A few months ago I signed on to be a team member for a new writing contest called #FicFest. I've been on the entering side of contests before- sometimes chosen, sometimes not- but this is my first time on this side of the line. I really wanted to give back, after all the contests I've taken part in. So far I've gotten to know some great new writers, and it's been fun interacting with them and reading their submissions.
I'm a team member for the adult team and we received 120 submissions! That's a lot of slush reading I've done in the past two days. I've managed to narrow it down to fourteen, but I can't imagine cutting that all the way down to one.
I've noticed some common querying mistakes. I'm no expert on queries- far from it in fact. I suck at them so bad and always need my CPs to take a look at them for me. (Ugh, queries.) But there are a few "rookie mistakes" I've seen among a lot of these queries.
The biggest one is SHOW, DON'T TELL. As writers, we've all heard this rule, and it's easier said than done. But quite a few of the queries TOLD me the themes of the book. They told me it was an adventure, a wild ride, a story of loss, or heartbreak, or humor, etc etc etc, without actually telling me what the book is about! A query should be, WHO IS YOUR MAIN CHARACTER, WHAT DOES HE/SHE WANT, and WHAT /WHO IS STOPPING THEM FROM GETTING IT? Most importantly, the STAKES: what happens when he/she doesn't get what she wants? Don't be vague, and don't use cliches.
Another mistake I saw, on the other side of this spectrum, was a sentence by sentence run-down of what I assumed was an early scene of the book. Ex: "Melanie gets a phone call warning her to stay home. Then the postman comes to the door and gives her the mail. She opens a letter with another warning inside. Melanie is scared and knows she has to stay home." While details are important in a query, this is too much, and also reads very dry.
Another thing I saw was a paragraph about the writer where he/she is saying stuff like, "I've worked on this book for a year and it's finally done," or, "I've always wondered why mermaids are beautiful so I started writing and it's evolved into a story of loss and secrets and friendship..." These are made up examples of course, but NOT NECESSARY. Get straight to your story. Don't talk about yourself at all unless you have writing credits to your name or can give a LEGIT reason why you wrote the story (not, I'm fascinated by mermaids so I decided to write about mermaids- more along the lines of I have a major in underwater basket weaving so I'm qualified to talk about it).
A few small things I noticed: LOTS of rhetorical questions. I think I did this in one of my very first queries, until I learned that agents DO NOT like them. So don't do it. Trust me, just don't. They'll roll their eyes and then delete your query. Also, high word counts, passive voice, repetitive phrases, sentences in the query that made no sense to everything else in the query... some of these are easy fixes, which is why it's IMPERATIVE to have another writer critique your query for you.
As I said before, I am no expert on queries. I find them supremely difficult. That's why we writers need to do our research. Read Query Shark, or the "Successful Queries" series on the Writer's Digest Blog. Workshop your query, get someone to critique it, revise it, then workshop it some more. Put yourself out there and be prepared to learn. It will only help you in the end.