Know Thyself

by | Feb 11, 2008 | Literary Agents | 31 comments

When one is having an extremely busy day in which the e-mails are just pouring in, one does not generally expect that a telephone pole outside one’s building will catch on fire, shutting down power for the day. Well, that happened to one ME today. I’m now working from home for the rest of the afternoon, which, trust me, sounds way more awesome than it is.

(Actually it’s kind of awesome. I have a laptop and it’s 65 degrees outside. You do the math.)

Anyway, this post is going to be brief because of the aforementioned busy day, but I’m getting a bazillion queries lately and I’ve noticed something kind of interesting about the way different people characterize their accomplishments in query letters.

Put on your agent hat for a moment. Which of these two authors would you be more interested in signing:

Author A has published six books, published numerous articles, and is a an award winning author…. only after some digging you find out the six books were published by a very small press with a sketchy website, the articles were published on the author’s blogs, and the award was Citizen of the Year from Nowheresville, Indiana.

Author B has published several works from small presses, has a killer idea for a new novel, and is ready to make the leap to a major publisher. After some digging, this is all turns out to be true.

So who would you choose? Author B, right? Trick question: THEY’RE THE SAME AUTHOR. Also I made them both up. This blog gets trickier and trickier.

Anyway, the moral of this bizarro example is that it is much better to be completely honest about your accomplishments but pitch yourself as being on the rise than it is to try and blow up your accomplishments into something they’re not. Agents do not like it when authors try and fool them, and we can smell a turkey sale a mile away.

On the flipside, though, don’t undersell yourself either. Don’t apologize for a lack of writing credits — don’t fake them, but just make sure you have a great story and you’re confident about it. If you do, an agent will come calling. Assuming their telephone pole isn’t on fire.


  1. Aimless Writer

    Do PTA awards count? Small town Recreation Commissions and election Ad work? Other then that..a…I write a lot of good stories. Someday I’ll send you one.
    Its 20 degrees outside, I have no pity in my heart for your 65 degree, work from home day.

  2. Linnea

    That would seem to be common sense. It’s not as if no one’s going to find out you’re s-t-r-e-t-c-h-i-n-g the truth.
    Flaming telephone poles, eh? Your outside temperature? Laughable. It’s about 20 here with roughly three feet of snow. On a positive note, though, it’s a great time to stay inside, hunker down and write.

  3. Anonymous

    I once heard (true story) of a man who argued -in court!- that his new wife should be given custody over the natural mother based on the credentials that she had subscribed to National Geographic!!

    (He was obviously very impressed himself! Hahah! No wonder the first wife left with the kids!)

  4. Joey

    I won a slogan contest in third grade. I think it was “love at first word” – pretty applicable to a query don’t you think?

  5. burgy61


    I hope you enjoyed your day away from the office.

    Being truthful is always going to work for you, never against you. In today’s “information age,” it is to easy for people to check out your story.

    I woke up to -7, 20 degrees is a heat wave.

  6. Adaora A.

    Ouch! Hope you’ve got the hand held fan going!

    I’d pick Author B easily.

    It’s nice to see you reaffirm that we don’t have to be award winning, published, well known authors to catch your attention. It’s nice to know that the writing recognition and all that jazz can come after. We can get the foot in the door by attracting interest solely based on our writing. Thanks.

    Great post.

  7. Dave F.

    The old Flaming telephone pole trick – I know it well 😉

    I worked 4 hours a day at home for four years and my biggest excuse involved a neighbor, a chain saw and a tree.
    While you-all in San Fran have neighbors, you lack trees, and think chainsaws are only used as props in gory movies.

    Once, a bird landed on MY transformer. The transformer didn’t burn, but only thing that remained of the bird was stiff, calcified carbon.

  8. Sophie W.

    I agree with Linnea – this is basically common sense. I guess there’s something about querying that makes writers leave their common sense in their other brains…

    The day before we left on a family trip to Lake Tahoe, the powerlines in front of our house exploded and spat fifty-bazillion kilowatt sparks all over our street for about four hours. They shut down the road and called in the electricity company and the fire department…

    It melted a hole in our lawn. We let the “magma” cool off and brought it into the house. Each of the firemen and company workers took a bit, too.

  9. Neptoon

    Aloha Nathan,

    Ummm…sorry…80 degrees here.

    Hot and sweaty and contemplative…with gentle trade winds on the side.

    Nathan…the Lakers just got their next BIG MAN of the future…

    Any comments on future NOCAL B-BALL woes?

    Would it have not been equally as appropriate to say, “Magic is not walking through that door?”

    Instead of French Lick Larry?

  10. Michelle Pendergrass

    Really Mr. BigShotAgentPerson. Have you been to Nowheresville, Indiana? Because, for the most part, is a pleasant place. If you ignore the below zero wind chills. And the tornadoes. And the humidity. Okay, well autumn–we have a beautiful autumn.

    Well, when you’re ready, you’re more than welcome to invite yourself over, I do know how to make good coffee here in Nowheresville.

  11. ORION

    Aw neptoon don’t fib…it’s 78 here and I KNOW where you are, is cooler than the leeward side of Oahu LOL. The flaming telephone pole has DEFINITE possibilities.
    No fibbing.
    You always get found out eventually.
    At least that’s what my mother always told me…

  12. CarBeyond

    Dear Nathan,
    You have just caused everyone in my house a fit of laughter
    with bucketfuls of the worst bluff credential stories ever!!

  13. LindaBudz

    Good advice for life, I think. No one likes a blowhard.

  14. sex scenes at starbucks

    I once got a form rejection with a scrawled note: tell us more about yourself.

    I’d kept it deliberately brief to be utterly, brutally honest, but then I realized there were other things I was doing to “forward” my writing and career that I’d neglected to add, plus some previous experience in another industry that translated well to this one. I don’t have a ton of credits, but now my graph is more complete. Some of the best advice I ever got.

  15. booklady

    Thanks for the reminder. I don’t have tons of writing credits, because I’ve been concentrating on writing full-length fiction instead of free-lancing or entering every contest that comes along, and I’ve worried that that will hurt me. (Though I admit, I was never tempted to lie.)

  16. C.J.

    65 huh? Well that puts our windchills about 100 degrees apart. I always forget it gets this cold. On the upside, my T-Wolves… oh, wait, never mind.

  17. Diana

    Did you notice any squirrels hanging around the pole before it caught fire? I have been watching the squirrels through my own office windows, and lately, they look like they’re up to something.

    What you’re describing isn’t too much different than some of the hideous resume padding I’ve seen on job applications. I’ve been on a few search committees, and there were times when I wondered why we even bothered with the application process. We would have seen more honesty just putting names in a hat and drawing one.

  18. Jessica

    Well, luckily I don’t even have anything to exaggerate in a bio!

    Nathan, do you Google people with elaborate bios? Would that be how you find out whether they are being honest or being creative?

  19. Mary

    I think confidence is key when it comes to queries (easier said than done). Without it, writers do silly things like over or under selling, both themselves and their novel.

    In my first round I did many stupid things, such as omitting my writing credits! But when I looked again at my query — with a cool, calm head — I saw how the credits related to the novel. Needless to say, they are now included in a completely re-written letter.

  20. December/Stacia

    I’m always suspicous when someone describes themselves as a “Bestselling Author” or, worse, “Internationally Bestselling Author”. If you’re a NYT bestseller, you say “NYT Bestseller”. If you’re a USA Today Bestseller, you say that. But just saying “Bestselling” or “Award winning” without mentioning what list or what award…makes me feel like you’re either trying to put one over on me, or you don’t know the industry very well. JMO.

  21. Julie Weathers

    So I guess award-winning does not include my blue ribbons for baking? But it just sounds so darned impressive.

    Of course, now I am recontemplating going back to work for the magazine. The last time I spoke to them I told them the only reason I would really continue was to get a Sprint award and they promised to submit some of my stories if I returned.

    The award doesn’t mean that much, but the bronze racehorse trophy is awesome and would look great with my decor.

  22. mlh

    A day without power? Yeah, sure. Likely excuse.

    I live in the moonshine, hillbilly havens of Pennsylvania. I’m so country that when our state governer ran for re-election, he took out a highway billboard sign that read: Governor **** supports the NRA. He won’t let anyone take your rifles away.

    When the electrical transformer blew out on our pole, we had it fixed in less than 2 hours.

    What’s wrong with this picture?

  23. Cecilia

    * Thanks for this post. As for the truth, I’m wondering if it could hurt a writer’s chances, with you or another agent, regarding a book having been under contract with a publisher but released because the market wasn’t right for the subject at the time or because the contract expired. Would that be a turn-off or would honesty be the best policy? Or would keeping mum be better, despite Google? Sorry, if this isn’t the right venue for this question.

  24. Nathan Bransford


    When the power went out in the afternoon PG&E told us it would take five hours to fix. I guess hillbillies are more skilled with blown power poles.

  25. Taylor K.

    I won an award for being most blonde in sixth grade. Does that count?

    In another freak power line story, when I lived in Arizona a wildfire was once started because a hawk flew into the power lines, caught on fire, fell to the ground, and spread flames to the nearby forest. Was a bit strange.

  26. Robin

    You just had to put Nowheresville in Indiana, didn’t you?

    Oh well, it’s hard to be mad at someone who’s recently been evacuated due to a flaming telephone pole mishap. Yikes.

    I’ll be at the conference this weekend. I’m not querying yet, but I enjoy your blog and I hope I get a chance to say hello.

    I was going to finish with a joke about my picture, but I see you have them turned off, so yeah, anyway. 65 degrees sounds good.

  27. Anonymous

    What are you talkin’ about? I always expect the telephone pole in front to spontaneously combust and shut down power for the whole day. Sheesh, be prepared. Weren’t you ever a Boy Scout?

  28. Bill Peschel

    But they weren’t the same writer, were they?

    Author A chose to inflate his accomplishments in the hopes that you’ll sign him up without looking too closely. This is dishonest.

    Author B was more honest, but spun his CV to emphasize its upward trajectory. This is opinion.

    Not the same at all.

  29. Nadine


    What should I do if I have a publishing credit from a magazine that isn’t well known? I have published articles in a sorority magazine that has a distribution of over 100,000, but an agent might not have heard of it. Should I include it or will they think I am fibbing if it doesn’t come up automatically on a google search? Any thoughts?

  30. MountainPowerLineman

    You’re lucky, Nathan. I’m on the working side of the powerlines. I’ve actually been there when it blew up in my face. Did you know you can get a sunburn from electricity? At night?

    Stay safe. And don’t let any other powerline workers hear you call a power pole, a telephone pole. It’s a small but important distinction.

    Stay safe. I want to be able to keep reading new posts.


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Hi, I’m Nathan. I’m the author of How to Write a Novel and the Jacob Wonderbar series, which was published by Penguin. I used to be a literary agent at Curtis Brown Ltd. and I’m dedicated to helping authors chase their dreams. Let me help you with your book!

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