SOIA, part VII: when it’s been a REALLY long time since the request

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A quick programming note before I get to the business du jour: I’m extending the deadline of the share your favorite inspirational writing-related quote contest to midnight Pacific Standard Time on Sunday, December 6. Not so much out of the goodness of my warm little heart as due to the fact that a member of my immediate family is in the hospital right now; I’m not convinced that my sense of the uplifting is particularly strong at the moment. Or maybe what I really need is to hear as many of your favorite quotes as possible, to lift me out of my funk.

So please ransack your writing notebooks for those great, soul-supporting quotes, people! Let’s get a really good haul, so I can share the best with you in a post here — because, really, couldn’t every writer use a bit of cheering up from time to time?

Laughably simple contest entry requirements are posted here. Now back to work.

Are your brains still buzzing from the implications of my last post, where I invited all of you out there to help me diagnose a SIOA (Send It Out, Already!) problem? No sooner had I finished typing the last syllable of that post when the nagging little voice in the ether that all serious bloggers associate with their reading public started to niggle at me.

“Okay, so now they can spot SIOA-avoidance in the wild,” that ever-dissatisfied opinion-giver conceded. “You even slipped in that homily about the reasonableness of expecting an agent who hasn’t heard from a writer for a couple of years to drop everything to read requested materials once they do arrive, purely so the reformed SIOA-avoider will not have to wait too long to hear back, along with your perennial saw about the advisability of continuing to query and submit to other agents during the consideration period. But beyond that, you left ‘em hanging. How precisely is a writer fresh from doing battle with SIOA-avoidance to approach a long put-off agent?”

Funny you should ask that, Disembodied Voice. Clever and incisive reader Joon posted a practical question on the subject just the other day. Quoth Joon:

I am afraid this particular series was written with me in mind (though, with your prodding, I am sending my pages out this week – whee! – so hopefully not for much longer). I have a question about extensive time passed. I know you’re a busy person, but if you have time to answer it or to touch upon it in the continuation of your SIOA series, it would really help me (and probably others who’ve helped put the Pro in Procrastination).

Back when I was a real newbie, I submitted the first 20 pages of my first novel for critique at the SCBWI conference where it was read by Stephanie Meyer’s agent (!!!). She told me she loved it, nominated it for a conference award, and wanted to see the rest of it. Problem was, she’d read almost all of it that was presently to be had (yes, I now know it was really unprofessional to submit something that wasn’t essentially ready to go. No, I would never do such a thing again. Yes, I know editors and agents hate people like me. Mea culpa!). I confessed as much and she said she still wanted to read it, in any amount or condition, as soon as I had written more. She gave me her e-mail address and a code word to put in the subject heading, and asked me (against her agency’s submission guidelines) to e-mail it to her. I went home with a will and got back to work.

It took three years!

My question is not whether to send it (you’ve amply answered that), but how? Has too much time passed for me to use the secret e-mail? Should I go back to the end of the line and send in a query as though we’d never met? Should I not send it to this agent at all (and let that be a lesson to me)? And should I still reference the fact that we met at this long distant conference?
I want to break away from my prior SIOA folly, but I’d like to take advantage of my chance to snag the AOMD if I haven’t already bungled it too badly.

Any advice?

This is an excellent question, Joon — and I love the line about putting the Pro in Procrastination so much that I almost lifted it for the title of this post. And I think you’re dead right (to continue the Stephanie Meyers theme) about this being an issue that dogs other writers; in my experience, SIOA-avoiders are legion.

First, congratulations on being brave enough to pitch your work that early in your writing process. Some writing coaches might castigate you for this — as you have learned since, the assumption at any fiction pitch meeting (or with any query for a novel, for that matter), the ambient assumption is that a manuscript will be at least in first full time before the writer approaches an agent with it — but since verbal pitching is so tough, I think it’s not a bad idea to take a practice run at it first. That way, when the book is done, the writer already has some experience pitching it before the stakes go sky-high.

That’s the theory, anyway. In practice, however, early pitchers who are good at it can run into the same problem Joon did: receiving a request for materials that one is in no position to fulfill anytime soon. This is why, in case anyone was curious, I generally advise members of the Author! Author! community that a good compromise between getting in that practice and avoiding panic is not to pitch a novel until it’s within a year of completion.

I can sense those of you raring to go chafing at that a little, so let’s take a moment to talk about why agents and editors from small presses — i.e., the folks to whom one can pitch productively at writers’ conferences — have such a strong and universal preference for fiction to be in completed form before aspiring writers approach them with it. (Agented and published writers approach their agents with ideas-in-progress all the time, of course, but that’s a subject for another post.) And it may surprise some of you to hear that, unusually for the submission process, the primary answer to this question is not because that’s not how it’s done.

That’s the secondary reason. The main one: because no agent, however talented, can say for sure what kinds of manuscripts will be in demand at publishing houses years from now; in order to do her job well, an agent has to be conversant with what editors want to acquire NOW.

Did that cause the hearts of multi-year SIOA-avoiders to skip a beat? Especially those whose dream agents were, like Joon’s, terrifically excited three years ago about the book project in question? As in before the radical contraction of the literary market?

I’d like to set your minds at ease here, but that little flash of panic was completely rational: what an agent can and cannot sell changes all the time, and sometimes very rapidly. So it’s only reasonable to expect that what an agent will wax enthusiastic over at a conference would differ annually.

Fortunately for Joon, Stephanie Meyers’ work continues to sell very well indeed, so it’s highly likely that Ms. Meyers’ agent will still be looking for similar work. Fingers crossed that what you write is similar, Joon!

More points in favor of her still being interested: she’s read some of your work and liked it. That’s a significant advantage of a conference where pitch-hearers agree to read a writing sample first, by the way. (Double-check before you sign up, and don’t be afraid to e-mail conference organizers to ask a few questions not covered on the conference’s website. Even at conferences where pitches are cold, there are often intensive courses for an extra fee where a pro will go over at least a few pages with you — and if the pro is good, the extra fee is often well worth it. Such intensives tend to fill up early, though.)

I see a few hands raised out there. “But Anne,” some sharp-eyed readers point out, and who could blame them? “I thought you were saying that agents prefer fully-written (and edited) novels at pitching and/or querying time. Yet Joon was able to impress this agent with writing sample. So doesn’t that mean that you’re, you know, wrong, and we should all be pitching our ideas as soon as the muses stuff them into our busy minds?”

No, it doesn’t, and for a very fine reason: because that’s not the way it’s done.

You knew the brief break from that one was too good to last, didn’t you? The industry expectation is that fiction will be fully drafted before it’s pitched or queried — nonfiction, including memoir, is different, since that is generally sold on a book proposal, not an entire manuscript — and not merely because a partial look at an incomplete manuscript forces an agent to guess what the market will be like by the time the book reaches complete first draft form. A brief excerpt, no matter how beautifully-written or how good the premise, is not an infallible indicator of how well put-together the eventual novel will be.

That made those of you who have entered partials in novel competitions do a double-take, didn’t it? Yet it’s true: even the most careful perusal of the first 50 pages (or less, usually, for a contest) will not necessarily provide conclusive evidence that a writer can structure an entire novel convincingly. There are plenty of perfectly wonderful short story writers, after all, who don’t know how to sustain a plot over 350 pages.

Which is why, should any of you have been wondering agents who represent fiction virtually never make an offer based upon a partial. Contrary to pervasive rumor on the writers’ conference circuit, they honestly do need to read the manuscript first.

Thus, SIOA-avoiders are quite right to feel some trepidation about sending out long-delayed requested pages. However, Joon did something very smart here: communicated with the agent about it during the delay.

What was that everyone’s second grade teacher said about honesty being the best policy? It’s as true in early interactions with an agent as anywhere else — provided, of course, that the impulse toward honesty doesn’t result in a mountain of extraneous e-mails, letters, or (heaven help us) telephone calls. As we discussed just the other day, a single, simple, polite, professional missive will generally do the trick without giving the agent the sense that you’re going to be bugging her every fifteen minutes for the rest of her life.

Again, in case you were wondering: that’s the very last impression you want her to have of you. Clients who need a whole lot of hand-holding tend to be turn-offs.

So actually, Joon, it sounds like you’ve handled a genuinely awkward situation quite well so far. Certainly too well to have generated any basis for resentment on the agency end — and that’s something I’m quite happy to hear. Some SIOA-avoiders devote way, way, WAY too much of energies they should be gearing toward their submissions toward trying to keep confirming that the agent in question remains interested.

To drive home that last point, I’m going to veer away from Joon’s dilemma for a moment to share one of the many anonymous missives I have received over the years from a SIOA-avoider who was, well, not quite so strategic. Quoth Delaying Writer (as the nimble-brained among you may have already guessed, all names here changed to protect the participants):

HELP! How do I approach an agent I’ve already insulted by not having sent the chapter she asked me for a long time ago?

When I pitched my novel last year at the Conference-That-Shall-Remain-Nameless, Loretta Lovable was incredibly nice to me, totally psyched about my book and I really did mean to get the chapter out to her before the end of the summer. But then it was Labor Day, then Christmas…well you know how these things go. And now I have an appointment to pitch to her again at this year’s conference. We really clicked before, so I’m terrified.

Please don’t yell at me if this is a stupid question, but would it be okay if I just walked into our meeting and pretended that I’d never met her before? I’m afraid she’ll think I’m an idiot if I walk in and throw myself on her mercy.

Quite a sad story, isn’t it? I’m bravely pushing aside my temptation to go on and on about the sheer number of e-mails and blog comments I receive during conference season that contain the word HELP to ask all of you: how do you think Delaying Writer should handle this touchy situation?

Before I weigh in, let’s run through all of DW’s options, not just the ones she is weighing. She could conceivably:

(a) obey her instincts, keep the pitch appointment, and hope that Loretta Lovable is either too nice or too forgetful to mention that she’s heard this pitch before;

(b) bite the bullet, keep the pitch appointment, and confess that she pitched too soon the previous year, in the hope that LL will tell her to go ahead and send it now;

(c) cancel the pitch appointment and just send the materials now with a nice note, hedging her bets by pitching to another few agents at this year’s conference;

(d) cancel the appointment, either to pitch to other agents or not, but make a point of buttonholing LL at the conference to explain what happened?

(e) send LL a query letter now, explaining what happened and asking if she’s still interested in reading the now-completed work?

(f) write off LL entirely and forever, and just move on, even though LL is DW’s dream agent.

Okay, so none of these possibilities is particularly appetizing, nor would any of them be particularly easy to pull off without feeling a bit chump-like. What would you do in DW’s place?

If you chose (f), I hate to tell you this, but you’re thinking like a SOIA-avoider. For this option to make sense to pursue, the possibility of offending LL by getting back to her later than anticipated has to outweigh any other consideration. Or — and this is even more common reasoning — the writer would have to assume that the only possible outcome from approaching LL again would be rejection.

But those of us who have worked our way through this series know better than that, don’t we? Don’t we?

If you said (a), you at least have no illusions to shatter about how well agents being pitched at by 150 eager aspiring authors at a conference a year ago is likely to remember even one whose pitch she really, really liked. However, this strategy could easily backfire: if LL does recall either the book concept or DW, this is not going to end well.

(b), (d), and (e) are actually three different versions of the same strategy: apologize and ask again for permission to send the materials. While this is unquestionably polite, it’s also a bit of a waste of LL’s time. Why should she have to give consent twice for the same set of pages, especially since the only reason she might conceivably need to do so was that DW responded to her initial request slowly?

If you selected (c), give yourself a gold star for the day — you’ve either been paying very close attention throughout the SIOA series, are unusually confident for a writer (we tend to be a timid lot), and/or have been reading this blog long enough that you have a pretty good idea of the advice I tend to give. (c) maximizes DW’s possibilities for finding an agent for her book without either impinging unnecessarily upon LL’s time or wasting a pitch session by repeating it.

In short, the answer is SIOA! And at the same time, move on, DW.

Of course, should DW happen find herself sitting next to LL at a luncheon, there’s no reason to avoid talking about their past connection, but let it be in positive terms, and brief: “Oh, how nice to see you again, Loretta — the pages you requested last year are already printed out and on my desk, ready to be sent off to you. Sorry about the delay, but I got caught up in a revision that was more complicated than I anticipated. I’m really happy with the results, though. So, what’s your favorite client project right now?”

Quick, simple, grovel-free. And, perhaps most importantly, it doesn’t give LL an easy opening to say, “Gee, I’m not representing that kind of work anymore.” (Naturally, DW should check that she still does take on your book category, but there’s no reason to try LL’s patient by bearding her about it in person. Most of the time, that info is easily available on the agency’s website, in the latest edition of one of the standard agency guides, or oftentimes by being a good listener at the agents’ forum held at most literary conferences.

Do I hear some harrumphing out there? “Easy for you to say, Anne,” a few inveterate SIOA-avoiders protest, their manuscripts folded tightly to their tense chests, “because you’re assuming that Loretta will not be annoyed about the time lapse. But how can DW be sure about that — or Joon, for that matter? If either of these agents have been waiting long enough to get irritated, what’s the point of their submitting at all, at this point?”

Ah, you’re falling into option (f)-think, again, harrumphers, classic SIOA-avoidance logic, and expressing it in a form that conference-going agents do occasionally report finding grating: the oh-so-common writerly assumption that — how to put this as gently as humanly possible? — each of our situations is both absolutely unique and utterly memorable to virtual strangers. Because, you see, unless an aspiring writer believes in both, the assumption that a requesting agent would care enough (or even think enough) about a project he heard pitched or saw queried a year ago to become actually angry about it…well, let’s just say that it doesn’t make any sense. Think about it: from the perspective of someone who receives in the neighborhood of 800-1200 queries per week, attends perhaps three conferences per year, and hears hundreds of verbal pitchers, why would any of those thousands of individual approachers expect to be the single one for which the agent has been waiting?

The fact that aspiring writers do indeed believe that the agents whom they pitch and query are sitting around for months or even years on end, angrily twiddling their thumbs and wondering why a particular requested manuscript hasn’t shown up yet, and address agents accordingly is one major contributor to the widespread belief amongst agent that all writers are born great, big egos. In case anyone was wondering.

That particular misapprehension saddens me, because in my experience, the opposite is usually true: writers, aspiring and established both, are more apt to be insecure than otherwise. DW’s instinct to double-check with LL about sending the requested materials was probably the result of wanting reassurance. Unfortunately, agents aren’t really in the reassurance biz.

As those of us who have agents already know to our grave disappointment. But that’s a subject for another post.

Right now, let’s focus on the kind of cover letter that will help Joon, DW, and SIOA-avoiders like them pull off delayed submitting with aplomb. Given DW’s quite limited earlier contact with LL, I would opt for keeping it almost as simple as their lunch conversation:

Dear Ms. Lovable, (at this point, they’re certainly not on a first-name basis, right?)

Thank you so much for asking to see the first chapter of my women’s fiction book, LOST IN LOVE WITHOUT A WRISTWATCH. I enjoyed speaking with you about it at last year’s Conference That Shall Not Be Named.

Please excuse the delay in my getting these pages to you — after the conference, I got rather carried away in the revision process. I hope you enjoy the result.

Thank you for your time in considering these pages. I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Sincerely,

Delayed Q. Writer

See? Professional, elegant, yet adequately explanatory — and all ready to be popped into an envelope or attached to an e-mail with REQUESTED MATERIALS written on the outside of the envelope or in the subject line.

Everyone comfortable with that?

Joon’s situation is a trifle more complex, both because more time has passed and because there was more interaction with the agent previously. However, the basic principles here are the same. But while we’re at it, why not sweeten the missive with a bit of flattery?

Dear Ms. Great Big Agent,

Thank you so much for asking to see the full manuscript of my novel, THE NEXT BIG YA SENSATION. Please find it attached.

Thank you, too, for your great patience in my getting these pages to you. As you may recall from when I pitched it to you at the SCBWI conference some time ago, I had not yet completed the novel at the time. After we spoke, one of your suggestions so took wing in my mind that I wanted to flesh it out on the page before submitting this. Obviously, I hope you enjoy the result, but either way, you decide, I cannot thank you enough for the great advice.

Thank you for your time in considering these pages; I may reached at (telephone number), as well as by return e-mail. I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Sincerely,

Joon Pensmith

Hard to quibble with a compliment like that — I’ve never met a working agent who didn’t wish her clients took her writing suggestions a bit more seriously. Having established that here at last is a writer who is both charming and grateful, all Joon has to do plop that code into the subject line, and SIOA! (And, of course, thank me in the acknowledgments when the book comes out.)

One last raised paw, then time to go indeed. “But Anne, I notice that you have not mentioned the amount of time that’s passed since the initial request for pages. That doesn’t seem very honest. Won’t the respective agents want to know how long it’s been?”

Um — why? So they can get annoyed about it now?

That’s a serious set of questions: what possible purpose could it serve to call the agents’ attention to the specific length of the delay? There’s honest, and then there’s selectively revelatory. Everything in both of these missives is factually accurate, isn’t it? (Okay, so I made up that stuff about it taking a long time to incorporate the agent’s suggestion. Plausible, though, isn’t it?) And if either agent remembers the initial requests, she will already know how long it’s been, won’t she?

Remember, this is a professional relationship, not a personal one: both the writer and the agent are hoping to make some money out of this interaction. Even the most inveterate SIOA-avoider hasn’t let the requesting agent down personally, after all.
So approaching an agent who has requested manuscript pages, even after a long delay, should be done in a professional spirit.

But whatever you do, SIOA. Yes, the agent of your dreams may reject it, but you won’t know for sure unless you try, will you?

Keep up the good work!

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