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Query Letters: How To Stand Out In The Slush Pile

Photo by Hacklock via FlickrWe’ve written numerous articles on the do’s and don’ts of querying literary agents and publishers from our 19 years of experience helping writers make well-targeted submissions. But in case our words haven’t made a big enough impression, we hope you’ll pay close attention to these tips directly from Ashley Christman, Executive Editor and Publisher at Entranced Publishing. She was kind enough to be our guest blogger today and offer our readers some straight-from-the-source insider information on how your query is evaluated once it reaches her desk.

“How do I stand out in the slush pile?” It’s a question many writers ask themselves after enduring the nightmare of synopsis and query letter writing. Some may even ask this as they write those two essential and sometimes painful documents. So from an editorial perspective, here’s the answer:

Query letters are your first introduction to the prospective agent/editor. The basics of a query letter are:

  • Who you are
  • What your book is about
  • Word count, genre, and whether or not it’s a series or stand-alone.
  • Previous publishing credits (if any).

If you’re missing this crucial information, I’m a little less inclined to read further. I want to know right away if your manuscript is going to interest me before I invest my limited time reading it.

The synopsis comes next. When I’m reviewing a synopsis, I’m looking for something that grabs me and makes me go, “Wow. I have to read this.” Distilling the essence of your 50,000-90,000-word novel into 2-5 pages is a challenge, but it’s essential that it’s interesting.

After the synopsis comes the manuscript itself. If I’ve made it this far, I’m really hoping that your manuscript hooks me in from the first page and holds me there until the very last period. A few things can turn me (and a lot of other industry professionals I know) off right away:

Poor grammar

I’m not going to stop reading after the occasional error. But if your entire first page is saddled with them, this screams lack of editing or carelessness.

Submit to Review Board

Poor spelling

You’d be surprised how many people rely solely on spell-checker or nothing at all. Again, the occasional error is understandable, but too many and I’m just going to think you don’t care. If you don’t care enough to check your spelling, why should I keep reading?

Weak characters

Characters don’t always have to be heroes. They can be antiheroes, they can be villains, but by all means, they must be interesting, complex, unique, and real.

I work primarily with romance novels, which in terms of characters can be a challenge to make unique. It’s easy to make romance heroines beautiful, blonde, and naive. It’s even easier to give them superficial flaws in an attempt to make them “real.” Some of the more off-putting ones I’ve seen are: The character struggles with feeling ugly because she’s 120 pounds instead of 110 pounds; the heroine is a control freak; the heroine has (insert parental unit) issues, etc.

The same can be said about romantic heroes. In romance, we want to live out a fantasy, but making a cookie-cutter hero is boring. An attractive hero with nothing else behind him can only go so far. We have to fall in love with him as much as the heroine. The sparks have to fly and the chemistry has to be palpable.

Weak plot

If your plot is weak, unbelievable, or not challenging enough, it’s not going to hold my interest, and I’m not going to finish the manuscript. Your plot, like your characters, has to grab me from the first words on the page. A weak opening can take you out of the slush pile and into the rejection bin.

By avoiding these pitfalls, you’ll increase your odds of standing out in the slush. Of course, even if you have the most perfectly crafted query, synopsis, and manuscript, you may still get a rejection. Always remember to research the press, editor, or agent before you hit send and you’ll start with the odds tilted in your favor.

Find out more about Ashley Christman on her website, and follow her on Twitter.
Find out more about Entranced Publishing on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, and Tumblr.

Writer QuestionsQUESTION: What tips can you share to help other writers avoid the slush pile?

One Response to Query Letters: How To Stand Out In The Slush Pile

  1. This has helped so much. I just have one tip to give others. Make sure you have someone read your letter before you send it!

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