Rookie Mistakes

It’s okay to make mistakes. It’s the way we learn, after all. And some mistakes are unavoidable. But others are not. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about some of the mistakes I’ve made in the past–I turned 40 this year (I’ve probably mentioned this 500 times already), and it’s made me very contemplative. I’ve come to the conclusion that while I really am grateful for my mistakes because they’ve made me a better person in the long run, a great deal of them probably could have been avoided. These are the mistakes I made because I was young and in a hurry: in other words, I made Rookie Mistakes. They’re mistakes I can look back on and learn from, but that I could have avoided at the time if I had slowed down and been more thoughtful about where I was going and what I was doing. Writers make Rookie Mistakes too, mostly because they haven’t taken the time to educate themselves or to really think about the process and what’s going on from the side of the agent or publisher. These mistakes aren’t career enders, but they might be career derailers, even if only briefly. I’ll go through a few of these, mostly having to do with queries, and then finish on a high/low note with the one Rookie Mistake I find truly appalling.
Some of you may think these are obvious, but I’ve seen all these mistakes multiple times and, if you think about it, they’re not so crazy–maybe uninformed, but not completely from left field. With the exception of the last one, that is. I’ll list them here and hopefully you can avoid making them *and* learn from them at the same time.
1. Pitch multiple projects in one query. I’ve heard from multi-published authors who send me a three page letter explaining five different projects in detail. Or I’ll get an e-mail from an unpublished writer with short synopses for ten different books. In other words, this mistake is made by authors with all different levels of experience. I don’t think this is an unreasonable mistake–if you have a lot of projects complete, why only pitch just one? Won’t you increase your chances if you pitch a lot of different ones? But it just ain’t so. What you need to do here is put yourself in the shoes of the person reading the query. They are tired. They may be hungry (pretty much a given in my case). They have a lot to do. They may have read thirty queries before yours and they may have to read thirty more after yours. Make their job easier by pitching one project. If it’s in a series, you can explain the series arc. But keep it to one. Later, if they’re interested, you can discuss the others. If you bring them up in your original query, you’ll just make their eyes glaze over and their brain shut down.
2. Pitch a novel before you’ve finished writing it. Now, if you are a published genre writer, and you sell novels from proposals, this is fine. I don’t mean that. I mean, you are a first time novelist and you are working on a novel and you send me a query for it before you are done. I am actually very surprised by how often this happens. Most of the mistakes I’m writing about, I really do understand. And there has to be a good reason for this one (I’m sure someone will tell me). But what is it? Why would you query me before you have something complete to send me? Surely you know there’s a chance I’ll want to read it? The downside to doing this is two-fold. One, agents have very short attention spans, basically for the reasons I outline in #1 above. We are like crows–we see the shiny object and we want it now or we fly away. If you get me excited about your book, you have a short window to get it to me before I get excited about the next one. Two, agents are suspicious (I can hear all my agent friends right now telling me to speak for myself, but whatever). If you take a few months to get me material, there’s a good chance I think it’s because you gave another agent an exclusive first, and only sent it to me after that agent passed.
3. Query multiple agents at one agency–at the same time. This one I think is pretty reasonable. If you can query multiple agents, what does it matter if they’re at the same agency? The problem is this: if you query multiple agents at different agencies, and two different ones ask to see it, it’s not a problem. But if you query two agents at the same agency, and they both want to see it, then you have a problem. This happened to me more than once while I was at Trident. And because the agents want to be respectful of each other, they fall all over themselves insisting that you send it to the other one. It gets awkward and uncomfortable, and it just casts a pall over your whole submission that you’d probably like to avoid. Also, let’s say that Agent A looks at it first, and passes. Agent B then gets a chance, but human psychology being what it is, is probably going to be less enthusiastic now.
In a corollary to this, people often asked me when I was at Trident if I would read a query or a manuscript that someone at Trident had already passed on. There’s a subtle distinction to this from the scenario below. In this situation, the author is being straightforward and also respectful by checking the etiquette before proceeding. In other words, not acting like a Rookie. Having said that, while I never had a problem with that, knowing that we all had very different taste, I’ve heard other agents say that they do. Still, never hurts to ask.
4. Send exclusive queries. There’s a reference to this on my website. This is an understandable mistake to me. If you’re supposed to send exclusive submissions (well, not to me, but it’s a standard thing), then why not an exclusive query? Most of you reading this, if not all of you, know why this is a mistake. You are only hurting yourself with this one. When I first started, as many of you know, it took me months and months to get through the instant backlog of queries. If you had sent me an exclusive query, you’d be pretty pissed. (Hell, people who had been sending *multiple* queries were pissed off enough, but that’s a different story). As I’ve written about before, this business is nothing if not subjective. Send your query out to lots and lots of agents to increase your chances of finding the perfect one. If you do that one at a time you’re going to be dead long before you’re published.
5. E-mail an agent asking if you can query them or if they accept e-mail queries. Again, understandable. It never hurts to ask, as I just said above. But you’re slowing yourself down and there’s a good chance the agent won’t answer you anyway. So I’ll answer both of these now and then it’s ’nuff said. Yes, you can query them. And check the website for guidelines.
6. E-mail an agent asking how to get an agent. I know if you’re reading this blog that you would never do this. And I feel badly when people write and ask me this, I truly do, but I still don’t have enough time to sit down and answer them. If you think about it, it’s pretty labor intensive to sit down and write an e-mail explaining how to find an agent. So if you are savvy enough to figure out my e-mail address, you are savvy enough to do a little research online.
7. Ask an agent, “why do I need an agent?” This is the one that drives me crazy. Inevitably when you’re on a panel at a conference, someone asks this question in a fairly belligerent tone. Look, buddy, I always want to say, it’s not my job to justify my existence to you. If you want to sell your own book and negotiate your own contract (and that’s just the starting place), it truly is not a problem for me. Why anyone wants to come to a conference and antagonize an entire panel of agents, is beyond me. It’s the one Rookie Mistake I really just cannot excuse.
7.a. Post antagonistic comments on an agent’s blog. I understand the urge, I really do. This is a tough business, and rejection hurts–I know, I’ve been rejected too. But 1. it’s bad energy and 2. if you must do it, I suggest you do it anonymously. It’s a very small business, and chances are I know your editor or agent and am old friends with him/her. Do you really want this kind of thing getting back to them?
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27 Responses to Rookie Mistakes

  1. Thank you so much for this. I've been writing for…well, what seems like forever. But I'm new to the publishing world. Sometimes I feel like I'm getting lost inside the ocean of information on the internet.

    Each point is straightforward, but gives an in-depth explanation. I'll be taking all of these to heart.

    ps–What kind of idiot would ask an agent WHY they need an agent? That's like shooting yourself in the foot and then asking the doctor, "Dude. Why do I need your help?"

  2. 4outthedoor says:

    As both a newbie and one who obsesses over these kinds of details, I very much appreciate that you put this out there.

    Carmen

  3. Hugo says:

    I'll take you to task over point 2. I was an unpublished novelist, and sent my first two chapters to agents when I was only about halfway through my novel. After several years of writing, and one failed, unpublished novel behind me already, I simply needed to know for my own battered morale if what I was doing could possibly interest anyone. As it happened, I was contacted by a young agent who was keen to seek out new writers, and who eventually got me a very good two-book deal, once I'd finished my novel.

  4. jennybent says:

    Hugo, I think that's wonderful, but I also think you're the exception that proves the rule. I'd hate to think of lots of writers out there sending out the first two chapters of an uncompleted novel hoping to get the same results.

  5. Ammanuel says:

    Great post. I'm a self published author trying to break through the front gate of the publishing house community, but its pretty solid. Sometimes, it appears they are double reinforced, with chains and padlocks, not to mention a few rottweilers walking loosely. And yet, with all of the security in place, there's a big welcome sign above the front entrance.

    While mistakes are a sure way to limit your chances for being taken seriously, I just don't believe it should be the automatic exit stage left for a good writer.

    I attended a writer's workshop on the campus of Johns Hopkins University last summer and met with a few agents. One shared how she turned down a querey from Steven Meyers years ago for his Twilight series idea because there was an inconsistency in writing style between the querey letter and the portion of his manuscript he submitted. I know it's not an often happening, but who do you think made the bigger mistake in that situation?

    A.C. Moore
    MooreNovels.com

  6. jennybent says:

    Ammanuel, it's certainly true that agents make rookie mistakes, in fact I've blogged about that myself. What I think is nice is that the agent was willing to share that with everyone–it takes a big person and a big heart to let others learn from your mistakes.

  7. Gwen Stickle says:

    Thank you for this post. It's nice to get such great advice from an agent, who can help aspiring writers avoid some of the pitfalls others have encountered. I really appreciate it.

  8. vrflash says:

    Yes, these are pretty common mistakes.

    Now, I am a published author. I don't mean self-published, but my novel came from a mid-sized publisher and was very well received by the media. For the reasons too hard to explain, I recently fired my agent. What gets me, though, is when an agent is sending me a "dear author" form rejection, Can't she at least address me by my name?

  9. jennybent says:

    vrflash, I hear what you're saying, and I can only speak for myself, not other agents. I would like to respond if not individually to every query, then at least by name. But I get at least 50 queries a day, sometimes as many as 100. Add to that the existing clients that I have to work for, and responding to full manuscripts that I've asked for with a hopefully constructive response, and there just isn't enough time in the day.

  10. vrflash says:

    Other agents address me by name. Being a magazine editor, I know that to write "Sorry, Jenny" is as time consuming as hitting ctrl-v.

    Well, anyway, blogging is a nice diversion and it's educational, too.

  11. jennybent says:

    All I can say is that I do my best. Yours, Jenny

  12. jennybent says:

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  13. John Rudolph says:

    Of my experiences in contacting agents, I can accept rejections and just move on because that is the subjective nature of the business. But unfortunately there are those agents who send back replies that are addressing the wrong book or even the wrong author. Those are clearly the sort of agents I wouldn't want to work with. I once got a reply back from an agent who told me that he wasn't interested in books on the topic of birds. That tells me they're either out of touch or simply disorganized.

  14. So helpful, so polite, so true. Amen and huzzah!

  15. Rachel Hamm says:

    Jenny,

    This is a great post. I've only sent one small round of queries out, and thankfully did not make any of the mistakes listed above, but it's still nice to hear insights from an intelligent agent about the very scary subject of querying. I do have a question though, which I hope won't seem stupid. #4 talks about exclusive queries/ agents expect that writers are querying several agencies at once, but I've seen on some agent websites that they want to know in the query if you are querying other agents. Is it counterproductive to mention that you are querying widely to those specific agents? Does that make sense?

  16. AstonWest says:

    On #4, I'd put a disclaimer that you should likely only send them out in smaller batches. Don't shoot a query out to every agent you plan submitting to. If there's an issue with your query letter, you've basically shot yourself in the foot if you do. Send it out to five or so, see if you get any nibbles…and if not, go in and see if it could be an issue with the query.

    Granted, you should make sure the query is the best it can be before you send it out, but as we all know, writing one is never an exact science.

  17. It's a nice list to keep beside the PC labeled: REMINDERS.

  18. I didn't make those exact rookie mistakes, but I did have a very bad query in the beginning. I have a better one now. What I want to know, would agents remember the crappy query if I resubmit the newer one? I've also changed the title of the book and it's been about four months since the I sent the first round of crappy queries.

  19. E.J. Wesley says:

    #7 – Wait a second: You're saying I shouldn't call a banker and ask why I need a bank, nor should I call a car dealership and ask them why I need a car? Hmmmm … 🙂 I laugh because I can really envision that e-mail and the agent's face when it's read.

    Great post, Jenny! I bounced over here from Nathan Bransford's blog, and am glad I did. I'm always eager to hear from agents about query faux pas. You’ll all be hearing from me soon in the form of a mass e-mail query. Be sure to ‘respond all’ with any feedback, because I know it’ll be positive and I want to ensure that an agent bidding war ensues! (Very much kidding about everything EXCEPT the part about your blog being helpful.)

    I'll throw out another rookie mistake: never wear plaids and stripes together. I've never been the same …

  20. Bethany says:

    Really enjoyed this one. Never again will I email to ask an agent if they have an email address.

  21. Matthew Rush says:

    Jenny, thanks so much for this great post, I sure do wish I had known these things when I first started querying. As a first time novelist with a finally completed MS under my arm I jumped into the query process armed with nothing but ignorance, and plenty of it.

    If only I had taken a fraction of the time I spent writing my novel researching publishing and especially the query process. There are so many free and informative blogs and other resources out there that it is almost criminal to go about it as ill informed as I did.

    Anyway if anyone would like to read more about my foolishness and even have a chuckle or two at my expense, please click on my user name and then visit my blog and follow or comment. On it I've posted some real queries I've sent and the real rejections they received. Many are excellent, specific examples of what not to do, or why Jenny's rookie mistake advice is words to live by.

  22. Lynn says:

    I am assuming that #2 does not apply to non-fiction, correct?

  23. Alexander says:

    Hey love — I'm guilty of #2. My reasoning was that the agent might have liked to have some input in the creative process, as someone who not only is familiar with what makes a book excel but also as someone with a lot of ideas for books similar to mine. I thought that the fact that I'd written and published a book before would exempt me from the rule of thumb, but needless to say he didn't respond. xoxo

  24. Robin says:

    On #2, the reason is laziness. A first-time novelist who is struggling with the enormity of writing a WHOLE BOOK wants someone to promise to represent/publish it before it's half finished, so we know it'll be worth the effort. A big advance would be nice, too. Fortunatly, I stumbled across simlar advice before I followed the impulse….

    On #7, I feel your pain. I'm a public defender. People question the need for my services (and/or whether I'm a real lawyer) all the time (though probably not as much as authors question the need for an agent). I'd love to see them defend themselves. 😀 Pesonally, I'd never try to represent myself. What do I know about publishing?

    I'm about half done with my first WIP (and still no advance!), so I'm starting to educate myself on what the next step will be. Glad I found your blog–I'll be back. 🙂

  25. Lisa Conmara says:

    Guilty of number 4. Silly me.

    I'm on my second draft of my second novel, the first one is doing the rounds. I feel so at sea, but hoping to make it to shore soon.

    Thank you for the advice.

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