As writers we sometimes assert we write for ourselves. If you want to be published, you write for your readers. If you want to be traditionally published, those readers include your toughest critics, literary agents and editors. Even if you self-publish, you should have an editor, but that’s a different relationship and not one we deal with here.
So if you want to traditionally publish, and avoid a ‘Go directly to jail, do not pass GO’ injunction, it becomes vitally important not to piss off the agents and the editors (in this context, I mean your editor at the publishing house). I don’t mean you need to pander and grovel to them, but there are a few things that I regard as common sense which are apparently not so… common, together with some writing habits that most annoy agents ad editors.
Agents – Relationship and Personality Gripes
- Accept publishing is a business (yes, even self-publishing). I don’t want to hear about your muse. Any business has to sell a product consumers want to buy otherwise it makes no money and a business that makes no money is just a money-pit. There is no point trying to sell a book no one wants to buy. Understanding these harsh realities will make it much easier for agents to work with you.
- Follow stated guidelines. This is pretty basic, if you can’t read, why should the editor expect you can write? I once worked at a medical centre where people would bang on the door with a sign reading ‘CLOSED’. You wouldn’t believe how much it pissed me off. Hello, can’t you read? Either you really can’t read, or you think you are some kind of exception. Neither will endear you to agents.
- Follow required manuscript format. This is really a sub-set of the above. Get it right, people. It’s not that hard. If you can’t do this, no one will want to work with you because you are a royal pain in the arse.
- Whinging and tantrums – don’t do them. Seriously? Seriously. You’d think this would fall under the heading of ‘common sense’ but apparently people do it. Throwing a tantrum might get you a publishing contract in some dimension, but not this one, baby. It just screams ‘unprofessional’ and why would anyone want to work with you after that? They won't. Royal. Pain. In. The. Arse. Don’t be one.
- Threats – Why would you do it? Just don’t! You’ll be blacklisted by the industry. Believe it or not, agents do talk to each other!
- Thinking your work is flawless. You maybe be asked to make changes. You don’t have to accept them all but there is a reasonable chance at least some of them will improve your book. Know when to agree and when to stand and fight. This is called negotiation. Being inflexible just makes you that pain in the arse I mentioned. And snotty. No one is perfect.
Editors - Relationship and Personality Gripes
- Taking suggestions as a personal attack. Your editor had to go in to bat for you against other editors’ projects. This is a joint project, not just your baby anymore. Consider what your editor has at stake.
- Crying, bitching and moaning – this is what your agent is for. Bitch and moan about the changes your editor wants to your agent. She’s getting paid for that. Your editor doesn’t want to hear it.
- Speaking ill of the dead – or your publisher. Bad-mouthing your publisher is not a smart career move. Including on your blog, Facebook, G+ or Twitter.
- Lack of timeliness – Meet deadlines. Or at least, if you can’t, tell someone. Don’t just let it pass and think no one will notice. They will. Communicate. You’re a writer, dammit!
Agents and Editors - Writing Gripe
- Backstory – All too often I see writers dumping lumps of backstory at the beginning of their books. This very definitely includes prologues (and if you haven’t read it, see my case study on when a prologue is acceptable here). The number one thing I find myself telling other writers when I critique is too much backstory. Huge infodumps of backstory. Backstory backstory backstory. Get the picture? If I see that much of it, how much you do you think an agent or editor sees? How much tolerance do you think they have? If you answer zero, you’re probably right. Backstory needs to be dribbled to the reader, not forced down their throat in a big lump to the point where we choke on it.
- POV – Head hopping! I hate it. I’m reading a book right now by an author I used to love and she is head hopping all over the place. I am persisting only because I have a track record with the author. Another book on my shelf was not so lucky. In case you don’t know, head hopping is where you use third limited POV and the reader can see the thoughts of all the characters. I'm not referring to properly executed third omniscient, which is not head-hopping. If you really, really must use omniscient third POV, then please do it right, but do not head hop while using third limited and then call it third omniscient - this is not the same thing at all! I generally won't notice third omniscient when well done - it's subtle. But I will notice head-hopping because it's not subtle. I’ve had people justify head-hopping as ‘But as a reader, I want to know what everyone is thinking.’ Let’s examine this statement. Yes, you want to know. What do you do to find out the answer? Keep reading. What do you do if you already know the answer? Maybe go eat lunch, turn the TV on. Agents and editors know this. A book like this hasn’t got much to recommend it.
- Use of facial expressions as speech tags. You cannot laugh, smile or scowl any kind of speech. You can say it and then smile. Wrong - ‘Come over here,’ she smiled. Right - ‘Come over here.’ She smiled. This annoys agents and editors too, probably because it’s so basic.
- Unnatural and stilted dialogue – Make sure your dialogue matches the character. Don’t use words that aren’t true to the character. Use contractions and sentence fragments unless there is a good character reason not to. This is how most people talk. Don’t use dialogue purely as a means to dump backstory, so no dialogue that doesn’t make senses, such as one character telling another things the second character should already know.
I’m sure there are others, but these are probably enough to go on with and the some of the most often reported agent and editor peeves.
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