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 Or I’ll get an e-mail from an unpublished writer with short synopses for ten different books.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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