Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Bad Advice. Some breathtakingly bad, and some just....weird.

by Jamie Freveletti

I spent the weekend at the Love is Murder conference and gave a presentation about writing query letters. We discussed bad advice that we'd received and I mentioned the concept of "selective hearing."

It's important to cultivate selective hearing in this industry, because there are those that insist on giving the worst advice possible--all under the umbrella of being helpful, of course. This is where a writer needs to learn how to hear the good and throw out the bad.

The Bad:

1. Bad: Telling a Thriller writer with an International thriller manuscript to give up on it and "Write a cozy from the perspective of a mom in a Chicago suburb."

I got this from a well known editor in town for a writing conference. For a reading fee, she had accepted the first chapters of manuscripts to read and edit. When my turn came, she began with one good suggestion to keep the tone dark (it was fluctuating), but kept claiming that the story (a plane plummeting to the ground) didn't include people screaming. When I pointed out the lines where the people are screaming so hard that they lose their breath, she closed her eyes for a moment and put the paper down. It was then that I saw the notes from her assistant. She hadn't read the manuscript, was reciting someone else's suggestions, and that person clearly hadn't read the chapter very closely. I think she was embarrassed. I had a certain sympathy, as a partner in a law firm I'd had underlings mess up projects that I'd delegated as well, but she kept soldiering bravely on, reading the assistant's notes that included the bad advice above. Were I her I would have asked me to give her a few moments to "reread" the chapter and then address it again, but I think she didn't want to appear negligent. I took the suggestion to fix the tone in the piece and ignored the rest. I don't live in the suburbs, don't have a mind for cozys, and knew I was onto something with this novel. (Running From the Devil sold on preempt, has won several awards, and became an international bestseller).

2. Bad: Go ahead and send the entire manuscript unsolicited to agents. They'll be curious enough to read it.

This reportedly came from a creative writing coach who runs paid classes in how to sell your manuscript. A smart writer in a conference who had taken his class came up to ask me what I thought of the advice. She seemed wary of it. I told her it was dead wrong, never send an agent a full without first being asked to do so. Will an agent read an unsolicited full? Not likely. Will they read the first page? Not if it's an attachment because they may unwittingly download a virus. Will they delete it completely? Yes. Will they toss a printed manuscript that is unsolicited? Yes, but a few might read the first page before they do. However, I don't think they'll be disposed to represent you, and you could have gotten the same result by sending a one page letter and the first page. Moral of the story: follow the guidelines.

3. Bad: Give an agent an exclusive right to read your manuscript when at query stage.

I had one agent tell me at a conference that she wanted to read my manuscript, but demanded an exclusive six weeks to do so. I told her the truth: that it was already out on queries to six other agents, and that I couldn't, but I understood if she declined. Within a second she said what I would have under the same circumstances: "Oh, okay, well can you send it anyway?"
And why not? She's a businesswoman, as am I. No one has six weeks to give you the inside track on a hot manuscript--either grab it and beat out the competition, or be left behind. I liked her better after she asked for it despite the multiple submission, and while she doesn't currently represent me, I still think she did the right thing by throwing aside the exclusivity request. I'm not a fan of agents that demand exclusive reads before they've even gotten the query. After the query is accepted and they ask for a full, I see nothing wrong with giving them two weeks to read it, but not much more. It's likely they will not finish in that time, but you have been fair and after two weeks can continue your agent search with a free mind.

The Neutral

4. Neutral: Write what you know.

I wanted to put this under "bad" advice, because none of us really write what we know. Thriller novelists have not been pursued by international consortium of spies, cozy writers don't find dead bodies in the tea room, and mystery writers don't solve serial murders on a daily basis. However, there is a kernel of truth in this one in that you should either know about the field in which you write or at least research it enough to learn about it, so I consider it neutral, as opposed to bad, advice.

5. Neutral: Hire a book doctor.

A book doctor, if they're good, can probably do a lot to improve your novel. I'm neutral on this advice, because a. they're expensive, and b. eventually you'll need to do this on your own anyway, so what better time to learn? However, I have some friends who used book doctors with success and, when done right, they can be a help.

I'd be interested to hear the bad and neutral advice given to other writers. I'll be writing about good advice in my next post. There's a lot more of that, thank goodness, than the bad.

15 comments:

David Ellis said...

Good thoughts, Jamie. Been a long time since the "query" stage, but I could have used someone like you! Congrats on all of your success, you're on a terrific run.

Jamie Freveletti said...

Hi David! I know, seems years from query stage, but it sure was an important step, wasn't it? Thanks also re: run. Lots of fun! (and stress).

JJ said...

Good post, Jamie. Sometimes agents seem to fixate on having writers with a good story rewrite for a good market at the time, so rewriting thrillers as cozies, etc. I agree that's horrible advice. Writers, even beginners, need to learn to have more confidence in the story they want to tell - and learn to make it work in the genre they intend rather than leaping genres, always chasing the elusive 'better market' on agent advice. It's good you posted these, give the writers something to think about.

Jamie Freveletti said...

JJ: I agree. Chasing the "hot" trend can be pointless, because it dies before the book gets picked up. Better to write what you love.

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