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Agent Jon Sternfeld On: A Handful of Writing ''Don’ts''

hough there are a lot of “Don’t” lists out there, and I’m generally not a fan (there are always exceptions—though I think they’re rare), I’m taking this opportunity to run through a few. As someone who’s gone through his fair share of slush, here are the things that jump out at me in both queries and writing samples These are not my personal pet peeves, but basic red flags that all agents I know despise.

Jon Sternfeld is an agent with the Irene Goodman Literary Agency representing literary fiction (including well-researched dramas and historical thrillers) and narrative nonfiction that deals with historical, social, or cultural issues. He is open to all writers with an original voice and he has a particular interest in fiction that has a large, ambitious canvas (exploring a time, place, or culture).

Jon’s co-agent, Irene Goodman, offers manuscript critiques on eBay every month, starting on the first day of each month, with all proceeds going to charity. Click on the link for more details on these critiques and charity auctions.

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Though there are a lot of “Don’t” lists out there, and I’m generally not a fan (there are always exceptions—though I think they’re rare), I’m taking this opportunity to run through a few. As someone who’s gone through his fair share of slush, here are the things that jump out at me in both queries and writing samples These are not my personal pet peeves, but basic red flags that all agents I know despise.

1. Formality—you’d be surprised to hear that simply how the query looks hugely affects the reader’s opinion of whether or not the project is worthy. Besides just basic letter formatting, even in e-mail it should be formatted properly, there’s a tone a writer must strike. Avoid the three C’s: too casual, too colloquial, too cute and anything else that tries too hard to "stand out." The material itself should be what stands out and no agent wants you be cute about it.

2. Opening lines of the MS—Work like mad on that first paragraph of your manuscript. Sadly 98% of the queries don’t get read past that. I’m not a fan of dialogue as the opener (though my more commercial fiction colleagues say this isn’t such a no-no). Nevertheless, I tend to delete manuscripts that open with a line of dialogue (esp. one with an exclamation point) and those whose opening line “dumps” exposition. Both of these let me know that you don’t quite have the hang of en media res or of disguising exposition.

3. Clichés in plot summary—Argh. These are way more common that you’d think in query pitches: "thought she had it all," "will stop at nothing," "must risk everything"—these should be reserved for popcorn flick trailers. When I spot them, I recognize a lazy writer at work and delete. Beware.

Of course, there are more, but these three are sure-fire ways to get your query deleted before you’re even given a chance. With email querying now the norm, agents are more saturated than ever with pitches. Avoid these and at least you’ll get a fair shake. Best of luck.

And remember: If you're looking for a professional manuscript critique for a good cause, go to irenegoodman.com for more details.

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