Blogger: Mary Keeley
Several comments on my blog post last week, “How To Prepare for An Agent Interview,” referenced a fear of botching your meeting with an agent or editor. So this week I have four tips for recovering after a misstep. We’ve all done it. We say or do something that comes across all wrong. Or your deer-in-the-headlights eyes betray that you don’t know as much as you thought you did. Don’t be too hard on yourself because it won’t be the end of the world. Only in extreme cases would a single faux pas mean the end of a writing career.
These tips will help you to know what to do if and when you slip up. Then you can use the experience to grow your thick skin that every author needs throughout your writing career. The type that leaves you wiser and preserves your confidence.
First, decide if your perceived misstep is worth worrying about.
Maybe you’re imagining your gaffe was more serious than it really was. Talk it over with your agent or a writer friend you trust to give you honest feedback.
Apologize right away in your meeting.
When you make a mistake in an interview, a simple apology shows honesty and willingness to own your blunder. Having participated in countless interviews and pitch meetings, agents can spot a cover-up attempt right away. It triggers a flashing warning light about the writer and only makes matters worse.
Besides, agents always fact-check writers we’re interested in, and embellishments or undisclosed information will be uncovered. We have to do this because we need to be sure our projected time with a potential client will be well invested. Sometimes it’s a long time before we reap a financial return.
Feel free to stop and apologize in the middle of your meeting if you got off on the wrong foot. Take a deep breath, explain your nervousness, and then pick up where you left off. Most agents who see you recover this well will dismiss the earlier nerves.
Be yourself and project confidence in your next meeting.
Be yourself. It’s key to projecting confidence. It relieves unnecessary stress worrying that you’ll inadvertently reveal a crack in your façade. Avoid the tendency to talk a mile a minute due to your discomfort with lulls in the conversation. This invites missteps, because your brain can’t keep up with your mouth under stressful conditions. You will end up rattled and certainly not reflecting confidence. Agents appreciate a momentary lull because it allows time to process what you have told us up to that point.
In addition to hearing about your book, agents are formulating a gut-level first impression of you: This writer looks like she’s trying to be something she is not. I wish I could see the real person. Or, this writer is comfortable and prepared. Inwardly most agents are rooting for you and want to help you to be your confident best. After all, we’ve been there too. Agents are the ones pitching clients’ proposals to publishers. Editors are the ones pitching authors’ projects to their pub board. We understand what it’s like on your side of the table.
Mishaps can be prevented when you are at ease. Your thinking is clearer, and you can process what the agent or editor is saying to you better. You put yourself in the best shape to be relaxed when you prepare thoroughly using steps like those I outlined last week and pray for God’s peace and confidence in his plan.
When did you make a misstep in a meeting with an agent? What did you do to recover? What do you do to relax before an important meeting? Do you have a tip to add to the list?
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Mary, I’m having trouble picturing what exactly would be considered a meeting misstep. Are there some general examples? Having thought through a potential problem ahead of time can often keep it from happening.
Damon J. Gray
Carol, I’m one of the ones who raised this red flag, and I believe I even used the term “misstep.” Given the reality that I have had only one formal phone interview with an agent (I opted not to pursue), my concern is more in the pre-interview context – queries and proposals. The requirements are often stringent, different from one agency to the next, and guideline violations costly. So I am trying to walk with very deliberate steps. That said, your question regarding the meeting/interview still stands, and is one I’d be interested in seeing an answer to as well.
When I mangle my words, I say, “Oh my, that didn’t come out quite the way I intended,” and start over. My father would said, “I got my tongue over my eye tooth and I couldn’t see what I was saying” (it’s a great line, but I can’t deliver it with the proper sincerity when I’m stressed).
Funny response, Shirlee, but I too would be hard pressed to say it with a straight face. Thanks for adding levity to the topic.
Damon J. Gray
I need a “Like” button. That was cute.
* Interesting post, Mary. I’ve only had a phone interview with an agent (and was not happy with my performance), but there was nothing concrete for which I could apologise that would not have come across as a kind of cringing. I was awkward and chose words poorly, but what was done, was done.
* The only really dreadful faux pas I incurred was losing my shoes and socks prior to a formal interview. I went in barefoot, and chose to say nothing. The interviewer took a long look, then looked me in the eye and started shaking his head. Then he started laughing. No more words were needed. (An the interview went very well.)
* From what I’ve seen from being an interviewer, the biggest errors are padding one’s resume and dropping names inappropriately. They’re easy to see – the padder will change tone and delivery, usually speeding up speech is a metaphor for crossing thin ice. The name dropper will assume an air of bonhomie that wasn’t there before. I would guess that the literary agent’s analogue for padding would be social media numbers?
* There’s no easy way to recover; a little probing will uncover stretched truths, (during the interview or in the follow-up) and while it may not be fatal, it doesn’t help.
* And it’s so counterproductive. I had an interviewee claim supervisory experience, which on further questioning turned out to be babysitting. Well, yes, babysitting does have supervisory aspects, but having been told plainly would have made the interviewee look and feel less silly, and would have been more fun. We could have shared babysitting stories.
* Name-dropping is a bit worse, because it drags in someone else, someone who may feel pressed to say they ‘know’ a person from having exchanged a few phone calls or having met at a conference. I’ve been placed in that position, and it was not comfortable – I rather resented being put there as a kind of checked-box on someone’s ambition. My rule of thumb was never to drop a name unless I could ask that person for a professional reference. (I would think that being familiar with the names and work of the authors in an agent’s stable – without claiming acquaintanceship – is something else entirely, and would be a good thing?)
* In the Luke 14:10 Jesus advises one to take the lowest seat at a banquet, so that one can be invited to sit higher. Over-reaching can cause embarrassment and worse, but humility rarely does.
Andrew, if you can survive the no shoes or socks faux pas that well, you can overcome any other misstep. Great story that should help everyone to relax and not take themselves too seriously.
And you’re right, name-dropping when a writer doesn’t have much else to grab an agent’s interest gets negative results.
“Only in extreme cases would a single faux pas mean the end of a writing career.”
Mary, did you really mean this? In meeting with an agent or editor, there is an unpardonable sin that could mean the end of a writing career? What would that be, because people sure need to avoid doing that.
David, an example would be if a writer were caught grossly lying in the course of the conversation or if the agent recognizes that the writer has plagiarized a published author’s work.
For what it may be worth, I always found that the most deal-killing faux pas is the excuse that includes blame-shifting.
* I’ve seen comebacks…an interviewee once told me that something for which he was responsible was not done because someone had let him down, and then he immediately corrected himself: “No. That’s not accurate. I was supervising, and it was my responsibility.” The immediacy in addressing the problem gave him full marks, and then some for self-awareness. if he had let it go for any period of time, no save would have been possible.
Blame-shifting is a dead give-away that the writer isn’t someone most agents would want to work with. But yes, a writer who quickly corrects that direction redeems his or her chance.
Jennifer Zarifeh Major
My worst meeting disaster was at ACFW 2015. Right before the meeting with a Very Important Editor, I got very sad news from home regarding one of my kids and his hockey prospects. He’d been dealing with a serious, and very painful, hereditary problem in his knees, and wasn’t selected for the team he’d already been on the previous season, because goalies need healthy knees.
He’d been in pain since May, and spent the entire summer with ice packs on his knees. The poor kid couldn’t even bear to go bike riding with his friends.
Here it was September, and he was doing better, but with this email, he was so upset that he wouldn’t speak to me on the phone. My poor husband hadn’t meant for me to see the email, and felt terrible that he hadn’t been able to head it off at the pass.
So, Wrecky McWreckerton prayed and cried, and prayed again, then went into her meeting and what did I see? The sweet smile of my agent, from where you sat literally with your back to mine.
Never more did I know you had my back, than that day, when you literally had my back.
I told the editor what the situation was, and down came the formalities and we talked as Mom’s missing our kids. As meetings go, it went well. But I knew there was no way I could go in there and act all professional, when I had such sad news, no more than 30 minutes prior.
I am simply never going to be a spy. Hiding my feelings has never been my forté.
I also know to never check my hockey email, or any potentially upsetting emails, within 2 hours of an important meeting! I’m thankful that the editor was so understanding, but that won’t always be the case.
Also? Ladies, waterproof mascara!!!
It always is best to be authentic. It could be the best icebreaker when you aren’t your most professional self. Good example, Jennifer.
Mary, I so appreciate your tips. For years, I was the one who tried to keep everything professional . . . or at least what I thought that looked like in my own mind. Which basically equated to looking like I had it all together, and trying to sound that way too.
*Yeah, well. Let’s just say I’ve come to see the value of authenticity, including being honest when I’m not sure about something. Your suggestion to be ourselves in professional meetings is spot on. We’re all such unique creatures, aren’t we?
*One of the biggest things I do before going into an important meeting is ask trusted friends to pray for me. This has given me the reassurance that I’m not really alone in those meetings, and that I (and the meeting) am being covered by God’s grace, presence, and will.
So true, Jeanne. Prayers for peace and calm to be oneself in a professional setting is a winning combination.
Kristen Joy Wilks
Such good advice, Mary. Especially about apologizing right away. I remember weeping in the bathroom for 15-20 minutes after a simple critique. We writers can get a bit moody, but I’d left my 6month old with my mom for the very first time ever to go to that conference. It’s a lot to survive a critique with Mommy hormones and high expectations. I also recall telling Mick Silva that I recognized him from his blog and him replying that his picture wasn’t on his blog. Ahhhhh, he thought I was a stalker. I recognized his name from the blog not his face, but was too nervous to explain. But the great thing is that after several mishaps, these meetings start to look less terrifying and more exciting. You start to say: “What could possibly happen this time? I for sure won’t do that again!” I’m kinda looking forward to pitching this year, it’s always good practice.
Kristen, I suspect you have encouraged many a writer with your comment here.