Rules lawyering, agent edition


May 23, 2008 by Tracey S. Rosenberg

Alas, I wasn’t one of the five finalists in the Nathan Bransford 250-words-of-dialogue competition. (I wasn’t even in the top seven, as he said the two runner-up entries were previous contest winners.) My entry wasn’t perfect; after I submitted it, I cringed when I realized that I made the speaker use the word ‘flat’ instead of ‘apartment’ even though she clearly didn’t know British terminology. But exercises on such a small scale are incredibly useful – and who knows, maybe next time I will win!

One of the contest rules caused some controversy – namely, the fact that the entries were supposed to be 250 words, but many entrants (and at least one finalist) exceeded that limit – and this got me thinking about rules in general, with regard to submitting to agents.

I want to make it clear that nothing I am about to say is a criticism of Mr. Bransford, his competition, or his decisions. He is undeniably awesome for being willing to spend more than a working day’s worth of time on this and to donate even more time to the finalists/winner. If he chooses to set or break rules for his own contest, that’s his decision. (Especially given that he pointed out that said rules ‘may be amended with zesty randomness and are subject to my own interpretations and opinions, which are known to be both feckless and strongly held.’ Hard to get more zesty than that.)

I mean, if you follow a religion, there are rules to follow, but it would be pretty weird to argue that God is mandated to follow his own sacraments.

(NB I am not comparing Nathan Bransford to God.)

(Although if doing so means he’ll represent me….)

Anyway, the point of this entry: rules, and should we follow them with regard to querying agents? (I need to keep it limited or else it will get into the ‘committing murder versus parking on yellow lines’ arguments.)

One side of the argument goes: yes, absolutely. Agents, as has been noted elsewhere in this blog, receive hundreds of query letters a month. Each agency has slightly different requirements, and it is your responsibility to know them. You don’t want to be treated as a generic writer, and the agents don’t like being treated that way any more than you do, so don’t send out the equivalent of ‘Dear Author’ letters. (Unless that’s what the agency wants! – say, if queries are going to be passed around and given to whichever agent seems the best fit. Although it’s best to be sure; the Donald Maass agency will do this but you should still address the letter to Mr. Maass.)

If you send an attachment to the SuperBob Literary Agency when they said ‘no attachments,’ you’ll be lucky to get an auto-reject from their system, because that’s likely to be your only indication that they spiked your letter. It’s your responsibility to know and follow the rules, and the agency has no responsibility to read your query if you can’t be bothered to take the time to double-check.

Why should they care? Well, for a start, if you submit a picture book query when they explicitly say they don’t represent those, you are wasting their time. Moreover, if you cannot follow the simple instructions on how to submit a query letter (including taking the 0.4 seconds to double-check that you spelled the agent’s name right), why should they expect you to follow any other directions? How can they be sure you’ll make changes to your manuscript? Submit the final version on time? (‘Oh, well, they said May 1, but I’m going to take until June 13 and that’s fine.’) Turn up for interviews and photocalls? They’re thinking ahead, even if you aren’t. They want a client who is dependable.

‘BUT!’ I hear you wail. ‘It’s the quality of the writing that counts! I am a unique snowflake and my writing is brilliant. These pesky restrictions don’t REALLY matter. When the agent reads my brilliant writing she is hardly going to be hitting the word count button; she is going to be demanding a partial.’

I’m not going to deny that this happens occasionally. But when it doesn’t happen, you’ve just shot yourself in the partial. You’ve shut down the possibility of the agent accepting your work, because there are 400 other hopefuls clamoring in their inbox – and one of those 400 might have just as good a query AND be able to follow instructions.

Yes, there are people who succeed in spite – or because – of the fact that they color outside the lines. But how many people fail for those reasons? You never see them, do you, except as bitter anonymous commenters muttering in forums that the only way to make it in this business is to Know The Right People or Go To The Right MFA Program and how everyone is Against The Real Creative People And It’s A Conspiracy.

It isn’t a conspiracy. It’s you thinking you’re better than the rules and no one else believing it. Maybe you are – so prove you can jump through the hoops to get people to listen to you. THEN, when you are breaking the NYT bestseller list, you can do what you like, because you’ll have proved that you can bring in the money. (And given how some of the top authors seem to leave line editors by the wayside after book 5, I have no doubt that you will do what you like.)

Now, there are times when the rules are – by their very nature – a bit fluid. If you’re asked to paste the first five pages of the manuscript into our query letter, then that means five double-spaced pages. Not five single-spaced, not seven double-spaced. Obviously you have to use common sense – you shouldn’t cut off a sentence off mid-word simply because that where the five pages ends, and given that even standard 12-point fonts vary in spacing, no one is going to demand that you prove you didn’t include 5.3 pages. But they mean five pages for a reason.

(If you want to submit the last five pages of the chapter, say, because your first five pages aren’t compelling, you might need to revise them. That’s as much as any casual browser in a bookstore is going to give you, after all. Think of it as an exercise.)

Bottom line: following the agent’s rules means you can prove that you’re both a brilliant writer AND a solid professional. Isn’t that a reputation worth pursuing?


2 thoughts on “Rules lawyering, agent edition

  1. dfrucci says:

    About the contest, that sucks that you didn’t win. On the note of querying agents I believe that people should listen to the rules strictly because they are taking their time to view your work so you shouldn’t waste their time.

  2. tsrosenberg says:

    Thanks for the vote of confidence! But with something like 600 entries, it was probably one of the toughest competitions I’ve ever entered. šŸ™‚ And yeah, it’s only courteous (at the very least) not to waste agents’ time.

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Tiny bio

I live, work, and write in Edinburgh. I travel to other places as much as I can. To contact me, email writingmostly at gmail dot com.


CURRENTLY READING: The Ginseng Hunter by Jeff Talarigo.

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