Just this morning out in the Literary Agentosphere there are two great posts that have wonderful advice. Rachelle Gardner delves into pen names and whether you need one, and Janet Reid’s Query Shark offers feedback on a query.
There’s just one problem for the compulsive reader of agent blogs: Rachelle thinks you should query as your pen name, and I think you should query as yourself. And Janet wants you to discard your prologue when you’re sending the first five pages, whereas I want to see how you think the novel begins.
What in the world is a conscientious writer to do about all the contradictory advice out there?? It’s hard enough just to write a query, let alone writing it when you’re being spun in circles.
Here’s a checklist:
1. Take a Deep Breath: As long as you’re getting the big stuff right, you’re going to be fine. You don’t need to have every single little teeny tiny thing perfect. You can get my name or gender wrong and I still might request your pages (just did this last week in fact). I’m not going to reject you because you sent me the first five pages of Chapter 1 instead of your Prologue if I like the idea and your writing. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Because really: if an agent is going to reject your query over some small niggling detail, are they someone you’d want to work with anyway?
2. Remember That Agent Blogs Are Just Trying to Help: I know how tempting it is to throw up your hands and just think that literary agents are so many Goldilocks with completely different ideas of how hot the porridge should be. Please just remember that we offer so much advice because people ask. We get e-mails and comments all the time asking about everything from paper size to fonts to anglicized spelling to serial commas. So we try to help, and we’re not always going to agree on everything. Personally, when I’m wearing my author hat I’d rather have too much information than too little, so I tend to err on the side of dispensing too much agent advice. It’s up to you to decide which advice you agree with and which you don’t. Just remember that we’re trying to help, not trying to make your life miserable.
3. Not All Publishing Advice is Created Equal: I went back and looked at some of my early blog posts, and holy cow after just four years they’re already wildly out of date. Consider the source, consider the freshness of the advice, and beware of anyone who tries to tell you that there’s one way and only one way to find successful publication. Occasionally an author out there somewhere will have a sense that the way they found success is The Way That Should Work For Everyone, whereas people who have worked across the publishing spectrum have seen the proverbial cat skinned in an impossibly vast number of ways.
4. Try As Best You Can to Meet an Agent’s Specifications, But Don’t Go Crazy Trying to Do It: If you happen to remember that Rachelle wants you to query with your pen name and I want to hear from the real you: great! Query accordingly. But don’t go creating a massive spreadsheet with every agent’s particular individual preferences. No agent expects you to do that.
5. If You Think the Contradictory Query Advice is Mind Boggling, Just Wait Until You Reach the Publication Stage: In case you haven’t noticed, this business is an art, not so much a science. There’s no one way to do things, and you’re going to face conflicting advice and opinions about your manuscript, cover art, marketing plan, you name it. There are even more opinions out there than people (sometimes people can’t even decide what they think and have multiple opinions). At the end of the day, all you can do is just take all the advice into account, and choose the route that works best for you.