17th December 2015: the fateful day I decided to begin my querying journey. Why did I chose to start in December, the month all agents are closed? Well, that’s not the subject of this blog post. No, what we’re talking about today is: all of my other mistakes. Come on down! We are taking a horrifically painful look at my very first query letter, the one I wrote with the trusty help of The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook 2015 edition and nothing else. This letter may have failed to secure me an agent (obviously, look at it, it’s awful), but it will live on in glory as a lesson to future querying writers: here’s what not to do.
All right campers, let’s take a look:
Look closely: the greeting is perfection. Formal address, comma at the end. No “Dear Agent” around here, no ma’am. Couldn’t have crafted a more amazing greeting. 10 points to Ravenclaw.
The opener is where this letter starts to derail, though. It is not (currently) best practice to begin your query letter with your intro and bio. Most industry professionals agree it is far better to begin with your pitch, saving your intro section until the end. No one needs to know your name straight off the bat. No one cares about your name straight off the bat. All an agent is looking for is the hook.
Content-wise, the bio is a little sparse but … its not 100% cringe, I’ll give myself that. It’s good to mention your age and profession – check. I’d suggest adding where you’re from as well, and show a little personality! This is also the best place to add any writing credentials you may have. As you may have guessed, I did not add any of those because at the time I did not have *checks notes* a single one.
Okay this is getting painful. “I am querying you today with information about my novel” – Jesus Christ, girl, sit down. O B V I O U S L Y you are. You do not need to spell this out. OBVIOUSLY YOU ARE QUERYING THIS AGENT WITH INFORMATION ABOUT YOUR NOVEL. Go to jail. Do not pass Go. Do not collect £200. NO. NO. NO.
Okay, let’s just move on from that. We have some technical information, namely the name of the novel which should just be in CAPS, none of this italic quotation mark nonsense. We’ve got the genre and word count (slim number for a YA Fantasy but okay) which is all very important info but again in the wrong place. We need the pitch first. What is your story about?! And no, before you point them out, no one wants your buzz words. “Ooh, my story is about gemstones oooh!” – go home, you are embarrassing yourself, past me. Christ alive.
Finally, we have some actual relevant information. But of course, I’ve stared it all wrong, haven’t I? One humongous sentence of backstory that no one needs. No one wants this, past me. Where, in anyone’s submission guidelines, did anyone specify “Oh be sure to give us all the tiny details about how your story is based on your beloved grandparents, and how three characters are named after the moles that granddaddy murdered with a spade and scarred your infant psyche so you had to write a 7-part YA F series about it”?
Uh. Disclaimer: I am exaggerating.
Anywhozles. My point is: don’t start with backstory. Start with the crux of your story. Who is your protagonist? What to they want? What is getting in their way? What will happen if they don’t get what they want? It needs to be snappy, no more than 250 words, and it needs to be enticing. Make your story sound like nothing anyone has ever been pitched before. Make ’em care.
My limp description is doing absolutely none of that. I called one of my MCs ‘hard-boiled’, who on earth was 25-year-old me?
I’m not sure what this penultimate section is trying to achieve. We’ve got more buzzwords (woo) and more highly obvious statements. Oh, shoot me now. “I really wanted to write the kind of novel I would like to read” – I just … words fail me.
The only good thing about this section is that I’ve managed to pull some comps out my bum and actually format them correctly (still, get rid of the quotation marks, though). For the life of me, I cannot imagine why I chose to list Divergent as a comp, but … let’s just end this, shall we?
Bit of a shit sign off, but it could be worse. I’m surprised I got my name right, if I’m honest; everything else is wrong. It’s good to see I have followed to submissions guidelines and included a synopsis and five page sample pasted into the body of the email, but I literally did not have to reference this. The agent knows where they are. It’s her submission guidelines. I do not need to direct her to the goddamn materials. She asked for me to put them where I put them. Go to jail again, me. Do not even think about passing Go, you absolute cotton-brain.
I like that I thanked the agent for reading. Gotta be polite. Would have been more polite to add a personalised section and actually tell the agent why I was querying her, but shrug.
And that’s the end. Sign off. Name. Should have added my contact details. Didn’t. Not needed really, I doubt this agent even made it to my synopsis, let alone wanted to get in touch with me!
And that concludes my very first query letter. Positives: not long, tries to include relevant details, no typos/grammar mistakes, followed query guidelines. Negatives: everything else.
Have you got an awful first query? Do you have a successful one? What’s that like? Share your woes and frustrations below – and I’ll grab the red pen!
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