I once sent a rejection letter to an agent. I rediscovered it recently in an old file. The agent had sent a form letter that began, "Dear Friend" – not even "Dear Writer" – and condescended from there. I returned it with editorial comments, paraphrasing his note: "You must understand I get dozens of these every week, and this simply does not meet industry standards . . ."
Instead, I should have put that creative energy into writing a less clueless query letter.
The biggest mistake beginning novelists make is writing queries that sound like, well, beginning novelists. Certain triggers set off the agent's "amateur" detectors and get our brilliant sample pages stuffed in the recycle bin without a glance.
Here are twelve sure-fire rejection-getters:
1. Whining & Paranoia
It's not a good idea to mention you've had over a thousand rejections and you're thinking of taking the John Kennedy Toole way out. All novelists are 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 carnage in the Middle East, or the coming Rapture.
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.
Give a one sentence picture of who you are: "I'm a former Texas librarian living with my politician husband and twin daughters in Washington DC."
5. Irrelevant Publishing Credits
I see this complaint on all the 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 fiction and creative nonfiction, plus articles specifically related to the novel's subject matter – for example, 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
Do say you were second runner-up for the "Best Paranormal-Chick Lit-Police Procedural" award at the MWA conference, but don't mention that a judge told you later over martinis that if they'd given an award for "best vampire 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.
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
Pretentiousness invites ridicule. Note: All novels are fiction. Calling it a "fiction novel" sets off immediate nitwit-detector alarms.
10. 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.
11. 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.
12. 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.
Also pretty stupid: writing rejections of rejections. I'm hoping that agent I rejected is out of the business.
The ideal query letter contains the following 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
If you recognize the bad agents, do your research, and avoid 1 thorugh 12 and use the four ideal paragraphs, then you've done the best you can. I wish you the very best of luck!
Read the previous part to this series.
Anne R. Allen is a California novelist and book editor who has been living part time in the UK. Her latest comic novel, The Best Revenge, An Historical Novel Of The 1980s, (Babash-Ryan) debuted in the UK in 2005 and is available from amazon.co.uk and most UK bookshops. Her first novel with Babash-Ryan, Food Of Love is available from amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com as well as amazon.co.uk firstname.lastname@example.org