So how many of you know that when an author sends a query letter off to an agent or editor, sometimes the agent/editor never even sees it? And no, I’m not talking about Postal Service fail or the vacuum of cyberspace eating a lost email. These days, many houses and agencies have gotten so overwhelmed by the sheer amount of unsolicited query letters they receive, they’ve had no choice but to ask for help. Enter: other published authors.
For the last year, I’ve been lucky enough to offer my services as one of these Slush Pile Readers for an agency in New York, and let me tell you, it’s been a wakeup call. The sheer amount of rookie mistakes—that every author can avoid just by doing a little, tiny bit of homework—makes me want to spork some people.
But don’t worry! I’m going to give you a short list of just some of the mistakes that make slush readers like me mark your letter for the Rejection pile within the first thirty seconds. And for the non-writers out there, think of this as a sneak peek into the world your favorite authors came from, emerging from the slush like Nessie from the Loch.
1) “Dear Sir/Madam”
- Okay, really guys? It doesn’t take much to surf the ‘net for the proper names (and properly spelled names) of the agents/editors you’re submitting your work to. If you want them to give your query the proper respect and consideration it deserves, show them the same courtesy and address your queries properly. Ditto for avoiding slang-y greetings and anything overly informal: things like kthxbye, omg, l8r, ;-) , and ‘sup should appear nowhere near your query letter.
2) Get to the Point
- Truth is, agents/editors don’t really what inspired you to write this book. They don’t care if your cat, mother, neighbor, or the brain-eating zombie in your dreams told you to write it. The purpose of a query is to sell your product; i.e., tell the buyer (otherwise known as the agent/editor) exactly what the book is about in three paragraphs or less. Leave the other stuff for the book tour and interviews.
3) Avoid the Squick Factor
- I have seen tons of queries that try to catch attention by being overly graphic, disturbing, or flat-out gross. This includes any mention of bodily functions, graphically described X-rated acts, or human/animal torture. Don’t laugh—I’ve seen it done. Even if you write horror, just give the agent/editor a brief (five sentences or less) summary of the main plotline and a reason to care about your characters. Save the gore for the actual manuscript.
4) Be Professional
- Remember when I mentioned your query should be professional? Well, beyond addressing it to the right person, you want to make sure it’s in an easy-to-read, business-style font (such as 10 or 12 pt Arial or Times New Roman). For e-queries, delete the hyperlinks and pretty font colors. Always double-check that your correct contact information appears somewhere on the query (near the bottom is usually preferred). In case you’d been considering it, queries written in crayon, Wingdings, or alpha-numeric code will be automatically rejected. Proper punctuation is a plus. While you probably won’t get slushed for missing a comma or two, not using a single capital letter or period will make query readers like me want to shove a Strunk and White’s down your throat.
5) What Not to Say
• Please, for the love of Barnes and Nobles, in your queries avoid using phrases such as:
o “I don’t know what genre to call this.”(And nope, I’m not making those up, folks. I really, really, really wish I was.)
o “I know your submissions guidelines say not to do this, but I’m going to do it anyway because I’m just that spechul.”
o “This book has no beginning, middle, or end.”
o “You may call this experimental fiction.”
o “I’m a great writer, but need you to tell me if this story idea is any good before I waste more time on it.”
o “So let me tell you about my super, awesome, guaranteed-to-earn-a-gajillion-dollars future New York Times Bestseller. I’m about 5,000 words into the first chapter but can totally tell you who should be cast when they make it into a movie.”
Though specific guidelines vary between houses and agencies, it’s the writer’s responsibility to find out what those differences are and tailor their queries appropriately. Unless you’re planning to line your cat’s liter box with all those “Thanks, but no” rejection letters you’ll receive, take my advice and avoid becoming another casualty of the slush pile.
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