During last fall’s writers conference with the Alaska Writers Guild, one of our illustrious presenters was literary agent Patricia Nelson of the Marsal Lyon Literary Agency. One of her presentations was the very informative Eight Rookie Submission Mistakes and How to Avoid Them, and I’m happy to share the gist of it with you.
So here they all, all of writers’ favorite ways to ruin their own submission packets!
#1- Wrong Age Category
Know your age category! If you’re not sure, there are lots of resources on the internet to figure it out, including my handy dandy chart from the post a couple months ago, Conference Lessons: Age Categories, but the two age groupings that Ms. Nelson highlighted in particular were YA and adult, which apparently get blurred a lot.
#2- Wrong Genre
Think about where your project would shelve in a bookstore. What titles would it sit between? If you’re not sure, think about another author writes like you (your comp titles, anyone?) and look up how they classify their books. It’s not enough to say that your manuscript defies categorization; odds are it doesn’t. (Still not sure? If you write speculative fiction, Ms. Nelson suggests Connor Goldsmith’s sci-fi/fantasy breakdown on Fuse Literary’s website as a good place to start.)
#3- Wrong Agent
Do your research and only query the agents that are a good fit for the project. A few (free!) resources for finding the right agent include: agent websites; AgentQuery; QueryTracker; and Literary Rambles (but always be sure to double check aggregated information against the agents’ websites, since it can sometimes be dated).
#4- Wrong Comp Titles
Don’t pick books that are too old, too famous, or in a different genre. When looking for comp titles, try to find similar (to prove demand) but different (to show there’s still market space) titles that were published in the last 3-5 years, and did well, but not made-into-a-movie well. Ms. Nelson goes so far as to say that it’s better to leave out comp titles altogether than to use the wrong ones.
#5- Query Not about Book
The story should take up the bulk of the query, with only a small portion devoted to the bio. (The bio is more important for nonfiction, but even then, unless you’re Oprah, focus on what the book is about.) Bio only matters so long as it pertains to this book (so don’t put in your day job, your hobbies, your fifteen cats, etc., unless it’s applicable), and if you want some kind of agent personalization (I’m querying you because…), keep it to just one non-creepy sentence.
#6- First Page Clichés
Dream scene, character waking up, character being chased, a long time ago moment: none of that. If it’s been done a thousand times, find a new way, or at least a new tweak on the cliché.
#7- First Chapter Info Dump
This is a similar issue to the above. When agents see clichés, they stop caring. When agents see background information, they stop caring. The moment the agent no longer cares is the moment they stop reading, so make sure that your first pages are endlessly engaging. Ms. Nelson recommends highlighting every moment of backstory and asking yourself, ‘Is this necessary?’
#8- Unprofessional Communication
Think of your query as a cover letter for a job application. In communicating with literary professionals, and being one yourself, keep these things in mind:
- Be friendly! Agents are humans too.
- Be prompt with responses.
- Be patient, and be polite when checking in.
- Don’t complain about querying.
- Notify all agents immediately if you get an offer.
A final piece of submission advice? Ms. Nelson suggests sending queries out in batches to fifteen agents at a time. After two months with no takers, tweak your submission materials and send out another fifteen. She suggests one hundred to one hundred fifty rejections before moving on to a new project. So if you’re anything like me, you’ve got a long way to go. Don’t give up too early!
Think you might like to query Ms. Nelson? She’s currently looking for adult, YA and MG. Look on her agent page for details and good luck!