Query Killers

22 July, 2011

Jacquie - headshot-011Writers are always asking for advice about how to write the query that will help them land an agent.  I used a recent mega-session of reviewing submissions to draw up a list of reasons why I say no. So here it is, in no particular order, my list of Query Killers to avoid if you want to hook yourself an agent!

  • Doesn’t follow the submission guidelines. Agents post guidelines to let prospective clients know what they need to consider a new project. Not following the guidelines sends a clear message about how much time and respect you have put into your query. SOLUTION: Follow each agent’s guidelines to the letter.
  • The writing isn’t strong enough. The 1st pages you include in your query have to be exquisite.  A great premise followed by a weak sample still gets a NO. SOLUTION: Don’t send an agent your work-in-progress to find out how you are doing. This is the job of an editor. Hire one to review your manuscript or proposal.
  • No hook. The best way to capture an agent’s attention, a hook is one sentence that captures the essence of your book, introduces the main characters and the key point of drama, and establishes that your book is fresh and marketable.  Writing the hook line is incredibly difficult, but nailing a good one is worth the effort. SOLUTION: Pull books in your genre off the shelf and start reading the first line or two of the jacket copy to get an idea of what you need to do. Work on it until every person who you say it to, without fail, says, “Oooh I want to read that book.”  One of my favorite posts on premise lines from Alexandra Sokoloff is here: http://thedarksalon.blogspot.com/2008/05/whats-your-premise.html.
  • The premise seems derivative: Many submissions come in that try to jump on a hot trend. The problem is that by the time a “new” trend is seen in the market, editors and agents have been sick of it for a year or two (Yes I’m looking at you vampires!). SOLUTION: It may seem like there is nothing new under the sun, but talented writers prove us wrong every year. Keep working until you have something fresh!
  • Narrative nonfiction with no arc. This is particularly a problem with memoir submissions. Authors realize correctly that they’ve had an interesting life but then submit a book that reads like “this happened-this happened-and this happened.” It falls flat and asks the readers to do the work that the author should be doing. SOLUTION: All narrative non-fiction (i.e. non-fiction not of the step-by-step how-to variety) needs an arc including a compelling story and characters, a key point of drama and good pacing to draw the reader through the story. You also have to balance your writing with a combination of facts or remembrances and meaning making.  After you have done your research and know you have a good subject, you need to figure out what the story is.  Here is a great post from Alan Rinzler about constructing a traditional narrative arc. http://www.alanrinzler.com/blog/2008/07/07/ask-the-editor-constructing-the-narrative-arc/ WARNING: Yes, there are also many creative and successful alternative approaches to constructing an arc. Take the road less traveled if you must, but it’s more work for you and harder to find people willing to go with you on the trip.
  •  Lack of author platform. Platform is the author’s ability to directly reach out to potential readers (i.e. purchasers) of the book through speaking engagements, media appearances and an online presence. The platform isn’t about what you are going to do; it’s about what you already have in place. SOLUTION: Your platform must be fully developed prior to querying an agent or shopping the project to publishers.
  • Does not fit the requirements of the proposed genre. Every genre has its conventions and you need to follow them. That means you need to have the right length, the right amount of world building, the right reading level, the right voice and so forth. SOLUTION: Mine blog posts, writers’ groups, and publisher websites to find out what the conventions of your genre are and follow them.
  • Too long. A high word count sends up an instant red-flag that the manuscript needs serious editing. Readers of a few select genres such as high-fantasy and historical fiction go for extra length, but make sure you are in line with the conventions of the genre (per previous bullet). Pages translate to cost. So a long book has to sell more copies in order to be profitable. When your manuscript is shorter, you lower the financial risk of publishing your book which is a smart strategy for a first time author without an established audience.  SOLUTION: Cut, cut and cut again. When you are famous you can intimidate your editor and write that book that’s twice as long as it should be (even if you shouldn’t).
  • Criticisms of other agents or complaints that no one gets you. Every week I get at least one query in which an author complains about another agent or about the short-sightedness of the publishing industry. When you start your query by complaining, you come across as cranky, and that’s not appealing. SOLUTION: Mom was right, if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.
  • I don’t love it. If your query makes it through all the other query killers, you’ve passed the viability test. But then comes a tough question – Do if I love it enough to make it part of my life? Selling books is a tough business. To be a good agent you have to be willing to climb mountains and fight dragons for the books and authors you represent. But you can only do that if you love them. SOLUTION: The best advice for addressing this query killer is to do your research, create a great query and let the magic happen!

Good Luck with landing an agent and keep writing!

–Jacquie Flynn