Before we begin let me just clear up the misconception! I’m not a literary agent. I’m an INTERN for a literary agent, and an INTERN for a publishing company. Everything you see below are things that I’ve noticed while evaluating queries (my God, I’ve read probably 1,000 over the last few months), as well as research into these facts. Feel free to take that information how you will!
Okay, here we go.
1) Being Too Vague In Your Query
Listen up, my friends. Your second paragraph in your query is all about your plot – don’t mess up by being too vague!
Ex of Bad 2nd Paragraph: Lisa is an average girl who just wants to make it through high school. But during a school play, something terrible happens, and now, all of her dreams are on standstill. There’s only one person who can help her in a time like this – Bob. But can he help her get back on track, after everything they went through in the past? Can Lisa conquer everything holding her back?
Ex of Good 2nd Paragraph: Seventeen-year-old Lisa’s dream is to surf through high school as quickly as possible, without drawing attention to herself. Keeping her head down seems to work just fine – at least, until a malfunction at the annual school play wounds one of the onstage actors, and Lisa finds herself the primary suspect of the event. Now, there’s only one person who can confirm her alibi – her ex-boyfriend, Bob. But old grudges die hard, and Bob still hasn’t forgiven her for everything she did to him two years ago. Now, Lisa must try to rectify her past mistakes and convince the boy she hurt to come forward with the truth or…well, Lisa’s graduation might remain nothing more than a distant dream.
Try to make your plot-paragraph about 200 words. At the most, 250. At the least, 150.
2) Dear Agent / To Whom It May Concern / Hello! / Dear Sir/Ma’am
This is the obvious one that most people already know about, but damn, you’d be surprised how many times I see this in the query inbox. I know what you’re thinking. “Why should I personalize my query when I’ll probably just get a form rejection in return?” I used to wonder that, too. Actually, I still wonder that! (F*ck those form rejects, man…no, I’m not bitter.) But hey, if you don’t at least write down their name (CORRECTLY), it’s a surefire way to get yourself dropkicked from the inbox. Prove you’ve done the barest minimum of research.
3) Comparing Your Book to Classics/Bestsellers
Saying “my book is the next Harry Potter” is an obvious no-no, but what about classics? Lord of the Flies? To Kill a Mockingbird? No – just don’t do it. Unless your book is a literal reimagining of a classic novel (like a fairy-tale spinoff of a Grimm Brothers story), it’s best to leave the oldies out of your letter. If anything, that just tells the agent that you’re not familiar with the current market. Even worse, if you’re comparing it to a bestseller that everyone has seen the movie for (Twilight, Hunger Games, Fifty Shades, etc.) it’ll indicate to the agent that you have unrealistic, if not arrogant, expectations.
4) Saying “Nobody Has Ever Written This Book Before.”
True, nobody has ever written your exact book with your exact words in that exact sequence (unless you’re plagiarizing, in which case, DUDE). But don’t get ahead of yourself. There are eight billion people on this planet, so it might come off as conceited if you’re claiming that you’re the only person who has ever written a story like this, or has ever taken a stab at a particular concept.
5) Starting With A Rhetorical Question
Oh gosh, guys, please don’t do this. “Have you ever thought about what it would be like to ____?” No, we probably haven’t, and if we don’t want to, the agent will immediately lose interest. The more generic it is, the more annoying it is (Ex: Have you ever felt depressed?) This isn’t a good way to hook your future agent, and some see it as being lazy. If you want the agent to stop reading past the first sentence, this is a fabulous starting point.
6) Query Longer Than One Page
Your query should be single-spaced with 6-8pt spacing between each paragraph. It should be roughly between 250-350 words, and between 3-5 paragraphs, written in an easily readable 11/12-point font. Doing this ensures it will be less than a page long. Agents have hundreds, if not thousands, of queries in their inboxes. Don’t make agents scroll to get to the “Sincerely,”
7) Querying An Incomplete Novel
The ONLY exception to this rule is if you’re querying nonfiction. Your fiction novel needs to be completed, polished, read fifty times by fifty people strapped down to chairs in your basement, burned on a stake, rewritten in blood four times, kissed by the hands of God Himself, and force-fed to sixteen editors also strapped down in your basement before you decide to query it.
8) Calling It A “Fiction Novel”
You don’t need to say this. Unless you specifically say “nonfiction,” we’re going to assume it’s a fiction book, so be specific. You need to mention the category (PB, YA, MG) and the genre (Romance, contemporary, thriller, etc.) If you’re querying adult, you can just write the genre (ex: I hope you’ll take a look at my romantic comedy, ___).
9) Using An Old Email Platform
I know all of you just LOVE your AOL e-mail accounts (I still have mine from when I was seven), but using it for queries isn’t exactly effective for two reasons. 1) Query formats can be messed up, altered, jumbled, etc. when translating from an old email account to Gmail (which is probably what a lot of agents use), making your query harder to read. 2) It suggests you aren’t keeping up with technological trends.
10) Not Following Guidelines
Addressing the agent by name and following the submissions guidelines on their website are the easiest two things you can do. If they want the query letter, first five pages, and synopsis, then give it to them, damn it! It sucks when I’m reading a query that I really like and then I scroll down to see…no sample pages. Don’t assume all agents want that query + first ten pages or Query Only.
If none of this stuff applies to you, you’re doing great! 🙂 Hope this helps!
❤ Amanda / https://twitter.com/findmeediting