by Raelene Gorlinsky
A couple days ago, several agents and editors (nope, none of us here) decided to have a day on Twitter of trying to help aspiring authors write better query letters by tweeting examples from really bad queries. A good goal, supportive of authors. But warning bells rang in my head as soon as I heard about it, and unfortunately the project went the way I had feared.
Reality: Many authors don't want to hear bad news, don't want to be told they are doing something wrong. A huge percentage react very nastily to rejections, and do not take advice well. It isn't because they are writers - it is because they are people; you'll find the same characteristic in any profession.
It helps if the editor/agent can clearly explain the problem, give supportive suggestions, and include encouragement with the bad news. Which made the venue of Twitter, with its max 140 character messages, not the best place to get into this. Posting out-of-context sentences from query letters, and follow-up very brief comments, does not necessarily provide the needed explanation. It seemed to some like the examples were being posted for entertainment effect, as humor rather than for education. And that can be hurtful to those who may recognize that they made a similar error in a query letter. People started feeling the editors and agents were mocking authors, were being mean-spirited, when I'm sure that was not how they intended it.
The goal and intent were admirable, the actual application was flawed, the results were mixed. Some aspiring authors got a very negative impression of the participating editors/agents, and of the industry as a whole. This is not good for any of us.
You can search for a number of blogs summarizing the #queryfail experiment. You can also find lots of online advice on how to write query letters. There is a list of excellent links at http://jillcorcoran.blogspot.com/2009/03/how-to-write-query-letter-advice-from.html . One of my favorites is the fun "madlib" style letter at http://nathanbransford.blogspot.com/2008/03/query-letter-mad-lib.html (agent Nathan Bransford).
Aspiring author Tara Lazar put a positive spin on the experience with a summary of what she learned about query letter errors, and more importantly, what makes a "Query Win".
First sentence hook
One- or two-paragraph blurb
Relevant writing credits/background
Solid writing sample