Sunday, June 23, 2013

17 YA Literary Agents Talk About the Most Common Submission Errors

Many thanks to the amazing young adult literary agents who answered our Roundup question this month! We asked them to tell us about the most common mistakes they see in their inbox.

What are the top five mistakes you see in queries, synopses, and first pages?

Sarah Davies, Greenhouse Literary

Top of the chart has to be not reading submission guidelines. Or getting them from outdated sources. Always go to an agency’s website for up to date info.

Forgetting to attach the requested sample pages of your manuscript. Such a basic mistake, but it can be easier for a hard-pressed agent to reject you rather than to email back and ask for them to be sent.

Calling the agent by the wrong name. This happens quite often, and always makes me giggle.

Sending a query with either no information (I often get just a line or two, which tell me nothing) or far too much (there’s no need to send a paragraph of outline and then repeat that in a much longer way later on in your query). If we don’t ask for a full synopsis, please don’t send one. What’s important is a tightly written pitch, target market, and a few concise lines of bio. Your query letter/email should be the equivalent of a page, but no more than that.

Being unfocused in what you want to say in your query. We see a lot of waffle sometimes! Writers telling us they are pretty hopeless and have no track record; or telling us they are wonderful and we’d be fools to pass them by. And then we have the ones who tell us at great length about their families and children and husbands, whom they love dearly. Delighted though we are to see happy families, your query isn’t the place to go into that detail.

In opening pages, the most common problem is starting in a way we see all the time – particularly, characters getting out of bed and eating breakfast, or crossing the country by car, or flying to a new destination. Also car crashes. Remember that beginnings don’t literally have to be beginnings.

Carlie Webber, CK Webber Associates

Queries, synopses, and opening pages each come with their own set of issues to be tackled, so I'll address one or two major problems for each one. All your query has to do is make me want to read your book, and one of the best ways to do that is to show me what the main character has at stake. Too often, I see queries that don't tell me what's at the crux of the book. Whether or not I find that crux interesting is another question entirely, but I at least want to have the opportunity to decide on it. With a synopsis, the biggest mistake is not telling me enough about the book for fear of spoiling me on the ending. I am hereby granting everyone who queries me from now on permission to spoil me on the ending of their books. Agenting is a business of time, and by reading a full synopsis that describes at least the primary and secondary character arcs and plots, I'll know if I want to invest time in a book beyond the opening pages. The other major sin I see with synopses involves their length. Ideally, a synopsis comes out to around 500 words, or about 2 double-spaced pages of twelve-point Times New Roman. In the opening pages, I want to see a fresh, unique voice. Often, I see opening pages that focus on backstory or talk more about the universe than what's immediately in front of the main character. Voice and characterization are what make or break a book, so I want to see an author who can use that prime real estate of the opening pages to make me want to know more about the main character.

Jennifer Mishler, Literary Counsel

When I receive a query, the top mistake I notice is usually info dumps-everything that should be in a synopsis is in a query. To Literary Counsel, queries should be enticing, and unforgettable. Tease us without giving away everything and your query will be read by us. Synopses are for the info,for all major plot lines and should be 1-2 pages. Not 8, not 12 and definitely not 16. Why read your manuscript if the synopses sums it all up for you? And when we open your first few pages, please for the love of books, do not use a mirror in the opening pages to have your character describe what they look like. I cannot tell you how many times I have read that in the first few pages of a manuscript. When writing your first few pages, a writer really should focus on how to keep a reader reading without overloading them with detail! Info dumps are a pet peeve at Literary Counsel, and that is a mistake we wish writers to avoid.

Eric Ruben, Ruben Agency

For queries, it's not doing your research: sending me things I'm not interested in or misspelling my name. Also, I'm not really a stickler for query or synopsis rules. I don't sell queries or synopses. So for me it's about the first pages. If you're not ready, if the book isn't in great shape, you shouldn't send it. Too many times I've gotten pages that needed more edits.

Katie Grimm, Don Congdon Associates

1. Is ill-suited for the intended audience or for me. Do your research in the genre you are writing within as well as the agent you are contacting. I automatically reject so many projects because they’re unsuitable for their intended audience in terms of content, word count or topic. This is especially the case in kid’s publishing. If you know you’re outside the box, tell me why it’s necessary – I’m open to new things, but maybe not 200k word MG or memoir trilogies.

2. Isn’t following the rules. You can still be a publishing maverick and send out a properly formatted query letter. Inattention to detail or guidelines can reveal laziness or a big ego, and it’s not the right way to start a business relationship.

3. Makes you sound mentally unstable. Maybe you think you sound quirky or that you’ve really done your research, or you’re just that enthusiastic, but show your feet are on the ground and you haven’t been stalking us! Remember that all your materials (not just your bio) should show your commitment to the craft of writing and your ability to communicate professionally.

4. Is too long. Your query shouldn’t be more than a page, your synopses doesn’t need every confusing plot twist (though do spoil the ending!), and most first pages contain a lot of redundancies so please don’t be afraid of cut, cut, cut!

5. Is inconsistent in voice. Your query and synopsis should convey the tone of your manuscript. I appreciate this is not an easy task, but try writing your query or synopsis in your main character’s voice and changing it back to 3rd person – this can help a lot towards bringing everything together.

Christa Heschke, McIntosh & Otis Agency

-They’re addressed to the wrong person (an Agent who left the Agency, an Agent who doesn’t handle that material or even an Agent at another Agency), “Dear Editor/Agent”, or “To Whom it May Concern.”

-They are too long. Generally a page is a good length for a query letter. This same mistake comes up with synopses as well (try to keep them to a couple pages). A synopsis should spell out all the major plot points in the story while introducing main characters, but does not need to include every minor plot point (they get very long this way).

-The query is informal/too personal. We want to know about you and your writing, but be careful about getting too conversational. This is a business letter in business letter format.

-The query letter or synopsis is not focused and “jumps around” too much or does not paint a clear picture of the story. Remember: You know your story but the person reading your letter does not. So try to be as concise and clear as possible.

-With first pages, you have to draw in your reader. If they are too slow or expository, meander or don’t set up your narrator/protagonist well you may lose readers’ interest---so these are top mistakes I see here.

Evan Gregory, The Ethan Ellenberg Literary Agency


1. TMI
…or, to be specific, too much of the wrong information. Queries should be brief, punchy, and dense with information about the project you’re pitching. Often times I get queries where an author is more interested in telling me their story, than about their story. You should always start a query by providing info about your project. Give me the pertinent details first. Those details are, word count, genre, title, characters, plot kernel, in that order. Don’t begin a query by telling me you searched for my agency online, or that you’ve read two books of my clients, or that you’ve always dreamed of becoming a writer since you were six and how you hope this query is the fruition of those dreams. Query letters aren’t supposed to be personal, they’re not diary entries, or love letters. They’re book blurbs with an address. So keep your thoughts and feelings out of them. If you describe yourself at all, it should be in the third person, and it should be in the last paragraph, and it should only be to share your credentials as an author. Always assume (and usually it will be true) that I’ve read a hundred queries before yours, and I’ve got a hundred more queries to read after. I don’t have the patience to read about your life, and about your story too. Later, once you’re a client, I’ll be glad to hear about how you began this novel as an homage to your recently deceased grandmother who loved to read books about horses, and fields of lilies. For now, I just want to read about a story about horses.

2. Omission
On the flip side of the coin, it is possible to provide not enough information. If I have to re-read your query to figure out what you’re book is about, then you’ve probably skipped steps. If your book is about Steven, who is in love with Petunia, but the two can never be together because their apartments, despite being right across from each other, are separated by a fifteen foot gap, then it would be good to know that both Steven and Petunia are cats. I shouldn’t have to find out they’re cats by reading your sample chapters.

3. Overcomplication.
Congratulations! You’ve just written a sprawling multi-perspective epic with twelve perspective characters. Now tell me about the plot of your book in three sentences or less without spontaneously combusting. Even with simple books, sometimes authors can have a difficult time differentiating between pertinent and non-pertinent information when it comes to summarizing the plot of their book. Aside from advising you not to write sprawling multi-perspective epics (which is excellent advice), I would advise you at least to stick to describing succinctly the central conflict of your book as experienced by whomever you may consider to be your main characters. Save the tertiary characters, and their fascinating sub-plots for your synopsis. If your book has lots of great details, and moments, and characters, that’s great, but I don’t have time for you to parade them past me in several paragraphs of explication.

4. Genre Splicing
Have you written a YA Horror Romance Women’s Fiction Thriller? No, you haven’t, because that’s impossible. In these post-modern times it’s also kind of impossible to write a story that doesn’t have a teensy bit of genre bleed. Genre can be difficult to pin down sometimes, and some books skirt the edges of several genres. For the sake of description, however, you ought to pick one genre and stick with it. That means doing research into other comparable works to yours, and trying to pin down which genre they are sold as. It also means identifying which readers you think would be most likely to read your book, and choosing the genre you think they might most identify with. It also means evaluating which elements of your story are most prevalent. If your book is 90% horror with a love story sub-plot, it is not a Romance/Horror (nor is there such a thing), it’s just Horror.

5. Comparable Works
Comparable works are a great way of providing indirect information about your book to the agent or editor. However, you ought to be careful when choosing these works. For one, the comparable works should all be books (preferably ones you’ve actually read), not films. Films may be adapted from books on occasion, but they are not books, and they may have drastically different audiences. I want to know if your book is going to appeal to people who read the book, not people who saw the movie. Also comparable works should actually be comparable. That means choosing a book that was released recently, in a similar genre, and which has similar themes to your book. You shouldn’t compare your book about the roaring 20’s to THE GREAT GATSBY, or your book about whaling to MOBY DICK. Not only is it a facile comparison that tells me nothing about your book, but it sets the expectations for your book unrealistically high.


1. Trying Too Hard
If you can write an entertaining synopsis that gives an impression of the mood of the book while describing the plot details of the book, then more power to you. If you can’t, then don’t attempt it. Synopses are hard even for seasoned professionals, so don’t set expectations too high for what you need to achieve. The main objective of the synopsis is to summarize the plot. So long as you can do that, you’ve met the mandatory minimum threshold. You can do more if you like, but you certainly shouldn’t sacrifice clarity for style.

2. Sense
Trying to condense a lot of information into a synopsis can be a difficult task. Often they just don’t make any sense. When you were writing them you were doing so in dribs and drabs, and your subjective experience of your own work caused you to peer at some aspects through a microscope at one moment, and gloss over an important plot element another. My advice is to write a synopsis all in one (exhausting, nerve wracking) sitting. Also, have your synopsis read by a 3rd party that has no foreknowledge of the plot of your book, then talk through what made sense and what didn’t.

3. Length
Sometimes you need to write a long summary in order to write a short one. You needn’t, however, show your work. Some works may require both a long (5 page) synopsis, and a short (1 or 2 page) synopsis. Write both, but only use the short version for submissions. If needs be, write a chapter by chapter summary, and use that to further condense the pertinent plot information into a shorter synopsis. Your synopsis shouldn’t exceed 1,000 words, regardless of the length of your book. I once got a query for a 800K Word epic fantasy, and the synopsis was 40 pages long. That is not a nice thing to do to an agent.

4. Spoilers
There is no such thing as a spoiler in a synopsis. The purpose of the synopsis is to faithfully represent the plot. So, if you have a secret twist ending, it should be faithfully represented in the synopsis. If you’re synopsizing THE SIXTH SENSE, for example, I want to know that Bruce Willis is a ghost by the end of it. If I didn’t want to know, I wouldn’t read until the end of the synopsis. You will not spoil the book for me, it’s my job to evaluate works of art for their effectiveness as works of art. Even if I know that Bruce Willis is a ghost the whole time I’m reading, I’m still going to be able to tell whether you pulled off the twist or you didn’t. However, if Bruce Willis being a ghost is the most important aspect of your story, and it doesn’t appear in your synopsis, chances are I’m never going to know, because after reading your synopsis I’m going to think your book has no resolution.

5. Consistency
Names of places, characters, objects should remain consistent throughout the synopsis, especially if you have a lot of different characters to keep track of. Using a character’s name and nickname interchangeably is going to make it difficult to figure out who they are.

First pages

1. No Prologue Necessary
Your submission should require no prologue. Also, no quotes, acknowledgments, or other front matter. The first pages should be exactly that. You should start on page 1, because that’s the first page I’m going to read anyway. Save me the carpal tunnel surgery from scrolling.

2. Start With a Bang
If your character starts out the story by waking up, if your first paragraph is a description of scenery, if you describe your characters “normal day” first before getting to any sort of potential conflict, then you’re going to lose me, often after the first sentence, of the first paragraph of the first page. If you are concerned that the first pages don’t represent the “good part” of your novel, then you are probably correct. The truth is, there should be no “good part” it should all be the “good part”. Start your first page off with something that is going to engage your expected reader. You need to get them involved from the first sentence of the first paragraph of the first page. That first sentence is the most important sentence in your book. Make it count, and carry that momentum forward.

3. Info Dumps
Info dumps are equivalent to a movie pausing in the midst of the action for a voice-over monologue about the character’s background and motives. Your character should do things, and say things, and think things, and feel things, and through those actions, utterances, thoughts, and feelings reveal themselves. You need to tell their story, not explain it away.

4. Heavy Dialogue
This is a book, not a screenplay. Two characters jawing at each other for pages on end is often times info-dumping by other means. Other times it can just become tiresome. Use dialogue sparingly, especially in the first few pages, where it’s important to show your character doing things.

5. No Direction
Your first pages should be leading somewhere. Even if you haven’t gotten to the central conflict, there should be some indication of it on the horizon. All it takes is a hint of foreshadowing to keep a reader engaged, curious, and hungry for more. You don’t have to be a great poet, or a great philosopher in order to be a great author, all you need to do is keep the reader hungry. If I finish your first pages, and I don’t care what happens next, then chances are I’m not going to request a full. The job of first pages is to make me care what happens next.


  1. A timely post for me with terrific tips! I loved Carlie's advice that all a writer must do is make her want to read their book. I'm always surprised by how many times I see agents say writers query without reading the submission guidelines, or misspelling their names.

  2. Such great advice! And I love how so many of their tips overlap. Research is key!

  3. So much great advice! It's interesting to see how much advice echoes :)

  4. Such great advice. I am planning to query a couple of these agents, so this is a Godsend for me.

  5. This is great! Thanks for putting together all this expert advice :)

  6. My favorite from Katie Grimm: "Makes you sound mentally unstable." The query process is enough to drive anyone insane! :)

  7. These answers are so helpful. Really helps to make sure the queries and synopses I have are headed in the right direction with this list of "hints" to review by.

    Thank you :-)

  8. Fantastic "panel" so worthwhile all the points of view. Thank you!

  9. The timing for this post was perfect! I need to write a synopsis, so this was really helpful. Thaks.

  10. Such great stuff. Thanks for doing this. I'll definitely print this out and refer back to it often.

  11. These are AWESOME tips. I hope a lot of writers (including me) read this and hone their queries and synopses accordingly! Thanks, everyone. :)

  12. LOVE LOVE LOVE this! This gives me some real, in depth information to consider with my rejections. So often we get a form letter without any real clue as to how we can improve. The choice in that case is experiment and try again with some changes to see if it works. (So far no such luck, round 3) It helps to have some concrete reasons like this. Good job!!

    1. Thank you for interviewing these agents. Their advice is very helpful and well written. Best wishes!

      Best wishes for the summer!

      Janet Heller
      Author of the award-winning book for kids about bullying, How the Moon Regained Her Shape (Sylvan Dell, hardback–2006, paperback–2007, e-book, audio, and Spanish edition–2008, 3rd paperback edition and iPad app–2012)
      Website is

  13. what a fantastic, useful topic - thank you:)

  14. This post has saved me from sending more bad queries. I've been personalizing each letter to let the agents know I'd chosen them for specific reasons. Thanks to your post, I now know I'm pretty sure I come across as a stalker. Oopsie. Thank you!

  15. Great post! It is always nice to have an inside look.


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