There are three main reasons your query letters are being rejected
If you ignore these 3 things you risk suffering a long dark spate of continual rejection. The good news is, you are a writer, and so you are capable of improving your craft and increasing your odds of winning that all-important ‘requested material’ email.
The reasons literary agents reject your queries:
- Lack of a hook (A hookless letter catches no agents)
- Lack of originality (agents are big time readers—they’ve seen it all before)
- Lack of style (or voice or tone)
Let’s elaborate, shall we?
Literary agents should but do not usually give this vital tip: ‘Impress me in eight seconds or I’m tossing your letter into the slush pile and moving on.’
Lack of a Hook:
Sending out queries that don’t feature a hook to lure in agent interest is like setting a mouse trap without baiting it—you’re just not going to catch anything. Your hook is the feature of your story that makes it stand out. It is the clever twist on a familiar theme or tale. It is the reason you wrote your book. Even if all the plotlines and characters seem familiar, you can be excused for writing something recognizable so long as it boasts a great hook. This should be what you open your letter with. (Either this, or letting the lit agent know how you are familiar with her and why you are querying her specifically. If you open with this throat clearing technique, which many agents like because they are human and enjoy being praised, be sure to follow that short paragraph up with your introductory hook.)
A hook often ties in with the second reason. A good hook is often a result of originality.
Lack of Originality:
We’re all familiar with the archetype of the callow orphan boy discovering he is the offspring of royal or legendary blood and has powers he never knew about. Variations on this theme run the gamut: Shannara, Pawn of Prophecy, Harry Potter, Star Wars, Fantastic Beasts, etc. Point is if you’re writing something like this, you better make darn sure you have a hook. Something that makes your archetype stand out, stand up and demand to be read. This bit of originality, your own peculiar spin on a familiar theme, is what agents are looking for. (TIP: Don’t make your poor orphan boy a poor orphan girl ‘just because,’ because that’s lazy; there must be a reason for your gender choices, not just excuses.) If he/she is dying of some horrible disease and decides to use their suddenly discovered powers to cure this disease and prevent anyone else from suffering, there’s your original hook. Open with that.
You should be able to whittle this original hook down to one straightforward sentence. If it takes you entire paragraphs to draw in the agent, you’ve already failed. If their interest isn’t piqued by the first sentence, the hook, they won’t finish reading.
Best tip of all time for query letter hooks (subjectively speaking):
Make it unusual. If it is something they’ve never heard before, or something bizarre, it’ll make them want to keep reading. Don’t be afraid to shoot for the stars here. They read dozens of these things every day, so make yours stand out!
Oftentimes a great original hook is all that’s necessary. An eye-catching, ear-pleasing, mind-luring hook can carry the entire letter, drawing the agent in and making them salivate for more of your originality, as displayed by your hook. Once you have this winner, make sure to give just as much intensity of thought to the rest of your query.
You have your originality, displayed beautifully through your hook. Now you need to focus on the style (or voice or tone) of your query letter.
Lack of Style:
Style (or voice, depending on who you ask, but these terms seem almost synonymous—or is the word interchangeable?) is that indefinable quality of sound that makes your work memorable in an almost indescribable way, knowhatImeanVern?
Great examples of original voice in manuscripts are as follows (remember: whatever style or voice you have in your manuscript, you should mimic in your query letter):
- Lord of the Rings. Read this aloud, you’ll notice how pleasing the sentence structure is to the ear. Almost poetical in its diction.
- Anne Rice novels are all written in a voice that oozes sultriness.
- Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is bleak in its structure, elegantly mirroring its world. This style is simple, unadorned, again, like its world. Memorable.
- Read Gormenghast and you’ll know what style and voice are.
The best way to know if your manuscript has style and a catchy voice is to read it aloud.
- Lure them in with a great Hook
- Be original by being bold
- Show your style
You have what it takes, so go and take what you don’t yet have. Go and earn that ‘requested material’ email. Agents want to read and represent great new manuscripts. They are looking for them. It’s your job to show them one.
A few more Query Letter tips:
- Be personable and professional
- If you don’t have any publishing credits, don’t mention it. Just focus on the 3 Tips above
- Get the agent’s name right and follow their submission rules to the ‘T’
- Like your first draft, let your query ferment for a few days at least before taking it out to submit it. This will reveal tidbits, small flaws in your letter. Fresh eyes make the best editors
- Be memorable