Lock the doors. Close the windows. Make sure the kids are safe. And for the love of Justin Bobby, stay away from the computer. There is a scourge sweeping the nation.
Normally I am a mild-mannered fellow. I always wave “thanks” when a driver lets me into their lane, and when pigeons hit me in the face with their wings when they fly by me, I blame myself. Pigeons just don’t understand how I walk.
Queries beginning with rhetorical questions, however… this I cannot bear.
And I have some bad news. I’m losing. The frequency of queries beginning with rhetorical questions keeps rising. Sweet Magnolia cupcakes, I’m losing!
I know, I know… What a strange battle to be shedding tears over (yes, I cry every time I receive one of these letters. Leave me alone). But I will riddle you this: there is no way to make a rhetorical question an interesting start to a query.
The more extreme the rhetorical question (Have you ever wondered if space aliens live in your underwear drawer?) the more I want to say, “NO.” The more mundane the rhetorical question (Have you ever felt sad?) the more I want to say, “NO.” Only the second no is more of a sarcastic no, like noooooo, rather than the first no, which is more of a serious no. It’s all about inflection, people.
Some have pointed out that very good ad campaigns have utilized rhetorical questions. Some have pointed out that movie pitches often use rhetorical questions. True and true. Query letters and rhetorical questions, however, go together like peanut butter and asphalt.
So I have a challenge for you today: maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I should surrender the battle and pledge fealty to my rhetorical question overlords. Should you have the talent, the wit, the hardy constitution, write a rhetorical question that would make a great beginning to a query letter. Let’s see if it can be done. I’m ready to be convinced.
Or you could craft the wildest, craziest, most hilarious rhetorical question that would ever grace an agent’s inbox. You know. Whichever one you would find more fun.
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Art: A swarm of locusts by Emil Schmidt
“How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?”
Heck, it’s not original, but then again, none of Nathan’s rejected query letters due to rhetorical questions are, either! 😉
What hair color does a bald man put on his license plate?
Why does belly button lint smell like cheese?
What is the air speed velocity of an African Swallow?
Holey hole in a donut! Will the dynamic duo escape the inescapable doom trap as they are suspended over a vat of molten lava by the time we tune in at the same bat time and bat station?
What would you do if the fate of the world was in Justin Bobby’s hands? Would you buy a homeboy phone and a jelly fish tank and spend your last days chillin’? Or would you join Justin Bobby in the epic battle of good vs. evil thereby becoming Nathan Bobby?
Jen A. says
Does truth and time really tell all?
In a world where a two-named boy – pretty as a young Rob Lowe and who wears combat boots to the beach – ditches a woman hotter than he is for a devastatingly easy party girl, what might it take for the boy – the nefarious Justin-Bobby – to leave his transparent, bad-boy persona behind in favor of multi-syllabic words, voice inflection, and a clue?
You said, “I never claimed to be normal.”
And my reply to you is:
Why be normal?
That was the slogan of a button I wore while I worked as a waitress at a college town bar. I almost bought, “You’re ugly and your momma dresses you funny” but I thought the first one might generate more conversation with patrons and thus better tips.
It also reminded me of Young Frankenstein and the brain from Abby something.
Good luck on your Sisyphean task of eradicating rhetorical questions darkening your inbox.
The great flagellations you’ve had, what do you remember most about them?
Anne Dayton says
Nathan, will you marry me?
I think that sounds better as a question. Oh, but you’re talking about rhetorical questions. Sorry, I get confused.
No, but seriously, will you?
Does anyone have any lingering doubts as to whether Nathan Bransford is one of the most charming agents on the planet?
Danette Haworth says
I saw him first. Oh wait, he’s engaged.
Like Susan and Anne? In a world of more than six hundred agents, why do beautiful ladies who happen to be excellent writers fall for one already engaged agent? And why are we sword fighting in a dark warehouse?
Have you ever really cared what happens on The Hills?
David L. McAfee says
How ’bout this one:
Have you ever thought you were a literary agent only to learn you were actually an English teacher to a horde of aspiring novelists?
I’m a new reader, have popped in here on and off. Hi!
I had to comment on this one – I NEVER understand the use of the RQ. I always want to answer it, too. I think it’s even worse when the RQ details a choice. “What if you had to choose between saving your sister’s life, or seven hundred innocent strangers?” … Just doesn’t do it for me.
I’ll be sticking around the comment trails now that I’ve introduced myself. ^_^
Two different ones…
Have you ever smelled something so awful it made your eyes water?
or, how about a question within a question:
Have you ever asked yourself, ‘Where have all my daydreams gone?’
Too bad there’s no web site called 101 Reasons to Stop Writing Rhetorical Questions. 🙂
Church Lady says
Have you ever wondered what people do on Friday afternoons in ‘Chop-Chop’ square in downtown Riyadh?
I liked Serendipity’s hypothetical rhetorical.
Southern Writer says
Which is more intimate, a kiss, or a sentence well-spoken?
Have you ever breezed past 4chan /b/ and wept for humanity, but less than you might have wept for those wasted sacrifices of Bright Eyes,and his pet rat, Thomas?
I know I have.
I will absolutely remember to preface my query to you with “In a world where…”
Hmm perhaps it will be like this:
In a world where elves rule and humans are almost mythical, an intrepid young girl from Earth finds herself thrust into a magical quest to save the world…
(Notes: yes, that is my story. no, that is not my query for it. XDD … unless it’s to you. I shall specifically point this post out in it.
“Dear Mr. Bransford,
I am a longtime reader of your blog, which brings me to the beginning of my query.
In a world where elves rule and …”)
I have found that rhetorical questions on serve best as insider communication; as a phrase of endearment for an inside joke. Such as, "Where's Roger at tonight?" But my meaning is, "why isn't Roger here?" Or just acknowledging his absence. Not literally wanting to know where and what he is doing in place of his absence. If you ask this rhetorical question to someone who doesn't like you and/or Roger(you don't know this person has a beef with you or Roger), they will try to insult you by answering the question as if it was literal. "He's at home I imagine, I don't let him know what I'm doing on my days off." The best thing to do those people is not to ask of said person at all. You're right Nate, Rhetorical Questions are EEEEVVVVVIIIILLLLLL!!!! If you are brave enough, you can ask them, but be prepared to be humiliated or throw it back in their face by saying, "In that case, FUCK YOU! And GOOD DAY!!"
Don't you just hate when you send something and notice something wrong about it right after?
I just sent my query with a rhetorical question as a first line. Then this just so happens to be the first page I read after sending it.
Jean Yi says
Are you Nathan Bransford?
If you are, do you want to offer me representation for this book? Do you think it will be fun? I think it's Hello, Cow, a 45,00-word children's picture book, but what do you think? What do you think about the main character? Why should she go on a quest to stop McDonald's from taking over the world with their poisonous Big Macs? Should she accept the help of Gwen Pattywright, an avid hater of McDonald's? In this book, do you like the fact that the menu is written entirely out of rhetorical questions? Can I illustrate the 300-page book?
Should I tell you that I have no credentials? I love the Lakers, do you? I think you will like this story, so should I tell everyone that it will be the next Harry Potter?
Can I thank you for your time? Should I tell you that my name is Jean Yi?
The Randomist says
I was actually tempted to start my query with "Have you ever had your head rolled up in a car window?"
"Have you ever let go of your sister's wheelchair while going down a hill?"
"Have you ever burnt your own ear with a cigarette?"
There are two burning rhetorical questions in my mind though.
Why does Sally sell shells by the sea shore if you can just walk down there and pick them up for free?
Why don't they sell broccoli in cans?
So I'm guessing I should not start my first query with this:
How far would you go to chase your dreams? Well, fifteen year-old Ellec, just an average boy from the village of Shimahee, wants to find out. His dream? The Sapphire, a magical gem located somewhere in the mountains in the far reaches of Terranom.
And I'm thinking I should change it to:
When fifteen year-old Ellec decides to see how far he must go to chase his dreams-and escape the responsibilities of his village- he realizes he may not be the only one racing to find the Sapphire, though he might be the only who can find it in time and push back the darkness rising in Terranom.
Yeah… I like the second one better. You may be on to something. Thank you!