When I wear my editor hat, I end up reading a number of queries each week when it’s time to go through submissions. And, trust me, just when I think I’ve seen it all when it comes to abysmal query letters, an author will come up with something fresh that will make my toes curl.
One of the things I hate seeing is when authors tell me what to think of their novel. An example: “Readers will love the fast-paced action of the story, and be thrilled by depth of vivid world-building…”
Really? And what if the manuscript doesn’t live up to my expectations after I’ve been told it’s set up to work in a certain way? Yes, by all means generate excitement by writing a short blurb at the start of your query but let the editor or agent you’re querying make up their own mind. Please.
Here’s an example of a hook that will make me want to go on to reading the synopsis, with apologies once again to Little Red Riding Hood:
The Great Forest is dark and dangerous, filled with creatures with sharp teeth. Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother lives in a clearing at its heart, and the young lady needs to take her granny her all-important medication. Little does Little Red Riding Hood know that her journey, this time, will be fraught with terror. A predator is watching her, and he is hungry.
That definitely puts another spin on an old classic, doesn’t it? See if you can sum your entire novel up in one paragraph. Think of the kind of copy you’d see on the back of a novel. The editor or agent reading your query reads dozens if not hundreds of queries each day. You need to convey the essence of your tale in as few words as possible.
Afterward, you tell the author/agent what you’re offering:
Little Red Riding Hood, a fantasy novella complete at 23 000 words, is available for your consideration.
Then, go on to offering publishing credits or, if you don’t have, relevant experience that would indicate that you know what you’re talking about. For instance, if you’ve written a novel about sword-fighting, relevant information would be that you’re a member of a fencing club or that you collect ancient weapons. Once again, keep it short. In general, agents and editors don’t care that you’ve been working as a plumber and are now writing books on fairies. The catch phrase is “keep it relevant and to the point”.
If you’ve had a few stories or novels published before, list them, but do realise that self-published works don’t count in your favour. I'm normally a bit leery of self-published authors because I worry that they may be difficult to work with when I make editorial suggestions. But that's just me.
And, lastly, when you query agents or publishers, do your homework. Don’t just send out queries blindly in the hope that someone will pick up on you. I usually first visit a site like www.publishersmarketplace.com, do a search to see which agents are accepting in a chosen genre. Then, I click through to the agent’s official website. I ask myself, does this agent represent books similar to mine? Do I think we’d gel? It's no good if they're very conservative and your book is about things that may upset them. If things look all right in that department, I do a background check. This includes checking their status by searching on sites such as www.absolutewrite.com/forums and Preditors and Editors: http://pred-ed.com/
If something smells fishy, it probably is. Remember that no agent is better than a bad agent.
Ditto for publishers. If anyone asks for money to publish your novel, avoid at all costs.
And lastly, the wheels of the publishing industry turn slowly. Be patient. Often agents and editors simply don’t have the time to tell you why they’ve rejected your novel. It could simply be because although the writing was sound, the story simply didn’t appeal to them. Why an agent or an editor doesn't like your manuscript could be that they simply didn't love it as much as you do. Keep trying. Don’t take rejection personally and, if you do get some feedback from an agent or an editor who tells you why they rejected your writing, take that advice to heart and see where you can apply it to future works. Good luck! And don’t give up! And keep on revising and resubmitting.
For some great examples of how not to query (and sometimes how to query), I suggest subscribing to http://queryshark.blogspot.com