It’s not hard to get carried away by the excitement of your first book, first submission, first website. It’s pretty exciting stuff.
But… when approaching agents, publishers or seasoned writers you don’t want to come across as excited as a four year old at a fair. You want them to think of you as relaxed, confident and, above all, professional. Because what they think when they first encounter you will tell them what you’ll be like to work with.
These are ten sure giveaways that you’re new to the game. I made four before I caught on (no, I’m not telling which!) and that’s four ‘first impressions’ I can’t get back.
1. (Over)Protecting the Work
On his website, Daniel Lazar,an agent with Writers House tells those considering querying him:
“If you mail, no need to send materials double sealed in bubble wrap. It’s paper, not anthrax.”
Funny but true! Your MS may be precious to you but you don’t want to come across that way to publishers.
If you over-wrap your submission, send it by hand-delivered priority courier, signature-accept or (worse yet) requiring it to be collected from the postal office you might as well write “HIGH MAINTENANCE AUTHOR” on the outside and be done with it.
You’re sending a copy of your work, not the original. Just present it neatly (not bound) inside an appropriate-sized envelope or shipping parcel/box which is safely but modestly taped up and then put your trust in your friendly, neighbourhood postman.
If you’re really anxious to know that it got there in one piece, drop a stamped, self-addressed postcard in the bundle that the receiving officer can simply flick straight into their ‘out’ tray for return post.
2. Premature Submission
To a publisher. To an agent. To a competition. To a crit service.
It’s all too easy to be tempted to prematurely submit your work for evaluation just to test its brilliance. I think I waited a day after typing ‘The End’ on my first MS before lobbing it out to God and everyone. In the weeks and months that followed I learned SO MUCH MORE about the craft and the industry and my work change significantly. When the competition feedback forms started rolling in I cringed at the glaring errors in them – stylistic, genre-related and grammatical.
Long time Aussie author, Anna Jacobs,talks about the art of letting it sit on her website where she says:
Most of the unpublished writers I meet are making the same fundamental mistake. They are submitting their manuscripts far too soon – and quite often too soon by a matter of years. In fact, they are still at the enthusiastic amateur stage.
By splashing your unready work all over the industry you risk publishers/agents connecting your name with an inferior product. Particularly if its spectacularly inferior. That will get remembered!
So the how-to-books aren’t kidding when they recommend letting a MS sit for weeks and even months (Anna says at least a year!) while you work on something else. When you go back to it with fresh eyes, you’d be amazed what you find to fix. Then… after many more sits and many more amazements… you’re ready to submit.
3. Thinking you’re the exception rather than the rule
When publishers or agents go to the trouble of telling you how to format/submit your material, you should follow it to the letter. They wouldn’t ask if they didn’t mean it.
The experts at Edit Torrent say:
…when an author can’t conform to the very few, very simple formatting requirements posted in our submissions guidelines, that makes me worry that they’ll disregard our other instructions.
It is naive to imagine that, somehow, they’ll recognise that you’re different or that your circumstances are a worthy exception to their carefully stated rules. A rule is a rule for a reason. It’s disrespectful to ignore it or, just as bad, you will come across as high maintenance before you’ve even begun!
4. Submitting to the enemy
Anne Mini’s Author, Author! website suggests that:
“…over-eager writers overstep the bounds of common courtesy all the time – and, as I can tell you from direct personal experience, it’s not easy being the first personal contact a writer has with the industry: one tends to be treated less as a person than as a door or a ladder. And no one, however famous or powerful, likes that.”
Anne’s example focusses on other authors (as in using them to get to agents etc) but the principle applies to agents. They ARE often the first contact point between writers and the industry. It IS easy to think of them as a step-ladder or an obstacle. Or an adversary. You cannot, CANNOT let that kind of attitudinal short-sightedness come through in your pitch.
Recognise that the author/agent relationship is symbiotic, neither adversarial or one-way. They are in the same industry as you are. Your job is to write it. Their job is to sell it. As such, the work you present them is nothing (at first) but a business opportunity. If they fail to exude gratitude at seeing your work its because they see so many hundreds in a month they simply don’t have time to gush. And so dealing with an agent can be (at first) a sparse, bare-bones experience. That is not always a true reflection of the agent concerned and shouldn’t encourage you to start dealing with agents in a cold, bare-bones fashion. There is no excuse for being abrupt or far-sighted with agents simply because they happen to be your 20th submission. It is not their fault that 19 before them declined to pick up your work.
The agent-securing process is an obstacle (but not insurmountable). The agent themselves are a human being who work in a sliver of the industry that is quite brutal and they would be treated as the enemy every day of the week. Don’t let your submission reinforce that stereotype.
5. Cause of Death? Over-critting
Author, Melissa James,helpfully said to me once:
“Don’t over-crit your writing. Editors LOVE to edit… It’s why they do it.”
It is possible to crit your work virtually to death, ironing out any trace of individual personality, losing all the nuances that made the story special, conforming to whatever trend is selling this week.
Critting can too easily get bogged down in real line-editing type stuff at the expense of the real value of critting – structural, thematic, story-based aspects.
Which is absolutely not to say that anything you send an editor should still have typos or chronic watch-words in it, but at least leave a trace of YOU in the story.
An editor (or an agent) is far more likely to express interest in a quirky, attention-grabbing story or style with a great plot. Agents, particularly, are looking for something DIFFERENT about you, something marketable.
Clearly, you need to follow the basics of genre requirement but the message is ‘loosen your tie a little’ and let your voice shine through.
6. Plagiarise technique (a great learning tool)
Some new writers live in fear of unconsciously plagiarising content or mimicking someone elses style and avoid reading as some kind of safety net.
If you want to get published you should be reading recent, quality works in your genre specifically so you CAN pull them apart to see what makes them so good. You don’t want to adopt plots characters or text, of course, but you do want to adopt good technique. Having said that… if you pitch a work with some terribly obvious, high profile trademark technique in it… that’s gonna get noticed and not in a good way. Everything in moderation.
7. Want syrup with that waffle?
New writers invariably give themselves away by saturating their work with irrelevant waffle. By flooding the reader with background information. By waxing way too poetic. If it doesn’t move the story along or if it doesn’t contribute to the characters development, leave it out. If the present action, dialogue or narrative doesn’t naturallylend itself to a few lines of drip-fed backstory, then chop it. It’s probably not that important.
Closely related to this is being a smart arse in print. Just because you’re clever enough to write a book doesn’t make you cleverer than your readers. Don’t drown your poor reader in the finer details of the history of square dancing just because you happen to know it. If its not relevant to your story then… save it for a marketable non-fiction on the origins of dance.
In fact, even if it is relevant to your story try to be judicious in your application of the specialist knowledge. Do your editor/agent/reader a favour and remember the adage “less is more”.
8. Eggs in one basket
Writing, particularly popular fiction, is a massively competitive arena. Even if you’re good, wading through everyone else and getting yourself noticed is no easy feat. You have a choice as an author to write the book of your heart and focus all your attention and efforts onto it and persevere and persevere until, finally, it lands on the right desk.
Or you can be prolific and churn out a number of manuscripts so that, at any one time, you have several projects on the go (one in development, one you’re writing/editing and one or more ‘out there’ in submission). This spreads your bets and increases your chances of success. The trade off is that it dilutes your focus and may lead to some difficult decisions.
But the surest way to give yourself away as a newbie is to write to a publisher or an agent and say “You’re it for me. This is meant to be.” By all means offer a particular publisher/agent first refusal if its a house you really, really want to get in on. But you better have a backup plan when that refusal comes in.
Because 999 times out of 1000 they will refuse. That’s just the biz.
9. Know your target
If you waded through 200 queries/submissions a week, how would you feel about the one that came in addressed (on the envelope and in the covering letter) to the ‘Senior Line Editor’. Reject pile.
Take ten minutes to google the house’s site and get a name and exact title. And don’t automatically send it to the most senior person you can find (assuming their judgement would somehow be superior). TARGET your pitch as though you were a pro-baseballer. You want that home-run don’t you?
You wanna write? Learn to be a professional. Not a professional in whatever field you’re just leaving, a professional in your new field.
Respect the rules of your new field. It’s been there longer than you. Bucking the system or trying to out-manouvre it is a sure-fire way of outing yourself as inexperienced.
- Understand that everyonehas something to learn no matter what their standing in the game.
- Know that writing is 90% craft and 10% art, just because you’re talented with words does not mean you can automatically craft a good book.
- Don’t be precious about your work, your goals, or your relative importance in the world. Dreams are good but you have to be realistic about them.
- Work with the flaws of the industry (critically slow response times, long ponderous approval periods, excruciating competition) rather than fighting the process every step of the way.
This means one followup phone-call/email and no more. This means declaring honestly if you’re shopping your manuscript around to dozens of publishers at the same time (and accepting if some knock you back because of that choice). This means accepting rejection or feedback with grace and maturity. This means thinking three times before you post ANYTHING to a public blog or forum. Your name will be googlable forever. This means taking a step back and a deep breath if you get an unprofessional response from someone working in the industry. That’s on them, not you.
Some days its harder than others to be professional. But its your job to do the hard thing. This is your dream, not theirs.