Man throwing papersAgents are your gateway to eventual literary success. So if you want to give your manuscript the chance it deserves, make sure to avoid the things agents hate!

One enterprising writer decided to find out the pet peeves of major agents. He got responses from more than fifty—and here they are, straight from the horses’ mouths, for your reading pleasure.

Not Having the Manuscript Ready When You Query

Author Michael Crichton said, “Books aren’t written—they’re rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it.”

Don’t send the query—or heaven forbid, the book—in before it’s ready. “Before your manuscript is ready” does not mean “before the first draft is finished.” It means querying before you have written the first draft, allowed the manuscript to sit undisturbed for a month, edited it multiple times—during which time you have begun to bleed from the head, due to the number of times you have pounded it against the wall in your pursuit of perfection—and handed it out to people to read, edited it some more, removed about half the manuscript and been tempted to throw the whole thing away, taken another break from it, come back feeling rejuvenated and edited it some more, had some more people read it…and edited it some more. After all this, your manuscript might be ready for querying.

One agent wrote, “Granted, it’s difficult for newer writers to judge when their novels are in final form but I can say this: for first time novelists, 99.99% of the time when they begin querying agents they’re not really done.”

SequelTalking about a Sequel or Pitching More Than One Book

As one agent put it, “The goal of a query is to get an agent to ask to see ONE manuscript/proposal that will convince him of your talent. After he’s drawn in, he will want to hear about what else you’re working on. Not before.”

Writing a Query that Lacks Confidence

As one agent put it, “The biggest mistake is to start out in a self-deprecating way, such as, ‘I know how hard it is to break into publishing and I don’t want to waste your time, but if you’d take pity on poor little me it would be the best thing that ever happened to me.’ That author has already wasted my time by not getting straight to the point. It also smacks of insecurity and latent passive-aggressivity. Not somebody I want anything to do with.”

Writing a Query that Is Overconfident or Pompous

How about the opposite extreme? One agent said, “The biggest mistake that writers make when querying is to confuse a confident self-pitch with outright arrogance. When a writer names his/her creative influences, it should never be suggested that this writer is comparing her work to the named influence. For example, don’t ever say, ‘I’m the next Margaret Atwood.’ But a strong statement along similar lines might be, ‘Like Margaret Atwood, my work explores issues of gender and sexuality.’ There’s a compelling way to present yourself without crossing over into red-flag narcissism.”

Another example of sour-tasting overconfidence was provided by agent Pam Ahearn: “This will be a bestseller and make you very rich.” Let’s start with getting the agent to read five pages before you start thinking about the fortune you’re going to help her make!

Queries Addressed to “Dear Agent” (or Anything Similar!)

Let’s be honest—if you have not taken the time to find out what an agent represents (let alone to find out anything about the agent and address him directly!), why would he assume you took the time to write a worthwhile novel? As one agent said, “I do expect writers to submit to lots of agents, but not blindly, so putting my name in the query doesn’t seem too much to ask.” Agent Sally van Haitsma echoed with similar sentiments: “We assume you are sending out queries to multiple agents, and even encourage authors to do so since this is such a subjective business, but as a first impression it’s important to customize queries so they address us by name.”

More specific thoughts on this topic came from Sam Stoloff: “It might be a silly prejudice on my part, but I automatically discount queries that aren’t addressed to me personally. If the writer hasn’t taken the time to find out a little about me, to make sure that I’d be an appropriate agent for their work, and to put my name at the top of their query as a gesture of professional courtesy, then I am simply less likely to take the query seriously.”

Agent Sean McCarthy even took this one step further: “I think the biggest mistake that writers make when querying me is not letting me know why I—specifically—would be a great match for their project. I know that it can be time-consuming to customize query letters, but even a simple sentence that references my taste, my background or projects that I’ve worked on will go a long way toward getting your pitch more attention.”

MechanicClosely Related: Not Knowing What the Agent Wants

One agent summed up what a lot of them wrote: “The single biggest mistake writers make when querying me is sending manuscripts for areas I do not represent. On my website, in all my interviews, and I believe in most websites that list areas of interest for each agent, it is quite clearly stated that I do not represent YA, prescription (How-To) nonfiction, nor genre fiction (SF, fantasy, romance, thrillers). Yet almost half the queries I receive are for these very categories. I am dumbfounded by this. If I were applying for a job as a dental hygienist, I don’t think I’d apply to Jiffy Lube. Writers need to do a bit of research before spewing their query letters to every Tom, Dick, and Harry who call themselves a literary agent.”

Another commented, “I’m repelled by the idea of being sought and found on some kind of database. Here’s what I want to hear instead: ‘I admire your client, [fill in the blank]. I did some digging to find out who his or her agent was. This led me to your website. Based on what you say there, I thought you might be interested in my manuscript. Let me tell you about it.”

Writing a Vague Query Letter

One agent responded, “Because agents get so many queries and can only read a few projects out of the hundreds we are forced to choose between every week, it’s important that your story distinguish itself from other offerings in the market. If you describe your book in vague and general terms, we won’t have a reason to request it.”

Another wrote, “I think the biggest mistake people make is not telling me what their book is about. They give an overview of the book in flowery writing that really doesn’t say much, or they talk about the genre or the main characters, but they never tell me what the book is actually about, so there’s no way for me to judge whether or not I’m going to be interested in the story. Tell me who the main character is, what conflict s/he faces, and what’s at stake. You’d be surprised how many people don’t do this.”

Yet another agent said, “The best query letters are specific and evocative—not loaded down with too much boring detail, but just enough detail (little touches of description or turns of phrase) that show the letter is crafted by a real writer. For example, instead of saying ‘Joe Smith, the hero of my novel, is a quirky kid,’ you could say, ‘Joe Smith, the hero of my novel, likes ketchup on his Frosted Flakes and never wears matching socks.’ Quirky was just a nebulous description in the first example, but in the second example, you instantly get a visual on this kid in just one line—and that’s the kind of query letter that makes me think the book will be as evocative as the letter.”

Letter on scrollWriting a Long Query Letter

This was an obvious sore spot among the agents who responded. One write, “There is an art to writing a query letter. And because the letter is an author’s key to the publishing world, learn that art. Writing extremely lengthy queries is a no-no, and I usually stop midway through because I either lose interest or forget where the author was going. Agents have so much going on . . . an author needs to grab them with a concise, punchy, hard-boiled query.”

Another agent wrote, “It all comes down to the writing. An agent’s first peek at the quality of the writing comes from the query letter. You would be amazed at the number of authors who write long, drawn-out, messy queries. A query letter should be a tease—a taste for more to come. Don’t give it all away on the first date, and please, show up clean and polished.”

Writing a Query Letter that Contains Errors

One agent hit the nail on the head: “I don’t overlook errors in grammar, spelling, or punctuation AT ALL. They are HUGE red flags for the project being queried. If you make mistakes in your query, you’ll make mistakes in your novel. I can’t submit an error-ridden novel to an editor. I flat-out refuse to do so. I will represent manuscripts that may need revision and editing but generally have all the spelling and grammar correct.”

(Photos: top, jobmonkey.com; sequel, anthonybidulka.com; throwing paper in trash can, Presentation Magazine; mechanic, baseballsnatcher.mlblogs.com; bottom, Wordpress.com)

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