This weekend I had the privilege of attending the DFW Writer's conference. It was a lot of fun and I even got to meet some bloggy/twitter friends who I hadn't had the chance to meet before. Below is a pic of me with the lovely Genevieve Wilson and Dawn Alexander.
I went to a lot of different workshops, but one of the most entertaining and informative sessions of the conference were the two agent "Gong" shows. The setup was simple. Each agent had a gong, anonymous queries were read aloud, and agents would hit their gong when they would've stopped reading. It was quite hilarious, but I also learned a lot of things about what they are and are NOT looking for in a query letter. So I thought I'd pass some of those along.
1. Opening with a question.
Most of us have heard this, but there was still a query in the bunch that did this. It got instantly gonged.
You have to be REALLY REALLY different to get them to even consider another vampire novel.
In and of itself, it may be an important issue in a book, but there were at least four queries where cancer seemed thrown in to up the dramatic effect. "There's this and this and this! Plus, someone has cancer!"
4. Too many things/issues/characters/plotlines.
This was one that the agents said a lot. Stories that seemed to have too many different things going on, too many characters, or too many plotlines listed in the query lost their interest. Stick to the hook!
5. Describing your own writing.
Don't tell them in your query that your story is fascinating, fast-paced, touching, whatever. Show them the story, not what you think of your own writing. One agent gonged out when the first sentence said "This is a fascinating story of..."
6. Cliches and tropes
Overused and tired phrases in the query got you gonged. If you're using them in the query, the agents suspect they'll be in your book. "Her life will be forever changed"..."The last thing she expected was"..."love is blind"...etc. Plus, cliched storylines as well--girl finding a diary with secrets, person finding a portal, romantic suspense where the wife suspects husband is up no good, the woman who loses her husband and goes a small town to rebuild her life, etc.
7. Inauthentic voice
There was a YA one that used "awesome" "buttload" and "stupid" all in the first two sentences. It sounded like an adult trying to do teenspeak. Didn't work at all.
8. Stuff Happens
Queries where there was a lists of events but no hook or central conflict described.
9. Teens and the elderly
This is a bit random, but there were a few queries that were pitched at YA where the story is the teen gaining wisdom from an older person. They shot these down. Teens don't want to read about old people. They don't care what older people have to say when they are that age and so they aren't going to want to read about that.
10. September 11th plotline
All the agents literally groaned. Some said it was still too close of a topic for them to personally work with. Remember, most of these agents live in NYC, 9/11 was a national tragedy but for those on the front lines realize that it's got to be even more traumatic to relive.
11. Going on and on and on....(kind of like this post :p )
They want to hook, the main character(s), and what's at stake. That's really about it. Do not give a synopsis posing as a query.
12. If you do the "it's this meets this" kind of hook, don't use two movies. Use at least one book in the comparison to show that you are well-read in your own genre.
And don't compare to the GIANT books. Twilight, Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Hunger Games--they're used so much that the comparisons don't meant anything anymore.
13. And finally, MAKE EVERY WORD SERVE A PURPOSE and BE SPECIFIC.
So many queries had a whole lot of words but said nothing. It's a tale of love and loss and redemption. Of good and evil. Of whatever other completely vague abstract concepts you can think of. That may be a theme in your story but that is not what it's about. The agents want to know what your story is specifically about. Do not waste words talking about abstract things. Every word must give them something that you haven't already said and that speaks to the uniqueness of your story.
I'm sure there were more, but those were the ones that stuck out most in my mind. So do any of these surprise you? What do you think of this feedback?