I work in a literary agency in Manhattan. And as an intern, a large part of my job is sifting through the slush pile. I actually love reading slush - I mean, I get to read ALL DAY as my JOB and it is kind of the best. There is also the great feeling of finding something really wonderful and hoping that your boss might like it and might offer representation.
But. Guys. So much of the slush pile is made up of people who simply have no idea how to write a query letter. My reaction to the horrible typos and weirdly structured emails and lengthy bios that leave out all semblance of plot is somewhere between mirth and pity.
I know I am probably preaching to the choir here, but even so, I intend to make a bit of a project out of "how to write query letters" (more on that later, when I can work out the logistics of said project). For now, however, I give you:
The Top Five Things Not to Do in a Query
1. Fail to include sample pages. (Seriously, guys. My agency requests the first three chapters and so many people don't send them. If the submission guidelines ask for sample pages, SEND SAMPLE PAGES. The pages, more than the query, will make me want to say yes.)
2. Tell me more about you than about your book. (I need to know about your characters and your plot and why I should care. I don't, at this stage, need to know about your career or your background, unless you have been previously published. And even that should be short, sweet, and to the point.)
3. Spell things incorrectly and use improper grammar. (This is like walking into a job interview with ketchup on your shirt.)
4. Insult popular titles of the genre you are trying to be published in. (I have gotten more than one query explaining the failings of Harry Potter and saying that their manuscript had none of those failings. It just sounds incredibly arrogant. Also, there is a very high chance that someone who works in YA publishing will be incredibly fond of Harry Potter. Don't alienate a potential agent from the start!)
5. Call your manuscript a "fiction novel."