Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Top Ten Query Letter Mistakes

By Julie Wright

I went to lunch with one of my favorite authors last week, J. Scott Savage. Going to lunch with him is like being put on a battery charger. I always leave him feeling better about myself and the things I want to accomplish in my life. He made a comment that bears repeating:

If you succeed at everything you do, you probably aren't trying challenging enough things.

I concede the point, Mr. Savage. And this should feel like good news to those of us who are consistently tackling mountains. At least we know we aren't complacent.

Writer's Digest did a top ten list on query letter mistakes. I read through the list and got a few chuckles from it, wiped my brow in relief that I never have made any of those mistakes, and then wondered if they got the list right. While they are dead on with some of them, there were other mistakes that weren't mentioned that certainly deserve mentioning. So I made my own list. I borrowed a couple from theirs which I will note with a asterisk so you know where I blatantly plagiarized.

1. Beauty is only skin deep: you wrote your query but have a coffee cup stain on the paper, or you printed it out on paper that smells like day old soup. Or if you sent an e-query, your formatting gets lost on the way to the agent's computer and now looks like a jumbled mess, or your signature line has a cheesy picture of your cat in it. Remember the importance of first impressions. The moment they look at your query, you want their first impression to be good. You don't want them remembering you as the author whose query smells like soup.

2. Thy humble servant: I know it seems like it a good idea to confess your lack of experience but agents and editors don't want to know that you have no idea what you're doing even if you do think humility might win you brownie points. If you have no publishing credits, fine, but don't write things like, "This is my first book ever and though I don't have any publishing credits, I'm really hoping you'll give me a chance." Be confident. You wrote a book! You should feel accomplished.

3. Cut the cheese: I'm not talking about passing gas here, I'm talking about literally cutting the cheesy stuff out of your query letters. Don't spray your pink query letter paper with perfume. Refrain from cutesy statements, but let your personality shine. I know that seems contrary, but it is a balancing act and can be done successfully if you are careful not to put in too much information. Don't be chummy, don't be cutesy, don't be cheesy.

4. Say it isn't so: If you have a friend who's an author who might endorse your book, but who hasn't actually agreed to endorse your book, don't mention it in your query letter. If you are querying an agent and mention that an editor from some big publishing house has expressed an interest in the manuscript, you had better be telling the truth. The publishing industry is small and you'd be surprised at how everyone seems to know everyone else. Don't fib to make yourself look better.

5. Flattery will get you everywhere: It seems like a great idea to flatter, butter up, or schmooze an agent or editor, but there is a wrong and right way to go about connecting with the person you're writing to. Know their real names and their real genders. Don't assume an agent named Chris is a guy. Chris could be short for Christine. If you want to impress them, then prove you did your homework by knowing their name, their client list, the things they are specifically looking for right now. That is far more flattering than saying, "I think you are totally awesome and know we will be the very best of friends!" Editors and agents aren't looking for a BFF. They are looking for writers.

6. You aren't the only fish in the sea: Do not tell an agent that you have also queried twenty other agents. Don't send them snarky replies if they send you a rejection. Chances are good they know the twenty other agents and they will all go to lunch and swap horror stories. Be professional and respectful. These are real people with real memories--real long memories.

7. This is my first novel and it's 150,000 words: I know you feel pretty cool having written that much. And it IS cool that you wrote that much, but for a first time author, no publisher wants to commit resources to print that many words. Most adult commercial fiction is between 75,000 and 100,000, and YA is between 60,000 and 80,000words. Try hard to edit your manuscript down to fit into those parameters. It stinks to edit out words that you feel are brilliant, but far better to edit out a few so the rest can actually be read.

8. Typos: check, recheck, and check again. do not send off a query letter with a typo in it. It's only a page. It's imperative that this one page is completely clean. I know manuscripts will inevitably have a few typos, but it is your job to make the editor's job easier. Don't give them reasons to say no. *

9. This is Oprah's next favorite!: Don't tell the agent/editor that you are the next Twilight, Harry Potter, Oprah pick, or that you will definitely sell a million books because you are so brilliant. I said earlier to be confident, but that doesn't mean be cocky.

10. Boring: If you query letter is boring and reads like a third grade book report, then what is the agent/editor supposed to expect from your actual manuscript? Don't have one long paragraph for your story synopsis in the query letter, but break it up into three to four line paragraphs. That helps make it less daunting visually. And remember to keep it interesting. Think of what kind of book jacket blurb would attract you and compel you to make a book purchase. You want your query letter to hold that same sort of excitement.


L.T. Elliot said...

Brilliant, Julie! Thank you for sharing this. Also, I love that quote by Jeff. =]

Tamara Hart Heiner said...

fantastic advice. Great ideas for making a query unique and snazzy.

Leslee said...

It always suprises me how easy it is to write a whole book and how hard it is to write a one page query.

Maybe its just me that thinks the query is the hard part.

Curtis said...

This has been a real problem for me lately. I've been through countelss versions of a query letter, and now they're all starting to taste like beans. And I'm starting to feel like giving up altogether and moving to Tonga.

Anonymous said...

I'm with Curtis.

In addition, I have always believed a story needs to be as short or as long as it takes to tell the story well.
I love novellas and really long books that take me away with them.

And, yes, some stories need to be tightened and others filled out more. But there are stories that are just (or just about) right by being the length they need to be.

What advice to you have for authors whose works aren't falling in the popular word count?

Julie Wright said...

If you have a manuscript that is long, but feels like it's the right length, don't mention word count on your query. Don't give them a reason to say no before they've had the chance to really check out your manuscript. Just call it the completed manuscript.

If they like your query and your idea and ask for more, then maybe they'll be okay with the length because they know you have a great product, or maybe at that point they'll tell you to take out the trimmers and do an edit.

But make sure you're sure on length. I've read books that were 700 plus pages and loved every word. I've also read some that are 400 pages and I think, "Where was this guys editor? He could've easily taken out a hundred pages and had a much better end product."

So make sure you're sure on keeping your length. Send the book out to readers and see how they feel about the length and look at similar books in that genre to see if you fit in. But as far as the query goes--don't give them reasons to shoot you down before they've had a chance to actually read your work.

And moving to Tonga? okay I can go with that . . . it's warmer there . . . and you can write anywhere.

Anonymous said...

Thank you very much from the bottom of my heart.