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QueryFail and Happy Writing [Mar. 22nd, 2009|10:44 am]
Last week, agent Colleen Lindsay held an event called QueryFail. The concept is that agents and editors using Twitter would tweet as they went through their submission slush piles and say what caused them to reject certain queries. No names were used, especially as some of the commentary got rather snarky. But it was very interesting to see (a) what caught their attention and triggered them to toss the query and (b) what bizarre submissions they got.

As one observer said, QueryFail makes me more optimistic about my chances if that's the competition. And there is something to that. It's remarkable how many of the queries are just flat out inappropriate. Mur Lafferty on one of her recent I Should Be Writing podcasts said "this is a business, people." Agents are trying to find properties to sell that fit the market. They are not going to be your new best friend and they aren't going to represent your book just because you've labored on it for twenty years and your mom likes it. Sad but true.

Nathan Bransford, another agent, posted some great observations on his blog under the title 10 Commandments for a Happy Writer. He rocks. They're good advice and a reminder about keeping perspective about what matters.

(In case you're curious, I've submitted to and been rejected by both of these agents. They're near the top of my list.)

Below the cut, I've collected my favorite comments from the twitter feed. It's long but this is still edited down by maybe 80%. Some of the comments are hilarious (at least to writers who've done any sort of homework). Enjoy!

Colleen_Lindsay: No, no, no! You CANNOT write a 640,000 word novel as a debut author and expect to get an agent!!! #queryfail.
bostonbookgirl: “I have designed a unique cover for my book.” Unrealistic expectations #queryfail
Colleen_Lindsay: Three paragraphs, no plot, no hook, and lots of "me, me, me, look how wonderful I am!" - #queryfail.
Colleen_Lindsay: "What if everything you knew to be true, turned out not to be true? What if it were, in fact, false?" Wow, a first sentence #queryfail.
Colleen_Lindsay: "I’m a real estate developer and you contacted me once in the past about a building or a home I had for sale at that time." Um, #queryfail ?
bostonbookgirl: Promises that Oprah will love this? #queryfail
mattwagner: "My proposal is a work in progress." Sorry, please finish your proposal before querying, #queryfail
danielliterary: Includes 50 other agents in the address line of the query email? #queryfail
danielliterary: Asks me to be patient with their 300,000 word novel because it really picks up steam after the first 50k words? #queryfail
danielliterary: Starts out by ranting about the idiot agents who have rejected their masterpiece? #queryfail
danielliterary: Addresses me "Dear Sir/Madam..."? #queryfail
danielliterary: Insists on calling me to tell me about their book because it's too difficult to describe in writing. Uh.... #queryfail
bostonbookgirl: “Dear Sirs.” To an office composed of two women & only one man? #queryfail
ChristianPubTip: It's a handwritten manuscript with a note that says this is the only copy they have. #queryfail
danielliterary: Asks me how to go about submitting? Uh. If u have my email address, then u obviously have my web site address with my guidelines #queryfail
danielliterary: Say you don't know how to paste the first five pages of your manuscript into your email? Please get your 3-year-old to teach you. #queryfail
angelajames: ONE sentence about the book. I don't need to know your life history. I need to know about the book. #queryfail
bostonbookgirl: Submitting the same submission again and again? After maybe, perhaps, just changing the title? #queryfail
danielliterary: Tell me that God told you I would be the perfect agent for you? #queryfail
angelajames: Good opening, telling me my publisher has published some of the best books you've read and own. Sucking up can work #queryfail
angelajames: "passion raging between two characters will burn right off the page" makes me think your book is going to be overwritten #queryfail
LeighEllwood: A memorable submission: "Hi, here's some fiction." No info, no bio, not even a sig file #queryfail
angelajames: The first sentence was so long and convoluted that I found myself skimming it and the rest of the first paragraph #queryfail
danielliterary: Refer to your work as a "fictional novel"? #queryfail
angelajames: One line hook, wordcount, genre, short blurb, short paragraph of writing background and polite closing. Query win #queryfail
bostonbookgirl: “In order to expedite publishing, I am willing to forgo the customary publishers advance.” Epic #queryfail
Colleen_Lindsay: A headshot embedded into body of query email. #queryfail
danielliterary: Tell me you have an idea for a novel and want to get my opinion of it before you start writing it? #queryfail
angelajames: @Colleen_Lindsay Even better: A photo of author in full BDSM dress in body of query email. Yes, I got that. #queryfail
danielliterary: Send me a snail mail query despite the fact that my guidelines say I don't accept them? Pray 4 absolution 4 killing a tree, then #queryfail
angelajames: tells me you read interview with me re: your genre, tells me what you learned from interview, & how your book is a fit. Win. #queryfail
danielliterary: Include a cover design you insist that the publisher use if your book is published? #queryfail
danielliterary: Call yourself a "published author" when what you really mean is "self-published"? #queryfail
bostonbookgirl: “I have attached two photos of the book to this email.” Err? Writing sample #queryfail
danielliterary: Tell me your Aunt Ethel and her 6 cats loved your manuscript? #queryfail
russmarshalek: the first paragraph of a proposal being "i'm a local self-published author who has written a book..." #queryfail
angelajames: And then a slip into a different tense from past to present in the third sentence + telling "the last thing his eyes see". #queryfail
LeighEllwood: Once requested a full mss after a good query, author said no deal until he got a contract. Delayed #queryfail
DaphneUn: Even better: misspell my name and pitch me a genre I don't represent... #queryfail
alicenorthover: #queryfail back in my lit agent asst days I got one for a "non-fiction story about a girl &her unicorn". Sent back w/ non-fic &unicorn [...] highlighted. Author wrote back that he would love to work with someone with such excellent editing skills.
danielliterary: This just came in "I channel notes and put into format and would like to be considered for a partnership..." Wow, tempting, but #queryfail
bostonbookgirl: Assuming incorrectly I agree with you on politics? Instant #queryfail. Hint: We are in BOSTON, people.
DaphneUn: Dull plot summaries: "she did this, she did that, she did this, she learned that..." #queryfail
mattwagner: "This is a principle that most of us dreaded it, but to our own perils." I'm sorry, I know this writer has great intentions - #queryfail
wickedmoxie: @egtalbot "This is a principle that most of us dreaded it, but to our own perils." Of course, because that means...huh? #queryfail
danielliterary: "I have written a 2,500 word novel..." No, you've written a pamphlet. #queryfail
elanaroth: A poem: "Reagan Rachel Remy Rean would not keep her room clean/She would sweep the floors and paint the doors..." Rip-off much? #queryfail
angelajames: Top reasons I don't read further: overwriting, info dumping and starting the story in the wrong place(often relates to info dump) #queryfail
DaphneUn: Look, just because you're a teen yourself doesn't make you an "expert" on your fellow teens. #queryfail
angelajames: infodumping backstory and explanations on me in the first pages makes my eyes glaze over and my attention wander #queryfail
_Starry: "I believe that millions of people would want to read this book" - To conclude your pitch like that is gonna earn you one thing. #queryfail
LeighEllwood: Another #queryfail for me: improper formatting. No need to hard return after every line.
ckaminski: "I often surprise people who have not seen my photo [enc] for most assume I must be a wizened sage professor with a Merlin beard" #queryfail
elanaroth: "I have completed about 3/4th of the book and thought this would be the time to look for an agent." #queryfail
TracyMarchini: Pedophiles writing picture books to correct their past wrongs - #queryfail
TracyMarchini: sending copies of previous, form letter rejections #queryfail
elanaroth: This is good and JUST happened: Writing back to my form rejection for me to recommend another agent at my 2 person agency. #queryfail
angelajames: If he's such a schmuck, why is she with him at all? It's not building my empathy with the heroine, if that's the goal. #queryfail
_Starry: Title: "Preacher Turned Porn Star," with cover mockup - #queryfail
bookishchick: nonfiction for concerned parents who want to know when to educate their daughters about pimps. #queryfail
DaphneUn: Authors, PLEASE use a tracking system and don't query the same agent multiple times with an already-rejected book! #queryfail
elanaroth: How meta: "I wish to tell you about a collection of humorous essays...but I wish I didn’t have to do in a query letter." #queryfail
DaphneUn: Almost as bad as emailing a bunch of agents at once? Using BCC. We still know what you're doing, you're just trying to hide it. #queryfail
bookishchick: "My mom loves it!" #queryfail
mattwagner: "I have covered my sexual exploits with literally hundereds of women, mostly exotic dancers" - sorry, yuck, #queryfail
danielliterary: "I read about ur interest in poetry so Im querying U" Really? Where? You mean in my gidelines whre it says I dont accept poetry? #queryfail
bookishchick: "This is not just another weightloss diet book." yes, it is. #queryfail
bostonbookgirl: "Appended to the query, please find notable quotes from the book."—Writing sample #queryfail
JoeFinder: How about "This novel is very similar to The Da Vinci Code but much more plausible and better written." #queryfail
initialdescent: Sentence fragments, which are not used for effect. #queryfail
danielliterary: You want to write a nonfiction book but you have no impressive credentials or platform? This is a huge issue, folks. #queryfail
angelajames: If your pen name makes me laugh or roll my eyes... #queryfail
thegreatmissjj: People, query one book at a time please. #queryfail
initialdescent: These words are the kiss of death: "first book in a [multi]-book series." #queryfail
thegreatmissjj: Don't send me your manuscript and tell me to start reading at page 312 because that's "where it gets good." #queryfail
hroot: Most of my #queryfail is indicative of writingfail: telling/showing, market or expectation cluelessness, arrogance, general bad writing.
danielliterary: From yesterday, " I selected you through web listings, in which you appear to be in good standing" Stop. I'm blushing. #queryfail
angelajames: not using contractions in your character dialogue/narrative...(unless it's time period appropriate) #queryfail
hroot: You passed on my novel, but I read on Y site that you are looking for so I've gone ahead and attached the ms. #queryfail
bostonbookgirl: FedExing with signature required a query letter? #queryfail
_Starry: "The purpose of this letter is not earth shaking, so, if it will be ignored, and i'm sure it will" Yeah. Now it will. #queryfail
rodzvilla: #queryfail Don't spend paragraphs explaining the book. Elevator pitch in first paragraph is wonderful.
_Starry: "allow me the privilege of publishing it through your company, so I can be the best selling author I know I am meant to be" #queryfail
_Starry: " I have a flawless sense of wit" - Whoa! Let me arrive to that conclusion, please. #queryfail
DaphneUn: A classic: don't use a spokesperson, ok? Don't let your dad/lawyer/wife/brother query on your behalf. #queryfail
DaphneUn: Creepy query = having your character send the query. #queryfail
danielliterary: " Hi. Are you a visionary agent who wants to take the stagnant fiction literary marketplace to new heights?" No. Not really. #queryfail
thegreatmissjj: "[TITLE redacted] contains sexually graphic descriptions, a violent rape scene [...] and mayhem. On the bright side..." No. #queryfail
jramboz: @thegreatmissjj On the bright side... now you know not to read it? #queryfail
bostonbookgirl: Okay a nugget for you authors following #queryfail :Instant partial request from me? YA/MG with sunken ships. I <3 sunken ships.
_Starry: A 16-page synopsis and a manuscript at 24pt type: #queryfail Readable font size applies to the other end of the spectrum, too.
_Starry: "I write a letter instead of mailing" ....Huh? #queryfail
danielliterary: I'M TYPING MY QUERY IN ALL CAPS SO YOU WILL BE SURE TO NOTICE IT. Okay, now that my pupils have stopped burning... #queryfail
_Starry: "Have u ever lost yr partner in the fringes of a war u didn't approve of which subjecting him to an unsubstantiated war?" Grammar #queryfail
_Starry: "Dear XX Publishing, I guess I am unable to write a synopsis that is short and reflects my manuscript so..." So FAIL. #queryfail
_Starry: Page numbers, no. Chapter heading, no. ANY sort of header, no. #queryfail , yes.
ReneeAtShens: "P.S. I collect stamps. Should you have any stamp...that is destined for the trash can, [please] stuff them in the enclosed SASE" #queryfail
rantyeditor: 4 POV switches--each to a different character--on the first page alone. No, thank you. #queryfail
danielliterary: Your book is titled Frogs of Heaven. Really? That's what you're going with? #queryfail
jamieharrington: @DanielLiterary hahahaha frogs in heaven???? That's almost brilliant. I say request that manuscript! #queryfail
danielliterary: "I am writing a book. What is the going rate for literary agents?" You're in luck! Special going on now. We're two for a buck. #queryfail
Colleen_Lindsay: "I am a writer of some renown and a self-published author." Instant #queryfail.
Colleen_Lindsay: "Promotional opportunities include Oprah, of course." #queryfail #realitycheckplease
Colleen_Lindsay: @christinerose Multiple submissions on one email = bad, multiple submissions in multiple emails = okie dokie #queryfail
danielliterary: "Imagine a world where Camelot had never existed" Wow. You're blowing my mind. #queryfail
Colleen_Lindsay: Tight first paragraph, references a recent relevant blog post of mine, awesome hook, good pages. Query WIN! Ask for partial. #queryfail
thegreatmissjj: Oh god, bulimia as a weight-loss how-to. #queryfail TO THE MAX.
danielliterary: "I have 9 completed manuscripts including 2 fiction, a SF trilogy, and 4 fantasy" Okay, just send them all to me. In a big box. #queryfail
_Starry: "I trust that you will give this opportunity to represent me your highest professional attention." You honor me. #queryfail
bostonbookgirl: Smoked a cigarette—or 30—around your manuscript? Now it stinks too much to get close enough to read. Making my office smell #queryfail
angelajames: first sentence hook, two short blurb paragraphs, one short relevant paragraph writing credits, solid first mss page. Query WIN! #queryfail
angelajames: use of the word nub as a euphemism for the clitoris... instant #queryfail
angelajames: overwriting is bad enough, but nothing is worse than overwritten erotica/erotic romance. Nothing. #queryfail
thegreatmissjj: If we've rejected your first manuscript, we probably won't have an interest in the SEQUEL. #queryfail
LeighEllwood: Sexual euphemisms aren't automatic #queryfail with me. I prefer you just call a c*ck a c*ck, though.
mattwagner: A email subject header says only "This query is very important" is almost automatic #queryfail, please include a title, subject, anything
bostonbookgirl: “___ a novel in 85,000 words, is the ultimate self-help guide…” Misusing the term novel? MAJOR #queryfail
mattwagner: @bostonbookgirl or "my non-fiction novel based on some real and imagined events.." Is this James Frey? #queryfail
TracyMarchini: @mattwagner Also, any query that starts "This is a query letter." #queryfail
danielliterary: "I know you don't represent children's literature, but I hope you'll make an exception in my case." Let me think....No. #queryfail
Colleen_Lindsay: Four paragraphs about your former career as a technical writer. Not one sentence about plot of book. #queryfail
TracyMarchini: "I hope you don't mind that I found your personal email address..." #queryfail on multiple levels
rachellegardner: “I don’t think you’re the right agent for me, but could you pass my query along to some of your colleagues?” Hmm, let me think. #queryfail.
danielliterary: "Have U ever wondered what its like to b pulled up a waterfall or to b flushed down a toilet? " Hey. Have U been reading my mind? #queryfail
thegreatmissjj: "...contains a grand surprise near the end that the reader cannot grasp unless paying attention to the made-up language..." #queryfail
Colleen_Lindsay: "My book is differentiated from Twilight because the vampires have wings, and are half-breed angels." #queryfail
Colleen_Lindsay: "Forty three years of toiling within my own mind have come to an end with this manuscript!" Um, okay. #queryfail.
DaphneUn: First pages: MC wakes up or looks in a mirror to describe themselves = #queryfail
danielliterary: "This isn't my first published work I have published 2 articles in G4S Pipeline Trade Publication" REALLY? I never miss an issue! #queryfail
danielliterary: I'm considering changing my name to "Sir/Madam." More of the queries would seem personal that way. #queryfail
rachellegardner: “Please Google my name for more information.” #queryfail
danielliterary: "I've queried more than 50 other agents with this and have gotten nowhere and now I'm querying you." You had me at 'hello.' #queryfail
ellenp: "I've written a 275,000 word novel..." #Queryfail !
thegreatmissjj: "I've written a 400,000 word fantasy novel that's the first of a series." *blink* #queryfail
danielliterary: "I am writing this query letter to request permission to submit my proposal to you." Permission denied. #queryfail
moonrat: "it's a unique combination of memoir and novel." oh good; we'll sell it on the barnes&noble memoir slash novel shelf. #queryfail
rachellegardner: “I write poems, limericks, haikus, short stories, sitcoms, and novels.” #queryfail
benmezrich: "My cousin is the country's leading taxidermist and you wouldn't believe..." Seriously? #queryfail
Colleen_Lindsay: "A joyous and memorable journey that is both humorous and enjoyable." #queryfail
angelajames: just arrived in my inbox addressed to publisher & the company, letter details entire process of how the book came to be written #queryfail
dianafox: "It’s about unicorns. They’re the protagonists." #queryfail
initialdescent: "Hereby I invite you to get interested in a manuscript..." Don't try too hard to sound formal, educated, or clever. #queryfail
dianafox: "My name is Maya and I am an elf". If this were a drinking game, writer states "I am an elf" would = drink the entire bottle. #queryfail
Colleen_Lindsay: "My book is about a friendship based upon mutual vomiting practices in high school." AAAAAAHHHHHHH!!!! #queryfail
ElaineSpencer: "I have attached a few of my final chapters, I believe they are more powerful than the beginning" #queryfail
_Starry: "I guarantee that my book will be successful." I don't. #queryfail
bostonbookgirl: "I've sent this to every writers guild & gotten it copyrighted 35 different times." Friendly warnings so I don't steal you work? #queryfail
dianafox: "Like my protagonist, I definitely could be described as overachiever, and I naturally have hair like Lady Godiva." #queryfail
Colleen_Lindsay: "I am seeking representation to propel my published books to the next level of success." Then get your relatives to buy some. #queryfail
thegreatmissjj: Please don't claim you've won awards when you haven't. In the age of Google, these things can be easily sniffed out. #queryfail
dianafox: "I'm actually interested in making a lot of money off my writing. Please let me know if there is money to be made in this field" #queryfail
ElaineSpencer: "I dont have any new material to share so Im attaching an already contracted novella" #queryfail
_Starry: If it's not obvious from the 1st 3 paragraphs that it's a query, it's #queryfail in the 4th. Tell me only what I absolutely need to know.
ElaineSpencer: @Colleen_Lindsay "I know you dont represent screenplays or television treatments, but what about Reality Show ideas?" #queryfail
benmezrich: "The high stakes worlds of competitive eating..." Is Pepto a performance enhancer? #queryfail
thegreatmissjj: It is not necessary to include a glossy 8x10 headshot of your face. No really. #queryfail
KateRothwell: RT RT: One line hook, wordcount, genre, short blurb, short paragraph of writing background and polite closing. Query win #queryfail.
ElaineSpencer: "I have been writing since I could hold a crayon, and before that I used finger paints" I can't make this stuff up #queryfail

[User Picture]From: witchofnovember
2009-03-22 06:20 pm (UTC)
"I have been writing since I could hold a crayon, and before that I used finger paints"

That has got to be a character in something somewhere. The would be author that pins every acquaintance to the wall and makes them read her work in progress and every past work right back to the finger paints. She can even have a Siamese that sits on her while she types..... *cheesy grin*
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[User Picture]From: twopiearr
2009-03-22 06:36 pm (UTC)
actually a friend of mine wrote a book with a character that writes in crayon, but that was because he was in an asylum and tried to stab his doctor with his pencil, so they wouldn't let him write with anything sharp...
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[User Picture]From: witchofnovember
2009-03-22 06:38 pm (UTC)
See, this is why fiction is better than non-fiction.

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[User Picture]From: furtech
2009-03-22 06:43 pm (UTC)
Wow-- thank you SO MUCH for posting your "best of" the Queryfail!

I looked at the original link, but it's now filled with comment on comment referring to another comment with links, etc. Impossible to follow.

Reading this with a mix of schadenfreude and curiosity!
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[User Picture]From: nicodemusrat
2009-03-22 06:50 pm (UTC)
Sure thing! Yeah, I made my distilled list because I knew I'd want to refer back to it at some point and didn't want to wade through the full thread again myself. :)

Do you also write? Or are you just curious about the industry?
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[User Picture]From: furtech
2009-03-23 02:02 am (UTC)
I dabble with the word, but I'm more interested because I have friends on both sides of the book scene. The things that are being said are a pretty good sampling of what is said behind doors. Despite the anonymity, I'm not sure if this is one of those conversations that is good to make public. The younger the editor/agent is, the more you hear things like this (kind of like customers_suck and things like that).

I think it could generate a subtle paranoia and make it harder for people already worried about such things happening (not those who deserve such sarcasm, but writers who are nervous or lacking in esteem).
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[User Picture]From: nicodemusrat
2009-03-23 05:08 am (UTC)
Quite true. This definitely did have an uncensored feel to it. I think it's good to see that even if it is also a bit demoralizing or off-putting. On the other hand, most people get a little snarky now and then and like to blow off steam; agents are only human.

For me, the educational aspects of it outweighed the "OMG how cruel" spectacle but that's hardly the universal opinion. There was quite a bit of discussion among both writers and agents about whether this was appropriate. (When it comes down to it, we get very used to having that constant level of politesse, even if it's an acknowledged fiction, in our social and business dealings.) I'm still not sure if QueryFail was the "right" thing for them to do but it did give me a bit of insight into how agents feel when going through queries.

Kudos on also writing. I'd be interested in seeing what you write, if you feel like sharing. And if your friends in the industry happen to be agents that handle fantasy and/or young adult, I'd be very interested in that too! :)
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[User Picture]From: kinkyturtle
2009-03-22 06:51 pm (UTC)
"It’s about unicorns. They’re the protagonists."

So post it on FurAffinity!

Actually, I'm picturing the author, and I'm picturing her sending off the query and then going to pester her brother Dexter in his laboratory...
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[User Picture]From: chipuni
2009-03-22 07:35 pm (UTC)
Some parts of FurAffinity would go more with:

My book is about a friendship based upon mutual vomiting practices in high school.
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[User Picture]From: cass_rising
2009-03-22 07:09 pm (UTC)
I've been reading this list in between grading student essays. To say that I sympathize with the slush reader would be an understatement.
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[User Picture]From: orv
2009-03-22 09:29 pm (UTC)
danielliterary: Addresses me "Dear Sir/Madam..."? #queryfail

bostonbookgirl: “Dear Sirs.” To an office composed of two women & only one man? #queryfail

I often struggle with this one when writing business letters. Sometimes when I'm writing a company I genuinely don't know the gender of the person I'm writing to. What's the correct salutation to use? Is there one that won't offend someone? The stuff I learned in school is apparently no longer appropriate.
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[User Picture]From: nicodemusrat
2009-03-22 10:46 pm (UTC)
This is something specific to query letter etiquette, from what I can tell.

"Dear Sir or Madam" is appropriate when querying an agency. However, if you're querying a specific agent -- the more common case -- then you should know enough about the agent to address it to them personally.

(Love your icon, BTW.)
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[User Picture]From: kris_schnee
2009-03-24 06:11 am (UTC)
From what I understand, it's customary to pick a specific agent (eg. through AgentQuery), and address the query to them. I guess it shows more effort.
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[User Picture]From: spazfox
2009-03-22 11:13 pm (UTC)
My name is Spaz, and I am a fox.
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[User Picture]From: spazfox
2009-03-22 11:13 pm (UTC)
My name is Ash, and I'm a slave.
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[User Picture]From: traveller_blues
2009-03-23 07:01 pm (UTC)

Can I link to this from Foolscap_Circle?

...also, note to self -- this was a bad thing to find while editing a manual.

I kept wanting to write 'fail' in my commentary.

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[User Picture]From: traveller_blues
2009-03-23 07:17 pm (UTC)

Re: Can I link to this from Foolscap_Circle?

Never mind, you already did. :)

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[User Picture]From: kris_schnee
2009-03-24 06:17 am (UTC)
This is informative. It's nice to see some raw feedback of this type.

I think I've avoided the most obvious mistakes for my novel and its query letter, but I'm still worried about it. Two skilled writer friends said the first third-or-so has clunky wording, and one said it started too slowly. So, I'm rewriting much of that part for clarity and brevity. My first round of query letters #failed, but I'll be better prepared for the next.

How important is it to include a bio for a novel?
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[User Picture]From: regalpewter
2009-03-24 11:20 pm (UTC)
For the Query;
One line hook, wordcount, genre, short blurb, short paragraph of writing background and polite closing. Query win.
For the novel wait till they ask for it then have fun if appropriate.
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