Obvious Query Mistakes to Avoid

Posted on Mar, 21, 2010

Recently, I joined YALitChat, a great online community where YA writers and readers get together to help each other with everything from query letters to synopsis repair. When I joined the group, I initially intended to shamelessly mooch off of everyone’s help *ahem not really ahem* but I soon found myself addicted to giving query critiques.

Altruistic Reason for Giving Query Critiques: I have received substantial advice and help with mine, and the right thing to do is return the favor by helping other writers with theirs. We’re all in the same boat (but I have an oar!).

Selfish Reason for Giving Query Critiques: Okay, believe what you will, but the more you read and nit pick at other’s critiques, the better you get at writing your own critique. No, I’m not lying. =___= Every time I see a no-no on another’s query, my brain is filing that away so that I don’t repeat the mistake on my own query.

With that being said, I have noticed a couple of reoccurring problems with queries. Some are pretty obvious and can be found on the blacklist on almost every agent’s blog. Some are not so obvious, and those are the ones that are harder to fix. I have compiled a list of these features in the hopes that it will help those who are attempting to sell their writing dreams in a single page. ^_^

Obvious Query Mistakes to Avoid:

1) Write in 3rd person, present tense.

Even if your story is in 8th person, future tense, write your query in 3rd person, present tense. Why? Because this is a BUSINESS LETTER.

2) Don’t mention previous rejections.

Please don’t mention whether another agent/editor/publisher/pet has passed on your book, even if they rejected you with positive comments. The logical mindset for any agent who reads that is “Well, others in the publishing business think your story is no good, why would I be interested in it?” and if you mention the positive comments, the next reasonable thing that goes through an agent’s mind is “If it was so good, why didn’t they offer representation?” Neither of these thoughts are things you want going through the agent’s mind.

3) Don’t mention your paper has been professionally edited.

To you, this sounds like it ought to strengthen your query. It doesn’t. It kicks your query from the slush pile to the trash. Agents need to know that YOU can edit. And trust me, if you can’t edit, you can’t consider yourself a writer.

4) Cite specialized personalizations instead of generalities.

Agent Query, Writer’s Market, Jeff Herman’s Book of Literary Agents ARE NOT personalizations. These resources contain just about every name in the industry and do not show the agent you picked them to query for a specific reason. Agent blogs, interviews, conference appearances ARE personalizations.

5) Don’t over compare.

This refers to comparing your book to anything that is a New York Times bestseller that has been made into a blockbuster movie. This also refers to comparing your book to more than 2 others. It is important you know what niche your book will fit in, and citing numerous comparisons makes it look like you don’t know what your book is about. Pick one or two books that did WELL and accurately reflect the vibe of your story.

6) Round word count.

At the very least, round to the nearest 5,000, not hundred, not ten. FIVE THOUSAND! You don’t need the exact word count (89,237) because chances are, you will have to do even more edits later and this number will fluctuate. Round it to 90,000. Don’t overcomplicate a simple thing.

7) Make title stand out.

Bold it, italicize it, don’t strike through it. I personally prefer to put my title in ALL CAPS because everyone uses a different e-mail program and what may be bold on your e-mail could end up as &*^%^ on another computer.

8 ) Be professional.

Once again, THIS IS A BUSINESS LETTER! Do not address the agent as Hey Man! Wassup? Dude! Yo Home Skillet Biscuit! What’s Crackalacking Dawg? Please use proper punctuation and spelling. Don’t type like u r txtng ur friends wit no grammatical structure. You wouldn’t turn in a paper to a professor like that, and you better not turn in a query like that to an agent.

9) Don’t lie.

This one should be pretty obvious… but then again, people are still messing up here. Don’t claim you’ve met the agent before when you haven’t. Don’t claim an agent’s client referred you when they didn’t. Don’t claim to be a published author when you’re not. Basically…DON’T LIE!

10) Spell the Agent’s Name Write. (punnage!)

It literally takes less than 30 seconds to double check that the name is spelled right. You’ve taken years to write your manuscript. Don’t let 30 seconds screw you over. Also, please double check gender. I know I would be pissed off if anyone ever called me Mr. and you do not want an agent to read your query pissed off.

11) Don’t mention other books you’re working on.

Pitch only one project at a time. Yes, you may have ten other ready novels sitting under your bed, but in this query letter, you are only selling one title. 1 letter = 1 book. It’s simple math. Don’t say anything about any other WIP you have at all! You don’t want to sound wishy washy.

12) Don’t say this has to be a series.

If you are planning a series, mention that your story can be evolved into a series. But until the first book actually sells well, you shouldn’t count on publishers investing money in you for a second book. By stating your book has to be a series, you are showing that your book cannot stand alone (which is bad!) and that you have delusions of grandeur (which is bad!).

13) Don’t sound desperate.

Have some dignity. Don’t beg, plead, whine, cry, bribe, extort, blackmail (pulls out thesaurus). It’s similar to having children. If you love your book, have faith in it and trust it to win the hearts of others.

14) Don’t profess your undying love of writing.

We know you love writing. Everyone who sat down long enough to finish a whole book loves writing. By doing this, you have only managed to add to your level of psychopathic creepiness which will only turn the agent away.

15) Don’t forget your contact information (bottom of equery, top of snail mail query).

Good Lord, the publishing business is hard enough to break into as it is. Why on earth would you shoot yourself down by forgetting this? It takes less than the 30 seconds needed to look up an agents name (because hopefully, you know where you live and what your phone number is off the top of your head).

Well, this ended up being longer than I predicted so I will post the Not So Obvious Query Mistakes in a separate post. Hope this helps everyone with their query efforts! ^_~

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