It’s been a while since I talked about query letters—one of my favorite topics! So today I’m sharing an updated version of a post I did for Helium.com, in case you missed it. Hope you find it useful!
Warning: this paragraph contains information that may disturb some readers. Still with me? Good—I love intrepid readers! So here it is: when I worked for Nelson Literary Agency (until this past summer), on average we received nearly 500 email query letters a week and over 25,000 a year. That’s pretty typical of a successful agency. And unless an agent is brand new, he or she can only take on a handful of new clients a year; in the case of NLA, that meant a dozen or so between two agents.
Zoiks. Why am I telling you this? After all, there’s plenty of negative chatter out there, and I blog to encourage and empower writers—or at least that’s the message I hope to convey. The thing is, I see dozens of queries every day that contain the same set of preventable mistakes. By avoiding them, you’ll greatly increase your chance of standing out from the crowd and getting your manuscript the attention you want.
Here are some of the most common faux-pas I’ve seen, and what to do about them:
1) Starting a query with “Dear Sir.” This is especially cringe-worthy when it’s an agency where all the agents are female. (I saw it all the time. Seriously, which century are we in?) But “Dear Sir or Madam” isn’t much better. Both give the impression that you’ve fired off a volley of queries to no one in particular. Agents are looking for savvy writers who don’t skimp on research. Not just in finding out the name of the agent you want to target within the agency, but the kinds of projects he or she has represented in the past, recent successes, the agent’s current wish list, etc. Mentioning a couple of these things in your query (without going overboard with the flattery) will make a good impression.
2) Bragging or belittling yourself. Believe it or not, agents don’t take kindly to statements like “This is going to be the next [insert publishing phenomenon title] and I’d hate to be you if you reject it.” Chances are, the agent will be willing to take that risk! But being too humble won’t win you points either. I’ve seen a lot of queries that begin or end like this: “I haven’t published before and I’m pretty new to this so I hope you’ll still consider me.” Some of the most successful authors had their first big hit as a debut; agents won’t write you off just because you haven’t published before. Much like a cover letter for a job application, don’t draw attention to your weaknesses or lack of experience—emphasize what you do have: a great premise and the writing chops to back it up. Bottom line: shoot for a tone of “modest confidence”—it’s not an oxymoron!
3) Pitching or querying an unfinished manuscript. Let’s say you’re about half or three-quarters finished with your novel. That’s enough for an agent to gauge your work, right? Not so fast. If you’re a debut author, it’s very unlikely an agent will agree to look at a sample of your work before the manuscript is finished, and that’s because of the likelihood you’ll end up making major changes to the current draft. It’s understandable that writers hope to get some feedback during the process of writing a novel, but I’d caution against seeking that from an agent; that’s not their job until you’re on their client roster, and the main impression you’re going to leave is disappointment or frustration when they find out the manuscript isn’t finished. Get feedback along the way from your critique group or a writing coach, and save your query for the final draft.
4) Telling the reader how to think or feel. Before you send your submission, read through your query one more time and ask yourself, “What is my main focus here?” If it’s to introduce your protagonist and give a provocative teaser about the plot, go ahead and pat yourself on the back and hit “send.” If, on the other hand, your aim is to convey a “message,” such as the importance of teaching teens about conservation, or the inherent evil of a certain political party, it’s time for a revision. Heavy-handed or preachy novels turn readers off, and so will a query. Also to be avoided are statements like “The reader will experience intense heartbreak and joy along with my characters.” If you’ve hooked us in the query, that should go without saying.
5) Waxing philosophical. Does your query contain more than a sentence or two about the theme of your novel or the kinds of meaning that your characters will discover? Careful. This is along the same lines as telling the reader what to think. Agents, like readers in general, don’t like to be lectured on what a novel is about—they want to feel as if they discovered something on their own through the subtle complexities of your writing, and this applies to the novel itself and the query. It can be trickiest for literary novels, where theme and underlying meaning are explored more overtly. But you still have to give a glimpse of the “meat” of the story—the characters and what they do. Otherwise, your query will feel generic and agents will be left asking, “But is there a story here?”
You can find more query letter tips and resources on my Word Cafe Facebook page.