Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Query Letter Don'ts

If you are one of those people who anguishes and sweats and seems to spend more time on those three bloody paragraphs than on your entire manuscript, let me ease your mind. You don’t have to write the perfect query letter.  Authors don’t land agents or contracts on the strength of queries alone. However… writing a bad query can hurt your chances:
  •  Don’t shotgun it. You know how in the movies, the bad guys expend a zillion bullets only to hit absolutely nothing? Don’t be that person. TARGET your queries to specific agents and publishers. 
  • Don’t forget the crucial elements. We see queries all the time that don’t specify an agent, word count, genre, title, and even the author's name! 
  • Don’t be vague about what your project is about. Do you know how many books out there are about someone who made an amazing discovery that led them on a journey that put their life on the balance? That tells us nothing about your book. 
  • Don’t oversell your book. If your manuscript is fantastic, we will be able to tell. Honest. 
  • Be wary of comparisons. Obscure ones will just confuse us and grandiose ones will leave us feeling cold. But if your project can honestly be encapulsed by X meets Y (Pirates of the Caribbean meets Martha Stewart), then by all means pitch it that way. 
  • Don’t tell us your life story. Yes, the agent-client relationship is an important one, but now is the time to focus on your product, not you. 
  • Don't ignore guidelines. They are there so we can review submissions in the most efficient way possible, and disregarding them is not a good way to make a first impression. 
  • Don’t submit a query for fiction unless your manuscript is complete. 
  • Don’t sweat a minor typo. To err is human, we do it, too. Please don’t resend a query to fix negligible mistakes. Now if there are A LOT of mistakes, don’t bother resending the query either… Just learn to be more professional next time. 
  • Don’t use crazy fonts, colors, unending walls of text, or anything else that makes our eyeballs want to rebel against your submission.
And because concrete examples beat vague proclamations, I present, for your reading pleasure, a very bad query letter:

Dear Sir or Madam,
I realize you are only looking for YA manuscripts right now, but when you see my book, I know you will throw your guidelines out the window. My husband and daughter love my story – and their not even the target audience! 
I truly think the book speaks for itself, and I wouldn’t want to spoil your enjoyment, so I’ll just say that first, a girl’s mother adopts a… rather unusual son… and when a suspicious neighbor moves in, hijinks ensue. Technically, it’s a paranormal MG comedy, but in reality, it transcends all age and genre considerations. Think a funnier version of Twilight, except  without vampires, for younger readers, and with real people.  Or like a supernatural Captain Underpants, without the silly illustrations and bathroom humor. There is no other book like it!!

I have included the first 88 pages of the book. I am ready to right the rest when the contract is in hand! Don’t worry, though. I have outlined it, and it’s going to be FANSTASTIC!

Since winning a local contest in the 9th grade, I have become a prolific writer, having written the newsletters for the local nonprofit I work for. I have also received honorable mentions in a couple of poetry anthologies. In my spare time, I love watching tv, playing with my cats, and eating vegetarian food (unlike the character in my book!)

I will call you next week to discuss the size of the advance and my ideas for cover art. By the way, I insist on keeping movie and foreign writes. It will be worth your time. Trust me, this book is going to be HUGE!

PS – I thought you should know I’ve copywrited the first chapters, just as a precaution. Not against you, of course, but I know you’ll agree that an author can never bee to careful.


  1. Oh did you know that I needed a good chuckle tonight? You definitely made me fact, I laughed so much, my hubby came in to make sure everything was okay. :)
    I've seen other 'sample bad letters'...but yours tops them all!
    Seriously, it's a wonderful post and you hit every important point. Query letters are such a hump for many writers...this will help.

  2. go the ninth grade rite-ing competitions. :) thank you Ella Kennen for that very illusidating example of how to right a query.
    I shall follow the example to the letter. Now when I stop laughing I shall edit my latest letter.

  3. Glad you gals enjoyed! :) The funny thing is -- and I did not quite believe this until I gained access to the other side of the slush pile -- is that these guidelines exist because authors actually break ALL these rules (though usually not all at once). Of course, wonderful RYS readers already know better, but do encourage people knew to the querying process to Google how to do it before they press send.


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