As previously posted, I recently participated in a contest sponsored by blogger Gabriela Lessa. The winner of my category will have a REAL LIVE editor critique the first few chapters of his or her completed novel.
Contest results were due by 11:59 p.m. yesterday, and today Gabriela gave us contestants an update. In addition to telling us how many entries there were, and in what categories, she also mentioned that many of the contestants did not follow the rules. Their pitches were too long, or they sent more of their story than requested. She made an excellent point in her post. In the publishing world, not abiding by the rules will get your query thrown out.
It was the same deal in journalism. In college, my J-School professors stressed the importance of accuracy, clean writing and following the rules when applying for internships and jobs. Trying to find a literary agent or publisher is as important as applying for job — that's what you are doing, essentially — and it should require the same attention to detail you would give to the resume or cover letter you might send a prospective boss.
Some of the tips to consider when sending a query (or, heck, applying for a job):
• Be sure of who you are contacting and why. When submitting a query, make sure you are seeking representation from agents who are interested in your genre and style. Sending a query for a romance novel to an agent who specializes in sport biographies would be like a person with a geology degree and no relevant experience applying for senior partner at a law firm.
• Follow the requirements. Like Gabriela touched upon in her post, agents have specific requests for submissions and they are all different. Some agents prefer e-mail queries without attachments, others want snail mail submissions only with a self-addressed stamped envelope included. Probably the most common denominator is brevity and a well-written letter. Not following the rules is a sure way to get your work ignored.
• Check spelling and grammar. A newspaper recruiter once told me he threw out every cover letter or resume that had a typo or misspelled word. I imagine a prospective agent might be the same. It's not that they're mean or think they're better than others. It's that they receive so many queries (or applications) every day they have to draw the line somewhere and have standards. If you think about it, it's fair. Would you want your book to be published with spelling and grammatical errors? Probably not. So write your query like you expect it to be published and sold around the world for anyone to see.
• Get a second opinion. Have someone else look over your query letter before sending it. There are some errors or issues that even the best word processors can't detect with a spell check. Your reviewer might also give you a tip that makes your letter or submission even better than it was before.
• If you make a mistake on one query, don't beat yourself up. Try again with someone new. We're all human and make mistakes. What makes one person different from the other, though, is how each deals with the errors.
With that, good luck on whatever you're working on!