Sunday, March 24, 2019


I broke the rules...unapologetically so.

I rhymed, alliterated, lyricized, used big words, topped it off with an adult narrative. And yes, my word count runneth over. Admittedly, I did it all wrong. Moreover--and perhaps to my own detriment--I firmly maintain that these supposed literary crimes were committed for all the right reasons. The story is better because of these so-called 'flaws', not in spite of them. Now comes the dilemma:

Can even 'the best query letter ever' not only overcome, but actually upsell the very characteristics that have been deemed genre pitfalls?

Dear QueryShark:

Life as I knew it forever changed the day I 'borrowed' that gnome.

So, you're a character in the book?
Using I in a query for anything other than the biography section is confusing.

What started as a harmless prank, soon backfired into a frenzied search for the missing muffin pan. Three pie servers, a rolling pizza cutter, and countless other 'displacements' tightrope toddle along the brink of madness spiraled into the tongue-twisted tale you are about to read.

At this point, I have no idea what kind of book this is.

Some call it 'crazy'. Others call it 'cuckoo'. I prefer to call it: 'clarity'.

I call it confusing.

The lost socks, the misplaced keys, when the 'displaced' are 're-placed' in those spots you searched thrice...

I'm losing my mind here, does that count?

Based on a true story, THE GREAT GNOME COLLECTIVE is a transitional picture storybook of 1250 words. Entertaining meets educational in this lyrical work of modern folklore: a fun read woven through an intricate maze of elevated vocabulary, emphatic punctuation, and eloquent wordplay, all set to complex rhythmic rhyme with a splash of Seussian flair.

Never compare yourself or your work to Dr. Seuss. Let other people do that.

I am best known as (nom du plume): mama to one, auntie to seven, and 'grammar nutsy' to the core. This is my authorial debut, though it is my hope and intent to grow THE..COLLECTIVE into a series of gnome adventures.

Authorial debut sets my teeth on edge.

I'm not sure if that's just me.

This is your first book. Just say so.

Fancy pants writing is best left for dialogue to illustrate hoity toity characters.

Miss Bickerstaff perhaps who refers to her serviettes, and would sooner go without food than sit at a table without flowers. She is someone who might use authorial debut.

One minor concession, if I may: THE GREAT GNOME COLLECTIVE must be--and is found most enjoyable when--read aloud...preferably, *with gusto*. Please do not dismiss this request. The gnomes will know.

I know you're trying to be whimsical and light hearted here.
But please do not dismiss this request isn't something agents find funny. Ever.

Thank you for your time & consideration.

Form rejection.

Because picture book queries include the entire text of the story.

You can break all the rules that you want, but if you do not give me what I need to evaluate your work, I'm not going to write back and tell you what you did wrong.  I'm going to pass with a form rejection.

Your question:
Can even 'the best query letter ever' not only overcome, but actually upsell the very characteristics that have been deemed genre pitfalls?
You're breaking the wrong rules.


Laina said...

WHOA 1200 words? Who do you think is going to read this sucker??? Have you ever tried to read 1200 words out loud to a group of fifteen 3 year olds?

Emmy S said...

What struck me as odd about this, besides what's already been said, is that we know nothing about the main character, but they seem distinctly un-child-like. Lost keys? No kid cares about that. Is the MC a kid or an adult?

In addition, the language of the query seems to have more to do with demonstrating intelligence than communicating a story. "Displacements" struck me in particular, because what kid knows that word? Choosing big, abstract words for such simple concepts doesn't seem like it will work well in a book directed at kids.

All in all, I'm not sure the book behind this query was written with actual kids in mind.

Karen said...

Writer, your writing is good.

One problem is that in the query you're presenting yourself as someone who might be hard to work with. You may very well be easy to work with, but the query-reader only has your query to go on.

And the other problem is that with the manuscript itself, you sound like you haven't really researched the current state of the market, which suggests you haven't done the homework. It's too long for a modern picture book, and the picture book-as-transition isn't really what the market is calling for at a time when booksellers are telling us that parents seem to be pushing their kids into chapter books ASAP.

Yes, rules can be broken, but only after we have demonstrated that we know the rules backward, forward, and upside down. When you're trying to get your foot in the door, breaking the rules will cause people to assume you haven't learned the rules.

Sarah said...

I'm a children's book author–MG, not picture book–so I won't try to add to the already good advice here.

But let me tell you something I wish I'd discovered earlier. Your greatest resource breaking into the industry is SCBWI- the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators.Your region's conference will most likely include a PB workshop as well as the chance to get a manuscript or portfolio critique from an author, agent, or editor. (These normally cost $40 or so extra.) SCBWI does a fabulous job of helping writers with both the craft and business of writing and/or illustrating children's books.

Don't worry about getting all the letters in SCBWI right. Just go. (I was a member for two years before I could say "SCBWI" without thinking about it.) Folks in the children's book industry are some of the nicest you'll ever meet. If Her Sharkiness ever wandered over to kidlit waters and chomped someone at a conference, everyone including the chompee would ask if she needed floss to get that last little bit of arm (or is it a leg?) out of her teeth...

nightsmusic said...

My advice: apologize for breaking the rules. They're in place for a reason. Then rewrite this catastrophe so it reflects the book and the target audience you're writing to and entices an agent to read it. And I say this unapologetically.

AC said...

The query itself paired with the opening comment and wordcount had me assuming it was a picture book for adults—which is a part of what makes it such a rule-breaking project. If it's supposed to be a children's book, then the other commenters are right and you're just way off in just about every regard. If I read it right and it's supposed to be an adult's book... well.

Breaking rules in a way that works is about understanding why those rules exist and work in the first place, and *then* understanding specifically what about breaking each works for the particular story you broke them for. And THEN, the query needs to show that you have the right kind of understanding of all those things. I'd even go as far as to claim that the query would automatically give the reader a sense of that understanding *if* the understanding was indeed there in the story itself; it's one of those "book problem" things that can be evident from the way the query itself reads, and right now that's about where we're at.

Bonnie Shaljean said...

Who is the protagonist, and how is this problem important? Even in a story for young children, there have to be stakes the reader can care about. Those inanimate objects are too neutral to arouse interest.

I also think the "upsell" works against what you want it to accomplish. We already get a mudslide of invasive hype from the internet every day, and irritation and resistance are as likely a reaction as enticement. So could you tone down some of that overcooked PR? It just made me switch off.

What is this tale is about?

Lenora Rose said...

I read the opening line of your query and I cannot see what you gain by writing it in first person and not as third. "Life as Sarah McSpindleton knew it changed forever the day she borrowed that gnome." Nothing wrong with that.

And Dr. Seuss, aside from invented words easy to pronounce as read, used short and simple language. Green Eggs and Ham uses s vocabulary of 50 words. Even his tongue-twister books use simple words to make the hard to read passages (beetle puddle muddle bottle battle springs to mind...) Whatever your extensive vocabulary is meant to demonstrate, this query is not Seussian.

smoketree said...

My two cents as someone who has worked on slush pile duty--no one thinks the rules apply to them. And those writers who proudly proclaim that they have ignored all the rules and don't believe in publishing and have never read a book in their genre are usually the first to end up in the circular file. Look, I know it's boring and your creative spirit rebels against it, but just follow the instructions. Otherwise you're going to come across as difficult to work with and like you have no sense of perspective about your own writing.

Unknown said...

Having read a lot now about the agents' opinions of query letters, I'm feeling a need for a place to comment on the writers' opinion of agent responses. Is there some law that requires every agent rejection to include the phrases "not right for my list," "didn't feel connected enough to the characters," "wasn't able to champion the work." Did you all cut and paste your responses after going to the same workshop. Let's see some creativity from your end. I am not complaining about the rejection. It's a business and there are valid reasons for not taking on any client or particular work. But it can't coincidence that you all use the exact same words to respond and somehow that offends me. Be a little creative.

Alyssa R said...

Unknown. I'm not an agent, nor do I know any personally. All I know about agenting is from the internet, which I know is not the most reliable source. But, if what I've found is even remotely correct (which, given that it's mainly from blogs written by literary people...), agents are far too busy to "be creative" when it's not even something they're interested in. Heck, I'm too busy to "be creative" with things I'm not interested in, and I'm still in school!

Have you considered the possibility that perhaps you are not being creative enough in your queries for the agents you have submitted to?

Alyssa R said...
This comment has been removed by the author.