if it’s too difficult for grown-ups, write for children

DON’T (a list)

Rather than doling them out in drips and drabs, someone wise and wonderful suggested I compile a list of some of my querying “don’t”s. Now, these are specifically mine, and other agents may have their own pet peeves, but there’s some general advice I hope you can take from this list.

When writing a query letter, DON’T

  1. Send it on behalf of your wife/husband/child/sibling/gerbil. I don’t want to represent any writer who isn’t actively involved in their own submission process.
  2. Write it from the point of view of your characters. I’ve said this before: while your creations may speak to you, they don’t speak to me. Let your letter show that you’re a professional writer, not a nutjob who thinks their characters come alive.
  3. Tell me it’ll be a huge bestseller, change the world, and win the Newbery/Printz/ManBooker/Pulitzer/Oscar. Tell me the story, and let me imagine the accolades.
  4. Detail all the kids who’ve read it/that you’ve read it to who think it’s the best book they’re ever seen or heard (and you didn’t even tell them you wrote it! How tricksy you are!). Children aren’t critics, and they aren’t editors.
  5. Preach at me. Don’t tell me the lesson I’ll learn from the book. Readers, myself among them, don’t want to be taught, we want to be entertained.
  6. Include a proposed cover design, or suggest an artist, or link to an image that you feel captures the essence of the manuscript. There are people who do that for a living. They’re called art directors, and they come into the publishing process well after I do.
  7. Think your book is strong enough to vault over my stated preferences. If I ask for a letter and the first three pages, send me a letter and the first three pages: not pages somewhere in the middle, not the first third of the book, not a chapter listing.
  8. Send a form letter, or worse, send to all of my agent colleagues on the same email, without even the benefit of a “bcc”. Personalize each query. Know who you’re writing to, and be able to say why you’re approaching them. And “I’m going through a list of Agents and you were next alphabetically” is not a good reason.
  9. Create a new category or genre for your book, and please Please PLEASE don’t refer to it as a “fiction novel.” I generally shouldn’t need more words to describe your book’s category or genre than are in your proper name. Urban fantasy, chick lit, romance, science fiction, mystery, magical realism, comedy: these all work, but not all together in some mashed up new phrase like urban-romance-sci-fi-mysterious-comedy. Too confusing.
  10. Worry too much about the query letter. If the manuscript is strong enough, and you haven’t broken too many of the above “rules”, it’ll be read, and someone, somewhere, is going to love it.

Did I forget anything important? What rules have you heard that everyone should know?

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