DO be sure your writing is the best it can be.
The bottom line is that your writing is the only thing that matters. As Janet Reid puts it,
You do not get extra consideration if you have never queried before, or it's been awhile since your last query. You don't get extra consideration if you're 85 or 18. You don't get extra consideration if you've waited your whole life to write a book and now you've got time.DON'T make excuses for why your writing isn't the best it can be.
If you're not a good speller, or you have trouble with grammar, or whatever, don't point it out -- fix it! Read some writing books that address your specific problems or take a class at your local community college. Because your writing is the only thing that matters.
DON'T rely on an electronic spell checker to fix your spelling errors.
Try misspelling "definitely" in Microsoft Word. You know how it's going to suggest you fix that? By spelling it "defiantly." And you definitely don't want to show defiance in the wrong place!
DO write your own query letters.
Some people do this funny thing where they ask for feedback on their query letters and then cobble the suggestions together. What they end up with is a query letter other people wrote for them. There are several things wrong with this approach, including: 1) The query letter no longer represents the person's writing, so it's not representative of what the book will be like. 2) If the query letter really needed so much work that other people had to completely rewrite it, the novel probably needs to be completely rewritten, too. Again, read some writing books or take a class.
DON'T tell the agent all about how great you'd be to work with.
Janet Reid argues that "your query letter is not a personal ad." Besides, the approach is likely to backfire, because, she says,
The people who tell me they are 'non-judgmental' are usually the most judgmental people I know; the people who tell me how busy they are are never too busy to tell me how busy they are. In other words, people who tell you they're easy to work with are the ones I suspect of being most difficult. The ones who really ARE easy to work with? It hasn't dawned on them they'd need to tell anyone that.DO query about only one project at a time.
You may have written a series (or be planning to write one), but you've got to sell that first book before you do anything else. So focus on that first book.
DON'T call the agency to see if they got your (emailed) query.
Especially if you just sent the query five minutes ago.
In fact, unless an agent there already represents you, DON'T call the literary agency at all.
DO make sure your email address works.
Some writers wonder why they never hear from an agent, oblivious to the fact that their mailboxes are full, or that they've misspelled their return-to email addresses somewhere.
DON'T put down other writers.
You may not have loved Twilight, or Harry Potter, or The DaVinci Code, or whatever the top-seller was in your genre of choice, but those books made the agents who represented them (and a lot of other people) a lot of money. Insulting them just makes you look petty and ignorant. Save the disparaging comments for your friends.
DON'T boast that you were published by an on-demand (POD) publisher (e.g. AuthorHouse, iUniverse)
Agents know that the average POD book sells less than 200 copies (not an impressive number), and that around 40% of those books are sold to the author. Lulu.com is even explicit about wanting lots of clients with low numbers: "A publishing house dreams of having 10 authors selling a million books each. Lulu wants a million authors selling 100 books each."
DON'T tell the agent you'd give your work away if that's what it took to get published.
Reputable agents make money when a book makes money. If you tell an agent that you don't care if you make any money on your book, what she hears is that you don't care if she makes any money, either. And guess what -- she cares! Saying you'd give your work away also suggests that you don't believe your work is worth someone else's hard-earned money, let alone a publisher's significant financial investment. And if it's not worth that investment, you're better off going through a POD publisher, getting a few copies to put on your bookshelf, and moving on with your life.
DON'T kiss up to the agent by telling her how hard or important her job is.
The agent knows you're sucking up, and she isn't impressed. Remember -- your writing is the most important thing.
DO be sure to tell what your book is about in the query.
The bulk of your query should be about your story, not about you, the agent, your dog, or why you want to be a writer.
DON'T reply to an agent's rejection.
Never, ever write back a nasty note telling the agent why she's a fool to reject your brilliant manuscript. Not only are you blackballing yourself, but you're wasting everybody's time and energy--your own included.
On the flip side, don't write an agent back to thank her for a kind rejection.
In both cases, you've most likely received a form rejection, and although it may sound harsh, you're only wasting the agent's time by responding. Even if the agent has taken the time to give you a line or two of feedback, think twice before you hit the "reply" button. Take the feedback and make your manuscript better, and if it leads to an overhaul of the entire story, you can even consider re-querying at some point. But don't fill up the agent's email box with non-essential communication, because she won't appreciate it.
Have I missed recent do's or don'ts you think I should have included? Feel free to add them in the comments!
Dr. Carolyn Kaufman is a clinical psychologist and professor residing in Columbus, Ohio. She is currently working on a book to teach writers to use psychology accurately in their fiction for Quill Driver Books. If you want a sneak preview, check out Archetype Writing: Psychology for Fiction Writers and the associated blog. She is often quoted by the media as an expert resource.