Five Lessons From the Other Side of the Query Letter

Hello from the other side! June has been a busy month for me. I had my second book release and wrote my first official edit letter as a Rogue Mentor.

I’m also slowly working through feedback letters to some Rogue hopefuls. And now that my mentee has started her revision process, I want to share some initial thoughts on what I learned from my first round of mentee selection. Unfortunately, I must inform you that I now understand many of the confusing phrases agents use in their passes. 😭😭😭

In today’s blog I’m digging into some of the most common reasons I passed on the submission packages I received. Along with that, I have some more general insights about the process of finding a champion for your writing.

Motivation matters.

I’ve been watching Westworld on HBO lately. It’s a show with a strong thread of meta commentary on storytelling and what makes a created personality seem real. The human programmers of the AI personalities in Westworld often discuss the importance of a “cornerstone memory.” The cornerstone is their AI character’s defining moment: a lost child, a massacred town, a friend’s betrayal.

Rachel Evan Wood as Dolores Abernathy says "...You're my cornerstone"

Often this cornerstone is an experience of trauma, of suffering, or a memory of paradise lost. This echoes the theory of a character’s “emotional wound,” as discussed in books like Story Genius and The Emotional Wound Thesaurus. The wound, that missing piece in their psyche, drives a character to go to great lengths, enter global conflicts, and risk everything they have.

An effective submission package doesn’t have to tell us exactly what the character’s cornerstone is. Sometimes it’s effective to hold it back for a later reveal. However, it should clearly convey what internal motivation drives the character’s choices and involvement in the central conflict.

Most submission packages I read successfully communicated protagonist goals—what the character wanted. And most showed how those goals related to the plot—the external conflict. But the deeper “why” that drove the characters to risk high stakes and pursue their external objectives against overwhelming odds often remained unclear.

When this issue shows up, it can mean one of three things. First, the writer may understand what motivates the character but believes it is implicit and easily extrapolated. Second, the writer understands what motivates the character but deliberately chooses to leave it a mystery to the reader. Third, the writer has not considered the character’s motivations, which indicates a need for more character development.

Unfortunately, it’s not always clear to a reader unfamiliar with the story which of these apply. Even if they can guess, it may make for a frustrating experience for both parties. A lack of clear motivation in a sub package may result in the dreaded “cannot connect” feedback, unless you are lucky enough to query someone who can implicitly grasp what drives a particular character.

Answer the question of what drives your character toward their goal, and you’ve already gone a long way toward getting a reader invested. But if your audience finishes your pages still wondering why the character cares, they’re probably also wondering why they as the reader should care. That’s not an ideal outcome.

I’d encourage querying writers to avoid leaving it up to your audience to solve the mystery of your protagonist’s motivations. Make the emotional weight of your character’s “why” clear in your query letter and synopsis. However, don’t stop there—build a foundation in your sample pages, even if you’re not ready to reveal the full details of your character’s cornerstone experiences.

If you confuse me, you lose me.

The second common issue I noticed isn’t necessarily unrelated to the problem of motivation. However, it does apply more broadly. Put simply: causing your reader to feel confused is not the same as causing them to feel intrigued enough to read more.

One big indicator of this issue is a query letter full of strange names and Significantly Capitalized Phrases. This is fairly common in SFF in particular, especially for beginning writers. But unfamiliar proper nouns do not make a world—specificity of meaning does.

Before I go on, let me preface this with a disclaimer: this may not apply to all readers/mentors/agents. I have ADHD and even when properly medicated, my brain nopes out quickly when it’s overwhelmed by details it doesn’t understand. Once I lose the plot, it’s extra hard for me to wrestle myself back on track.

Mrs. Maisel stands in front of a crowd of people holding protest signs and says "I have absolutely no idea what's going on at all"

Throwing a lot of strange terms and names into your query, synopsis, and first pages can read like gibberish to someone unfamiliar with the world you’ve created. If you give something an unusual name or invent words, provide context clues and sufficient description to allow your reader to follow along and grow their vocabulary. Invite us into the world you’ve imagined instead of erecting barriers, and don’t assume your readers can follow logic that doesn’t appear on the page.

That’s not to say that you have to provide pages of exposition to explain every detail, but rather, include details and context cues that build understanding for your audience. If you must be coy and mysterious about a particular aspect of your world, approach it like a good detective novel. In other words, make sure the clues are present, and make deliberate choices about what you hide and what you reveal.

As I write this, I’m wondering if both of these issues (unclear motivation and unclear worldbuilding) derive from over application of the craft truism “show, don’t tell.” The truth is, sometimes you have to tell a little bit—especially when it makes the difference between confusion and clarity. In my personal opinion, and this may be my ND brain talking, it’s better to err on the side of putting the information on the page than hoping the reader will pick up an unwritten implication.

“I just didn’t love it enough.”

How many times did I read this in feedback to my own queries? (A lot.) And how much did it hurt every time? (So much.) The reality of this one was a surprising insight for me during my manuscript reading period.

Meredith Grey of Grey's Anatomy says "So pick me. Choose me. Love me."

Now I understand the reasoning of those agent passes far more. It’s frustrating to receive, because it doesn’t tell you why, but in this case, the why is hard to pinpoint and furthermore, it’s rarely actionable. This makes it especially difficult to give useful feedback.

Whether you’re mentoring or representing an author, you’re committing to spending a lot of time with their manuscript. You’re potentially looking at multiple read-throughs, at least one editing round, and putting your all into crafting (or helping to craft) a pitch for it. It’s a labor of love—and that means you have to love it.

Sometimes, you have no major actionable reason not to take on a sub package or manuscript, yet it still isn’t for you. The prose may be exquisite, the characters well-developed, the author’s intent clear in the pages, and it still might not have that certain something. The book deserves a champion who loves it for what it is, but that champion isn’t you.

The best you can do in that situation is to pass. It’s possible that in working on that book, you might shape it into something it isn’t, something that is more for you than it was. By passing, you give the author and manuscript their best chance at finding a good fit, the mentor or agent who will make it more itself.

In this sense, connecting with a manuscript is a lot like falling in love. Of course, when you’re sending queries, all you want is for someone to give you that chance. But sometimes it’s just not meant to be—and you shouldn’t settle for less than what your book deserves: a champion who’s all in.

Implicit bias: I need to do more.

There’s a dark side to this ultimate level of subjectivity though, and it’s one I’m still grappling with. To put it plainly, what one “falls in love with” as a reader can be determined by what resonates with one’s experience or feels “relatable.” And that experience is unavoidably shaped by cultural expectations, privilege, and identity.

When I read through my submissions initially, I didn’t pay too much attention to the demographics of the author. I looked at the submission packages themselves and whether I connected with the pages. That sounds fair on its face—but in practice, it may not be equitable.

When I started in on narrowing my front runners and vetting folks, I realized something that made me uneasy—and something that is hard to admit. The manuscripts that resonated most powerfully for me, the ones I had the clearest editing vision for, were written by people who looked a lot like me. And the one I couldn’t stop thinking about, the one I had really fallen for, was written by an author whose identity was very much like mine—queer and neurodivergent, but also white and cisgender.

This also underlines for me how important it is for mentorships, agencies, and publishers to have people from diverse backgrounds making the decisions on which books move forward. However, it’s not enough to expect marginalized folks in those positions to shoulder the burden of championing diverse voices. Well-meaning privileged people like myself need to do more to create equity in publishing by walking our talk, confronting our own unconscious biases, and stretching outside of our comfort zones.

If I mentor again, I’ll be changing my decision process to try to mitigate my own implicit bias. I’m not 100% sure what that will look like yet, but one idea is to do a first pass where I focus on submissions from BIPOC and marginalized writers from backgrounds less like mine. If my goal is to open doors for new writers with diverse voices, I want to open those doors wider—not just for writers who share my privilege as well as my marginalizations.

Subjectivity is a double-edged sword.

“This business is subjective,” I said in so many of my feedback letters to mentee hopefuls, echoing kind passes I had received from agents during my own querying journey. And it’s true: the publishing business, along with editing, mentoring, and the act of reading itself, is inherently subjective. There’s no secret formula, no one right way to create art, and no objective standard that makes one book better than another.

Often, final choices really boil down to subjectivity. I know from experience how difficult that can be to reckon with. It makes it hard to know how to move forward.

But there is a flip side to this truth. It means passes truly don’t speak to the writer’s talent. It means your readers and your champions are out there.

There was one piece of feedback that I gave to every author that submitted their work to me. I meant it with all my heart. That feedback was “keep writing.”

Please, keep writing. And remember that no one person’s opinion is the last word on your work, no matter who they are.

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