I’m not an agent. I don’t even have one. But in the years I’ve been reading industry blogs and, particularly, the many, many queries and query questions that come into Agent Query Connect, I’ve learned a few things. (Veterans will know these things, so this is more for those entering the arena and intent to go the traditional route.)
There are more new writers trying to be heard than imaginable.
In an increasingly bottom-line business climate, fewer publishing houses are willing to take a chance on a new author, and fewer agents are taking on new authors’ books unless they promise a highly likely sale. But I’m not going into that aspect.
Before an agent can sell your novel, you have to sell the agent. Of course, you must have a great novel, but before you get through that door, you have one huge sale that comes first:
You have to sell yourself.
Not your personality or experience. You have to sell your ability to write a novel the agent will be able to sell.
Here’s where reading those many, many queries comes in. I only read a fraction of what an agent gets every day, but what I do read gives me a good taste of their jobs. And here’s the thing:
MOST of the queries I start, I don’t ever finish. If I were an agent, that would be an instant form-or delete/no response. Harsh, I know, but after a while, it doesn’t take much to KNOW.
And why? What are the sure triggers for a fast delete and pass? Here are three that do it for me, and I’m probably more forgiving than most agents could afford to be.
1. Do NOT do your research
I don’t mean proper Elizabethan undergarments, either.
The most obvious, and, okay, I’ll say it—infuriating—is seeing that the writer has made little, if any, attempt to read up on what goes into a good query.
There are many guidelines, often confusing, and no hard-and-fast rules, but there is consensus, and it’s easily found. Agent Query itself is a good place to start. Query Tracker, Query Shark, Nathan Bransford, Rachelle Gardner, and many other sources.
They may differ as to where to put the title/genre/word count, they may differ as to the number of sentences that should comprise the hook, how many paragraphs the whole thing should be, how many names to include, etc. BUT having read each of them and more, one cannot help but get a strong sense of what should be in a good query and what should NOT.
When I see “How would you feel if you woke up and…” Reject. I don’t need to read on.
If it opens with “TITLE is a story of revenge and justice, dignity and degradation…” Reject.
I’m pretty sure all the sources would agree about opening with a rhetorical question or a telling of theme.
I’m not going into what you SHOULD write. Just know that if you don’t do that most basic research, IT WILL SHOW. Just as it will if you send a horror novel to an agent who represents Romance or an erotic fiction to one who represents MG.
If you can’t take the time to learn the most basic aspects of the business you’re trying to break into, why would the agent take the time to read any more?
2. Do NOT check your grammar and spelling
Please use your spell-check, but DO NOT stop there. It will not flag “their” when you mean “there,” or “it’s” when it should be “its,” “then” instead of “than.”
No excuses. We all make the occasional mistake, but we should, no, MUST know the differences and catch them in proofing.
The same goes for run-on sentences.
There are many old “rules” of grammar that beg to be broken in creative writing. Fragments can be effective. Infinitives CAN be split.
It’s usually clear, however, when a writer knows her craft and is breaking rules for effect and when one simply isn’t yet ready for prime time.
The best of us make errors, and that’s why it’s important to have other eyes on your work. That’s why AQC is such a great place. But to get the help, you’ve got to show you warrant it. Harsh? Maybe. But it’s how it is.
3. IGNORE basic guidelines
This harks back to the first. There may not be rules, but there are some guidelines that follow through. Ignore them at your peril.
DON’T begin with a rhetorical question. It begs a snarky answer and quick rejection.
DON’T start by telling what the story is about. SHOW who the protagonist is, something to make the reader care about him/her, what conflict changes his/her world, what s/he must do to set things right, and what stands in the way. Character, conflict, stakes. HOOK. Not a log-line, a good, solid, grab-ya-by-the-throat hook. There are as many ways to accomplish that as there are stories and authors, but every query needs a good one.
DON’T pour out a name soup. Keep the names to the barest minimum, usually only the protagonist. If Romance, the love-interest. Keep it to the minimum number of characters. You’re not synopsizing the whole novel, you’re teasing with its most tantalizing core to induce the reader to NEED to read more.
DON’T tell your novel’s themes in your wrap-up. If you haven’t written the query to show those, you haven’t created a query that does its job.
DO close professionally. Don’t say you look forward to hearing from them soon. That’s a pressure they don’t need, and if they’re a no-response agency, you may never hear from them. Don’t presume. And don’t say you’d be pleased to send the entire manuscript. Of course you would. They know that. Once you’ve written any pertinent bio information (and please, NOT that you’ve been writing since you were six) and shown why you’re querying him or her specifically (again, it’s that research thing,) then just close. Professionally. Thank you for your time and consideration. Nothing more is needed. Don’t kiss ass and don’t grovel.
What are the things that make you hit the “next” button without reading past the first paragraph or even the first few words? What would you advise someone pretty new at this game NOT to do in that oh-so-important query?