November 12, 2019
You’ve worked so hard to put together a submission package to an agent. You don’t want to waste all that effort only to get an automatic rejection. The best way to avoid the dreaded delete button is to fully research the agent and follow their guidelines exactly. If you’re unsure what works and what doesn’t in query letters, there are a few sites online to give you the inside scoop. Evil Editor deconstructs query letters (with the writer’s permission). The Nelson Literary Agency keeps an archive of overused tropes, query letters they like, and what they’re looking for in manuscripts. And if you’re on Twitter, search #MSWL. That stands for manuscript wish list and a lot of agents and editors post what they are looking for using that hashtag.
Here are the top ten reasons a manuscript is automatically rejected:
1. Sending your book to an agent who doesn’t represent your genre.
If the agent specifies, no memoirs, don’t send them your autobiography—no matter how well written it is or how convinced you are that they will love it.
2. Not following the guidelines exactly.
If the agent says to just send a query, don’t attach pages. If they want their queries to be sent via snail mail (US Post Office), don’t email them. If they want pages pasted in the body of the email, don’t upload them as an attachment. I once submitted a short story to the Marion Zimmer Bradley Fantasy Magazine. The guideline called for the manuscripts to be in Courier font. I assumed that they just meant they wanted it to be a legible font. So, I used Times New Roman. It was rejected and sent back with a copy of the guidelines with the words Courier font circled. Marion was a newspaper editor and was used to the Courier font and preferred to read the slush pile that way.
3. Making arrogant or unrealistic claims in the query.
This book will be the next Harry Potter!
If you accept me as a client, you can retire and go live on a beach in Tahiti.
Don’t do anything like that. Let your work speak for itself.
4. Being degrading about a book or series.
I tell my son, “Don’t yuck other people’s yum.” You may hate Twilight or Fifty Shades of Grey, but the agent may love them. They may even know an editor who is looking for the next Twilight or FSOG. Agents who represent romance authors have said they’ve received query letters that say, “Unlike other romance novels, mine are realistic and have heart.” Not only does this show a tremendous ignorance for the genre, but the contemptuous tone doesn’t bode well for the author’s future attitude.
Don’t make up an award that you won. Don’t say you won an award that you didn’t. Don’t say you’re a USA Bestselling author, if you’re not. Don’t say you met the agent at a conference, if you didn’t. Don’t say the book is new and unpublished, if you had self-published it for a few months and then taken it down. In this age of information, you will be caught, and it will be harmful for your career.
6. Having someone else write your query letter.
The query is your sales pitch that the agent uses to judge if they can sell your book, but also if they like your voice enough to read more. If the voice of your novel doesn’t match the query, that is a betrayal of a promise that could lead to an automatic rejection.
7. If your query isn’t specific enough.
The query should leave no doubt what the story is about and why the reader should care. It should be obvious what the genre is and how marketable the book will be. Don’t be vague. Vague is boring. Rather than scattering breadcrumbs to follow, just come right out and say what’s going on in your story. Don’t hide the intriguing reveal. Let it ensnare the agent’s attention.
8. Failure to engage the agent or editor.
You need to hook the reader right away. Not being able to make that connection from the first sentence lowers your chances that the agent will continue to read further. Don’t start your novel by having your character waking up out of bed or describing the weather. It’s boring and overdone. Skip to the action or a meaningful part of the story instead.
9. Using a story or plot that has been overdone.
Adam and Eve were aliens. It was all a dream. The story ends with a death, but suddenly there is a white light and the white light turns out to be a light in the delivery room at a hospital. While it’s been argued that there are only seven basic plots, you need to put your own unique spin on things, while staying in your genre’s lane.
10. Not following the expectations of the genre.
Writing a 150,000-word young adult book is about 100,000-words too long. A romance novel where the hero or heroine dies, does not have a happily ever after. Gratuitous sex or swearing in a cozy mystery novel is unheard of. Close door sex scenes in an erotic novel would be pointless. While you don’t want to be cliched, you also don’t want to stray too far from the genre tropes that make those books so popular with the super fans.
If you’ve managed to avoid all these things, don’t blow it by getting cute with your submission package. Don’t send your query with a signed blank check. Don’t send it taped to the top of a pizza box. Even if your novel is a murder mystery, do not send the query wrapped around a chef’s knife or rubber gun. Just be professional and follow the agent’s guidelines. Then wait for their response. If you’ve avoided all these mistakes, you may also avoid an automatic rejection.
Nelson Literary Agency Query Archives
Manuscript Wish List
How to Hook a Reader From the First Sentence
USA Today bestselling author, Jamie K. Schmidt, writes erotic contemporary love stories and paranormal romances. Her steamy, romantic comedy, Life’s a Beach, reached #65 on USA Today, #2 on Barnes & Noble and #9 on Amazon and iBooks. Her Club Inferno series from Random House’s Loveswept line has hit both the Amazon and Barnes & Noble top one hundred lists. The first book in the series, Heat, put her on the USA Today bestseller list for the first time, and is a #1 Amazon bestseller. Her book Stud is a 2018 Romance Writers of America Rita® Finalist in Erotica. Her dragon paranormal romance series has been called “fun and quirky” and “endearing.” Partnered with New York Times bestselling author and actress, Jenna Jameson, Jamie’s hardcover debut, SPICE, continues Jenna’s FATE trilogy.
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