I’ve been talking for the last few days about rejection factors that are beyond your control, ones you would be well advised not to take personally. However, if after you have sent out dozens (or even hundreds) of query letters, you are receiving only rejections, form or not, it may be time to reexamine what you are sending out.
If you are not getting the responses you want, but are occasionally being asked to send the first fifty pages or a book proposal, chances are, your initial query is pretty good. You may not have focused your agent search tightly enough, but you’re exciting interest. If, however, you have sent out twenty or thirty queries and NO ONE has asked to see more, it’s worth taking the time to look at your query and synopsis through professional eyes, to figure out why.
You need not wade through that many rejections, of course, before you check your submissions for some of the red flags below. However, for most new writers, it takes quite a bit of rejection to open their eyes to the possibility that their work needs, well, work. Unfortunately, these writers all too often automatically assume that it’s the idea of the book being rejected, rather than a styleless querying letter or a limp synopsis, or, still worse, that somehow the rejecting agents are seeing past the initial packet to the book itself, decreeing from afar that the writing is not worth reading — and thus that the writer should not be writing. It’s contrary to the evidence, of course, but this particular fear leaps like a lion onto many fledgling writers, dragging them off the path to future efforts: it is the first cousin that dangerous, self-hating myth that afflicts too many writers, leading to despair, the notion that if one is REALLY talented, the first draft, the first query, and the first book will automatically traject one to stardom.
It almost never works like that: writing is work. Instead of listening to the growls of the self-doubt lion, consider the far more likely possibility that it is your marketing materials, not the chapters that the agents in question have not yet seen, that is conducive to rejection. Use that moment of worry to your advantage: I have found in my years as a freelance editor that having the edges of the faith that good writing always finds a home blunted a bit often makes a writer more receptive to constructive criticism. So go ahead and subject your marketing materials to serious critique.
Read over your query letter, synopsis, and first chapter; better still, read them over AND have someone you trust read it over as well, checking for logical holes and grammatical problems. The best choice for this is another writer, ideally one who has successfully traversed the perils of the agent-finding ravine. As much as you may love your mother, your spouse, and your best friend, they are, generally speaking not the best judges of your writing. Look to them for support and encouragement, not for technical feedback. Find someone whose opinion you trust — such as, say, a great writer you met at a conference — and blandish her into giving your query letter and synopsis a solid reading.
(Lest you think I am casting unwarranted aspersions upon your mother, your spouse, or your best friend, let me add that my own fabulous mother spent her twenties editing the work of Philip K. Dick; she is one of the best line editors I have ever seen, in my professional opinion, but as she is my mother, I would never dream of using her as my only, or indeed even my primary feedback source. That doesn’t stop her from line editing while she reads my work, as I do for hers — years of professional editing causes a particular type of myopia that prevents one from ever reading again without brandishing a vicious pen that attacks margins with the intensity a charging rhinoceros — but I respect my work enough to want first reader feedback from someone who was NOT there when I took my first toddling steps.)
As I mentioned yesterday, make sure that you read everything in hard copy, not just on a computer screen. Proofreading is far easier in hard copy. Once you have done this, and made sure your submission pieces say what you thought they were saying (you’d be surprised how many don’t), sit down with yourself and/or that trusted first reader and ask yourself the following questions.
(18) Is my query letter polite?
You’d be amazed at how often people use the query letter as a forum for blaming the agent addressed for conditions in the industry: my personal favorite began, “Since you agents have set yourself up as the guardians of the gates of the publishing world, I suppose I need to appeal to you first.” A close second: “I know that challenging books seldom get published these days, but I’m hoping you’ll be smart enough to see that mine…”
My friends, agents have to interact their clients quite a bit throughout the process; do make sure that you’re coming across as someone with whom it will not be painful to associate.
(19) Does my letter sound competent and professional, or as if I have little confidence in the work? Do I sound as though I know what I’m doing, or does it read as though I’m apologizing for querying at all?
While it is a nice touch to thank the agent at the end of the query for taking the time to consider your work, doing so in the first paragraph of the query and/or repeatedly in the body of the letter comes across as obsequious. Begging tends not to be helpful in this situation. Remember, reading your query is the agent’s (or, more likely, the agent’s assistant’s) job, not a personal favor to you.
(20) Does my book come across as marketable, or does it read as though I’m boasting?
I have literally never met an agent who could not, if asked, launch into a medley of annoyingly pushy, self-aggrandizing query letter openings. Trust me, they’ve already seen their share of, “This is the greatest work ever written!”, “My book is the next bestseller!”, and “Don’t miss your opportunity to represent this book!”
It doesn’t work.
(21) Do I make it clear in the first paragraph of the letter why I am writing to this particular agent — or does it read as though I could be addressing any agent in North America?
Agents complain vociferously and often about queries that read as though the writer simply used a mail merge to address letters to every agent listed on a particular website or in a given guide. There are hundreds and hundreds of literary agents — why did you choose this one, out of all others, to query?
Most agents are proud of their work: if you want to get on their good side, show a little appreciation for what they have done in the past. If the agent you are querying has represented something similar to your work in the past, definitely mention that in your query letter. (As in, “Since you so ably represented X’s book, I believe you may be interested in my novel…”)
There are many ways to find out what an agent has represented. Check the acknowledgments of books you like (authors often thank their agents), or check the agency’s website to see whom the agent represents. There are several online search engines that will permit you to enter an author’s name and find out who represents him; I use Publishers Weekly, as it is so up-to-date on just-breaking sales news. If all else fails, call the book’s publisher, ask for the publicity department, and ask who the agent of record was. I once had a charming conversation with an editor at a small Midwestern press, who confided to me that when she had acquired the book about which I was inquiring, the author did not yet have an agent. Sensing an opportunity, I promptly pitched my book to her — and she asked me to send her the first fifty pages right away.
Alternatively, if you have heard the agent speak at a conference, read an article she has written in a writer’s magazine, or even just noticed that your favorite author thanked her in the acknowledgments of a book you liked, mention that upfront. If you have no such personal reason, be polite enough to give a general one: “Since you represent literary fiction, I hope you will be interested in my novel…”
These are just the preliminary questions, of course, the ones that concern the first paragraph of your query letter. I have dwelt upon the first paragraph, because — oh, it pains me to be the one to tell you this, if you did not already know — countless query letters are discarded by agents every day based upon the first paragraph alone. Think about it: if you had to get through 200 queries before the end of the afternoon, would you keep reading if the first paragraph were not promising?
Oh, yes, you SAY you would. But honestly, would you?
Take a good, hard look at your first paragraph, and make sure it is one that will make the agent want keep reading. Again, it is really in your interest to adhere to the prevailing manners of the publishing world: for all intents and purposes, it is considered rather impolite to make a busy agent (or assistant) read the entire cover letter in order to find out what you want. All too often, when writers do not make their intentions clear up front, the letter simply gets tossed aside after the first paragraph. (This is the reason I advise against e-mail queries, incidentally, except in the case of agents who specifically prefer them: it’s too easy to delete an e-mail after reading only a line of it.)
Tomorrow, I shall deal with the questions you should ask about subsequent portions of your query letter — and yes, I know that it seems impossibly nit-picky to concentrate this hard upon a page of text that isn’t even in your book. I’m just trying to save you some time, and some misery — and a whole lot of rejection.
Keep up the good work!
– Anne Mini