Nathan Bransford, Author


Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Importance of Being Yourself

Oscar Wilde, photograph by Napoleon Sarony

The query process is understandably terrifying. In fact, I'm pretty sure they use it as a torture device in some countries. And that's even before you jump online and find out that every agent has a slightly different idea of what makes a good query and every discussion forum has a different formula and next thing you know you'll find yourself checking yourself into an asylum as a precautionary measure.

Lost in all of this is perhaps the most important element of the query: YOU.

You! The writer! The personage! The prodigiously talented talent!

A few months back, Jessica Faust at BookEnds had some terrific advice: don't try and write a query that will appeal to everyone, write the best query you can that will appeal to many.

Not only is this terrific advice, it doesn't just apply to queries - in fact I would carry this forward to the actual writing as well. It doesn't work to write the book that you think you should write or that you think is what the market wants or that everyone in the world will like. Don't try to write for everyone, write for many. And that "many" can be just as many people as you want.

And it doesn't just apply to queries and manuscripts, it applies to how you conduct yourself and think of yourself as a writer. Sometimes I think people get so nervous about doing the wrong thing they button themselves up and hide away their real self. And sure, put on some nice clothes and put your best foot forward, but don't lose yourself in the process. If someone doesn't want to work with the real you, trust me, you don't want to work with them either.

Queries, manuscripts, correspondence: the absolute best thing you can do is to just be yourself.






71 comments:

Claire Dawn said...

Also, blogging.

Don't worry about what X and Y say you should blog.

Blog you.

Be professional, yes. But talking about stuff you don't care about on your blog is neither fun for you or interesting for readers.

Daisy Harris said...

Great post, Nathan. I've been thinking about this a lot lately now that my first is released. It's hard to shut down what I should be writing, and just write a story I think worth telling.

Fantastic food for thought!
Daisy

Anonymous said...

Awesome advice as always. A romance novelist (maybe Sabrina Jeffries) said to think about writing for YOUR million readers. Optimistic, yes, but believing you can do it is a necessary part of the process, as well.

Mary Beth Bass

Anonymous said...

I think it's highly unreasonable for agents to expect writers to tailor each query to each publisher. It's vain and completely superfluous. And moreover an enormous waste of time. It has zilch to do with the story. The thing all this hoopla is about. Who cares if I like the same baseball team as you - as long as I'm querying withing your genre, the proof is in the pudding as they say.

abc said...

I'm feeling teary eyed. As usual, just what I needed to hear. Is the universe trying to tell me something? I think so. Also, The Importance of Being Ernest is one of my favorite plays.

HBIC said...

Being myself when writing my novel was no problem. I always assumed the novel would be the hard part. Now that I have finished the novel and have met many other authors, I realize that we all fear the query. It has replaced my fear of heights, public restrooms, and bugs. Jason, Freddy, Hellraiser- they have nothing on "The Query".
I actually jumped on the first blog that I saw which assured the proper way to query. I followed it to the letter. No problem. I failed to remember that anyone can post online about any topic. I can get on my blog right now and scribble out a detailed description of how to preform open heart surgery...and if I did, some poor soul in some third world country would most likely pay for my bad humor with his life. Even though I may not be in danger of losing my life, the first rejection that entered my inbox felt like that blogged internet guide to open heart surgery. I dream about query letters. Everyone does seem to want something a bit different.
I have seen several "how to snag your agent" posts that show writers getting by with no query (lucky dogs). Which leaves me to ask one mega agent question.
"If the query is not anything like you want to see, right from the opening line, do you skim the basis at least to see if the story grabs you, or is it doomsday for the writer?"

emmasota said...

I love this. Thanks for the perspective!

Maureen said...

Nathan,

Such good advice because in the end that is the best that each person has to offer -- themselves.

From a young age, we are offered guidelines indicating who/what we need to be to get accepted -- college, employment, querying etc. And hopefully sooner than later, we realize that we can't meet all those "requirements" for success.

Query guidelines are there to impose some order in the process and it is important to try and follow them but you never know.... When it comes to queries our unique selves telling a unique story may just be the key to publication.

Maureen

Sierra McConnell said...

Exactly. It's one of those things I'm always saying. I'm down with changing things that I know are wrong or that resonate with me, but if I have to sacrifice the integrity of the story or myself, then you're not who I'm looking for.

It might take longer to get published, but becoming a sellout isn't worth it. This is a good post that comes right on time for me. I was worried about some things in my book but I guess I shouldn't be.

Chris Phillips said...

Good advice. One of my favorite comedians was Andy Kaufman because he was solely focused on entertaining himself. Being yourself is always good advice. Unless you have multiple personality disorder, in which case it could get confusing. Luckily that is not a problem for me. Or for me.

HBIC said...

@ Chris... LOL. Ya'll are so funny!

Rick Daley said...

"If you try to please every one, no one will like it."

- Murphy

Carol Riggs said...

Just BE YOURSELF. I so love that; it's comforting. Kinda like dating, ya know? Because others have to like you for who you are, the true You shining through your ms.

And it's so cool to have you post earlier, Nathan! I can fit you in with my morning social networking time. :)

Mira said...

Nathan, this is seriously one of the best posts you've ever written.

Thank you.

I struggled with how to post for a loooong time, and have gone back and forth on it, and I've currently settled into a happy medium of saying whatever I want to say EXCEPT I never say anything negative about anyone ever, ever, ever. And I never say anything negative about my fellow writers.

It's not always easy for me, because I love to engage in battles of wit on the internet, but I found that the other person often took it much more seriously than I, especially when I won the battle (go figure). So, I was alienating people I didn't want to alienate. So, I stopped that.

I still offer (what I call) constructive critique about the industry or the system sometimes, because I need to have integrity and because I hold out hope that someone, somewhere will listen to me, but I stay away from any specific finger pointing.

Aside from that, I'm me. Not everyone likes me, but fortunately, many people, or at least one or two, recognize how truly adorable and utterly fascinating I am - on a good day, anyway - so it works out okay. :)

Anyway, awesome post - especially following yesterday's anxieties - thank you!

Whirlochre said...

Quite agree — bending over backwards to please everyone is a surefire way of becoming a pornographer's dream coffee table.

Munk Davis said...

It took me a while to get to the point of your blog. I just kept staring at Oscar Wilde's shoes. I wonder if he walked to early PETA meetings in those glossy skips.

Christine Macdonald said...

I often tell myself to get out of my own way working on my manuscript. Then I remember to think of nothing other than me telling a story. In MY voice. Great post!

Mira said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ulysses said...

Personally, I love Popeye's paraphrase of Descarte, "I yam what I yam and dat's all dat I yam." ("I think, derefore I yam." Both philosophers and sailors seem to have an unhealthy sweet potato fixation).

Of course, I have difficulty being a convincing me. I keep getting it wrong. Presenting myself as someone other than I am is more a matter of error than intention. I hope someday to meet myself so we can sit down and have a long conversation about nothing. When I walk away from that, I bet I'll have a much better handle on who I've been all these years.

I'm looking forward to it. I suspect I might be a funny guy.

Anonymous said...

I'm just in awe of this post. It doesn't get much better than this.

Mira said...

I decided to save my anti-query comments, no matter how timely and important, for a post that wasn't as positive and healing and awesome as this.

Nikole Hahn said...

Good advice.

Nathan Bransford said...

anon@7:33-

Here's why.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, this is a response to yesterday's post. The greatest fear before a writer is the dangers he/she is unaware of. Like, haling from the third world, writing a very daring book, going thru the nightmarish process of getting published in the US (because the audience is global)... and in the end being kicked around. Like:

Receiving your first copy thru amazon which you had to buy as it is supposedly in stock. The publisher in the meantime keeps you in the dark about the status or schedule of the book and while the book is in stock he tells you the book is at the printers. (! ?)Then finding out "About the author" as on the book, is not what you agreed but something else and also has factual errors. The pub no doubt has not bothered to put an index in the end and has introduced some typos that did not exist in your script.

I thought maybe holding your book in your hand will be a moment - yes it was, a truly depressing one.

Anonymous said...

Your words are very sharp. "If they don't like you. You don't like them either." Great.That should be the best thing you could say to the critic. The hell with them. Same thing here if they don't like reading my blogs they could go to another site.

Anonymous said...

Great post

D.G. Hudson said...

Liked the photo of Oscar Wilde - just visited his gravesite in Pere Lachaise cemetary in Paris. Kisses from his followers cover the tomb. He's still adored today for the wit and wisdom he created during his life. (being earnest)

I've always followed my own mind when the information is confusing. It's my story after all. I will, however, follow guidelines when necessary to enter the gates of publishing.

Great post, Nathan, and something positive for writers.

Fawn Neun said...

Aw...OSCAR!!

Who ended up in prison, ironically enough, for the crime of being 'himself'.

But damn, didn't he shine? And hasn't he inspired generations of writers and artists? And didn't he influence the rewrite of the entire British penal code?

Be yourself.

Good post, Nathan.

Mira said...

Actually, I'm really sorry I went to the dark side at all for this post because I'm worried it may distract from the important point:

Nathan, this really is truly awesome. Beautiful post.

Kristin Laughtin said...

Makes sense. Isn't everyone always stressing how important voice is? Yet the first thing you'll lose if you try to do everything by eighteen sets of meticulous rules is that voice.

Marsha Sigman said...

I'm just freakin' cause I have that same outfit.

Sometimes people just take themselves too seriously. Relax.

Laurel said...

I now have an earworm of the mother in Just Friends singing, "Be yourself...be yourself..."

Elizabeth said...

"If someone doesn't want to work with the real you, trust me, you don't want to work with them either."

WORD.

February Grace said...

I'm so happy to read this post because by this age I've figured out that I can't be anybody else...

You are, as always, twelve kinds of awesome. I'd say thirteen but hey, everyone needs goals to aspire to... :D Even Bransford the Great! (now that you've got Author down what's next...first man on Mars? You could so totally do that.)

~bru

Haste yee back ;-) said...

I have an audience of one - Huck Finn.

If I make him laugh or come-up with a new cuss word... job's done!


Haste yee back ;-)

Anonymous said...

This amazing post makes me even sadder that you are no longer part of the agent world. Do you have any agent brothers?

Rane Anderson said...

Great post.
I think people are so hung up on getting the query letter "right" (as in the way the THINK agents want it) that they forget why they are doing it to begin with. They need to write it with the same excitement and enthusiasm they do their manuscript. Most of us see the query letter as a horrible--our life depends on doing it right--task. It's such horrible pressure. But, I'm a victim of the query letter, too. I must change my approach.

We all get a little too hung up on what people should be saying. Rather than what we could say most creatively because it's coming from our true selves. Anyway, haha. That's what I'm doing on my blog now by writing about creative writing, books, and the publishing world from a several zany alter personalities. It's way more fun this way. Not holding back any more.

Gina said...

Nathan I think you're a rock star :)

If only other agents could be this encouraging... reading their submission guidelines sometimes feels like a thinly disguised attempt at saying "don't bother, we're going to reject you anyway." It's even more discouraging when you've gone out of your way to do everything right and you still have to hear that tired old line: it's just "not the right fit". Or worse- the silence stretches on until you can only ASSUME you weren't the right fit- again.
You're one of the few people to show sympathy to our plight. You rock.

Perry said...

Great point. This applies to any kind of introduction. If you aren't yourself in the introduction, you will have to be that other person for the relationship.

Anonymous said...

I have a dilemma. My story is told from 1st person pov and there are mysteries that the MC must slowly discover throughout the MS.

I want to know if it is okay in the query to reveal the POV of the villain to create a deeper interest than the MC herself can reveal, or would this be to misleading to an agent and make them think the story is told from more than one POV?

Example:

Wonderful heroine, blah blah, is about to graduate....

Secretive villain, blah blah, is watching the heroine and laying a trap....

Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

Thanks,
Deb

Julie Kingsley said...

I have a difficult time hiding my natural snarkiness in my writing. It creeps up out of nowhere! I try to keep it out of my query's, really who wants to hang out with that without a couple of beers!

I find querying to be like a roulette wheel, you just never know where it's going to land. With that said, it's a great opportunity to showcase yourself. I also believe that a simple blog can show your range and talents as a writer easily.

Cheers, Julie

T. Anne said...

This is great. I agree, our unique voices should shine through no matter what medium we are using to get our message across, and that includes our blog. You have a very clear, strong voice Nathan. I'm sure it carries over into your author voice, which will most likely resonate throughout your novels. I like you. I like your voice, so I assume I'll like your novels. Author voice is one of my favorite topics.

lotusgirl said...

I couldn't agree more. The whole point of querying is to find an agent you can work well with. They need to know who you are.

I would add that, if the query is well written, agents who like the idea of the story will read the pages even if the query doesn't follow their particular preferences like personalization or word count and genre at the beginning or end or jumping right into the details of the plot at the outset.

Elaine AM Smith said...

Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde really had no choice about being larger than life: that was quite a moniker to live up to.

There is nothing as simple, or as difficult, as just being yourself.

M.A.Leslie said...

As usual, thank you for coming in and blogging the right message at the right time. Yesterday's blog had me thinking about my writig and if it would ever be good enough for the world to enjoy. You're right, that doesn't matter. The next story that I am writing is a fun MG story and I am writing it for my children. If they like it then that will be good enough.
I can see why James Patterson always wears a hat that says RELAX on it in all of his book cover photos. We should all just do just that, relax. Oh, and write a multimillion dollar block buster, new york times best selling book.

lexcade said...

You must have ESP or something. I'm going through this ordeal, too, with the manuscript I'm querying. Not so much the query as the MS itself. Thank you for the words of inspiration, Nathan. Glad that you're still helping us make sense of the writing world. I'm pretty sure we'd be lost without you.

Have you started at CNET yet? How's it going?

Anne R. Allen said...

And for the more senior readers among us, comes the earworm of Rick Nelson's "Garden Party". "You can't please everyone, so you've got to please yourself." Wise words no matter what your generation.

And Nathan says it best "If someone doesn't want to work with the real you, trust me, you don't want to work with them either."

Anthony DeRouen said...

First off, best of luck Nathan at your position at CNet! I wish you all the best and thank you very much for continuing this prodigiously informative and entertaining blog. ( I dared myself to use prodigiously in a sentence)

I found, while drafting my query I was trying so hard to make myself sound appealing to a mass audience. The writing, however, didn’t sound like me, the voice wasn’t mine. I began drafting the query, and after the four revision my voice suddenly emerged. The thing is, I didn’t think about it, I just happened. I felt comfortable with the words put on paper because they were born from my conscious and not some used car salesman, cliché-ridden marketing voice.

I’m putting my best foot forward and submitting my queries.

Henya said...

Thanks, Nathan, for the encouraging words. Appreciate it...



Now, on to finishing the book first.

Cameron said...

Just blogged about this very topic yesterday; I can see how an attitude of being yourself is key to success: "Acceptance, Normalcy are Overrated." -- http://cameronsullivan.blogspot.com/2010/11/acceptance-normalcy-are-overrated.html
Thanks Nathan

Donna said...

After almost 100 published books, I have just received my first 1-star review ever!-- and to add insult to injury,that review was on one of my favorite books from the last ten years. I should have been devasted, but as I analyzed the review I realized that everything the writer hated about the book, my editor loved. If I had written it to please this reviewer--i.e., popular taste-- I never would have sold the book. With this simple realization a lot of things fell into place for me. Be yourself. Some people are going to love you, some people are not. Nothing you can do will change this. Good post, Nathan, and perfectly timed!

Anonymous said...

Graffiti on a wall: Killjoy was here.

Comment added underneath: It's Killroy, stupid.

The first comment is me being myself. The second is someone else being someone else.

Terin Tashi Miller said...

Mr. Former Agent Man: Your best post ever, in my humble opinion.

Just read in "The War of Art," a book I highly recommend as it was recommended to me, that trying to pander to whatever trend or fad in anything, be it literature or fashion or literature after a fashion, is in fact the very definition of the one thing most of us don't ever want to be called: a "hack."

And Mira...ah, Mira. How could anyone ever interpret anything you say as other than adorable?

Terin Tashi Miller said...

Oh, and @Marsha: Me, too! (Except the boots. Where can I get the boots?)

Ted Fox said...

Great advice for writing. Great advice for life.

The Red Angel said...

Excellent post, Nathan! Thanks so much for the motivation...too often do people write to impress others and please everyone, when such a feat is impossible. "Being yourself" won't just give someone a decent (but not great) audience, but it will also make you happy.

~TRA

http://xtheredangelx.blogspot.com

Matthew Rush said...

Honesty really is the best policy. Even if you're writing Fantasy all you have to do is stay up long enough until you actually believe it.

Heidi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lynne said...

So right. I love this post.
Thanks, Nathan.

Heidi said...

Re: Anon 7:33 & Nathan's comments about querying:

I absolutely love the research and work that goes into finding out about the editor or agent to whom you are querying. First of all, you learn so much along the way about the process; what to do, what to avoid, AND you are wasting less time by NOT submitting to people who are not interested in what you write.

Attending conferences is an excellent way of making a connection, and you will usually get the opportunity to submit to publishers that are normally closed to non-agented work.

Another great resource is Jill Corcoran's post:
http://jillcorcoran.blogspot.com/2009/03/how-to-write-query-letter-advice-from.html

She' very no-nonsense, and gives great tips.

Good Luck!

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

It's just too tiring to be someone other than myself. :)

And Claire Dawn got it first: blog you ! :)

Lum said...

[[Sometimes I think people get so nervous about doing the wrong thing they button themselves up and hide away their real self. ]]

Great words--thank you! :D

wendy said...

Sorry to be off topic, but I've just this moment caught up on my email as I've been offline for three weeks. You're no longer an agent, Nathan? This is quite apocolyptic in nature. Wow.

Well, I'm glad you're happy and optimistic about it. I'm happy cos I can wax lyrical about the joys and wonder of this blog and you without worrying you'll think I'm sucking up because of your agently status. Now I'll just worry you'll think I'm trying to ... the other thing. But if I inform that I'm old enough to adopt you, then we can all relax. And I can be as affectionate and charming as I
like without fear or favour.

Or something like that. :)

Good luck with your new endeavours. It's all very exciting. I'm so glad that this blog is continuing. One of my fave places to visit.

The Good Wifehold said...

It's defininately terrifying putting yourself out there but I guess you can't be precious about it... just keep going...

I'm trying out blogging. It's a bit scary but then you realise you and probably your mother are your only readers (to start with) anyway.

TGW
www.thegoodwifehold.blogspot.com

J. T. Shea said...

Queries as torture devices? Don't be giving them ideas, Nathan!

But I thoroughly agree we should always strive to be ourselves. Now, who am I again?

Tess Cox said...

Nathan, would have responded to this earlier, but just got back from India and the data rates there are terrible!
This is a good reminder for me. While I've taken much of your advice about first chapters (still scared to submit one for comment) in writing my first fiction novel, I've struggled with keeping my "voice" while following the "rules" of writing a good story. It's much harder than I had imagined it would be.
thank you for this encouragement. Maybe some day I'll brave the Friday forum...

kangaroobee said...

What a nice post, thanks Nathan

Web Design Firm said...

@ Christine Macdonald

telling myself to get out of my own way working on my manuscript that is for too,wo In MY voice.
Nice job!

Mary-Lou said...

Is it bad it took me longer than is should to figure out why the Oscar Wilde picture is in relation to this posts? I should had a V8.

Anonymous said...

No Jim Varney? Whatever happened to the Importance of Being Ernest? ^_^

Ah, but I digress.

Re: the poster who wrote "if they don't like you, you don't like them" or something similar, well... what if you don't like you? :-( This is something I struggle with on a daily basis -- it's actually one of the reasons I haven't bothered with social media because, to paraphrase FDR, I have everything to fear, including fear and especially...myself.

I really like your site, Mr. Bransford, and you seem confident enough to put yourself out there day after day and just "be you." I think people would be shocked if you were really the secret identity of one Ms. Snark. :-)

Stu Ayris said...

Having finished writing a novel, I am now trying to get it published. It certainly is a strange old world when our tens of thousands of words are lain at the feet of the judge and jury that is the agent/publisher who can dismiss those words with so few of their own. But what an impact those few words can make if you let them. It's just their opinion people - if you love your book, then it's a great book! I've started a blog just to track the journey of a poor unknown such as myself - you are not alone!! http://tollesburytimeforever.blogspot.com/

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