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There are probably far more, but seven seemed like a nice non-round number. It’s considered lucky and symbolic. It’s the fifth prime of the integers. As a kid, I always liked the numbers seven and five. Perhaps that’s why. Today I’m discussing a few (seven, actually) of the reasons queries get rejected, using the unscientific method of trolling through the #TenQueries hashtag on Twitter and cherry-picking some recurring problems I see.

1. Not knowing your category/genre

Is it Women’s Fiction or Romance? YA or NA? Thriller or Mystery? If you don’t know, you haven’t done your homework. Do that now. The corollary to this sin is not knowing the word-count range for your age category/genre: for goodness’ sake, no YA Contemporary should be 200,000 words long. Nor should it be 40,000 words short.

2. No query letter

Yes, really — authors, you NEED a query letter in order to query. Trust me. A sample of your MS, a synopsis, or a link to your homepage ain’t gonna do anything except act like a magnet between an agent’s index finger and the Delete button. This falls into the general sin superset of not paying attention to submission guidelines.

3. The hard sell

Know what’s selling now and what isn’t. That’s one of your first jobs as a writer. Is dystopian YA on the out? Possibly. Vampire romances? Probably. Zombies, werewolves, and romantic fairy tales? Maybe–it depends on the agent.

4. Agent doesn’t rep your genre

I see this a LOT. It usually comes in the form of “Query #X: YA. I don’t represent YA.”

5. Poor grammar in the query letter

Face it, if your query is riddled with typos, spelling errors, and lousy syntax, an agent will (quite reasonably) conclude that your MS has the same problems–even if it doesn’t.

6. Dear (wrong agent name)

It happens. The trick is not to let it happen to you.

7. Poor execution in sample pages

Maybe your character development isn’t quite there. Maybe the writing falls flat. Maybe you’ve opened with a 100-page information dump. When you’re in the querying trenches, everything (and I mean EVERYTHING) is riding on those first few sample pages. No matter how good your story ends up, it needs to engage the reader from the get-go.

Fortunately, there’s a path to salvation. And no, it doesn’t involve Inquisition-like burnings at the stake, or torture with scary-looking medieval devices. The tools are out there. All you need to do is pick them up. Now for the Seven Cardinal Virtues of Querying, and a way to attain that state of grace:

1. Know your category/genre

Read these:

Genre descriptions from AgentQuery.com

Genre fiction rules from WritersRelief.com

Defining genres from QueryTracker’s blog

Word-count guidelines for novels and children’s books from WritersDigest.com

2. Write a query letter (and follow other submission guidelines)

Check out:

The success story interviews on QueryTracker (many of them include the query letters that landed an offer of rep)
Janet Reid’s Query Shark blog
Jane Friedman’s Complete Guide to Query Letters
The homepage and Publishers Marketplace member page of EVERY single agent you plan on querying

3. Know what sells

They say by the time you spot a trend, it’s already over. So what’s a writer to do? I’d suggest heading over to Publishers Marketplace and checking out recent book deals, but I won’t. A PM subscription isn’t exactly cheap ($25 per month), only a fraction of book deals get reported on PM, and that book that just sold for six-figures won’t hit the shelves for another year or two. This is where researching agents comes in handy. Even if they can’t predict the future, they’ve got their fingers on the pulse of the publishing world. If they’re posting Tweets saying “Genre X is a hard sell these days” or “Please give me more Genre Y!” pay attention to that. How? Dust off that Twitter-hate from your shoulder, get thyself an account, and start following the people in the book business. Quietly.

4. Know who reps what

Fortunately, it costs nothing to view the member pages of literary agents on Publishers Marketplace. Not one cent. QueryTracker profiles are another excellent resource, as is the #MSWL (Manuscript Wish List) hashtag on Twitter and its companion compilation at mswishlist.com. @LiteraryRejections also tweets regular agent updates, often including genres. Follow them on Twitter. Now.

But the number one way to find out what an agent wants (or doesn’t want) is to go to her agency’s homepage and read (very carefully) what she’s looking for. I promise you’ll find a list.

5. Proofread that query

You’ve already done it, you say? Great. Now do it again. When you’re finished, run it through spell-check. When you’re done with that, read it out loud to yourself. When you’ve read it, send it to your critique partner, your brother-in-law, your wife, your neighbour, or whoever you trust as a line editor. Before you even think about hitting ‘send,’ have a look at this video blog by agent Kate Schafer Testerman of ktliterary. She’s got a ton of other advice that I haven’t included in the Seven Deadly Sins list because, well, then I’d have to call it the Twelve Deadly Sins list and that wouldn’t sit right with me.

6. Dear (Mr./Miss/Ms./Dr. Correct-Agent-Name)

A query letter, even if sent via email (as most are these days), is a business letter. Think of it in the same way you would think of a cover letter sent when applying for a job. You wouldn’t write “Hey there!” would you? Even if you would, don’t do it with literary agents. They don’t like it. Here’s a trick: once you’ve pasted your query into that email window and attached (or pasted) any additional materials that particular agent wants, go back to the agent’s web page and copy her surname. Paste it at the top of your email using the “paste and match style” feature. If that doesn’t work, type it in with great care. Precede it with the correct title (I use the title shown on QueryTracker if I have no other reliable resource). It should look like this:

Dear Ms. Reid:

Another quick trick I learned from Kaye Callard over at her blog is to fill in the agent’s email address last. It’s great advice–you get the chance to look over your query, any pasted or attached materials, and that all-important name spelling before you even have the chance to hit ‘send’ by accident. Good advice for emails of all types.

Beautiful writing in your sample pages

I wish I could teach you how to do this, but I can’t. Your critique partners and beta readers probably can, though. Make sure you have a few in your back pocket and keep them close. (And no, your mum cannot be one of them unless she happens to be Margaret Atwood.) Because no matter how polished your pitch and how cool your concept, it’s gonna boil down to whether you can write.

Even if you didn’t commit any of the sins, rejections very likely will make their way to your inbox. What did you do wrong? Maybe nothing. The agent you queried might have a full list. She might not have loved your book (and, believe me, you want your agent to love your book). Don’t take it personally. Do move on to the next agent on your list.

By the way, I’m offering a free, quick-turnaround query or pitch critique! Have a look at this post for details!