The biggest mistake beginning novelists make is writing queries that sound as if they were written by—um—beginning novelists. I was cleaning out my files recently and found some seriously cringe-making queries I sent out a decade ago. I didn’t make all of the following mistakes, but I have to admit to several.
Here are some surefire rejection-getters:
1) WHINING and/or PARANOIA: It’s not a good idea to mention you’ve had over a thousand rejections and you’re thinking of taking the Sylvia Plath way out. Writers tend to be suicidal. This is not news. And don’t blabber about copyrights and pilfer-proofing your intellectual property. There are no new ideas; just new ways of writing them.
2) GETTING CHUMMY. It’s a business letter. Don’t cozy up with personal asides about the unfairness of the publishing industry, the health care debate, or the coming Rapture.
3) VERBOSITY: A query should be one page—under 500 words.
4) TOO MUCH INFORMATION: No matter what you’ve heard about “platforms,” most agents say they don’t care about a novelist’s hobbies or what we do for bucks—except stuff specifically related to the book. If your heroine works at a magazine edited by Beelzebub in Italian shoes, yes, do mention you’ve done time at Vogue, but keep to yourself how many years you’ve been a greeter at WalMart.
5) IRRELEVANT PUBLISHING CREDITS: I see this complaint on lots of agent blogs. They don’t want to know about your PhD dissertation on Quattrocento Tuscan pottery, or your Hint from Heloise on uses for dryer lint. When giving “publishing credits,” cite only fiction or creative nonfiction, plus articles specifically related to the novel’s subject matter—e.g. if your novel is about death by snack cake overdose, do mention your paper for The Lancet on the toxic properties of Twinkies.
6) EXTRANEOUS KUDOS: It’s OK to say you were second runner-up for the “Best Paranormal-Chick Lit-Police Procedural” award at the RWA conference, but don’t mention that a judge told you later over martinis that if they’d given an award for “best vampire-werewolf sex scene,” you would have won.
7) OMIT VITAL INFORMATION: Your first paragraph should give the book’s title, genre and word count. A great hook helps, but it’s gotta be attached to something.
8) GIMMICKS: No matter what your marketing friends tell you, don’t make your query into a jigsaw puzzle; include a pair of Barbie shoes with your SASE; or send the query by registered mail. Ditto printing your query with pink ink in the Curlz font or sending it in a black envelope shaped like a bat. This WILL get you noticed, but not in a good way.
9) CALL YOURSELF A NOVELIST IF YOU HAVEN’T PUBLISHED A NOVEL WITH A LEGITIMATE PRESS. Self-publishing isn’t considered publishing unless you’ve sold thousands of copies. Remember: pretentiousness invites ridicule.
10) CALL IT A “FICTION NOVEL.” This sets off immediate nitwit-detector alarms. All novels are fiction.
11) QUERY AN UNFINISHED PROJECT. If you don’t have an ending yet, you’re probably a year away from thinking about representation. Don’t send a query on a novel that isn’t finished, critiqued, polished, edited, and proofread.
12) MASS QUERY EVERY AGENT IN THE BUSINESS. Nobody will read past a generic “dear agent,” even if you’ve been smart enough to blind copy your mass mailing. Address each agent personally, and indicate why you’ve chosen her.
13) QUERY MORE THAN ONE BOOK AT ONCE. So you’ve got inventory. Most of us do. But don’t present all twelve unpublished novels and ask an agent to choose. Pick one. It’s OK to mention other titles in the final paragraph, especially if they’re part of a series, but hold to one pitch.
The ideal query letter contains four paragraphs: 1) Title, genre, and word count, plus a logline with an irresistible hook. 2) A brilliant, heart-stopping, three-sentence synopsis. 3) A one sentence bio with relevant awards and credits. 4) A nice thank you, mentioning why you chose to contact this particular agent.