this is misleading. The first line doesn’t appeal to me because I have no desire to imagine Marilyn Monroe is secretly a faery and the concept is more goofy than intriguing. Mentioning that this is the first book in a series in the middle of the query is awkward and amateurish. This doesn’t seem like a drama. It also isn’t young adult fiction because the protagonist does not seem to be a teenager.
Her mother’s murder-suicide leaves Valerie Brooke the lone survivor as a baby. Growing tensions in her adoptive family sent her running off to college on the other side of the country, but recent events, including the large expansion of FW Cottonfarms, a business originally co-owned by her deceased father and Mr. Forthwright, have her digging into the past and asking the question: what if her mother was innocent?
Half of this paragraph is omitted from the excerpt.
The wording of the first sentence is awkward. I would rephrase to “leaves Valerie Brooke orphaned as a baby.” It’s much smoother and clearer. There is no transition between the first and second sentence so it reads clunky. “Growing tensions” is too vague. Why does the expansion of a cotton business cause her to ask whether her mother was innocent? This is confusing.
9. Contemporary women’s fiction
Katie Sullivan is a new mom and a wife to a young pastor. Married right out of college, Katie finds herself increasingly disillusioned with the life she has chosen for herself. As her fundamentalist husband , Stephen, attempts to exert increasing control over her, Katie is pushing away from him and his growing abuse. The tension between the couple builds until it explodes one night––leaving Katie hospitalized and Stephen dead.
While at her husband’s funeral, a shocking revelation starts Katie on a journey to discover who her husband really was, and how he became the man she knew. Through the discovery of Stephen’s childhood and adult journals, Katie learns about the teenage trauma that scarred her husband and eventually led him to seminary, the troubled relationship with his parents, and the painful news of infidelity.
Along the way, Katie meets Jared––the handsome grandson of her late husband’s elderly church member, who delivers a weekly meal to Katie on his grandmother’s behalf. As Katie and Jared become friends, she finds herself falling for him, despite people’s inaccurate perception that she is a grieving widow. Struggling with her feelings for both men, Katie attempts to make peace with her past while embracing her future.
This is the full query.
The plot escalates pretty quickly at the end of the first paragraph and that threw me off. I wasn’t expecting Stephen to die. I would open with his death instead. Describe how he dies. Does Kate kill him or does he kill himself? Then introduce the things she discovers about him. All of this could be done in two or three sentences. This allows you to spend more time focusing on what Katie actually does throughout the novel. What is her goal? What is the central conflict? These questions need to be answered.
Thirteen years after the end of Apartheid, Art Therapist Scott Redding hears a child crying in his quiet Johannesburg neighbourhood. It is a disturbing and hopeless keening that reminds Scott unpleasantly of his dead daughter and he needs it to stop. Scott finds out who owns the address where the crying is coming from and bluffs his way into the house where he finds a boy trussed up in a cupboard. He returns to rescue the boy from paedophile, Kenneth Faure, and they flee to a new address where Scott plans to work with the boy and help him to recover, with the assistance of his ‘therapy dog’, Freddie the Fixer.
The next three paragraphs are omitted from this excerpt.
You’re spending too much time on this first paragraph. It could be summed up in a sentence or two (For example: After saving a young boy from a pedophile, art therapist Scott Redding…) . The pedophile’s name is irrelevant. I’m not sure why Apartheid is relevant and his dead daughter isn’t tied in well either. Focus on Scott’s motivation. Does he think saving this child is going to relieve his guilt/pain/grief? What motivates him?
What did you think?
To help your fellow Boot Campers, please vote in the poll below and leave a comment about why you did or did not want to continue reading.
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5 thoughts on ““I Stopped Reading When…” Query Edition – Volume 2”
I’m not jaded but so many of the story themes reflected in these query letters are trite. From Mr. Perfect rock guitarist to the single mom detective to the abused wife of a pastor they’re all so thoroughly predictable that no, I would not want to continue reading any of them. Corny and unimaginative.
My thoughts on a few of these entries:
5. Interesting premise. I’m guessing the mark/man she loves doesn’t know she’s the one he’s blackmailing. Otherwise I think I might kick him to the curb if I were Iris.
9. People perceive Katie is a grieving widow? That surprised me since the description implied Stephen was the one who put her in the hospital. Did she lie to cover for him even though he’s dead? Why? Otherwise, sounds intriguing, though I’m curious about the driving force in the plot since on the surface it looks like it’s about a widow sitting in a hospital bed reading some notebooks and meeting a dude. Is there something in Stephen’s past that affects her in the present somehow?
10. I like character-driven novels, and this sounds like it could be a good one.
# 6, perhaps. But here are some suggestions: Simplify the names, I like reading fantasy, but multi-syllabic names that sound nothing like real names are always a turnoff for me. Especially if the Character names are important enough to add them all to the query letter, that makes me think i’m going to have to mentally mumble past each of them a hundred times. Also, the ages, I would just make them all about the same age, otherwise you’ll have to account for what it’s like for a 23 year old to hang with a 16 year old. But I’m always a sucker for a “fellowship”…
Many thanks for the suggestions, and Ellen as well.
In all honesty, I have never written a dedicated query letter before in my life. I had swung out with the plot portion, and hoped for the best. I feel it was a helpful experience, as I’m sure more than a few things need work.
I’ll likely remove the ages for the intended effect of having ambiguously aged character. The ages are ambiguous, as in historical periods even as recent as the nineteenth century, having an accurate date of birth was something that mainly aristocracy had access to. Giving an arbitrary age, when in the novel itself, there is never an age realistically given, does seem to be an obvious logic fail. In my defense, I had attempted to look up ‘popular query letter formats’, and – a portion of them had listed ages. I thought it might be a necessary interest for a publisher.
Again, thank you all for the comments. I am also so flattered that someone commented for me!
2. I like the premise very much, but is this not a children’s book? You could consider starting your query, and novel, where Joe finds Alba and is found by Pip. Then bring in the curses as quickly as you can. You may not need the snowy owl. It’s a dead bird slowing you down. Super characters and a strong USP for children. Go, Alba!