Query Critique: Iron Makeover

(This is the first of the query critiques I’ll be doing over the next few weeks, probably one or two a week. Look for them on Wednesdays and sometimes Thursdays. Please bear in mind that these will be longer than my typical posts. )

The Query:

Hi there! I’m seeking representation for my 60,000-word non-fiction manuscript IronMakeover: As an Overweight Mom I Battled Fear, the Clock, and Expectations to Become an Ironman Triathlete… Come Along for the Ride.

When a woman finishes her first triathlon (swim+bike+run) it changes her worldview. It changes her perception of what’s possible. She’ll be a stronger, wiser, happier woman, mother, sister, daughter, friend and employee. Training for a triathlon of any distance (sprint to Ironman) helps reshape a woman’s body, family and community.

IronMakeover takes readers from signup to throwup, from good pain to bad pain and from failure to the finish line as they cringe, chafe, marvel, dream and experience the rewards triathlons (of any distance) offer.

I’m a USA Triathlon Level 1 Certified Coach and a USA Cycling Level 3 Coach. In 2009 I created Village Bootcamp, a free weekly bootcamp-style workout held at a neighborhood park. In 2010 I formed Village Athlete LLC and will be offering Village Triathlon in addition to Village Bootcamp.

I’m the only female volunteer moderator of Active.com’s triathlon community. In this community I interact with new and experienced triathletes on a weekly basis generating direct traffic to my blog. [URLs included but redacted.]

IronMakeover is my first manuscript. I worked as an editor of a financial trade magazine for five years with a degree in Family & Consumer Journalism.

Five-time Ironman Champion Heather Gollnick is interested in commenting on my manuscript once contracted. And, Nicole DeBoom, former professional triathlete and owner of Skirt Sports, has agreed to provide endorsements and write a foreword to IronMakeover. I also have supporters at active.com and other professional endurance athletes.

My phone number is —and my email is —.

Thanks for your time and consideration,


My Response:

One of the things I really like about this query is the enthusiasm. This author is really excited about what she does, and excited about her book. That passion should carry her a long way. I also like that this is a book I’m not going to see everyday. The idea of a “regular mom” competing in the Ironman (shouldn’t it be IronWoman?) is intriguing. So this book idea has a few things going for it.

But there are some issues that need to be fixed. First, it seems obvious that the subtitle is way too long. It tries to accomplish too much, and it does it in a corny way (“come along for the ride”). A good subtitle could be five or six words, possibly ten words max.

The biggest concern I have with this query is that I can’t tell what kind of book it is. Is it self-help (i.e. “how to train for the Ironman”)? Is it memoir? Is it supposed to be inspirational? Who’s the audience? The biggest question of all (for a non-fiction book) is not answered: Why would someone pick up this book? For that reason alone, I wouldn’t ask to see more, because I assume the writer hasn’t clearly identified the purpose of her book.

The query feels scattered. The thoughts don’t flow logically and are not expressed clearly. I’d assume the book is the same way.

In paragraph #2, I am unsure whether she is talking about herself (the author) or talking about her reader, or trying to talk about both. This is where the confusion about self-help vs. memoir begins. This paragraph also makes broad, generalizing statements that, because of their lack of specificity, fail to intrigue me. Changes her worldview, changes her perception, she’ll be happier… vague statements like this don’t draw in a reader. Plus… what if I don’t want my worldview changed? What if I’m already happy? It relies on assumptions about the reader that may not be true.

Paragraph #3 is clunky and awkward. The writer is trying to create an experience, but using too many words so that I have a hard time picturing anything. It would be better as two sentences. More importantly, it’s not selling me on the book. I still don’t know why someone would buy it.

Paragraph #4 could be sort of impressive if I had any idea what it meant. The author, if she’s querying general agents (as opposed to someone who specializes in sports-related books, for example), needs to take into account that none of that will mean anything to someone who’s not immersed in the world of triathletes and the Ironman. Take pity on your reader! Let go of the need to rattle off all these names, and instead, help me to understand what they mean. I want to know that you have credentials, but I also need you to educate me about the significance of these credentials within your specialized world.

Paragraph #5 is good but again, help me understand the significance of this. How many women are members of this sports community, and what is your blog traffic like? I have no idea if we’re talking dozens or thousands.

Paragraph #6 is fine, but #7 again suffers from the problem that the names don’t mean anything to me, and the way it’s written, I don’t get a feel for the significance of these women and how much clout they’d lend to the manuscript. Also, I don’t know what it means that the five-time Ironman champion will “comment on the manuscript.” How does that increase its value?

This is a situation where my complete ignorance of the “world” of the book makes it difficult for me to imagine its potential. It’s really important in a case like this to explain to the agent a little bit about the audience, how many people are involved in this sub-culture, and why they’d want to buy this book. I need a sentence explaining to me that thousands of women compete in triathlons each year, and that they need this kind of encouragement because it doesn’t exist in a book as of yet. Or something like that.

I need a description of exactly what this book is intended to do. Does it encourage female athletes? Does it explain the Ironman for women who are interested in considering it? Does it teach a woman how to train for one? Would it be relevant for any woman considering a marathon or triathlon? Or is it simply a memoir of one woman’s experience?

I happen to be a person interested in sports, I’ve considered training for a triathlon (but haven’t done it yet), and I’m ripe to be your audience—yet I haven’t been drawn in by the query. I think you should take a a few steps back and look at your project, decide WHO your audience is and WHY you’ve written the book, then work harder at making it appeal to that audience while also educating the agent about that audience.

If this isn’t strictly a memoir but rather self-help, it needs to appeal to the felt need of the prospective reader. What is her felt-need? Identify it, then convey with the query that you’re going to meet it.

I’d recommend this writer take some time to carefully rework the query, sentence by sentence. Read it out loud to help determine if it sounds right. Run it by a couple of people you can trust to give you honest feedback. Let your enthusiasm carry you through the hard work, and let that passion come through in the final query, but don’t let it keep you from being able to write a clear and powerful letter that accurately conveys the essence of your book.

Readers: Feel free to comment, agree or disagree.

Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. Elizabeth on October 28, 2012 at 6:17 PM

    Rachelle, Thank you so much for this post! I’m working on my query letter now, and this example is incredibly helpful. Thanks for the insight!

  2. dresses on January 3, 2012 at 12:10 PM

    What’s your email? I have some quetions 🙂

  3. Martha Ramirez on March 19, 2010 at 12:49 PM

    >Thank you, Rachelle for taking the time out to dissect this query.

    I find it very interesting to hear your thoughts and why the query turned you off. You offered some great points.

  4. Anonymous on March 19, 2010 at 2:32 AM

    >This project seems like maybe the author should write a series of magazine articles to start with, to build her platform. She's clearly got expertise, and the subject matter seems interesting, so maybe starting with excerpts from the manuscript in other publications would be a way to focus the audience?

  5. Sara Cox Landolt on March 18, 2010 at 9:45 AM

    >Rachelle & readers,
    Thanks for your feedback!

  6. Anonymous on March 18, 2010 at 12:36 AM

    >There was a certain blandness to this. If the story is about how an ordinary housewife became a champion triathele, the pitch is missing the drama of the personal story. If it's a general how-to book, that strikes me as a bit of a snooze. Seems more like a free ebook to sell her training services.

  7. Mira on March 17, 2010 at 8:57 PM

    >Rachelle, thank you for your response.

    I'm afraid I respectfully disagree, though. Let's say that you do need a writer who can sell themselves – although sidetrack for a moment, I think an agent as skilled as yourself can easily teach any writer how to sell themselves. However, for the sake of argument, let's say that you do.

    But all of your feedback to the above queiryer wasn't about selling herself. It was about missing information. So, now you're stuck. You either have to ask her for the information, or pass on the query. That's either time spent with 14 billion other queries still waiting, or you risk passing up a good project.

    If you get the information up front, and decide you like the project, then you can find out who this writer is – but you'll be putting time into a potential client. You can see how they handle themselves in their interactions with you, and you can teach them what they don't know.

    Oh, goodness, I really believe I'm right here. I wish someone would make me an agent so I can prove it. You should hire me, Rachelle, and let me prove it. I can promise you I'd not only quickly have a solid client base, but I'd have a solid client base of bestsellers!

    Now, obviously, I lack confidence, and whether I'm skilled or not remains to be seen, but I would think that a. a skilled, confident writer would want to shine with their actual writing and, b. that a skilled, confident agent would look for the best projects and the best writing first, and then fill in any gaps.

    You're never going to find someone perfect, but lots of people can be taught how to write good queries. Very few people can write a good book.

    Thanks for the opportunity to talk about this, Rachelle. I appreciate it.

  8. gael lynch on March 17, 2010 at 4:17 PM

    >This was a perfect way to sit in the driver's seat with you, Rachelle. I hope the author will take your advice to heart! I've recently had a very pointed and clear response to a manuscript. I now have a laundry list and a revision plan right in the palm of my hand! Opportunity is knocking, and that's a call I would never want to miss.

    Thanks for letting us in for a peek!

  9. Timothy Fish on March 17, 2010 at 3:55 PM

    >"I have to think that writers who are skilled and confident would do anything to avoid a form that doesn't allow them to really shine."

    I don't know that I would do absolutely anything to avoid one, but I can think of a number of things that I've considered doing with a query letter that would be difficult with a form.

  10. Rachelle on March 17, 2010 at 3:42 PM

    >Mira, some agencies DO have a form, but for me, that would be missing the point. I want to see your writing style, and I want to be assured that you can express yourself coherently. I also want to see that you have a feel for how to sell yourself and your book, because you'll need to do that many times throughout the publishing process. I'm not a fan of shortcuts. Show me your stuff! The query letter is the perfect opportunity to do that. I have to think that writers who are skilled and confident would do anything to avoid a form that doesn't allow them to really shine.

  11. Nicole on March 17, 2010 at 3:30 PM

    >I agree with Rachelle. I'm still not sure exactly what the book is (self-help, inspirational, etc.) This made it confusing to see who would be interested in it. Nail down your audience and define what kind of work this is.

  12. Ruth in the Desert on March 17, 2010 at 3:23 PM

    >Thanks! This is helpful.

  13. Anonymous on March 17, 2010 at 3:14 PM

    >Can't wait till you do fiction queries…At first, I got lots of positive replies but they dwindled as the economy tanked. But with a few tweaks, I'm getting some good responses and requests again. Thanks for the helpful post!

  14. Ross on March 17, 2010 at 3:03 PM

    >Thanks for this post! It's very practical and gives me a hands-on perspective of how agents critique queries. I would have never thought of some of the points your highlighted.

  15. Liberty Speidel on March 17, 2010 at 2:51 PM

    >Ah! I didn't run it through a word count. Everything seems long, I suppose, when it's in a narrow column. 🙂

    Thanks for pointing that out!

  16. Mira on March 17, 2010 at 2:18 PM

    >First, thanks so much to the author of this query for allowing it to be posted.

    This was educational. When I first read the query, I thought 'wow, this is great.' I still do, but as Rachelle pointed out some things that were missing, it was illuminating.

    On the other hand, this soooo proves my point (sorry Rachelle). For non-fiction, especially, a fill-in form would be so much more effective and efficient.

    Thesis and/or message:
    Brief description of content:
    Intended Audience:
    Contact information:

    So much easier for everyone! All the information you need at your fingertips, no time spent asking for further information, no wondering if you passed on something good because all the information wasn't present.

  17. RCWriterGirl on March 17, 2010 at 1:35 PM

    >Really thought that was a useful analysis. Thanks for posting it, Rachelle.

    I had one thought you hadn't mentioned. To me, it seemed like, in paragraph 5, she shot down the whole query. She says she's the only woman moderator in this online triathlon community. When I saw that, I thought: "there's no audience for this book. Clearly women aren't drawn to triathlons." Maybe that's the wrong conclusion, but if I were the author, I'd be worried about leaving that impression. I'm sure if she listens to your advice and identifies the audience, the query will be improved. But it's also important not to give the impression your audience is very limited or nonexistent.

  18. T. Anne on March 17, 2010 at 12:57 PM

    >What great guidance Rachelle. I'm sure as soon as she answers the memoir or felt need questions she'll be off in the right direction. I too loved her enthusiasm.

    I'm looking forward to the fiction queries. This sounds like it will be a great series of posts.

  19. writer jim on March 17, 2010 at 12:33 PM

    >I think the writer's enthuseism and stated credentials are enough to show her book certainly has possibilities.
    Of course, her query could be done much better. However, I think it gives sufficient info to get a request for more info and a writing sample.
    However,I think it should be sent to agents that deal specifically with lots of fitness, etc, type books. Probably it should be offered to fitness magazines as just a short story first.

  20. themotherlode on March 17, 2010 at 11:58 AM

    >Great stuff….even more fun than the query examples in the Writer's Market. (One of my favorite parts with each new edition.)

  21. Nikole Hahn on March 17, 2010 at 11:51 AM

    >I'm still trying to determine my audience. My book could be enjoyed by 18-25 year-olds, but it might also be enjoyed by 30-40 year olds. It's a fantasy-Christian novel. How do you determine audience?

  22. Carla Burke on March 17, 2010 at 11:36 AM

    >Very helpful information!

  23. Tamika: on March 17, 2010 at 11:22 AM

    >I really appreciate that you broke down each paragraph. Giving us the positives and the negatives sent the message home for me.

    Thanks Rachelle! I look forward to learning more with this installament of posts.

  24. LS Murphy on March 17, 2010 at 10:46 AM

    >The one thing that caught my attention that threw me off was the sentence "Five-time Ironman Champion Heather Gollnick is interested in commenting on my manuscript once contracted." THe first thing I thought of after I read that was "Then why hasn't she already?"
    Your other comments were spot on with what I thought. As a non-athlete who always desires to be an athlete (someday), this would be great as either a self help book or an inspirational memoir.
    Interesting. Thanks for posting it.

  25. John on March 17, 2010 at 10:31 AM

    >Thank you so much for this post. You just saved me about 20 hours of work! This is a great use of your blog – thanks!

  26. Rachelle on March 17, 2010 at 10:23 AM

    >Liberty: This query is around 300 words, which is about 2/3 of a page if it were single-spaced on regular sized letter paper. So the length is just right. It's better to go a bit long, and adequately convey your book, than to try too hard to be brief and fail to communicate what you need to. As a general guideline, 300 to 450 words is good for a query, but if you have a non-fiction book that's more involved, and you want to really convey your platform (which is necessary to sell non-fiction), you could safely go over that as long as the words you're writing are relevant as well as interesting.

  27. Liberty Speidel on March 17, 2010 at 10:16 AM

    >When I first read this earlier this morning, no one had commented (and I wasn't sure I wanted to be first!), and I needed more time to think about the query.

    While I agree with your assessment about the title and about the disjointed nature of the overall query, one thing that struck me was the length of the query. I write fiction, and at the most, the examples I've seen of query letters are 4 – 5 paragraphs. So, this one seemed quite lengthy to me, but maybe that's normal for non-fiction?

    One thing I've begun implementing is to have a beta reader or readers look at my query letters with the same intensity that I have my manuscript looked at. While a query is different in many ways than the manuscript, I do feel it's important to have another set or three of eyes look it over to see what I cannot.

  28. Susan Panzica - EternityCafe on March 17, 2010 at 9:56 AM

    Thank you so much for this helpful, very specific critique. I find your comments to be valuable in helping other writers (particularly nonfiction) like me formulate our query letters.
    I too connected with the writer's passion for her subject, especially since my son, my inlaws and I just had a triathalon discussion last Friday night! I'm thinking I could use a little help from her "village people!"

  29. Marla Taviano on March 17, 2010 at 9:42 AM

    >This is a great idea to share queries and your critiques. Thank you!!

    Working on my own under-10-word subtitle right now…

  30. Jessica Nelson on March 17, 2010 at 9:32 AM

    >I really liked the enthusiasm in this query. It kind of just jumped out.
    The thing that concerned me were the sentence structures. Alot of lists going on in there. 🙂
    I liked your crit. This sounds interesting, but I think it needs to be more specific too.

    On a side note, my mom just did a triathlon. I laughed when she told me, even though I love sports, I'm not sure I'm as brave as her, but she LOVED every minute. Seriously, in every pic of her that the triathlon people took, she wore a huge smile. 🙂
    So I can really see how this book could be appealing, it just needs to be more focused.

    Interesting stuff! Thanks for critting and thanks to the querier for sharing her letter!

  31. Timothy Fish on March 17, 2010 at 9:30 AM

    >To be fair, I doubt I would read a book like this, but I’m still going to disagree with you somewhat. On first read-through I missed that the sentence at the end of the first paragraph was a subtitle, but I’m not sure how we could take this to be anything but a memoir. But you’re right, the title has problems, so maybe the author isn’t conveying what she intends. Personally, I would have gone more for a title like IronMakeover: How an Overweight Mom Became an Ironman.

    Overall, there just doesn’t seem to be anything that makes this book stand out. The most impressive thing was that she created “Village Bootcamp,” until I saw the word “a” as in “held at a neighborhood park.” If she had created Village Bootcamp and said that it is a workout held at hundreds of neighborhood parks around the country I might be more interested. As it is, it’s about as noteworthy as someone organizing a ladies’ Bible study at church—a good thing to do, but not uncommon. For that matter, I’m not sure that going from being out of shape to participating in an Ironman is that uncommon either. It would make for entertaining conversation over Sunday dinner, but I doubt it’s worth a publisher investing several thousand dollars.

  32. Rachel on March 17, 2010 at 9:19 AM

    >Incredibly useful. I thought the idea was compelling (regular mom becomes a triathelete), so I glazed over the query mistakes when I was reading it, having already decided the the project could be cool. Very helpful!

  33. sharonbially on March 17, 2010 at 9:07 AM

    Interesting post. As a publicist, I'm intrigued by the following comment in your response's third paragraph: "The biggest question of all (for a non-fiction book) is not answered: Why would someone pick up this book?" I ask: why the caveat about a NON-fiction book? We all know fiction is extremely hard to sell, both to editors and to readers. In the current market, shouldn't fiction stories generally also demonstrate a clearer reason for their appeal? The number of novels that sell so painfully few copies — often despite a PR push — would imply that even when they're in keeping with the latest trends, they're simply not that enticing to readers. Of course, some rare stories are purely and simply beautiful and well-written, which is appealing in and of itself (although this also subjective). Yet even with my fiction writer's hat on, I can't help thinking that overall, novelists, too (and their agents and editors) need to do some real soul-searching about why a READER would pick up their books.

  34. Sara Cox Landolt on March 17, 2010 at 8:21 AM

    Thanks for including me in your series! I appreciate your feedback & look forward to reading suggestions from your readers.
    Thank you!
    p.s. I do hope you sign up for an event. Relays are great ways to experience a triathlon for the first time. Pick the segment (swim, bike or run) that you like most and then assign two friends to the other segments. Each person does a segment. Let me know what questions you have.

  35. Jason on March 17, 2010 at 8:19 AM

    >Wow Rachelle…this is INCREDIBLY useful. Totally appreciate it.

    Other than the fact that you don't rep middle grade science fiction, you're the perfect agent. 🙂

  36. birdermurdermomma on March 17, 2010 at 8:11 AM

    This is very helpful for a writer! I love the way you focus on audience, market and importance of the book. All of us tend to think everyone else knows the value of what we're writing about, but you clearly demonstrate how important it is for the writer to explain their 'world' to the agent. Personally, I find pinpointing genre is the toughest thing when I write, since I write books that cross over category lines. Is my book a Christian thriller or a speculative novel? Is my comic mystery a humor novel or a cozy? Thanks for the advice!

  37. Sea on March 17, 2010 at 8:08 AM

    >Thanks Rachelle, it's really helpful to see your thoughts paragraph by paragraph.

    I can definitely see what you mean, and it really brings to life the point that the quality of a query letter reflects very strongly on your preconception of the manuscript.

    From the overly long subtitle (especially the last 5 words), to the long and sometimes awkward sentences that need careful reading to be understood – it coloured my impression of manuscript (of course the manuscript might be great, but at this point it's your first impression that counts).

    It also helped me clarify a little where it's important to be specific vs vague. – Thanks again