Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Elevate foot, shoot same

Ah, the CSI ballistics team is out in full force tonight examining the various ways you've managed to shoot yourself in the foot when querying me:

1. Include a table of contents for a novel
rather than say the actual first page (or 3-5 pages as I've repeatedly begged you for on every single place I post my submission assistance plan). The TOC for a novel is as useless as an agent without a telephone. What were you thinking?

2. Tell me that your book was nominated for an award
when "nominated" means you filled out a form and sent in a copy of your book.
This is ludicrous, particularly when I looked up the book and it was published by iUniverse. (you're not published by iUniverse; you're printed. Yes, there's a difference and I know what it is.)

3. Tell me that your book is like a particular well known author "only better."
You can't tell me this and have me take you seriously. Don't praise your own work in a query letter. I know you think it's the cat's pjs; every author thinks their own work is too. Ego is a requirement for an author but the really smart ones know how to SHOW rather than TELL how lovely those pjs are.

4. Send your query letter, or anything else as an attachment.
I used to reply saying "no attachments." Now I just say no. I can live with the chance I'll miss something fabulous. Chances are though, you will miss connecting with any agent cause most of us do not take unsolicited attachments.

5. Describe your (female) protagonist as "menopausal."
This word is never used as an accolade. It's certainly not the ONLY word one would expect for a protagonist. And, it grosses me out.

6. The old standby "fiction novel."
This is INSTANT rejection and I don't care what else is on the page. If you don't know why this is just wrong (ie not a mistake, not a typo) you need to quit querying and enroll in Grammar 101.

7. Fail to tell me what the book is about,
and then compound the problem by not pasting even a single page of the manuscript in the email. Once I might have replied saying "hey, send a page so I know what the thing is about." Now I won't.

8. Describe what people look like in the query letter. Description is not plot. Blonde hair does not indicate anything about character. Neither does green. I've been both and I'm still the same person I am today with my rainbow colored mohawk, as is my Herpet American assistant. See below:


Adam Heine said...

Question regarding "fiction novel." What about "science fiction novel?" As in "Children of Dune is a 120,000-word science fiction novel, available on request."

I ask because I've heard conflicting things. Is there a consensus, or is it just one of those "depends on the agent" things?

Janet Reid said...

It's only "fiction novel" that makes me crabby. "Science fiction novel" sounds very stilted but it doesn't send me screaming into the night.

acpaul said...

Dear Ms. Reid,

I am sending you this in the hopes that you will consider representing my 250,000 word fantasy fiction true crime novel entitled "How I came to Shoot Myself In the Foot With my Own Long-Bow and Composite Arrow with Barbed Broad-Head."

This is obviously the best book ever written and will take over the unfairly large market portion given over to J.R.R. Tolkien, who is, after all, dead.

I have enclosed the entirely of the manuscript via .docx atrtachment, and will be expecting your response by the day after Thanksgiving.

Ima Dork

Catherine Haines said...

It would never occur to me to describe my book as like X "only better". I mean sure, when talking to friends I have referred to my current work as "like the younger sister of Charlaine Harris's Sookie Stackhouse books", but I would never add on "only better". Ego much?

The others seem pretty standard (nice to see "fiction(al) novel" is on there). I mean, isn't it the point to tell about the book you are trying to sell?

People can be dumb. Oh well - they're taking themselves out of the competition without me having to lift a finger!

Mark J Daniels said...

I've submitted work to agents several times before, all the while avoiding the pitfalls you've mentioned here, only to still be rejected.

What will actually pique an agent's interest enough to get through the normal pile of rejections?

Admittedly, if the novel's rubbish, it's going to get chucked anyway, but how do you get the agent interested enough to look at the novel, or at least the first few pages, in the first place?


PS - I've written a fiction novel featuring a menopausal woman with green hair which is better, if not equal to, Lisey's Story by Stephen King.


Bowman said...

I found out that some agents are even stricter than you about #6.

BJ said...

Your assssssistant is very trendy, and I have to admit I am intrigued by the artist who could replicate her appearance in so much detail.

And I think your mohawk looks snazzy.

Unfortunately, I write science fiction, so I'll never get such a vibrant agent.


pegasus358 said...

As someone who reads and answers queries every day, all I can say is, "yeah, what she said!" Glad to know I'm not the only one for whom any of these things is an instant rejection.
Can I add that if possible, try to avoid smoking when you print out your materials? I opened a query letter the other day that absolutely REEKED of stale smoke, and I nearly retched. Not a great way to make a first impression...

Unknown said...

With the internet and the plethora of blogging agents and editors today, to say nothing of the very clear and easily accessible guidelines and suggestions for submissions, it amazes me that people are still making these mistakes.

Kimber Li said...

Gee, I hope you realize these are learners who may write bestsellers one day and treat them accordingly. Everyone has to start somewhere. Crush an aspiring author's spirit and he may not query you for that bestseller, or accept your offer of representation over others.

Ardin Lalui said...

hmmmm. this explains a lot. got any grammar 101 courses you'd recommend.

Haste yee back ;-) said...


LOL... I have this image of Ms. Reid's neighbors gathering every night on their front stoops each betting what time Dear ole' Janet's gonna blast - "screamin' into the night!"

And Mrs. Finkle says to Mrs. Hart. "I think it's menopause. Poor, poor Dear!"

Haste yee back ;-)

Dana said...

I'd pay good bourbon to see that rainbow-colored mohawk...

Anonymous said...

Y'know, I had a boyfriend when I was 14 (so was he) who shot himself in the foot on a hunting trip. Blew his big toe right off. Mom took to calling him Billy-No-Toe after that. Not too creative, but amusing in its simplicity.

I'd say I'm happy to discover I still have both feet intact after reviewing your list, but everything on it is so "no they didn't!" that I'd have to quit trying to get published if I saw myself anywhere there. The list also shows how wide the gulf is between the (literal) stinkers and the ones you want to stand up and sing about.

Then there are the ones in the middle, that probably take the most of your time. Strong, intriguing, talented, but maybe not quite ready yet, not quite marketable, not quite ... there yet.

Here's to hoping I'm far enough to the strong, intriguing, talented end of the spectrum to get picked up soon.

Nice post. You make me wish I wrote crime fiction.

Heidi Willis said...

Hey! I actually DO have a rainbowed mohawk character in my book! Does that give me bonus points??

Should I take that part out of my query? :)

Anna Claire said...

A table of contents on a novel? Seriously?

Chapter 1: Somebody dies
Chapter 2: Body is discovered
Chapter 3: People talk about it
Chapters 4-19: Investigation
Chapter 20: Romantic interlude
Chapters 21-35: Investigation
Chapter 36: Crime solved

Liana Brooks said...

Kimber An- There are only five million agents in the 212 alone. If Ms. Reid rejects one author for not doing their homework, it isn't the end of the world. If the author can't use google to figure out how to get a query letter right (there are formatted fill-in-the-blank query sites out there) than the author isn't going to go far with their career.

Melanie Hooyenga said...

Great post! I'm happy to say I apparently know how to avoid shooting myself in the foot. :)

Spy Scribbler said...

I used to think the "fiction novel" thing was silly, but I was talking to one of my students the other day. He spent a whole quarter learning about the "non-fiction novel."

I was perplexed, but evidently the "non-fiction novel" is used often in high schools. I'm now much more forgiving about people calling their story a "non-fiction novel."

Chris Redding said...

My 10 YO has to read four books a quarter. The teacher gave a list of genres.
One was Realistic Fiction.
I had to raise my hand and asked what the heck that was. I was told it was fiction that could have happened. I didn't say it, but I was thinking "Prove to me there isn't a sponge living in a pineapple under the sea."

ICQB said...

How long did your Herpet American assistant have to pose for that lovely portrait?

ryan field said...

I hope people realize that all these things might seem small to a certain extent, but they really do make the difference between what's going to stand out and what's not. It takes practice to get the query right, but it does work.

With so much competition, the query letter is almost like that initial audition for The American Idol Show. You get that one minute to sing, and if you screw it up you have to start all over again. And writing something like "fiction novel" in a query is like hitting the wrong note in a song. It's sour.

However, pegasus358, when it comes to the cigarette smoke, you might want to try sucking on a mint when you're reading queries. To judge the content and quality of a query letter, not to mention someone's career, because of the way it smells is crossing the line.

BJ said...

I don't know. Being allergic to smoke and other chemicals myself, if I were to open any letter that held the remnants of smoke, I'd be put in an instant bad mood. I'd also be in a bad mood if I got a letter that smelled like perfume. It's hard to be in a good mood when your sinuses are swelling up. And yes, if a letter smells like smoke, it's got cigarette smoke chemicals on it, the same as perfume.

So, to stand by pegasus358, it may not be *the* reason to reject a query, but it may be a strike against you with some agents.

ryan field said...

"So, to stand by pegasus358, it may not be *the* reason to reject a query, but it may be a strike against you with some agents."

You're probably right, BJ, and I stand corrected. I tend to be very insensitive about things like this, because I've never had allergies or conditions or other flaws and weaknesses people seem to have these days.

FIONA said...

Oh, I feel for those agents and editors who open the smoke- or perfume-reeking letters. My son & I have asthma, and I have to open the mail outside (in MN, even in the winter) in case there is a stealth perfume add lurking in the mix.

This is one more reason to push the e queries.

JS said...

evidently the "non-fiction novel" is used often in high schools

"Non-fiction novel" is a term used for works of non-fiction that are written in the style usually associated with novels. Truman Capote popularized its usage with In Cold Blood.

Although it's not a phrase I'd use myself, it's hardly a term that's only used in high schools.

these are learners who may write bestsellers one day

I wouldn't count on that. Most people who succeed hugely in any line of work have the sense to follow the basic rules of professionalism, even when they're starting out.

Also, "science fiction novel" is OK, but "women's fiction novel" should be avoided; "Mohawked Snakes A-Go-Go is a 97,000-word work of women's fiction" is MUCH better.

JS said...

I've never had allergies or conditions or other flaws and weaknesses people seem to have these days.

How thoughtless of us all not to die young the way we used to. So sorry to inconvenience you, Ryan.

The Swivet said...

but I was thinking "Prove to me there isn't a sponge living in a pineapple under the sea."

falls off chair, laughing my ass six year old niece would agree!

Persephone Green said...

Hey, the fact that there are enough people out there who still make these mistakes give me hope! (Thanks, screwups!) :D

Steve Stubbs said...

Please don't dis iUniverse. There is a fellow who used to post to some of the writing boards whose work is so bad it was even turned down by No, I am not making this up. I suspect, but do not know, that he does NOT have a big New York agent representing him. Nor, I suspect, does he have a small agent in Podunk.

He does have ego, though. He is convinced that he is right and everyone else - and that includes - is wrong.

The fact that he is no longer on the boards is the main thing for which I celebrate Thanksgiving this year.

Bianca Raven said...

Ryan said: "I tend to be very insensitive about things like this, because I've never had allergies or conditions or other flaws and weaknesses people seem to have these days."

Well, excuse me for being flawed and riddled with inherent weaknesses for being allergic to cigarette smoke, cats and most grass seeds.

From the sound of your post and your rampant attitude toward assistants opening mail and getting over the smell, you sound as though you have a raging addiction to nicotine...

...which is a FAR BIGGER WEAKNESS than sneezing a little bit when a cat walks by or when the foul smell of poisonous cigarette smoke wafts up my nose and makes me wheeze a bit.