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Agent Dan Lazar On: Query Dos and Don'ts

1. Be specific, but don’t vomit information. Saying “my novel is about a mom going through some life challenges” is vague, and remember: Vague = boring. However, be careful not to stuff your letter with so many details of your plot that it’s confusing to decipher what’s going on. Reading your pitch letter out loud can often help you identify these flaws. 2. Avoid the “duh” trap.Don’t bog down your writing by overstating the obvious. For example, “I'm writing this letter to tell you about my fictional novel, which I'd like to send you, and it is called TITLE.” That’s an awkward sentence.

Editor's note: I am declaring November 2010 to be "Agent Guest Column Month," and therefore, every weekday, I will be posting a guest column by a literary agent. Day 2: Today's guest agent is Dan Lazar of Writers House.

The surefire way of tempting a literary agent into reading your work is by sending them a fabulous query letter. A great query letter trumps all, every time. But how, you’re wondering, can you possibly encapsulate your amazing manuscript, your sweat and tears, your next Great American (if you’re Canadian, then your next Great North American novel) … into one letter? Because remember, at the end of the day, it all comes down to the writing. If you’re a great writer, who’s written a great novel, you can write a great query letter. Period. Here are some tips of mistakes to avoid.

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Guest column by Dan Lazar, an agent
with
Writers House in New York.

1. Be specific, but don’t vomit information. Saying “my novel is about a mom going through some life challenges” is vague, and remember: Vague = boring. However, be careful not to stuff your letter with so many details of your plot that it’s confusing to decipher what’s going on. Reading your pitch letter out loud can often help you identify these flaws.

2. Avoid the “duh” trap.
Don’t bog down your writing by overstating the obvious. For example, “I'm writing this letter to tell you about my fictional novel, which I'd like to send you, and it is called TITLE.” That’s an awkward sentence. A simple “I'd love to send you my novel, TITLE” is short and sweet. If this is confusing, read both out loud. Seriously. Try it. Reading your own words out loud can sometimes reveal the awkward or run-on sentences.
Another “duh” trap would be: “My novel will make you laugh” or “My writing is lush and literary”—you’re begging the agent to disagree. Many writers say “my novel will be a bestseller," or "my book could easily be made into film," in an effort to excite an agent. But truthfully, this is borderline offensive to most agents—it’s presumptuous and naïve to assume your work can easily bypass all the guardians and hard work it takes to make book into a bestseller or a movie.

3. Don’t call your manuscript a “fiction novel.” There’s no other kind. If you can’t tell the difference, that’s a problem.

4. Don't say other readers loved the book, unless those other readers are published authors of note. If you’re writing a children’s book, saying your class loved the book is equally unhelpful.

5. Make sure the agent accepts e-queries before you send one. Just because his/her e-mail is listed somewhere, doesn't mean they do. Most agents now have websites; check their submission guidelines. If you're not sure, send your query by snail mail.

6. E-queries must also look neat. Colorful border, graphics or emoticons are not only unprofessional, but they’re often caught by spam blockers. And if the agent requests your work by e-mail, e-mail it in one or two attachments. Not twenty.

A thousand other questions may be running through your head now – but these are the basics. For all else, use your common sense. Courier New versus Times New Roman? 1 inch margin versus 1.25? Doesn’t matter, trust me. Just write a great letter—you’ll hear back. Now, get to it!

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This column is an excerpt from
Dan's full article in the
2008 Guide to Literary Agents.
Buy the 2011 edition here online.

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