Agency Lessons: Bad query trends

It's been a while since I've shared tips on queries so I figured it was time. One of the tasks I handle at the agency is reviewing all the queries that our amazing interns have tagged for rejections. This means I read dozens of bad queries back to back in one sitting. Seeing them all stacked together makes it easy to spot the mistakes that can doom a query letter. Here are a few I've seen lately that are sending query letters straight to the "no" pile.


My tips to avoid the "hard pass"
1. Character Gumbo
You've probably heard of character soup. This is when so many characters are included in a query that they all mix together into one soupy mess. Character Gumbo is the crazy, senile uncle of character soup. This is when characters are randomly thrown into a query with no introduction or explanation.

For example, you have a query focusing on Jane and Adam, two crazy kids in love. Halfway through, the author says they need to find a way to save Jessica. But we never learn who Jessica is, why she's important, or what impact she has on the story.

One way to avoid this is to only include the absolutely essential characters in your query. I advise highlighting each character's name in a different color. If they're only mentioned once, they aren't crucial and shouldn't be included.

2. Extra, Extra...I don't want to see it.
I love enthusiasm for your work, but there is a limit. If you want to draw up illustrations, write a screenplay or mock up your cover design, then knock your socks off. It's great to have dreams and sometimes creating these extras helps writers to visualize the end game. But please don't put these things in your query letter.

It clouds up the limited space that a query allows to sell me your book. Because that's what I'm interested in, your book. Your 900x900 pixel book cover mock up slows down the load of your email and makes me irritated before I've seen word one of your manuscript. It also give the impression that you don't really understand the publishing process (as in, publishers are not interested in your DIY cover design).

Also on the weird scale, a mock up of your acknowledgement page listing me as your agent. Don't do this.


3. The Hard Sell
No author writes in a vacuum. Even bestsellers have trusted eyes to look over their work for them. I'm going to assume if you're querying me, you've already had critique partners and beta readers pour over your words (if not, we have bigger problems). So I don't need long paragraphs listing all the people who have critiqued your work or (Lord, help me) quotes from random people I've never heard about singing your praises.

Because, the truth is, I don't care. It's not that I'm heartless. I'm happy for you that other people like your work. But it has nothing to do with whether or not I'll like it or think I can sell it. The exception to this is if you've gotten positive feedback from a publishing professional (read as: an editor from Harper Collins, etc.).  This doesn't include contest judges, newspaper editors, or even other agents. Why? None of those people are potential buyers of your novel. An editor at a publishing house is.

4. Eyes too big for your Audience.
I love a YA crossover as much as the next guy. That said, you need to know your audience. So here's a secret: your audience is not everyone ages 10-65. It just isn't. And telling me that your work is targeted to all these people tells me that you didn't write with an audience in mind.

The problem with this is that different audiences require different things. A MG is going to have a different voice than a YA. A YA is going to have different pacing than an Adult. Not to mention all the variables within genre. So while it's great if your YA paranormal appeals to adults (Hey there, Twilight), it needs to be written for teens or you're missing the boat.

So there are some tips for keeping your query clean and agents happy. If you already avoid these missteps keep at it and spread the word. Good queries make everyone happy.
Of course, please share your own tips on common mistakes that should be forever obliterated from the query train and sentenced to die in slush pile hell.