Don’t write a query letter like this

The book is ready. You are ready. Greatness beckons. Huzzah! You just need to write a query letter before you send the novel to your carefully selected agent or agents (and you will not, of course, send a blanket submission with Dear Sir/Madam – but that’s for a separate blog post).

The query letter is a tough thing to get right – it needs to be informative, but not boring; warm, but not over-familiar. But please, before writing your query letter, make sure you don’t write one like this…

1. The Oversharer

When my cat died and I got burgled in the same week, I found real consolation in words. Then, after my partner cheated on me with a checkout girl from Lidl, I knew that pouring my heart out in the form of a romantic YA novel would be my only solace…

We’ve all been there. Writing can help you through the most horrendous situations, and you deserve a standing ovation if you managed to wrest a good book out of a nasty experience. But please (and I am saying this in my kindest voice, and making you a cup of tea as I write) save the sharing for later. Once you’re on the best-seller list, magazine journalists will fall over themselves to ask you about it. Trust me – I used to be one. Until then, less is more.

2. The Diva

I’ve always demonstrated a fantastic flair for creative writing, starting with winning the Ridge Hill Primary story competition in 1985. In 1994 I was praised for my short stories in English class, and I won an award for writing the nativity play in Sixth Form.

This may be tough to hear, but prizes you won when you were still in school uniform do not count, friends. I’m sorry – I am sure you deserved your moment of glory. But unless you’ve been placed in a competition, won a short story award or similar as a PROPER GROWN UP – shhh.

3. The Tester

I already know my book will be a success because I’ve tested it on so many people, and they just adored it! My husband, best friend, mother and dentist all LOVE my work. And I’m reading it to my eldest daughter every night. “Mummy, please can we have another chapter?” she says. Every night!

The people who love us love our work. They have to. And if they don’t love our work, they are NEVER going to tell us. Know this and let it be your mantra – testing work on friends and family does not tell you anything except that you are loved. Your prospective agent won’t be impressed by the fact that your great-aunt told you it was the best book she’d ever read.

4. The Emily Dickinson

I’ve secretly written 50 novels, and feel awfully shy about sending this out, and I know it’s not very good, but I guess I’ve got nothing to lose! I know the bit in the middle isn’t very exciting. And the main character is terrible, isn’t she! But perhaps you can help me?

Don’t undersell yourself. Just don’t draw attention to the bits you’re worried about.
Better still, work on your manuscript until there ARE no bits you’re worried about. If you do get an agent, he or she will be happy to talk through any sections you’re concerned about.

5. The Baby Biopic

I’m only fourteen, but I know I have a career as a writer. My book is autobiographical – I’ve got so much to say!

You may produce great writing in your teens. It’s certainly possible, and we love hearing about young novelists who make it big. However, unless you have had a truly extraordinary childhood, your life story is not likely to warrant a massive book deal. (Ignore this advice if you are a child prodigy/astronaut/princess/neurosurgeon.)

6. The Irate

There are SO many badly written novels out there, I just can’t believe it. Fortunately, my book is so much better; I can’t believe nobody has picked it up yet. Honestly, I walk through bookshops and just DESPAIR. Everything is rubbish. Apart from this (attached).

Often this kind of letter comes from writers who don’t read children’s or YA fiction, don’t like kids or speak to teens or enjoy literature for young people, and are actually Writers Who Don’t Want To Write For Children But Think It’s An Easy Option. (These people are foolish. They might need their own blog post.) For now, don’t be irate. Maybe be a wee bit humble.

7. The Comparer

I am the next Roald Dahl.

Please, please, please don’t say your prose is like Tolkien’s, or that your book is a better version of Matilda. There is nothing wrong with saying, for example “I’d love to think that one day, my book might appeal to fans of Eoin Colfer”. That is helpful and shows you know something about the market your book might sell in. But avoid saying your writing is ‘just like’ or ‘better than’ a well-known author’s. Chances are it ain’t. (If it is, someone else will say so, saving you a job.)

8. The Spiritual One

Writing comes from my soul – I could not breath without it – I would rather die than not write. I will await your response with bated breath and everything crossed!

OK. Get into a comfortable yoga pose. Breathe deeply. And repeat after me: your prospective agent knows this means a lot to you. They do not need a twelve-page treatise on how you made yourself cry writing chapter five because it was so profoundly moving.

Delete. Keep breathing.

9. The Franchise-Hunter

I know this will be a Hollywood blockbuster, and it will make a fortune. This is YOUR chance to be part of it. I have already made a short film about it using my camera phone and I plan to extend the book into a 20-part series and sell TV rights.

This is the equivalent of an unsolicited phone call from a double-glazing salesman offering you a once-in-a-lifetime chance to save thousands. Let your prospective literary agent, who knows the current market, foreign rights and sub-rights better than most people, judge how best to sell your work.

10. The Proud Parent

I have totally fallen in love with my characters and I particularly love Suki (she’s so feisty and cute)! Writing chapter four made me laugh out loud – I am really happy with it, and I think kids are going to just ADORE Pippa! I really feel like the people I have created are real – it’s as though I could have a conversation with them!

Please don’t say how much you love your characters. I’m sorry if this sounds brutal. After all, you SHOULD be proud.

Finishing a novel is a huge achievement. But saying you’re ‘in love’ with one of your creations is as off-putting as listening to the parent who continually brags about his/her child. We all tend to be fond of our characters; we can’t be objective about people we create!  This is another reason why finding an honest and caring agent is a crucial step on the path to publication.

And that’s it! Don’t let any of these exaggerated examples put you off. I made these people sound crazy, and I am sure you’re very sensible (and you have GREAT taste in blog reading material – thank you for visiting).

Remember that agents are human beings. They want to read new fiction, and they genuinely want to find new talent and support writers on their journey. But they’re busy folk. Make the most of this one shot at impressing them. Be brief, friendly and polite. If you read their blog, have a recommendation or want this agent to represent you for a particular reason, say so. And good luck!

The Lighthouse is here to help you

Whether you have a brand new idea, or have been fiddling with a text for years … we’re here to help.

About Sarah Stewart

Sarah Stewart is a Director at Lighthouse Literary. She was previously Fiction Editor at Scholastic Children's Books and a Senior Editor at Floris Books, and she writes the Elspeth Hart series, published by Stripes.