What Your Query Should Avoid (and the hidden virtues of snail mail!)

As an intern at a literary agency in NYC, I like to spend my mornings with a fresh, steaming mug of coffee slush pile. Nothing smells better than possibility, and there’s always the hope that buried deep is YOUR query—the spark that’ll make it big. Unfortunately, it’s usually buried pretty deep. 

There are, however, plenty of things you can do to make your piece of hay look a lot more like a needle. There’s some good news, and here’s more: The people of a higher power, the ones who open your slaved-over query, are looking for good nuts. We want them like an intern wants sleep (or like squirrels want good nuts.) In fact, it’s a lot like the nut room in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, except you don’t actually have to worry about your darling query getting carted off by a gang of sensitive rodents.

The only thing your query has to fear is the recycling bin.

Before we get to the nitty gritty, here’s a (free!) tip: Snail mail is still worth it. If the agency (clearly states) they accept or prefer snail mail, the investment in that envelope and stamp might be the one that gets you an agent. 

But we’re not cavemen! you say. We understand how email works and everything! This is the thing about the snail mail slush pile: It’s mostly filled with queries by people who don’t understand how email works and everything. This usually translates to: Didn’t Do the Research syndrome, or DDR, as we in the inventing-acronyms-business like to call it. 

You probably won’t get “PERFECT” flashing on your screen in big letters, though.

But this is the good news! In the slush pile, a query that knows what’s up will be looking a lot more attractive compared to all those poor saps who wore their grandmother’s envelope to the party. The more nonsense I get, the more desperate I am to be impressed—and therefore the more easily impressed I will be—by your query.

Here’s a list of things of some obvious-and-less-obvious things you can avoid to hit the bar. 

1: In progress. If your fiction project isn’t finished, the query gets dumped. You can’t get signed for something that doesn’t exist yet.

2: Bad writing. Things that are badly written tell me one thing about your writing, and I bet you can guess what it is. Find a friend who’ll check your query’s sentences for holes.

3: (This falls a little under the first one, but) Ridiculous adverbs. When it doubt, act it out. I’d like to see you voluptuously rubbing your fingers on a desk.

4: Sucking up. “I know you must be busy trapped beneath that mountain of queries—thank you for taking the time to read this!” “I love your work so much I keep your picture by my bedside!” “Your hair looks good ALL the time.” While these are nice tension-breakers to use after spilling your drink on someone in a bar, they don’t belong in a query. Don’t thank the person for reading your query—it’s their job, and every second you spend thanking them for it is a second they could be spending actually reading your query.

5: “Presents.” This applies specifically to snail mail (though you would do well to avoid image attachments in emails as well.) Things that are not needed: Cutout pictures of your grandchildren, glitter, hair samples so we know what color your MC’s hair REALLY is, glitter, anything that is not your query/requested materials, and glitter. (Vacuuming the floor is an intern duty.) While we’re at it, avoid printing your query on nice paper stock as well. Anything that distracts from the actual words on the page, and someone’s ability to read them without hassle, is a big no-no. 

6: Your life views. If you’re querying a fiction project, that’s exactly what you’re querying. We won’t be publishing your childhood experiences with nasty next-door roosters, the philosophies you acquired watching grass grow, or a numbered list of your best personality traits. The book only. For an author bio, include only what’s relevant—if you’ve self-pubbed and sold well, that’s a hit; if you have a huge blog following, that’s a hit; if you’ve published a minor article in a minor newsletter, that’s likely a no.

7: No dictating how the reader is going to feel about the query. If you say “This novel will astound, astonish, amaze, and alliterate you with its characters that will no doubt stir long-buried empathies within you” and it doesn’t, those empathies are even more unlikely to show up. Don’t tell me what I will be immersed in; cut to the chase and immerse me in it. 

8: Don’t start out describing the weather. Pretty please.

9: Keep everything relevant. If you’re querying middle grade fiction, don’t tell me about your great love for Khaled Hosseini and Jodi Picoult.

10: Always, always, always check with the requirements of each agency/agent before you query them. These can be found on their websites with little to no hassle. 

And there you are! Voila! A query that, by filling the basest requirements, already stands out above the masses! To bump that all the way up to a request, you’ll want to get your query critiqued, critiqued, critiqued. 

Recommendations for query critique:

– Queryshark. http://queryshark.blogspot.com/ An actual agent (the sharkly Janet Reid!) delivering spectacular query crit. 

– The Absolute Write forums. http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/Here you can find a wide spectrum of perspective on your query from a wide range of writers!

– Punch My Query. http://andtheworldsaidthatstoobad.blogspot.com/ Every Friday, agented writer Michelle Painchaud delivers a fierce right hook, in the form of in-depth critique and an actual query rewrite!

And that’s your friendly neighborhood intern, signing off.

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12 Responses to What Your Query Should Avoid (and the hidden virtues of snail mail!)

  1. Michelle says:

    Omg, if I had known this when I first started querying I would've been SO PREPARED.<3

  2. Melanie says:

    Scratches off first line of query: It was a dark and stormy night. Check. Thanks! 😀 Awesome post, Laura! It was especially helpful to think more about querying snail mail only agents, which I've avoided in the past. For my next project I definitely WON'T avoid them.

  3. Great post, Laura!! I had no idea about the snail mail tip, so that's really interesting.

  4. Laura Tims says:

    Thank you lovely! It was a dark and stormy night = best opener ever, CLEARLY. =]

  5. Laura Tims says:

    Thank you! Yeah, I think people who know more about querying tend to avoid snail mail, but it's a place where you can really stand out. 😀

  6. Sarah Harian says:

    Laura, I'm querying you tomorrow. And your hair looks good even after waking up outside after a thunderstorm of chocolate syrup. And I've enclosed carnival tickets.

  7. Laura Tims says:

    ❤ My hair is chocolate-syrup-proof. Pretty soon I'm gonna have enough carnival tickets to paper my bathroom.

  8. Great post, like most people I didn't know about the snail mail tip, will keep it in mind! Oh, and I will make sure to add a ton of glitter and pictures of cute animals begging to be liked 😉

  9. Laura Tims says:

    Thanks! Maybe if someone send in an actual cute animal (I'm partial to kittens) I'd be swayed.

  10. Uuuh, now I know of a way to bribe you 😉

  11. Thank you for the great tips 🙂 People actually send glitter and hair samples in the mail?! Andrea

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