Those who know me realize I'm no stranger to the query letter. As an author I'm agented more than once, give advice, classes, etc... I realize firsthand this can be a terrifying road, fraught with peril.
So when given a chance to screen query letters, I jumped at it. After all, I can empathize with the person writing the query. I know how nerve-wracking it is put yourself out there like that, to set the story you've worked on for years and years up for rejection. To spot a typo about two seconds *after* you've hit send. So I thought this was the chance to pay it forward.
Well, let's just say I'm going to have to pay it forward by explaining things from the other side.
THINGS YOU WERE TOLD WERE FATAL THAT DIDN'T FAZE ME ONE BIT
1) Getting my name wrong - Seriously, so many people spell my name wrong in real life (including my agents) this doesn't bother me. Yes, it would be a show of respect to get my name right, but I understand you're nervous and scared, so I chalk it up to stress.
2) Calling something a 'fiction novel' - Yes, if you have a Phd in querying you should know better, but not everyone reads blogs. I'm far more annoyed by 'awesomesauce', but I wouldn't block someone just for that.
3) A typo - Again, nerves. If the author doesn't appear to have a decent grasp of the English language, that's a problem. But one typo? I think the first query letter I wrote had two and I still got requests.
4) Telling me your family and friends love your writing - Not a red flag for me. It actually gives me a warm fuzzy feeling. It doesn't help, because of course your loved ones think you're a great writer. I'd been more concerned if you told me they think you're a terrible writer. (Don't laugh, some people do that)
5) Comparing yourself to a blockbuster - it may get an eyeroll from me if the comparison is a stretch, but your work is being judged on its own merits.
Pretty easygoing, huh? You'd think I greenlight quite a lot.
Not even close.
Most query letters have problems far worse than the ones mentioned above.
THINGS THAT PUT ME RIGHT OFF
1) Talking about yourself and not the novel - It's great that you quit writing to raise eight wonderful children and seeing your book in print is a lifelong dream, but agents and editors are not fairy godmothers. They take good writing and find a home for it. They need to know what it is you're trying to get published.
2) Not following instructions - If an agent asks for 50 pages, send 50 pages. If page 50 ends at an awkward place, you can send a little more or a little less. But nobody is going to punish you for sending exactly 50 if they ask for 50. However, if an agent asks for 50, don't send them 10, and don't send the whole thing, saying you think that would be better for everyone. If the agents want to see 10 pages instead of 50, they'll ask for 10 pages. Sending 10 when they ask for 50 is like getting an audition as a singer and announcing you're going to tapdance instead. You're wasting everyone's time and showing them it's a mistake to give you a chance. If you're going to start the relationship by following your own rules and nobody else's, how can she ever trust you to honor a contract?
3) Getting cute - Like coming up with a quirky bio or telling the story from the POV of a character. Trouble is, the agent can't tell if you're joking or if you really think you're Zombie Napoleon. Agents won't tell you this, but they receive a lot of hate mail and threats from people they've rejected. Some of these people are pretty unstable. Getting a wackadoodle query is like getting a love letter written in blood. It's not cute or original, it's scary.
4) Begging for pity - Nobody gets out of the slush pile because people feel sorry for them. Really. You want to get a book published because people have abused you your whole life? People are going to abuse you even more when you have a book published. Complete strangers are going to tell the world how much they hate your writing, and you have to sit there and take it. Even if your pleas for pity are just false modesty or you're fishing for compliments, neither one is a good habit when trying to prove you are professional enough to enter into a business partnership.
Basically, the query letter serves two purposes:
1) To get me interested in your story.
2) To prove you won't be a nightmare to work with.
That's it. It's not to dazzle me with your talent and creativity. That's what your pages are for.
Your ultimate goal is not to 'stand out'. Trust me, don't do anything of the things I don't want to see, and you will stand out. In a good way.