It was a pleasure and honor being a reader for the WCNV contest this past week. I enjoyed reading your work and am so excited for all the requests that came in! Your excerpts about the importance of diversity were especially moving—thank you for being vulnerable and telling your stories.
First, congratulations to everyone who entered! Sharing your work can be hard, especially #ownvoices that feel close to your heart. It was harder for me to share my #ownvoices novel than my other work, but once I got it out there, I never looked back. I hope many of you who originally struggled are feeling better now. I’m sending you all a hug!
For those who didn’t make it, please keep writing. After being on the other side, I have a new appreciation for the word subjectivity. Narrowing down to 30 was extremely difficult and there were varying opinions from slush readers.
One way that helped me deal with subjectivity while I was querying was to think about my own book preferences. There were bestsellers I loved, some I felt lukewarm about, and even a few that disappointed me. Take a look at Goodreads and Amazon reviews for some of your favorite books, and for some you didn’t like. What makes one person connect with your work could repel someone else, and unfortunately that’s just part of writing. If you’re getting rejections, remember that querying is about finding the right agent, and everyone will get rejections.
My feedback to WCNV queries was similar across entries so I thought I’d type up a post with some tips—and this will apply to any querying writers, not just those who participated in the contest! I hope it’s helpful!
The most common issues I saw were the following:
- Undefined stakes
- Vague wording/clichés
- Too many characters/terminiology named
- Info-dumping up front
- No hook to start
- Unclear transitions
- Listing a series of events
- Unclear character motivations
Let’s tackle these in order. (All examples I made up and any similarity to work out there is accidental and unintended.)
A common problem I saw: the MC must decide between Option A and B, where Option A clearly had no merits and Option B was only pros. For example, Lucy must decide between being expelled from school or trying her best to get into college and secure her future. This is a pretty extreme example, but ask yourself whether you have established the pros and cons of both options. If you haven’t, then these aren’t stakes. If the protagonist’s decision is obvious, then there’s no tension, no real choice to be made.
Your query is your chance to demonstrate your voice, your clever turns of phrases, and what makes your writing different from everyone else’s. If you use phrases like “and then her world falls apart” or “then everything goes wrong,” you need to replace these with specific examples from your book and phrases others haven’t seen before—and this applies to your manuscript as well. Instead of telling us the character’s world is upended, show us how with specific details. John’s bike, the only thing he had left from his mother, was stolen, and then the girl he’s been in love with since he was three started dating his bully. Even these minor details sound better than the generic “everything falls apart.” Once the specifics are shown, there’s no need for the clichés or the telling.
Too many characters/terminiology named:
The terminology is mostly for fantasy. Try to limit the amount of new words per sentence to one, two max. The best fantasy queries I’ve seen don’t even introduce new terminology. If there’s a way to describe things without actually naming them, it’s better to leave the new terms out. New words only trip the reader up, and in a query that agents are reading quickly, it’s best to leave the unknown out.
There were many cases of characters or terms being named that never returned again in the query. If someone/something is only coming up once, ask yourself how important it really is. If you can take it out and the query won’t be affected, cut it. Each word in the query is valuable real estate so don’t waste it on anything unnecessary. Replace that with more character development, explaining your stakes, etc.
Info-dumping up front:
Very much related to the previous section. If your first few paragraphs are all character backstory, cut it down. If it’s a lot of telling to establish your world, rework it.
This was also a problem in first pages. If anything is forced in there, take it out. Beta readers and critique partners will help you spot these. If the reader can continue reading without knowing something, leave the backstory/information out until the last moment when they would be completely lost without it. One thing that was hard for me to learn was to trust my readers. Assume they’ll understand. Leave as much out as you can, then check with beta readers to make sure it’s working. Once I started doing this, I realized the tension and foreshadowing increased, and the pace sped up.
No hook to start:
Your first sentence in your query should hook the reader, either with a shocking event, a unique character trait, or a never-seen-before premise. If you start with something like Annie is sixteen and her father is a doctor and her mother is a professor, there isn’t much there to make us want to keep reading.
In a query, there’s a lot of information to convey in a short amount of space. Because of this, I think it’s common in early drafts to jump around a lot. It’s very important that each sentence flow into the next, or else it will leave the reader feeling confused or whiplashed from being dragged all over the place. Make sure the query is easy to follow or else you will lose the agent’s attention and they’ll move on to the other thousand queries they have in their inbox.
Listing a Series of Events:
There will be some of this in a query since you have to get across a certain amount of plot, but in the cases where the writer is just listing event after event (usually with clichés galore), it becomes dull to read and impossible to stand out. Abby’s junior year is starting off same as normal. But then she meets Liam, the mysterious boy who just moved to town. Then one day she gets in a car accident and is stranded on the road. Liam finds her and sparks fly. In most of these cases, I couldn’t get a good sense of the characters, their motivations, and the sentences started to blend into soup.
Try not to think of your query as plot. It’s everything—character, stakes, motivations, and lastly, plot. When I write my queries, I try to put character first, and plot will usually follow.
Unclear character motivations:
We need to know without a doubt why your characters are making the decisions they are, especially when it comes to The Choice they have to make. If your character must fight the villain to save someone or the world, we need to know why both the protagonist and villain are doing what they’re doing. Without that, the reader won’t care who wins and won’t want to continue reading on.
Fresh eyes from other readers can help you identify each of these issues.
And regarding revisions:
They take time. First, it takes time to digest and internalize feedback. Then, the actual changes take time. If you made changes immediately after reading feedback and finished in 5 minutes, take a step back and revisit it. I spent 4 months on my query, taking time away and coming back and tweaking things here and there.
Sometimes it’s hard to know when you need to take a break, but if you’re feeling frustrated or the words don’t mean anything to you anymore, take some time off. Writing is the longest marathon out there, and oftentimes , as hard as it is, time away is needed to develop fresh eyes.
Please remember that even my tips here are subjective. They’re suggestions, not rules to live by.
Thank you for sharing your work! I was honored to be able to read your stories! Looking forward to seeing agent announcements!
If you’re interested in other posts with query tips and writing resources, please check out the following: