Several years ago I outlined these ten no-nos. With conference season in full swing I thought a refresher would be a good thing. Plenty of blogs tell you how to approach an agent, what to say and how to say it. Today I’m going to highlight my top ten things not to say when seeking to impress an agent. Here, in part, is what not to say to a potential agent:
1. I’ve only been writing for a couple of months and I’ve already got two books completely ready to publish.
2. I can’t spell worth a lick but, hey, that’s what editors are for, right?
3. I’m writing fiction. Romance mostly, but I have written a thriller and I dabbled in Amish. Fortunately, fiction is not my only interest, I have two nonfiction books as well— one on parenting and the other on finance. Oh, yes. I have three picture books I wrote for my grandchildren and am working on a middle grade series.
4. No, I don’t read in my genre at all. I don’t want to inadvertently steal anyone’s ideas.
5. My mother has read and loved all my manuscripts and she can’t wait until they are published so she can give them to her friends.
6. My novel weighs in at about 210,000 words but everyone tells me it so compelling they can’t put it down. After all, Harry Potter was bigger than any book of its genre at the time.
7. I’d love to show you my book but would you mind first signing this non-disclosure document drawn up by my lawyer?
8. I’m not much of a reader. My time is limited and I’d much rather write than read anyway.
9. I’ve discovered things in the Bible that no one has yet uncovered. Theological credentials? No, but I’ve spent my life digging into the Bible.
10. God gave me this book, nearly word for word.
Yes. I’ve heard all of the above and numerous variations of them over the years. I had planned to offer these What-Not-to-Say comments and then explain why they are so cringeworthy to an agent but I decided to let you do the work. Pick one or two (or more) and explain to our readers why they should never ever say them.
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“God gave me this book.”
God gave Moses an entirely new concept: the Tabernacle, with its courtyard, holy place and most holy place. God provided skilled workers to make it happen. Those workers wove the curtains, hammered the gold, and crafted the structure. I suspect there were some do-overs along the way: rows unwoven because the color wasn’t quite right, gold reworked because the balance was off, wooden slats cut just a hair too short. The workers were skilled, but not perfect. They were human.
Two friends asked me to read their books, saying God gave them the words. In one, the words were well-crafted, but arranged randomly — like reading someone’s journal. The other was an autobiography, a collision of characters and events that made sense only to the writer. Both bristled when I suggested a bit of editing would improve the reader’s experience. Both writers are godly Christians, with good intentions and worthwhile concepts. But their audiences are tiny, because they wouldn’t consider a do-over.
Great explanation, Shirley!
God gave me this book word for word,
don’t need to read my genre.
Why would you run with the herd
when the Spirit’s on ya?
I’ve just been writing for a month,
but Papaw says I got a gift
so I wonder if you would
give my book a little lift,
and go to Random Penguin
(I’m sure they’ll be impressed!)
to offer them a bargain
with which we’ll all be blessed;
a low eight-fig advance for me
on forty percent royalty.
Sounds like a tempting deal, Andrew. You say 40%?
Kristen Joy Wilks
Oh, wow! OK, I’ll take #3 (or is it really #2?) with the writer who has both fiction and non-fiction as well as five different genres of fiction for three different age groups. I can totally sympathize. I’ve had both fiction and non-fiction published in magazines. I have manuscripts sitting around for five different age groups. But while it absolutely is a great idea for a new writer to try out a bunch of genres and even age groups to see where her strengths are, when you talk with an agent, you’ve got to pick one! In fact, you should already have honed in on which genre and age group is best for you and have been writing in that category for some time. It takes time to learn each new genre and the agent will want to know that you have put in your hours and focus. I have recently switched my focus from RomComs to children’s books, when I say recently, I mean that I’ve been honing my skills for this particular market for the last eight years. Is eight years really recent? Well, considering how long I’ve been learning my craft, yes it is! I have written seventeen book manuscripts for children in that time and I think I’m starting to get the hang of it, ha! What the agent needs to know: that you have honed your craft in a particular genre and have one manuscript that is gorgeous and ready for them to read. Talk about that one literary beauty. Talk about your learning process. But please, don’t talk about how everything you’ve written as you were learning is ready to go … because it isn’t. Maybe with some editing they could be, but keep that in mind if you mention all of those other manuscripts lurking about in the corners of your computer. Concentrate on that one beautifully polished story and see where that leads.
How did I miss number 2? Thanks for the quick heads up, Kristen.
I’m glad you did the explanation here. You mentioned that for a new writer it is important to experiment before you settle down, but the best advice of all is this: “Concentrate on that one beautifully polished story and see where that leads.” Yes!
#7. Oh my gosh. I’m shocked. The nerve!
Few things leave me at a loss for words, but that one surely did.
I think some writers might think it shows professionalism to protect their work. Maybe?
Carol R Nicolet Loewen
Wendy, I chuckled as I read through your list, going “Yeah, no” to all! I might say some foolish things but these aren’t likely to be among them. Thanks for the “what-nots”.
Janet Ann Collins
Those are hilarious! I can’t believe people actually said those.
You’ve been to dozens of writer’s conferences, Janet. You really haven’t heard things like that in classes?
Wendy, I’ll try to address #8. We should read for myriad reasons, but reading in the genre we write helps us define our comparables, which we will need for our proposal. That is a difficult task even for the well read. Also, reading is educational and helps hone our writing skills … what and what not to do. We will discover what we like most and know how and what we want to write … which “person,” how many POVs, etc. If an agent hears we aren’t reading, an agent is possibly hearing that we aren’t learning.
Perfect answer, Shelli.
#1 says, “Hey, I write quickly and confidently [2 books in 2 months!] but it also says you’re above reproach and revision is beneath you. I’ve found the gold is in the revision, the layers … it’s all the magnificent styling details which add depth, color and intrigue.
I know many agents are writers themselves and they’ve stared at the blank page wondering if this new one will come into final form, and will it see the light of day and be successful? And it surely won’t be when written and in final form in 1-2 months.
I’m sure for these reasons this is the most cringe-worthy DON’T or at least it’s got good reason as to why it’s listed as #1.
Good answer. And like you said, a thoughtful, layered book could never be written in a month, no matter what NANOWRIMO might promote.
Dianne M Callahan
Numbers 4 and 8 – oh my! How can one write anything worth reading without loving the written word? And how can one love the written word without reading? The best communicators are voracious readers. When you read someone’s work (novel, non-fiction, business communication) you can always tell who is a reader and who is not. I’ll never forget the advice to respect someone who mispronounces a less often used word – they likely read it in a book before they heard it spoken aloud.
I’m so glad you answered these. I could not have put it as well.
Made me laugh, Thanks. Perhaps, not obvious to all.