The Bad, The Ugly and the Hideously Grotesque of Query Blunders

Since I’ve started making my way through hundreds of queries, I’ve developed pet-peeves and preferences for queries. I wasn’t surprised to learn that my own gripes have been griped about by more seasoned agents for years. I’m certain that these blunders occur because queriers don’t always know the protocol, or even that there is one, for querying. So, here’s what I’ve noted–the Bad, the Ugly and the Hideously Grotesque of Query Blunders:

The Bad

10. Having somebody else send your query. The agent doesn’t want to hear from that guy. He wants to hear from you, the writer. An agent uses your query to hear your voice and your style and, really, to see if you can write at all. Hearing from someone else isn’t helpful.

9. Addressing your query letter to someone else or to everyone on earth. Many, many agents will delete your query in annoyance for this infraction. For some reason (and I’m thinking its wet-behind-the-ears syndrome) it doesn’t bother me as much. I’ll still read it, but I’m now aware that you did absolutely no research on me or my agency and just blindly queried all over the place in desperation.

8. Sending a synopsis or any number of pages with your query, unless the agency website requests this. Agents do not like this. It makes it obvious that you haven’t taken the time to review their website or blog before querying them—or worse, that you’ve disregarded their guidelines.

7. Beginning your query letter with a rhetorical question. If you begin your query with, “Have you ever wondered what life would be like without electricity?” how stupid would you feel if the answer was, “No. I don’t really care.”

6.Calling your manuscript a fiction novel or a fictional novel. All novels are fiction. And now you look like an amateur.

5. Including more than one project in your query. The agent will not appreciate a catalog from which to choose—he doesn’t have time to peruse.

4. Sending your query as an attachment. Now the agent has to slog through one more step just to read your query. I wonder if she’ll go for it, or just delete it.

3. Hailing your own work as the next blockbuster hit. First, no it isn’t. It’s not even a book yet. Simmer down. Your manuscript might just turn out to be a bestseller—but that doesn’t mean it’s graceful to tell the agent this. At best, her reaction will be, “I’ll be the judge of that, Mr. Conceited.” At worst, she’ll roll her eyes and move on.

2. Failing to include your word-count. This is important to agents.

1. Telling the agent your book is a cross between two books in completely different genres. “This murder mystery is a cross between Harry Potter and The Joy of Cooking…” The agent will think: “What?” You might mean that you’ve got a cozy mystery with paranormal elements and a protagonist who loves to cook, but that’s not what you said, and now the agent thinks even you don’t know what you’ve written. Actually, don’t mention other people’s books at all. After reading your query or proposal, the agent will know who the target audience is because that’s her job.

The Ugly

10. Telling the agent you started writing when you were 6 with Crayolas on Daddy’s work papers and then proceeding to list everything you’ve ever written including that emo poem from 9th grade creative writing. The agent doesn’t care. It is best to leave personal details from your life out of the picture. They gobble up your only 250 words to impress the agent.

9. Posting the query on your website and sending the agent a link. This makes more work for the agent, who is probably not up for more of that.

8. Listing things like characters, themes, possible audiences, etc. This is not Listmania. Work them into the paragraphs of your query if they are relevant to it. You’re an author, presumably—you should know how to do this.

7. Condescending the agent. If the agent rejects your query, it’s okay. That doesn’t mean you suck. What it does mean is that one agent – one guy – didn’t like what you had to offer. So what? Coming back at the agent with a message like, “Oh, well then maybe you didn’t understand the premise, because I can’t imagine that anyone wouldn’t like my masterpiece…” is not helpful. Never try to teach an agent his job. In fact, when you query that agent with your next book, she might read it with bias, remembering how rude you were.

6. Querying an agent who does not represent the genre in which you write. Most agents have websites these days. If you’re savvy enough to send an email, chances are you should be able to check out the agent’s website and know that he doesn’t represent screenplays. I’ve put this in the worst category because it is such a waste of your time.

5. Forgoing spelling and grammer cheque. This is my absilute worst pet-peave. I can’t even reed your queery objectivly anymore if its ridled with easy words that are mispeled. If you left out the U in mononucleosis, I’ll forgive it, but if you can’t spell a third grade word – or ask Word to spell it for you—then I just have a realy hard time getting passed that. I mean, it takes a second. One click.

4. Being overconfident to the point of cocky. When you tell the agent that you’re here to save her from her slush pile, she’s not hopping up and down, she’s rolling her eyes and deleting.

3. Gimmicks. Please do not write your query letter from your protagonist’s point-of-view. This might seem cute to you, but to an agent, you look like you’re on a unicycle and juggling and crying, “Look! Look at me! Please? Oh, please, please like me!”

2. Telling the agent she’s never seen anything like your book. Yes she has.

1. If you’re incarcerated, don’t query with the story of your innocence. When this happens, I can’t help but think, “Yeah, yeah…” When you’ve been exonerated even though you spent the last ten years on death row, please get back in touch, though.

The Hideously Grotesque

10. Impatiently resending your query. The guidelines on our agency’s website clearly state that it might take up to six weeks for the agents to respond to queries, but I recently had an author resend his query a total of six times. In ten days. He simply kept forwarding his original email, so I would receive a message from him containing only his automatic signature—and then I’d scroll down to see the same query again. Please do not do this. Agents take so long to answer queries because their inboxes look like the Vatican library. If you resend your query six times, those are six more emails the agent must read before moving on to someone else who is awaiting a response.

9. Deprecating your own work. Telling me that you don’t think you’re that good, but its worth a shot makes me think you must be awful. Why should I waste my time with this?

8. Deliberately disregarding the agency’s guidelines—and then telling the agent you’ve done so. “I know a query letter is required as per your website, but I don’t think one page is enough to sum up my 100,000 word novel that I spent ten years writing. So here’s the full.” Delete. There goes a decade of your life.

7. Lying. If you say so-and-so is in your critique group, was amazed at your work and referred you, the agent might follow up with so-and-so. And then what will the agent, and so-and-so think of you?

6. Asking an agent to call you. He won’t. Don’t ask him to check out your website or friend you on Facebook. He won’t. However: if you place your web URL under your signature or some other professional spot, he might check it out. But not if you’re commanding him to.

5. Saying anything along these lines: “I haven’t written the book yet because I wanted to have a guaranteed acceptance before I wasted my time.” You are wasting the agent’s time. And she doesn’t like it.

4. Telling the agent you’ve queried widely and will only hire the one who can offer you a six-figure deal. This throws your astonishing lack of research and knowledge right in the agent’s face.

3. Having a hissy-fit over published authors who you feel aren’t as good as you. I once received a query from an author of literary fiction decrying the entire romance genre. According to this author, he had more talent in his little finger than Nicholas Sparks had in his whole backlist. What the querying author failed to realize is all art must be judged for what it is, not for what one might want it to be. Comparing romance to literary fiction is like comparing apples to oranges. Keep your judgment to yourself. You don’t have anything to do with other authors and nobody likes a diva, published or un.

2. Adding the agent to a list of email addresses to which you send funny or raunchy joke pictures and videos. The agent doesn’t think it’s funny because 1.) she didn’t look. She’s no fool. And 2.) She’s at work and she doesn’t want to look at your cat eating a cheeseburger. And 3.) She got that email on her iPhone in the middle of the night before that huge meeting. Now she remembers you as that girl with the cheeseburger cat.

1. Stalking or becoming too personal with the agent. Just because she tweeted two weeks ago that she was making chocolate macadamia nut cookies doesn’t mean you should mention those in your query. You might think you’re drawing a common line between you and the agent, but it is weird, creepy and unprofessional. You’re drawing a line, all right.


So there you have it. What about you? What do you think is the worst faux-pas?

Posted on July 5, 2011, in literary agency, queries, slush pile, submissions and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. Thanks for the great post and for taking the time out of what I am sure is a very hectic schedule, to provide such useful tips and guidelines for new authors like myself.

  2. This is awesome info. I’ll definitely keep this in mind if/when I start querying my novel again. 🙂

  3. You mean you didn’t just go ahead and send a “Reject” letter to the guy who re-sent his query 6 times in 10 days? I think I might have sent him six rejections, five of which would be forwarded versions of the first. 🙂

  4. As a brand new author, I find your blog invaluable. I will definitely submit my query for your critique. Thank you for providing this avenue to negotiate the potholes that writers drive into!

  5. What seems like the greatest faux-pas for queries is when the writer proves within the first sentence that they haven’t actually researched. Anything. There are hundreds of how-tos and “thou shalt not” lists out there, and they’re all frighteningly similar. What makes a writer spend years fine-tuning a manuscript, only to throw it out the window when it has a chance to shine because they didn’t look up “how to query an agent” or read the submission guidelines above your email address?

    I’d love to see what your inverse to this list is: what are the queries that truly stick out and give you that warm fuzzy feeling amidst all the cold sloshy slush?

  6. I’m really conflicted about this one: “Gimmicks. Please do not write your query letter from your protagonist’s point-of-view.”

    My novel is actually written in first-person POV, and the voice comes through so much stronger when the query is written in first person as well. I can switch it over to third person, of course. It doesn’t really work as well, but I guess that’s what I’ll do for certain agents. To me, though, it is not at all a gimmick, but is actually more representative of the book AND more interesting to read.

  7. Great post – thanks! 🙂

  8. johnjpuglisi

    Great advice. It seems silly to me that a writer can spend years pouring his soul into a manuscript, researching timelines, developing characters and dialogue and then fail to research the agency prior to sending a query. Is it lack of effort or lack of business sense? Contrarily, maybe some of these blunders are what remind us that writers need agents. I would imagine very few can successfully write, publish, market and sell. Great post.

  9. Thanks for the great advice. Time to take the rhetorical question out of my query.

    “Never mistake knowledge for wisdom. One helps you make a living; the other helps you make a life. ”
    — Eleanor Roosevelt

  10. This is great information and I am definitely saving this for when I’m ready to query my novel.

  11. This was a great blog post! It is nice to see a blog about queries that takes another approach, going down the DO NOT DO list, rather than just focusing on a vague idea of what might be acceptable. Thankfully, I went down the list while looking at my own query letter 1st draft, and found that I was breaking none of the rules you laid out.

    I appreciate your fresh perspective, and will definitely pop back in here on future queries to make sure I’m not doing something silly!

  12. Great post! That’s the second time today I’ve seen an agent talk about the rhetorical question at the beginning of the query problem. 🙂 Thanks for the advice!

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