sadGather ‘round children, I’m going to tell you a little story.

Once upon a time there was a very nice agent. She devoted a good bit of her time to attending conferences in order to help fledgling writers and scout potential new talent. After a particularly long day of teaching workshops, sitting on panels, taking fifteen-minute appointments and generally “doing the agent thing,” nature called. As she settled in for the first private moment she’d had to herself all day, she heard a voice from the next stall.

“I sure am glad I finally found you. Your appointment list was full, and I’ve got this novel I want you to take a look at.” Not two seconds later, a large manila envelope came skidding across the tile and came to rest on her brand new Franco Sarto slingback.

Sad but True

This tale would be hilarious if it wasn’t true. Unfortunately, there are agents reading this column right now shaking their heads and reliving a similar moment from their own past.

It’s not uncommon for writers to make the leap from friendly conference attendee to goggle-eyed lunatic at the mention of the words agent or acquisitions editor. From outlandish claims about their writing projects (“This will be the next Left Behind”) to downright bribery (Yes, there have been $5, $10, and $20 bills clipped to query letters … and no, they weren’t mine), there is something about an encounter with an editor or agent that brings the oddball gene out of its dormant state in even the most level-headed people.

Equally frightening are the writers who run headlong into reality and don’t know how to deal with it. These are the folks who meet an editor or agent for the first time and expect a line edit and an in-depth discussion about the manuscript they brought with them or they come in with a piece of uncommonly bad writing and find out (though generally in a kind way) that their masterpiece may need a little more work. Such an encounter has been known to make said writer a little cranky. Sometimes cranky enough to tell the offending writing professional exactly what they can do with their red pen.

And while such an attitude certainly makes a lasting impression, it is probably not the one you want to make. Publishing is a small universe, and if you tick off an editor at one publishing house, and he/she moves to another house, you now have a bad reputation at TWO houses.

God Told Me…

Also, be warned: A one-on-one meeting is not the only way to breach the boundaries of good agent/editor etiquette. A well-placed query letter or proposal can do the same thing. Take for example a classic letter that opens something like this:

Dear editor, God told me to write this story and He also said I should send it to you and you should publish it…” OK, with a show of hands, how many of you out there have a similar letter in your files? Um-hum, I thought so.

paperThere is a response to this letter floating around out there, and I imagine there are many people who wish they had used it. The editor, having seen the story from God letter one too many times, evidentially said:

Dear Writer: While I thank you for thinking of our publishing company we will not be able to use your story. Since God wrote the best-selling book of all time, I can only assume He can spell better than what was evident in you manuscript…

Now let’s have a show of hands from those of you who have ever written such a letter. (Wait, you there in the green socks … get that hand up). Not many, but a few…

The Road to Professionalism

So … how does the average writer get in an editor or agent’s good graces? It’s not as difficult as you may think.

First, be respectful. Remember the magic words, please and thank you. And don’t forget the advice given by every card-carrying mother on the planet: mind your manners.

Don’t call editors and agents by their first name unless invited to do so. For example, “Mr. Laube, may I speak with you for a minute or two about the project I’m working on?” will probably make a more favorable impression than, “Hey Stevie-Boy, hang on a minute and take a look at this proposal while I go get some lunch.”

Another tip: Don’t worry about carrying a full book-length manuscript around with you to your meeting. Most agents and editors don’t want to have to carry a stack of manuscripts with them on the plane. If they are interested in your project, they ask you to mail or e-mail it to them.

In short, act like a professional, even if you aren’t one … yet.

When communicating via mail or e-mail, keep the letterhead simple, professional, and as error-free as possible. No garish colors of fancy fonts.

When dealing with these nice folks in person, bring a clean, well-edited manuscript, proposal, or whatever is requested. Make sure it is formatted properly and meets their criteria (number of pages, etc.).

Think about what you want to say even before you arrive at the conference, or before you write that query letter. Have a clear image of the heart of your story in mind before you actually make the pitch. Doing otherwise could very well scuttle your project in a matter of seconds. A seasoned editor or agent will know in less than a minute how much thought you have put into your idea.

When dealing with writing professionals, having a polite, professional bearing can carry you a long way. Accept criticism graciously, and always thank the other person for her/his time.

You see, bad writing can be fixed, but a bad first impression is much harder to overcome.

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Sometimes a writer needs a pep talk. You know the kind I mean. “You can do it. You’re just hitting a slow spot. You’ve got the tools. You’ve got the talent. We believe in you.” The kind of thing that is designed to get those writing  juices flowing like Niagara Falls on a good day.

The best pep talk I ever received didn’t sound a thing like that. Not even close.

My mentor and friend, the late Charles L. Grant, had a knack for knowing how to push a writer’s buttons. I remember early in my writing career I called Charlie to complain about the fact I had run into a brick wall and was ready to just pitch it all and quit. His part of the conversation wasn’t exactly what I expected.

“Charlie, it’s me. I’ve got a problem.”

“Hello me. What’s the problem?”

“The problem is that I haven’t written a word in six months.”

“OK.”

“What do you mean, OK? I don’t think you heard me. I said I haven’t written a word in six months. I’ve got a drawer full of rejections, and I’m just plain frustrated.”

“Yeah, that’s what I thought you meant.”

I still wasn’t sure I had made my point, so I tried again.

“Charlie, what I mean is haven’t written a word in six months. Nothing I didn’t absolutely have to write.”

About that point he went into classic Charlie Grant mode. If you knew him, then you know exactly what I mean. You’ve probably even been the recipient of “the head shake” that precedes Charlie Grant mode at some point.

“I got it,” he said. “I speak the language. You mean you haven’t written a word in six months. I got it. But I’ve also got a deadline. You remember those? A publisher in England is paying me to not not write. I’m writing right now because that’s what I do. And all that being said, you have a decision to make.”

At this point I was sitting in the proverbial stunned silence.

“Listen, I love you like you were family, but you have hit a crossroads that we all come to. You either need to be a writer or a reader. Both are fine folks and they tend to get along together quite nicely. The only thing I can tell you is this. If you want to write, then write. If not, then don’t. It’s that simple. You’ve got the tools. I’ve seen them at work.

“The bottom line is this: I don’t need the competition. None of us do. The fewer writers there are, the more work there is for the rest of us. But … if you are going to be a writer, then just muscle through it and get to work. If you aren’t, then go out and buy my new book. Just make a decision. Now I’ve got to go because this book isn’t going to write itself.”

After a long night, I called Charlie back the next morning.

“Hi Charlie, it’s me.”

“Hey me. How many pages did you knock out yesterday after we got off the phone?”

“Seven.”

“Are they any good?”

“The need some tightening up, but all-in-all, not bad.”

“You’re welcome. Gotta go. That deadline’s looming. Oh yeah … you better get used to those.”

The line went dead, and 500 miles apart, we both went back to work.

As I write this, it is seventeen years later. I have deadlines. And though Charlie died eight years ago (has it been that long), I still hear his voice. Every time I sit down at the keyboard.

Write or don’t write. Just make a decision.