Last week, literary agent Colleen Lindsay proclaimed March 5 as #Queryfail Day on Twitter — a day on which a group of online agents, as well as book and magazine editors, post about what exactly makes them stop reading in a query letter.
It’s a wonderful idea (one she indicated will be a regular or semi-regular event) — and please keep in mind, as I reprint a couple of their examples of bad queries here, that this was done in the spirit of education:
- “I’ve queried more than 50 agents and have gotten nowhere and now I’m querying you.”
- “I don’t think you’re the right agent for me, but could you pass my query along to some of your colleagues?”
- “I know you don’t represent children’s literature, but I hope you’ll make an exception in my case.”
- “This is my first attempt at writing a fictional novel.”
While we’re on the subject, I’d like to add a few “don’ts” of my own. As a fiction reader for a literary magazine, I don’t receive queries but full manuscript submissions — and it’s the cover letters that are often problematic in my case. First, you must know that no matter how absurd your cover letter may be, I’m always going to read your story (it’s a karma thing). Second, you must realize that not all editors feel this way, and that a cover letter does have the potential to taint a reader’s experience of a story.
I always say keep your cover letters short and to the point: give editors what the submission guidelines ask for and little or nothing more. Including a word count and a short bio can’t hurt — but adding a three-paragraph description of your story could. (Why? Because by telling us what the story is about, you 1) take away the pleasure of discovery that goes along with a first read; 2) limit the uniquely individual experience that we might have were we able to draw our own conclusions, and 3) offer very little incentive to read the story from beginning to end, if we already know how it turns out.)
A few other things to keep in mind…
- If you mention a famous writer you’ve studied with extensively, be sure you spell this author’s name correctly.
- Send clean copies of your manuscript, not worn-out, coffee-stained photocopies with torn pages.
- Make sure there are no pages missing in your manuscript, particularly those very important pages at the beginning or end.
- While we like knowing whether yours is a simultaneous submission, it is not necessary to list all the magazines to which you have simultaneously submitted your story.
This is, of course, a small and incomplete list … and it probably makes me sound like one of the crankier editors out there (really, I’m not). But I do admit my bias in favor of the simple, straightforward query: Here’s my story; here’s a little about me; thanks so much for your time. As a writer, that’s what I send out. As an editor, it allows me to get straight to the work at hand, to focus on the story itself. And that’s where, as both editors and writers, we want our readers to be.