Aug 05 2010
Publishers and literary agents reject quite a few manuscripts on page 1. However, if the query letter is bad, the editor will probably reject you without even looking at page 1. Here are some common problems and how to avoid them.
1. “This is just like Harry Potter meets Dirty Harry.” Comparing your work to another will probably make your work sound like an uninspired ripoff. Also, you can’t assume that the editor likes Harry Potter, or Twilight, or Spiderman, or whatever else you might think is the most awesome work ever. Instead of trying to hitch a ride on somebody else’s bandwagon, talk about your work. If editors think “this will totally work with Harry Potter fans,” great, but let them make that determination on their own.
2. The description of the plot/characters lacked details. “Gary must work with his partner to stop the villain and save the day.” What are Gary and the partner like? What’s the villain like? What’s the villain’s goal? Why should we care if they stop him? A more detailed description is usually more interesting. If I had to describe The Taxman Must Die in a single sentence, I’d prefer something like “Two unlikely Homeland Security super-agents, an accountant and a fun-loving mutant alligator, must band together to prevent a deranged cosmeticist from destroying humanity.” See more details on how to write an interesting and exciting pitch for your story here.
2.1 You forgot to mention the main goal(s) of the characters and major obstacles. That’s sort of the point of the book! Don’t miss it.
3. You addressed the letter “To Whom It May Concern,” “Dear Editor” or “Dear Agent.” If at all possible, get a name–it’s more personal. Most literary agencies have bios and specialties listed for each agent online, so address it to an agent that specializes in your genre(s). If you’re submitting to a publisher, try using Google and addressing it to an editor that handles submissions. Even though your manuscript may well be evaluated by somebody else, that will show that you have put some thought into this company specifically. If the publisher has made no information available, then I think Dear Editor is the least awful alternative. (I would recommend against calling the publisher and asking for the name of somebody to address it to–I think that’s generally seen as a breach of etiquette).
4. The query failed to demonstrate an understanding of the company. Check the publisher’s submissions page and see what they’ve published recently. Unless your book is similar to at least a few books they’ve published recently, it probably isn’t a good fit for that publisher.
5. The query focused too much on you, rather than your story. By and large, credentials don’t matter for novelists unless the credentials will help you sell thousands of copies. Here are a few examples of credentials that are actually worth noting.
- You’ve professionally published a book before (please give the title, publisher and year published). Some authors mention short stories and articles, but these credits aren’t as important.
- You’ve worked in publishing or any other field related to writing, editing and/or selling books.
- You’ve sold thousands of copies of a self-published book. (Nicely done!)
- You’ve amassed hundreds of thousands of readers. Maybe you write for a large newspaper or magazine or a well-read blog.
- You’ve won a major writing award. PS: It’s only major if editors have heard of it.
- You have professional experience directly relevant to the book. Maybe you’re a cop writing a detective story or a teacher writing a children’s book.
Unless your credentials are really impressive, I’d recommend limiting your self-description to 0-1 sentences.
6. The query had typos. One may be tolerable; anything more than that strongly suggests that the manuscript is riddled with errors and that the author is not yet at a professional level. Publishers can wait.
7. The query mentioned the prospects of a movie deal or video game. These are irrelevant to the only question the editor cares about: is this book worth publishing? Also, some editors hate working with sequels/series and would much rather work with novels that could be extended into series later rather than books that have to be published as series. Publishers are leery of making long-term commitments to unproven authors. If you’d like a long-running series, it’s easier to publish something small first and extend it into a series after you’ve shown your editor how awesome you and your work are. On the other hand, comic book publishers are generally more amenable to series, but it’s still easier to break in with a one-shot comic book than a limited series or (God help you) an ongoing series.
8. You forgot to mention how long it is. A novel query needs a word-count (rounded to the nearest thousand). If you’re not sure how long a novel manuscript should be, check out these length guidelines. Generally, anything between 80,000-100,000 words is safe for an adult novel. Books for kids and young adults have their own length guidelines. For comic books and graphic novels: A submission letter for a comic book or graphic novel needs a page-count. Check the publisher’s past works to see what length they prefer to work with, but most small and medium publishers prefer comic books ~24 pages long. I think there’s more variety among graphic novels, but generally I’d go with something on the higher end of 150-200 pages. NOTE: Comic book submissions should include the page count of the comic book as it will be printed, NOT the number of pages in the script. There may be a slight discrepancy between the two if any of the comic book pages take more than one page of script.
9. The novel hasn’t been finished yet. Extremely few publishers consider uncompleted novel submissions from unpublished authors. Editors don’t know if/when an author will finish an unfinished manuscript, but it will probably take at least months to finish the first draft, let alone handle the rewrites. We can wait. Comic book publishers tend to be a bit more receptive to works in progress, so check the submissions page to learn about each publisher’s expectations.
10. The query didn’t evoke the right emotional response. According to literary agent Janet Reid, “If you tell me this book is a comedy, and the query letter isn’t funny or amusing, there’s a problem. A big one.” Similarly, a horror query should make us anxious about whether the characters survive, an action query should make us want to see the hero beat up the bad guys, a romance query should make us care whether the characters get together, etc. Show us how easily you can move the reader.
11. Your query made it hard to understand character motivations and/or why things happened. In particular, why do the main characters respond like they do to the inciting event (the event that takes them out of their comfort zone at the beginning of the book)? What are they trying to accomplish?
12. The query used rhetorical questions. “Will John survive the creature in the closet?” This may well be the 50th manuscript the editor has
unceremoniously tossed evaluated today. I’d recommend against rhetorical questions because they’re cheesy and there’s no way to know how a cynical, frazzled editor or agent will answer. If you start a query with something like “Will John survive the creature in the closet?”, my immediate response will probably be “What the hell is going on?” or “Why do you assume that I care about about John’s survival?” Also, some editors find rhetorical questions patronizing. I’m especially bothered by rhetorical questions that remind me how little I know about what’s happening.
13. The submission package was missing something. For example, if a novel publisher requires three chapters along with your query, did you include them? If the comic book publisher requires sample art pages (like most do, besides Dark Horse), did you include them? If you’ve forgotten something, you’ll probably be insta-rejected. DO NOT SUBMIT TO A PUBLISHER WITHOUT DOUBLE-CHECKING THE SUBMISSION GUIDELINES FIRST.
14. The query letter was written in the voice of a character. Query/submission letters are professional documents that have to convince an editor or agent that you’re a promising business partner. I’m glad that you’re confident in the voice of the character, but this is probably not the best way to sell that.
- It’s hard to take a business proposal from a fictional character seriously.
- Your character can’t talk about out-of-story details as smoothly as you can. Some examples include the word-count, your bio (if applicable), the target audience, etc.
- It’s hard for your character to establish a working relationship between the author and publisher as well as the author can.
- There may be plot points that the character doesn’t actually know about.
- Is the character reliable? The editor can’t be sure.
If the voice is stylish, you can convey that by using language from the story. “Now, the accountant’s only hope for survival is Agent Orange, a mutant alligator that is probably human-safe. (Tests are inconclusive).”
15. Your typesetting looked unprofessional. Your query letters and script/manuscript are professional documents. They should look like it.
- Please use black letters on a white (or slightly off-white) page. Black letters on a white background make for a more pleasant reading experience.
- Please double-space the manuscript/script. A double-spaced manuscript is easier to read, which helps keep editors and agents attentive and cheerful. With queries and submission letters, I don’t think it matters much whether it’s single-spaced or double-spaced. Do keep it to one page, though.
- Please use Size 12 text.
- Please use a standard business font, like Times New Roman, Tahoma, Verdana, Georgia, Palatino, Franklin Gothic, Book Antiqua, Bookman Old Style, or maybe Courier New. Comic book writers, you too should use a standard business font for your submission pages and scripts, too, but definitely use something more daring when you actually letter pages.
16. “Everybody I know agrees that this book is awesome!” References don’t help at all. In particular, editors do not care what your friends and family think, because they’re probably too close to you to give very honest feedback and (unless they are experienced publishing professionals) probably wouldn’t know all that much about the publishing industry, anyway. Even an (alleged) endorsement from a major publishing figure (like Steven King or Stan Lee) wouldn’t help a query. If Stan Lee actually is excited about your work, please ask him to refer you to somebody that would be qualified to handle the project. I have no idea whether Stan Lee actually endorsed you (or what the context was), and I can’t verify either. However, do mention if you’ve won a major writing award, one the editors will have heard of. That can be easily verified.
17. The “submission” hinges on a list of characters. For example:
- Name: John Harper
- Age: 18
- Occupation: Bartender
Here are some reasons this will almost always lead to a quick rejection:
- The character’s profession and/or demographics might actually be interesting, but if so, there are much better ways to show that. For example, if John is an under-age bartender and is in so far over his head that he nearly set a customer on fire when preparing a flaming floater, that goes a lot farther to understanding what his story is like and why we should care than just than he’s a 18 year old bartender.
- Lists of characters are rarely very coherent. I’d recommend instead trying to describe the plot and working in characters as necessary. One key advantage here is that we’ll be able to see much more clearly how the characters interact and how their goals and plots interact.
- Lists tend to waste a lot of time on irrelevant character details without describing the core elements of the book very well. For example, listing the age separately for several characters is not necessary, particularly if the characters are all around the same age.