Wednesday, July 27, 2011

A Handful of Writing ''Don’ts''

Jon Sternfeld, an agent with the Irene Goodman Literary Agency representing literary fiction, says that even though these are not his personal query pet peeves, he knows they’re basic red flags that all agents he knows 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 forpopcorn 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.

Excerpt from an article posted by Chuck in the Writer’s Digest, February 2, 2011.


  1. This is great! I was told by numerous people to open my story with dialogue even though I despise openings that conform to this thought. Awesome! Thanks for sharing. :)

  2. Thanks for those, will bear them in mind when doing mine.


  3. Thanks Jon and Claudia for sensible and really really good advice!!!! These are always worth bearing in mind!! thank you! Take care

  4. Jennifer, Mooderino, and Alleged, thank you for sharing your comments. So nice to hear you found these tips helpful ;)

  5. Thanks for sharing. I completely agree with number 2. I usually rewrite my first paragraph like ten times before I find something I'm truly happy with.

  6. Good reminders Claudia, as always!

  7. Hi Angelina,
    Writing a query letter is more difficult than writing the book itself :0 (IMO). I guess we can always benefit if we have it edited by a professional before submitting it.

    Hi Ben,
    Thanks, Ben! Glad to hear you agree. ;)

  8. You're right. The query letter is an art form in itself. Avoiding cliches in the plot summary is especially useful :)

  9. Hey there, Mike!
    Cliches are the "killers" of both fiction and queries. It's easy to fall into their trap ;)

  10. Great! Guilty of all crimes listed! Where's the literary prison?