An old familiar theme

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.

6 Responses to An old familiar theme

  1. Josin says:

    I didn’t realize that the stationary backgrounds affected formatting. I assumed agents didn’t like them because they’re annoying.

  2. @Josin: Haha! Same, though.

    It seems the basic theme through this post is “Don’t be too extreme.” Don’t over- or under-do it. Practice queries and test reads (from other people who have some idea of what might work with an agent) seem all the more beneficial now.

  3. golden pen says:

    All good advice, because things are the way things are, but….

    3) is so sad. Platform before book, while understanding the need to reach out and let people know the book exists, to not give consideration to a good book because the author does not have a twit-face rep, is like wearing spectacles in case your eyesight goes bad. I understand publishers are trying to minimise the gamble involved in their business, but if they are that frit of backing a loser, they should find another business to work in.
    I have only ever read one book; that was obscure; that left me wondering why it wasn’t a best seller, but I’ve read at least a dozen best sellers that left me feeling I’d had my pocket picked when I paid for them. I have to accept that loss as part of the price for all the good books I have read.

    The point here is a good book will almost always sell. A good book is a platform, it is the reason I buy a second book by an author. If you wear spectacles in case your eyesight goes bad, rest assured it will go bad. Picking a good book to publish is a skill, a developed instinct. If a publisher can’t do that, he doesn’t deserve to be in business, and if such a publisher goes under, all well and good, as it makes room for stuff that deserves to be published.

    I for one, have never parted with cash for a book due to being influenced by twit-face, and I really don’t think I ever will. Has anybody? I can only think of one book that has done well due to twit-face; S*!@ My Dad Says, doubtless there are a few more. But, me verses the rest of the world; I’ll name five authors who didn’t twit-face for every one you name who did. Here’s five to counter the one I’ve given: Stephen King; J.K. Dan Brown; Wilber Smith; Clive Barker.

    10) What is it with agents and their paranoia about computer viruses?
    I’m very glad to see a trickle of agents who now accept attachment samples. In the body of samples can cause a lot of aggro, as emails try to compress themselves for mailing and often eliminate the double spacing insisted on. Also, if sender and receiver are on different zoom settings the lines will fragment.
    Agents should learn how to use computers properly. Most viruses are simply a breakdown in the fabric of the message. Think of them as holes in a piece of cloth, and yeah they get bigger and spread into everything. But like darning a hole there is a way to deal with it. Here in simple steps is how.
    1/ install anti-virus.
    2/ use it.
    If anyone is really out to get you and sends a more sophisticated virus, they will have you as soon as you open the email, regardless of attachment. People who have the knowledge and ability to do this, will probably have people they hate even more than you to do it to. So don’t sweat it.

    Anyway, things being the way things are – all good advice

  4. Jessica says:

    Just a quick clarification in response to Golden Pen. We will certainly open attachments. Indeed, we prefer to see samples as attachments, but they should be accompanied by a query letter in the body of the e-mail text. Even a note like “Kindly see the attached query letter and samples.”

  5. Is there a statute of limitations on query letter faux pas? Suppose, wrapped up in grad school-inculcated “poet’s hubris,” a person sent out query letter upon query letter, years – long painful humility-inducing years – before the novel in question was anywhere near being finished…can this now humbled literary aspirant send a query to some of the same agents?

    Well, obviously, no one will stop me. And some of the agents in question have already left the publishing business. But some haven’t.

    Oh well. I conquered a fear yesterday – the microphone on a stage under a spotlight fear – so I feel (gulp) entitled to one dumb question on a Saturday night.

    * Maybe that would be a good question for a blog survey: Have you ever talked about your fiction…on a stage…with a microphone? Does the thought strike terror in your heart…or it’s “no biggie.” I remember seeing Amy Tan on stage – if I remember correctly, she had a big comfy chair to sit in (not on, in). Maybe it’s just a phantom comfy chair I’m imagining. I also saw Joan Didion speak once – she had on a mink coat, very Hollywood star power, I thought. She gave a great talk.

  6. Jessica says:

    A sharp eyed client noticed that I misspelled “stationery.” Yikes. But a good reminder that agents should also proceed with a good measure of humility.

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