Whenever I meet with writers, I inevitably field a few questions about query letter missteps—a subject that this blog has covered before. But inspired by a letter from a writer who requested my help to introduce her book to “the masses,” I thought I’d offer up a fresh crop of ten faux pas that are easy enough to avoid.
1) Beware grandiosity. Calling your novel a “surefire hit” or a “modern classic” is probably better left to your eventual reviewers (or exuberant jacket copywriters). Also probably a good idea not to identify your readership as “the masses.”
2) Conversely, avoid sounding overly humble, untalented, or self-abnegating. Too much modesty can be convincing. This from a recent query: “I have no real background or training in writing. I have never taken a writing class, and I’m not even sure that I’m any good.” Here discretion would have been the better part of valor.
3) If the book you are pitching is nonfiction, avoid discussing how publication of the proposed project will help build your platform as tinker, tailor, soldier, spy. The platform and the book is not a chicken-and-egg argument. As far as houses are concerned, platform comes first, book second.
4) Avoid making the book seem like a little something you sat down to do one afternoon because you figured you could write something at least as good as “what’s out there.” This may be the gospel truth, but it’s just not polite to say so.
5) Don’t insult an agent’s taste, impugn her professional ethics, imply she is a “tool,” or otherwise dare her to read your mind-blowing novel/memoir/political expose.
6) Do point out if English is not your first language. Fair enough.
7) Don’t use fancy “stationery” backgrounds for your query letter. They usually muddle formatting.
8) Don’t ask for advice on how to get published. The expectation is that you have done your due diligence.
9) Don’t send an attachment without a query in the body of an e-mail; most agents won’t open it for fear of picking up something nasty.
10) And of course, all the familiar old saws. Be cordial, professional, show a sense of humor and avoid calling your book a “fiction novel,” (this last is a nitpicky, small-minded pet peeve of mine; novels are, by definition, works of fiction.) It might, however, be worth noting if your memoir is nonfiction. Once this too would have been considered redundant, but in the post James Frey, Greg Mortenson world, perhaps it’s a handy distinction.