In the publishing industry, many badly-written queries are considered especially heinous, and they are probably the reason why you didn’t get published yet.
The dedicated people who reply to query letters are members of an exclusive elite squad known as literary agents.
These are their stories.
A big thanks to agents who take their time to tweet their queries. This series would not be possible without them.
Previously on Query and Publish…
Science Fiction Special
I have no prejudice against any kind of genre. Despite my preference for Science Fiction, I still read and enjoy books such as The House of The Spirits, The Alchemist, Harry Potter, Pillars of The Earth, Master & Commander, Sherlock Holmes, and so on.
Still, I grew up with Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Orson Scott Card, Douglas Adams, Ursula K. Le Guin and many others. Their books made me the reader (and the writer) I am today. In fact, if you’re a literary agent, I just want to say this: Have Novel. Will Query.
However, the hottest genre now is Young Adult. I have nothing against YA, and have read several recent books such as Redrising, Hunger Games, Divergent, The Giver and others. Yes, I could write YA, but my novel is not about coming of age, and I wanted to explore adult situations (like taxes and stuff). So I chose adult scifi for my own novel.
Therefore, I decided to create a special episode of query & publish focused on adult science fiction.
You can still learn something even if your genre is not SciFi since some rejections are universal. If you write Fantasy you should be able to find lots of similarities as well.
It was a tougher job than I imagined. While a single agent can have, say, 71 YA queries on twitter, I could only find 186 adult SF queries on twitter from everything on #500queries, #100queries and #tenqueries combined, and I was careful to only get queries from agents. My goal was at least 200 queries, but I failed. Sorry, guys and gals.
But I hope what I have here is enough to show you why mine and your novel are having a hard time getting published, and that some people are as qualified to be president as I’m qualified to be a writer.
So, without further ado, fasten your seat belts… in space! (It’s kind of fun to add “in space” to any sentence, isn’t it?)
And here’s a fun game: see if you can find notes that are clearly from one of the previous agents in this series.
Unlike previous Query & Publish posts, this is not about a single agent. As I already said, this contains all the Science Fiction tweets I could gather by the time I wrote this post (end of March/beginning of April).
And here they are:
Most queries didn’t pick the agents interest, follow by agents dislikes and confusing queries. 19 out of 186 (or 10.2%) resulted in requests, above agent Z‘ and agent Y‘s request rate, but below agent X‘s.
Despite all the awesome Science Fiction worlds out there, most agents (and readers) are still looking for characters, not just word building. There were a lot of queries (29 out of 186, or 15.6%) where the premise was interesting, but agent wasn’t drawn into the characters.
- Uninteresting characters or writing, not sold, premise didn’t pick up agent’s interest, doesn’t make her go “ooh!”
- Doesn’t make her want to keep reading; bored half-way through it.
- No strong or unique hook.
- Good world or premise but needs more MC.
- Funny dystopian SF that was meh.
- Not bad, but not great, and it starts in the wrong place.
- Amusing premise, underwhelming or flat writing.
- Interesting world-building, but can’t connect with characters.
27 out of 186 queries (or 14.5%) had something the agent disliked. They were:
- Crackpot vibes from a “true” story told as science fiction. Hmm, this gave me an idea for the name of a book: “Crackpot Vibes”. Or a band.
- SciFi like Austen, and agent didn’t like Austen.
- Feminist SF with only one gender. I wonder if the women there would forget what men looked like.
- Male MC in a matriarchal society, trying to overturn it. This is too risky to publish, although it does remind me of an old Star Trek episode.
- Aliens and God. God dammit, there goes my novel, even if my gods are actually aliens.
- Alien race named after a naughty part. I agree, that was a dick move.
- Bizarre SciFi. I mean, SciFi is already a little bizarre. How far can you go?
- Book teaches people about author’s philosophy, or has a “message.” Condescending much?
- In the same vein, SF masquerading as a treatise for pro-lifers.
- Funny SciFi more into the ridiculous side.
- Police thriller. To be honest, a SciFi police thriller sounds like something I’d like.
- Story as if told after the fact. Not sure what does this mean since most books are in past tense anyway, and told after the fact.
- White dudes.
- Women’s Fiction Science Fiction metafiction. Fiction.
- Query invokes Vonnegut. Agent says to PLEASE never do that.
- MC in long coma, then saving humans from aliens.
- Redo of myths. What the heck this is doing in SciFi?
- Zombies in SciFi.
- Disturbing open paragraph.
- SciFi that’s all about social themes.
- SciFi with erotic elements. Uh… that could be… weird. (link is safe for work, but your imagination might not be.)
- Half-made parody. Parodies are tricky, you have to fully commit.
- SciFi with supernatural and magic realism. Too much going on here, and set in World War II.
- Too quirky or not the kind of scifi the agent likes to read.
- MC waking up in chapter 1 – a pet peeve for this agent. What if the MC wakes up in chapter 1 in the afterlife, like my SciFi-not-Fantasy-really WIP? That’s not bad, right? Hello, anyone there?
I was expecting that ‘confusing’ would be at the top. This is Science Fiction, after all, and some worlds can really be out there. Literally and figuratively.
I have 22 out of 186 (11.8%) queries in this category.
- LSD-weird plot points. It’s a trip (not a trap) and not in space as you’d expect.
- Too technical, not fun. “Here’s the schematic of my ship, relationships and archenemies.”
- Terms, Jargon and names:
- Cool premise, great voice but jargony language.
- Too many proper nouns dropped.
- Too many terms.
- Super distracting naming conventions.
- Story assumed agent was “too much in the know.” A lot happens in our heads, and often we assume people are thinking exactly the same thing.
- Too many characters: R2D2, R2D3, R2D4, R2D5,…
- Story made no sense and/or is difficult to follow.
- Fascinating world, but voice is formal and dense.
- Agent can’t figure out what the story is really about.
- Vague and nonspecific query.
This category are for SciFi queries where the agent thought the writing was bad, and the query might have been decent.
12 out of 186 are in this category (6.5%).
- Writing is just not there.
- Dense writing (in novel, not query).
- POV, mechanics and cohesion issues.
- Good voice and premise, but writing needs copyediting, especially for run-on sentences.
- Convoluted writing.
- Incomplete sentences and poor punctuation.
- Talky with no action.
- Writing needs polishing.
Recall that the queries here are aggregated from several different agents, so preferences differ.
12 out of 186 are in this category (6.5%).
- Same old teen scifi, but with cooler character names.
- X-Men vibe. And nothing beats X-Men.
- Less well-pitched story similar to novel from 2015.
- Another save humanity from extinction storyline.
- Cliched elements.
- Pitch like many others agent has seen before. She wanted to be surprised.
- Burned out on SF vampires. Wait, what? How many of those are there?
- Nothing new or fresh about it.
- Premise and characters have been done before.
- Character waking up with amnesia has been done too much. Phew, my character just pretends to have amnesia. So I’m good. I think.
- Nothing interesting enough to distinguish from other space stories.
Several agents also think that Dystopian, Steampunk, Apocalyptical and Hard SciFi are either saturated or hard to sell. Since so many agents complained, I have specific categories for them.
10 queries out of 186 (5.4%) were considered too telly, where writing has too much telling and exposition. This can be an easy trap for science fiction writers that are eager to show their world, and keep dumping info on the reader.
Agents complained about:
- Loads of telling/exposition.
- Too much backstory and telling.
- Writing is all telling.
Here’s my essay about when I learned show versus tell. Yes, I’m that dense.
Too long or Too Short
Many of the agents didn’t actually state the word count when complaining about novel being too short or too long. Some did, though:
- Too long (8 queries, 4.3%): 109k, 120k, 150k, 200k, 400k (5 tweets indicated word count).
- Too short (6 queries, 3.2%): 11k, 55k, 58k, 61k (4 tweets indicated word count).
Still, one of the requests had 111k words and the agent decided to take a chance, even though the word count was high.
See also my own post on word count for several other genres.
7 out of 186 in this category (3.8%).
Note: do not automatically send the synopsis or sample pages. Read each agent’s query guidelines because they’re different.
- New book from an already published series. Agents consistently reject books in series where the previous one is already published (see my previous Query and Publish posts). So, if you self-pub you’ll probably will have to do it all the way. This doesn’t mean you won’t be successful. There are success stories such as B. V. Larson, but they’re rare.
- Querying multiple projects at once.
- Strong query, but no chapters provided.
- No synopsis or sample pages.
- Wrong genre (in this case, agent didn’t want Military SciFi)
I categorized 7 queries out of 186 (3.8%) as bad queries.
Bad queries are letters that may have a good story and/or premise, but the query itself is not well-written. Agents gave several reasons why this is the case:
- Query tries to explain the MC and the world in details.
- Wrong comp. Claims comp of Outlander instead of BIG.
- Explains the theme of the novel instead of the plot.
- Military Science Fiction that begins with “Imagine a world…”
- Starts with questions, and entire novel is in second person. Why? Why would you do that?
- Good idea, but clumsily-written query.
- Spent more time defending third person POV than pitching. “I’ma let you finish, but third person POV is one of the best persons of all time.”
Dystopian or Steampunk
5 tweets out of 186 (2.7%) complained about Dystopian or Steampunk novels, often grouped together.
- Agent doesn’t care for Steampunk, and Dystopian is hard to sell now.
- Agent is not a fan of Steampunk elements.
- Agent is tired of Dystopian stuff.
- Even if you call your Dystopia high concept, agent still knows it’s a Dystopia.“It’s not a Dystopia; it’s just the opposite of a Utopia!”
If you want to know the difference between dystopian, steampunk and apocalyptical, check Lara’s guide here.
I’ve used this category for both Apocalyptical and Post-apocalyptical. See the difference between Apocalyptical, Post-Apocalyptical and Dystopian in this post.
Agents seem to be avoiding apocalyptical or post-apocalyptical stories.
5 queries here (2.7%).
- Agent is looking for lighter stuff.
- Tough market for apocalypse stories right now.
- Story a titch too apocalyptical for agent’s taste.
- Post-apocalyptic scifi is a hard sell at the moment.
Hard to Believe
Of course we should have this category. This is Science Fiction, after all. A lot of unbelievable worlds are still published, so one can only imagine those that don’t make the bar.
5 out of 186 (2.7%) were tweets complaining mostly about hard to believe situations.
- World doesn’t seem logical.
- MC controls fire in an underwater civilization.
- Premise requires too much suspension of disbelief.
- Unlikely premise within given context.
- Writing is pretty good, voice is interesting, but not buying the plot/world of the story.
Wrong Genre/No Genre
4 queries out of 186 (2.2%) had the wrong genre or no genre.
Most queries in this category are Fantasy that are trying to pass as Science Fiction.
I blame this faux pas in whomever decided to clump together Science Fiction and Fantasy. But they’re different, people!
- Science Fiction that reads like high Fantasy.
- Just because it has futuristic elements it doesn’t mean it’s Science Fiction.
- Straight up Fantasy billed as Science Fiction. Authors should know their genres, or it looks like they don’t know what they’re doing.
- Science Fiction dressed as fantasy.
Not For Them
A category for awesome queries and novels (3 out of 186, or 1.6%), but the agent is not interested in them for a varied of reasons.
- Super fun-sounding SF, but agent is not the right person for it.
- Interesting premise, and the agent actually sent the query to another agent friend of hers.
- Awesome hard SciFi story, but not for the agent. These are the hardest noes.
Hard Science Fiction (3 out of 186, 1.6%):
See this blog post for the difference between hard and soft science fiction.
Rejections in this category were for agents that thought hard scifi is hard to sell.
- Much more Hard SF than is agent’s speed. Agent wants focus on characters even for genres such as Science Fiction and Fantasy.
- Agent prefers soft SciFi.
- Agent doesn’t do well with Hard SciFi.
Prologue (2 out of 186, 1%): unnecessary prologue, or first chapter is really a prologue.
19 out of 186 (10.2%) resulted in partial or full requests from agents.
And the offer goes to… (no, not the offer, actually; requests are not offers yet).
- Cool, philosophical Cyberpunk-y SciFi.
- Untraditional MC.
- SF masquerading as a buddy cop comedy.
- SF thriller that could be a page turner if done right.
- SF heavy on the science, maybe cliche, but agent gave it a shot.
- Future SciFi that’s also alternate history intrigued agent.
- Non-western SF with old dude, or Science Fiction with elderly protagonist.
- Time travel SciFi that also intrigued the agent.
- Romance in a Science Fiction setting.
- Interesting futuristic place.
- Fun SciFi set in space.
- Retelling of a SF classic.
- Story about depression in SciFi form.
- Lots of heart + spaceships.
- Great writing and tone. Novel was a little long at 111k, but agent wanted to read more.
- Mundane bureaucracy meets mercenaries.
- Science Fiction with anthropological elements.
You might be surprised, but writing Science Fiction is not as uncommon as you’d think.
Still, it was hard to find SciFi books when growing up in the 80’s in Brazil, and I for one am glad with the attention the genre gets nowadays, even if Young Adult still dominates the industry.
But perhaps I should never tell you the odds. Just never give up… and never surrender!
- I’ve made a lot of assumptions about the tweets. Some of them didn’t have enough information, so this study is partially subjective.
- Some of the information here can be generalized to other agents, but not everything – especially the agent’s personal preferences. Research your agent before submitting.
I’m actively looking for agents and publishers for my book. More info here.
Default Disclaimer: I’m not a writer, I have a hard time paying attention to detail, I overuse adverbs, I start a lot of sentences with ‘I’, and I often confuse words that are similar. More importantly, I reserve the right to change my mind at any time, in which case I’ll deny I ever wrote it. Please let me know if you find something that is too embarrassing. This blog is riddled with typos and creative grammar problems, but it’s mine. Luckily, I can always blame my mistakes on the fact that English is not my first language. Or hackers.
- The Redeemability Scale - Can a non-villain main character go too far and become unredeemable? Where is the line, and why is it drinking decaf? The transgressions are: Quirks, Small Vices, Lying, Violence, Infidelity, Misdemeanors, Betrayal, Torture, Murder, Mind Control, Hurting Animals, Genocide, Sexism and Misogyny, Bigotry, Slavery, and others.
- Writing a Book is Much More Than Just Writing a Book -
The stages of writing.
- More Than Words - Show vs. Tell: Overexplaining and hand-holding are not the words I want to hear from you.
- Don’t tell; show me the glint of light of my burning novel. - Show, don't tell is the number one rule of writing. Seriously, how often you do stuff without knowing the number one rule of it?
- Everyone’s a Critic - When classic novels get harsh reviews, and even fake writers are chastised, your book will definitely have more than its share of criticism. Or to be more formal, haters gonna hate.
- Believability is Overrated - Despite the fact they distract readers, and sometimes break the suspension of disbelief, novels with blatant problems may still become best sellers.
- Verb, do you even lift? - Adverbs, the next twist on my ongoing backwards journey to learn to write after I wrote my adult science fiction book.
- Emotional Cheat Sheet - This emotional cheat sheet is based on the wheel chart, but it's longer, with no misspells or duplicates, and in an easier-to-read format.
- He thought; therefore, he was. - Writing can be tense and personal - or how I accidentally wrote a book in first person and present tense.