Many of us who professionally edit manuscripts spend a great deal of our time providing our clients with query letter assistance. And happily so. Because if we're not coaching those who use our services on how to write effective query letters, a lot of very good authors are often unaware of some of the more critical nuances.
It's a lot More than Eschewing Adverbs and Running Adjectives
Forever, it seems, we have been warned against using adverbs in queries, the mind-set being that an agent will think that adverbs are indicative of the writer's overall style. Hence, the novel will be teeming with "stopped suddenly" and "smiled broadly" sorts of tautological expressions. Or that there will be a plethora of "irregular, big, burgeoning, brown spots" or "loud, cantankerous, feeble, wrinkled, old people" lurking somewhere. These are givens in the realm of query letter writing, but what is to follow is not.
Avoid the Temptation of Comparing Your Writing to that of Another Author
First and foremost is the necessity of crafting a query that highlights the relevant hooks in the story and not to permit the letter to come across as an overzealous personal pitch vehicle for the author.
For example, if a query says that the work is written like a Pat Conroy novel, an agent can and often will infer that the author is stating that he or she writes as well as Mr. Conroy, a lofty goal indeed. If comparisons to other works are desired, it is much better to simply imply that the novel is written in the style of a particular noted author--and not that your ability mirrors that person's skill sets, regardless of how you or others in your circle of friends and acquaintances might rate your talent.
Humility is a big plus; conversely, braggadocio is a sure way of turning off a literary agent, since how you comport yourself by the content and tone of the query can have a great deal to do with how an author's representative will perceive working with you.
Be Certain to Write the Query in a Way that is Indicative of How You Wrote the Novel
The well-respected literary agent and oft-published author, Noah Lukeman, wrote about how too much information via a writer's bio can be more damaging than helpful. And so much so that the bio can serve as the means for rejection--and not the text of the manuscript itself.
When I first read Mr. Lukeman's position on this I was appalled and offended, but as I thought about it more, I decided not to blame the messenger. If a writer is an academician in a scientific field, and that person's query letter style, for a mystery novel for example, doesn't indicate anything to the contrary, why should the agent think that the book is not written like a professorial thesis. In the same vein, if someone has been designing advertising copy for 20 years--and that individual's query for a police thriller is rife with overblown rhetoric--why would the agent think any differently about the condition of the narrative he or she is being asked to read?
If Applicable, there are Facts about an Unpublished Writer's Background that Can be Advantageous
In line with what I've just illustrated, I suggest that unpublished writers write sparingly about their credentials, except should their CV include writing honors they've received, and only if this pertains to the genre in which the book they are presenting happens to be written. Workshop or symposium awards, and book competitions in which germane work was singled out for excellence, etc., are what the author would want to present at the close of the query. Forget everything else. Just thank the agent for his or her time and rest your case.
Give Yourself a Chance
If you're careful about hype, watch the obvious benchmark rejection issues such as unnecessary adverbs and running adjectives, and keep you CV pertinent to the novel you are presenting, you'll enable the description of your story's features to dictate if the agent is going to request your manuscript. And you won't be rejected for reasons that may have nothing to do with the quality of your work.
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