This past weekend, at a writer’s conference, I attended an agents panel. The moderator asked a laundry list of questions, including one about pet peeves. I won’t name names because I think these comments are fairly universal. The agents were a little reluctant, at first, to share what bugs them when writers send queries, but eventually they warmed up to the topic. The comments were made in the spirit of helping writers appear professional and save everyone time, so read them in that spirit of useful advice.
Are you guilty of any of these unprofessional, uncouth, or unwise acts?
1. The mass mailing. Do you send your pages to multiple agents at a time, and show this by cc’ing 30 other names in your query? A cattle call query won’t make an agent think you’ve carefully researched the marketplace. If you have researched the marketplace, or met the agent, or have a connection, mention that. The agent is interested in your story, but also in why your query landed in his or her inbox. Make it personal.
2. The impersonal salutation. Do you open your query with “Dear Agent” or, worse, “Dear Lady Agent”? Agents are people too. Use a name. As with the above, the agent wants to know you contacted him/her for a reason, and that reason is: You think he/she is the right person to champion your manuscript. This means you researched what the agent represents and is seeking. If you did that, you’d know his/her name, right?
3. Not following guidelines. Some agents want attachments. Some don’t. Some want the plot summary in the query letter. Some want a separate two page query. Some want a 10 page sample. Some will delete all unsolicited queries that include attachments. Read each agent’s guidelines and follow them.
4. Responding to rejections. If you receive a form rejection, it’s not necessary to respond. If you receive a rejection with helpful comments, a thank you note is nice. If you receive a rejection and it frustrates, angers, or depresses you, tell your spouse or critique group. Don’t send a note to the agent informing him/her that she’s make a terrible mistake or he is an idiot. Publishing is a large industry, but it’s a small world. Agents know other another. They have lunch with one another. They will warn one another about rude writers who sling ugly insults. Don’t be the topic of an agent lunch because of your unprofessional behavior.
5. Not telling enough about your manuscript. A query should include a brief plot description. “Here’s my book!” is not a brief plot description. Aim for a paragraph or two.
6. Telling too much about your manuscript. A two-page plot summary is too long for a query letter. That’s a synopsis, which an agent may or may not request. (Which you will know if you read their guidelines.) A brief summary paragraph is an important marketing tool for your manuscript, so learn to write one.
7. Unrealistic promises. Don’t claim to be the next Tolkien. Don’t say the industry has never seen a book like yours ever before and never will again. Don’t say the reader will be unable to sleep for a week after reading it. Don’t promise the agent you will make her name in the business or your book will make so much money, you’ll both be able to retire to the Bahamas. As lovely as these promises may sound to you, they sound unprofessional (and perhaps unhinged) to the person reading it.
8. Demands. “Read these pages and get back to me.” A query is a request. You are making a case for your story to the agent, trying to capture his/her interest, but ultimately, the query asks. So ask if he/she has interest in reading your manuscript. Demanding they do will get you a quick encounter with the delete button.
9. Letters in character. Don’t write a query from the voice of your character, particularly if your character is a child, or a deranged serial killer. Think about this for a moment. This is your first impression to the agent. Be yourself.
10. Fantasies. Don’t mention who you’ll cast in the movie. You’re writing a book, not a screenplay, and even if you are writing a screenplay, you’re not the casting director. Focus on the book. Everyone will be happy if your manuscript gets optioned for a film, but one step at a time.
11. Irrelevant information. It’s great if your grandmother, or grandchild, loved your story but unless your grandmother or grandchild is an agent, it’s irrelevant in the query process. If you workshopped the manuscript with a well-known writer, that’s relevant. If this manuscript in progress won a grant or fellowship, that’s relevant. Grandma? Sorry, you’re not relevant.
12. Multiple projects. Pitch one project at a time. A letter that includes descriptions of 2 or 3 manuscripts and ends with “Which one would you like to see?” will probably get the response of “None.” This goes back to the first (and second, and third) point above: research the agent. Which one project would make a good fit for which one agent? That’s for you to decide. If you are waffling, why are you writing to that person?
There they are, twelve ways you can annoy an agent and make sure your manuscript will make a fast and easy exit into the delete pile. You’ve been warned!