Friday, April 15, 2016

Query-Writing 102: Query DOs and DON'Ts

On yesterday's blog "Writing a Basic Query," I laid out the basic structure for writing novel query letter. Today, I'm providing you with a checklist of dos and don'ts, complied from multiple blog posts, interviews, and tweets, to make sure your query is effective and doesn't get immediately rejected without so much as a second glance.


Before querying --
  • DO check the agency's guidelines before querying... and follow them!
  • DO have someone who has not read your manuscript read over your query to make sure it makes sense
  • DO proofread for typos
  • DO make sure that your manuscript is 100% ready to go before you begin querying
  • DO use the word "QUERY" and your novel's title in the email subject line (unless otherwise noted in the agent's guidelines)
  • DO keep your query short and sweet (250-300 words on average); agents are going to be looking for tight, concise writing
  • DO query one project at a time
In the salutation/personalization --
  • DO address the agent personally
  • DO mention in your query if you met the agent, if you have a referral from one of their clients, or if they have requested materials from you for previous manuscripts
In the pitch section --
  • DO use specific details in your query -- think about what in particular sets your story apart from others in the same genre
  • DO choose specific words that will give the agent a feel for the tone/voice of your novel
  • DO try to bring out what makes your manuscript unique
  • DO stick with the story's major plotline (particularly what happens in Act I)
In the "housekeeping" section --
  • DO include comp titles that have been published within the last five years
  • DO include relevant biographical information
  • DO pick one category (MG, YA, NA, or Adult) to pitch your novel
  • DO include the genre where your book would appear in a bookstore
  • DO include the word count of your novel, rounded to the nearest thousand
  • DO make sure that your book is an appropriate length for your genre (no 200,000 word middle grade novels! no 35,000 word sci-fi novels!)
In general --
  • DO act professionally and politely AT ALL TIMES
  • DO query widely; it might take dozens of rejections before you find the agent who's looking for a writer like you.
  • DO be patient in waiting for responses. Many agents will note in their guidelines how long it takes to respond to queries, but during certain times of the year may take longer.
  • DO stay positive!
  • DO write something else while querying. It's a great way to take your mind off the process, and if you do get an agent, s/he will want to know what you're currently working on.


Before querying --
  • DON'T self-publish your work to "test the market"
  • DON'T query agent who do not represent your category or genre
  • DON'T query agents who state they are closed to submissions
  • DON'T pitch to agents on social media
  • DON'T cc: or bcc: multiple agents in the same email
  • DON'T pay a third party to query for you (it's a scam!)
  • DON'T use fancy formatting, fonts, colors, borders, or backgrounds.
  • DON'T query multiple agents at the same agency simultaneously
  • DON'T send "exclusive" queries
  • DON'T send queries from an unprofessional-sounding email address or one that you share with anyone else
  • DON'T send submissions to small presses while you're also querying agents
In the salutation/personalization --
  • DON'T address the query "Dear Agent"
  • DON'T try to fake a referral (or, really, any aspect of your query)
  • DON'T comment on an agent's appearance
In the pitch section --
  • DON'T use gimmicks; agents have seen them all before, and they only make your query stand out in a bad way.
  • DON'T write your query from the 1st person perspective of your character
  • DON'T use more than three proper names (any more than this can be incredibly confusing)
  • DON'T use too many world-related/"invented" words in your query
  • DON'T spell out the novel's themes
  • DON'T use rhetorical questions
  • DON'T use cliche phrases like:
    • "her life was normal until"
    • "that will change her life forever"
    • "must choose between love and [something important]"
    • "turns his life upside down"
    • "change his world forever"
    • "[character] never expected that"
    • "To make matters worse"
    • "Time is running out"
    • "She finds herself drawn to"
    • "an incredible journey"
    • "before [something] falls into the wrong hands"
    • "face her past"
    • "a group of unlikely heroes"
    • "a chain reaction"
In the "housekeeping" section --
  • DON'T mention "This is my first novel" or "I've been writing since I was..." or "I'm an avid reader"
  • DON'T mention how long it took you to write your book (this is irrelevant)
  • DON'T call your story a "fiction novel" -- this is redundant and looks amateur
  • DON'T toot your own horn by speculating about how you'll be "the next Stephen King" or "a surefire bestseller," or editorialize with comments like, "you'll laugh! you'll cry!"
  • DON'T try to pass your story off as a genre which is it is not (usually done to try to fit a trend or to avoid "dead" genres) -- this will only make it look as if you don't know what genre your book really is.
  • DON'T include reviews, blurbs, or comments from beta readers, family, friends, pets, or agents who have rejected you
  • DON'T include irrelevant biographical information (age, number of cats owned, etc)
  • DON'T include a photo
  • DON'T use classics or MAJOR bestsellers (Harry Potter, Twilight, LOTR, etc) as comp titles
  • DON'T claim that there "are no books like mine on the market"
In general --
  • DON'T bad-mouth other agents, writers, or others in the industry or their works
  • DON'T respond to rejections
  • DON'T complain about querying on social media
  • DON'T cherry-pick your sample pages from the middle of your novel (always use the opening pages)
  • DON'T include attachments (unless the agency specifies to do so)

Optional hints, tips, and advice

  • Send queries in small batches (5-10 at a time) in case you decide to change things up or revise your query later on.
  • Check agent blogs, Twitter feeds, and the #MSWL hashtag to find agents who are looking for something similar to what you write
  • Keep track of the queries you have sent and those that have been responded to using a spreadsheet or
  • Be careful using metaphors in your query, particularly if your book contains speculative elements--you'll have the agent wondering if your character really turned into a bear or if they just got a bit grouchy

Special thanks to @TECarter7, @micscotti, @RachelDRainey, @LabyrinthRat, @Aggy_C, @SH_Marr_Writes, @AnnaKaling and @sharischwarz for your contributions via Twitter!


Anonymous said...

Extremely well-done post and so very helpful. Thanks for this.

Carol Caldwell said...

Very good information.