Confession: I've been letting the queries pile up a bit this week. It's tricky sometimes, since I'd like to be reading and responding as quickly as possible, but I have to balance my query reading with my other responsibilities... and I also have to be in the proper frame of mind to give each query a fair shot. It's been raining in New York all week, after about a ten-day stretch of gorgeous spring days, so everyone (me included) is a little grumpy, I'm afraid.
At least this week, I know it's the weather and not the queries themselves that are making me grumpy.
Here are some things I never like to see in a query letter.
1) "My novel is a surefire bestseller!" Really? What makes you so sure? The publishing industry is surprised all the time by what works and what doesn't. Sometimes, something a publisher thought would be a more modest success turns into a perennial word-of-mouth bestseller; other times, a book everyone worked hard to make "the next big thing" just doesn't sell. I want you to be proud of your work and to believe in its potential. But try to dial back the bravado. Something like "My novel will appeal to women in their 40s and 50s/fans of Tom Clancy/chess-playing supercomputers" is a better fit for a query.
2) "I would like to introduce you to my novel." This one's just an awkward phrasing; out of politeness, I feel like I should shake your novel's hand. Just say "I am querying regarding my novel TITLE" or "I write in regard to my novel TITLE" or "My novel, TITLE, is a work of GENRE that deals with TOPIC."
3) "Is there anything you hate more than a rhetorical question?" Answer: probably. But I can't remember the last time I liked a query that opened with one.
4) "fiction novel." I think this one may owe thanks to the legendary Truman Capote, who famously described his masterpiece In Cold Blood as a "nonfiction novel." But this phrase still drives me nuts.
5) "My novel defies genre classification." Please, no. My primary job, as a literary agent, is to sell books to publishers. If I can't even tell them where to put it in the bookstore, they're not going to buy it. If your work has elements of science fiction and of Regency romance, tell me that. If it's experimental literary fiction, tell me that. But if I can't figure out how to sell it, I'm not going to take it on.
6) "I have attached chapters 12, 27, and 58." Our agency's submission guidelines request that you send the first three chapters, and we really mean the first three. If the story doesn't really get rolling until page 125, you probably need to revise.
7) "I have included synopses of each of my twelve completed novels." I'm a pretty good multi-tasker, but I can't wrangle twelve different books from the same author at the same time. Unless they're all part of a series, query on one book at a time. You can tell me about the others once I've already told you how much I love the first one. I'll write more another time about other reasons why I think querying on multiple books simultaneously is a mistake.
8) "I am the protagonist of the novel, a fictional character, and I am querying you on behalf of the writer who created me!" High-concept is good, but gimmicky is not. This technique gets points for risk-taking, but both the query and the sample chapters would really have to wow me in order for me to take the next steps.
9) "You can read my entire query and still not know what my book is about, or who the target audience is." I'm paraphrasing here, obviously, but sometimes it would be nice if the ultra-vague queries would cut to the chase this way. At a bare minimum, your query should include:
-the work's title
-the word count
-the target audience (if it's not immediately clear from the genre)
-a brief description of the work. Plot summary. Back-of-book stuff. Get me interested.
-a brief bio of the author
The marvelous Nathan Bransford has a great post on what he calls "query mad libs," which is here. If you're getting ready to query and struggling with where to begin, the "mad libs" formula is a good start.