Agent Kirsten Nelson published a blog the other day (March 16) over at Pub Rants (http://pubrants.blogspot.com/). She was talking about the top ten openings to "guarantee that I won't even read past your first line of your query."
She included a lot of truth in that top ten list. The things she said would be as true for an editor as for an agent.
Numbers 10, 9 and 8 on her list were authors who hadn't bothered to do their homework in order to determine the kind of manuscripts she represents. If you query Kirsten on a psychological thriller or a murder mystery or a screenplay, she'll trash the letter because she doesn't represent any of those genres. Lesson here: DO NOT SIMPLY MAIL DOZENS OF QUERIES IN A SCATTERSHOT MANNER. You're wasting postage, paper and time. Instead, take that energy and put it to good use by targeting your queries to agents/editors who will be interested in what you write.
Number 7 was an example of someone just shooting herself in the foot. "I really don’t know how to go about writing a query and since this is my first try…"
Kirsten responded that there is no excuse for someone doing this with all the information available to wannabee writers these days. She says bluntly, "I personally don’t want to take on any writer who isn’t savvy. Now, they can still have a lot of questions about publishing but they need to be professionally savvy." Lesson here: The sympathy ploy may work with your mother, but not in a business relationship. An agent or an editor is not looking to do social work. This is their livelihood. Act like a freaking professional.
Number 6 is clearly a sore spot with agents. Miss Snark has made reference to it numerous times. This is the query which assures the agent that the book will make a fabulous movie. If the person you are querying is a "literary" agent, it means he represents BOOKS. Lesson here: Don't run before you learn to walk. Stop thinking ahead four spaces on the gameboard and concentrate on selling your book. Alternatively, write a screenplay and look for someone who specializes in selling those.
Numbers 5 and 4 are variations of the same theme. The writer says he cannot describe his novel "because it defies description" or he claims it fits many categories or genres. Kirsten says, "if you can’t describe it, I’m pretty darn sure I can’t sell it. As a writer, you need to know your novel’s place in the market...Pick the dominant genre—where it would be shelved in a bookstore and leave it at that!" Lesson here: You need to spend some time learning the language of genres and how to classify your novel. I've said before that I thought my first novel was a romantic fantasy. After I took a workshop in genres, I learned it was a paranormal romance. This is important information when you are trying to sell a novel.
Number 3 was sending an attachment with an email. With all the viruses out there, no sane person is going to open an unknown attachment. Some agents DO have a separate computer on which they will open queries with attachments. Lesson here: Read the agent/publisher's guidelines. Otherwise, they will delete your email and you'll still be waiting for a response a year from now.
Number 2 astonished me: "I recently realized that I was scammed by my previous agent/agency." Again, Kirsten was blunt. "Don’t start you[r] query with how you had a moment of idiocy (which can happen to anyone). Would you begin a job interview with how much you screwed up the last one? No. Use some common sense." Lesson here: Oh, for heaven's sake, if I have to explain this one, you shouldn't be querying at all.
And finally..."the number one starter that will get an instant NO reply: 1. My novel will be the next DA VINCI CODE, HARRY POTTER, or WAITING TO EXHALE (or insert other title that fits your genre)".
Kirsten was kinder than I would have been on this one. She simply said this was unlikely and, besides, had already been done. She is looking for something new and terrific. Lesson here: Get over your grandiose self. The odds that you have written the next forty-million-copy bestseller are somewhere between slim and none. Don't embarrass yourself.