Agency Lessons: What your query really tells me

Agency Lessons is a weekly post that gives authors and readers an inside look into the mind of a literary agent and a peek behind the curtain of how books are made.
I've been on the other side of the query box, sending my hopes out in an email, so I understand how this works. As authors we hem and haw over every word in our query. We seek feedback from our close writer friends and perfect strangers, hoping someone can tell us the magic words to include so an agent will love our story as much as we do.

I'm here to tell you that you're worrying about the wrong thing.

Not to say that you don't need a well-crafted do. But instead of worrying about whether you should use the word "which" or "that" (yes, I've seen this exact heart pounding situation), you should be focused on making sure your query shows you did your homework.

Because even a well-written query can leave a sour taste in my mouth if the author shows they haven't done the footwork of researching the industry.

So what are these red flags?

How about bad word counts. No, your MG novel shouldn't be 110K words, and your YA shouldn't be 30K. And by sending a query for a novel with the wrong word count doesn't show that your book is so unique. It shows that you haven't researched the industry to understand the standards. Yes, there are books out there outside of the norm. They are almost never debut books. Before a publisher is willing to take a chance on something different, they need to know you can succeed with the norm. Don't try to be an outlier as a debut author.

A language mis-match will also send your query to the iffy pile. This is where your MG sounds like Machiavelli and your YA sounds like a Shel Silverstein. You should never dumb down your work for children. They are smart and can handle more than most adults give them credit for. But they don't want to run to the dictionary every other page either. Make sure the language in your query matches the language in your book. If your book is funny, your query should be too. Serious book? You got it. Serious query.

An issue I see too often is a plot line that isn't age appropriate. I think This one is the biggest offender. Mostly because it's a sign of someone who hasn't read very widely in the age group they are trying to write for. There are some very clear differences between MG and YA. If you aren't sure where you book falls, you probably haven't read enough books in those age groups. Also note that the line between the two has changed drastically in the past few decades. You need to read widely among recently released books to have a grasp on what today's market looks like.

For many, getting an agent and a publishing contract is a dream. But it's also a business. An entire industry employing thousands of people and bringing books to the masses. This is not a wake up in the morning and decide to have a lemonade stand kind of business.

So before you query, you need to do your homework. Learn what is expected in the industry,but more importantly know what is expected from your reader.