I recently accepted an internship with a literary agent. For those of you who don't know what a literary agent is, it is someone who represents you and helps you sell your manuscript to a publishing house. Though I've only been interning for a few weeks, I've been screening queries and I can already identify some fatal mistakes. So what are these fatal mistakes?
Your manuscript should be a normal length.
I've screened manuscripts that have been 100,000 words and manuscripts that have been 7,000 words (which is to say, it's not a manuscript). You have to be sure that your novel is a competitive length. The publishing market isn't that great right now, so it's important to meet industry standards. I'd say that your novel should be longer than 60,000 words but shorter than 100,000. I'm much more likely to prejudge your query if your book is a weird length.
Make sure your query letter is complete and coherent.
I've actually read some query letters that I couldn't understand. I opened the sample anyway but I wasn't sure what was going on. When you're sending a sample that's only ten or so pages long, you have to make sure that you explain the plot in a way that makes sense. Keep your queries clear and concise. You don't need to be fancy.
Please proof your manuscript.
It's really hard for me to take you seriously if your sample and query letter are riddled with spelling and grammatical errors. If you didn't proof your novel, you probably didn't edit it and agents generally don't want something incomplete. Publishing houses are looking for full novels. Most of the time, the editor is there for content, not for proofreading. You have to put in the work for me to take you seriously.
Don't be too presumptuous.
Nothing irks me more than reading a query that assumes the agent I work for will just offer representation. "I know you'll love my novel," makes me immediately wary of the author. This could just be my opinion, but it makes it seem like the author may be unpleasant to work with.
Look at the genre the agent represents before you query.
I've read queries for horror novels when our agency mostly represents romance. Yea, there's some YA and mystery/thriller mixed in there, but it's nothing gory or too scary. It shows that the author didn't do his or her research before submitting their manuscript. That makes me feel like you're just copy/pasting and you won't be a good fit for the agency.
So, aspiring novelists, take these words and heed the warnings. Don't make these mistakes if you're serious about getting published. You'll look silly and you don't want your book to look silly.