With a (mountain) of salt


I was at the Backspace conference this week and the South Carolina Writer’s Workshop a couple weeks ago and as always happens when you lump a group of writers in one place, I met a ton of fascinating and talented people. And yet time and time again so many of these smart, talented writers I met expressed relief bordering on elation when I or another agent said I don’t care if it’s Helvetica or Courier, I don’t care if there is one typo on page 219, I don’t care if your email and mine collude to strip the formatting, I don’t even care if I’m addressed as Mr Root–it’s clearly by accident, no really we won’t autoreject it, so long as the writing is amazing.

There’s a ton of ink spilled online over do’s and don’ts for writers, and while I am a firm believer that knowledge is power and all, too much information can be paralyzing, and some of us on this side of the desk are guilty of making it seem much harder than it already is. If you really read and adhered to every.single.thing. every agent said online you would never finish a book or a query letter and if you did it would probably be a bland groupthinked mess, which actually will get you rejections.

Learn what you can from the resources available online, absolutely, particularly with regard to craft. The best writers are always growing, changing, improving. But oftentimes the industry stuff gets overstated or misunderstood then passed along as fact, like a game of telephone except with your career.

Perhaps even more distressingly, I have heard from so many writers who are terrified of “offending” agents or breaking some rule. Nothing about this process should be anywhere near that scary, and shame on those of us professionals who have made it so. It’s publishing—not nuclear disarmament. I am an agent, not Emperor Palpatine.  Of course agents are busy, but after all you are too, and why are we even in a busy-ness arms race to begin with?

There are a million different ways to end up with a book in your hand with your name on the cover. But guess what? Without you, yes you specifically, there in the blue shirt—none of those roads, or those books, would exist.

So here’s what you can take away from the bajillion bytes on the subject: Write the best book you can, then the best query you can. Submit written materials to agents. The worst they can say is no so don’t worry about fine-tuning that to the nanometer, just look for the right ballpark (i.e., alive, still in the business). Then press send.

That’s it.

Take the rest as it comes. And never, ever let any of the voices on the internet, no matter how helpful or authoritative they aim (or claim) to be, take away from your ability to hear your own unique authorial voice.


51 Responses to “With a (mountain) of salt”

  1. Simple advice is always the best. Writers tend to complicate things for ourselves. Those reactions are born in our fear of failure – but tend to lead to it instead of away from it.


  2. 2 Janet Reid

    Dear Mr. Root,
    I actually had to look up who Emperor Palpatine was.

    Your devoted lunchtime companion in crime

  3. It’s refreshing to hear a pragmatic position on this topic since, like you, I hear over and over and over how submissions absolutely, positively MUST be pristine if an unpublished authors wants their MS to make it past an agent’s assistant.

    Beyond the great writing, perhaps the focus should be on “professional” submission practices; submitting the right MS to the right agent; taking the time to investigate and follow that agent’s submission guidelines; submitting a query that shows you did your homework and that you have a clear vision of your own work, and having an author platform that shows you know your market and are ready to do the work necessary to make your mark when the bell rings.

  4. Holly, this is a wonderful reminder for writers who are natural “pleasers” that we offer something valuable to the world, as well. More than just pleasing others, we offer the ability to entertain and inspire, things that won’t be overlooked just because we’re not perfect. It just takes finding the person that believes in you.

  5. Thanks so much for this. Most of us out here in the unagented wilderness live in a state of terror that we have broken some secret or newly-minted rule that has just sunk our careers forever. But I guess the truth is we’re getting rejected just because our work sux and/or suffers a dearth of vampires.

  6. I found you via Twitter. I broke into the illustration world in ’96, on my own, with perseverance, and…well, I had a style and talent that was welcomed in. That was back before…gasp…email or websites. But I was self supporting within 6 months. Now I am writing both fiction and non-fiction, combined with my art, and the entire ‘breaking’ into to find editors and publishers sometimes seems like a secret club.

    Thank you for this post. It reminds me I can be me, professional, but still be me in seeking editors, just like I did in seeking art directors.

  7. Thank you SO much for this post. I needed this encouragement – and the reminder that my OWN people-pleasing tendencies should not stress me out if my writing is first rate.

  8. Great post and VERY encouraging!!

  9. I’m happy to hear that agents serve the light side of the force. Jedi Mastery could serve authors well–especially those mind tricks.
    “You *will* give us a better cover.”

  10. Thank you so much for this post. As a first-time author, I admit I’m very intimidated by agents and the whole publishing process. It’s nice to know there are people like you out there who appreciate good writing and give good, simple advice.

  11. I am deeply ashamed to think I must’ve missed that day in history with Emperor Palpatine. I too had to Wiki him. At least I feel less uneducated now!
    (and good on you to be a good-hearted agent and de-mystify, de-fearify the process).

  12. There are also agents, assistants, or editors out there whose blogs are written with… how should I put this… what I’d call acerbic wit.

    I enjoy them and find them amusing, but they’ve had posts where they mention emails or comments of people who call them harsh and mean. If you think someone is harsh or mean, why would you follow them. Since I’ve started looking, I’ve found so many publication style blogs that I can’t possibly follow everyone. If you prefer Jennifer Jackson or Janet Reid or Nathan Bransford or Agent Savant or Agent in the Middle or Editorial Ass or – well I could keep going for some time – then follow that one or those ten. But don’t take anyone’s random online nonspecific blog personally. They’re almost certainly not talking about you — well, unless you’ve already been published and you just threw a public tantrum and they mentioned you by name. Then maybe. But otherwise, this information is meant to be general and often amusing — even if the amusement occasionally comes in a pointy sharp package that isn’t suitable for everyone.

    All of them (that I know of) give good advice. If someone else gives better advice, or more concise advice, many others will link to it, but there are too many of these blogs out there to read the ones that make you stress or feel bad, and you probably wouldn’t want to be represented by them anyway.

    Read someone else.

    And write.

  13. Yes. Writers fear that agents will attack with weapons of mass destruction. I mean, a red pen. Yet, the kindness most of you extend on the page and in person would finally convince us that you are, afterall, human beings.
    Thanks for reminding me that I promised to send salt, of the Margarita kind.

  14. I remember those days when I’d get a form rejection, look at my query, and go, “Aha! I misspelled a word and they were probably a little upset I didn’t use a comma here, because these are clearly independent clauses.” *bangs head on wall* “Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!”

    Now I am a firm believer that that crap DOESN’T MATTER, and it was always the writing–as hard as that is to accept–that got me the rejections. I used to believe crappy rules like that about the writing itself, too. I would painstakingly craft each and every sentence with no “to be”s or passive sentences, no matter how much better a passive sentence would work at a certain point (and how awkward it was to write it active instead), I treated every to be and passive sentence as a poisonous landmine that couldn’t be tolerated. That book was the only one I NEVER sent out, and that even my friends never finished reading. It was very blah and dead. Lesson learned.

  15. Would just saying “word” be too pithy? Because… word.

  16. 16 Violet Ingram

    I really needed to hear this today. Thank you for the post. I still don’t get how I can write an entire book and panic and screw up a query letter. I panic, lock up and then it comes out wrong.

  17. Another great post, Holly.
    Amen to everything you’ve said here.

  18. My experience with even the snarkiest of agents has been beneficial. Actually, she was nothing like the shark she proclaims herself to be. She was direct in her opinion, yet polite. Her job, I’ve realized more fully since then, is to discover excellent stories that she can get behind. She might not have been the right fit for my story, and vice versa, but her commitment to finding and representing great writing is unquestioned. I’ve come to appreciate the fierce loyalty of agents to their clients. Without it, the joy would drain from the bookshelves of our future.

  19. 19 L.T. Host

    How did you know what I was wearing today?

  20. This blog post is all true, ALL of it.

    The truth is, when you are good enough, Agents and Publishers find YOU, not the other way around. If your writing is only mediocre, you’ll have to work hard. If your writing sucks balls, you have to use a subsidy publisher. If your writing is sheer brilliance, you’ll start getting e-mails from agents and publishers and you’ll be amazed at how easy this whole publishing thing is. It’s the Tiger Woods phenomenon.

  21. Amen, Holly! Very inspiring.

  22. Thanks for a post that is encouraging and rooted in reality. You critiqued my query and I went home last night and had to re-work it. Lois Winston was kind enough to have another look at it and found it vastly improved. She was now able to see the story that was missing and thought it was viable. Thanks for the feedback!

  23. Wow. Can’t get any simpler than that. And it’s true, as a pubbed author without an agent I fell into the knee-knocking nervous category of authors when I subbed to agents, followed by self-doubt after not landing one. I remember thinking, “Did I forget to cross a T? Should I have used block paragraphs instead of indented ones? Blah blah blah…”

    But I think I’ll take your advice and just relax about all the ‘little’ details and continue to write awesome books instead. Then I’ll submit again with a much more calm outlook and positive expectation rather than goofy paranoia. Very good post. Very good indeed ;D


  24. Thank you for this post. (I am actually wearing a blue shirt right now!!! It feels like a good omen, like I caught the bride’s bouquet.)

  25. Thank you so much for this post. You’re a breath of fresh mojito with extrea lime.And did I mention? Thanks so much.

    (Shoulders loosen and drop, stress headache eases, urge to faster faster pussycat kill kill fading, and…back to typing my cares away!)

  26. 26 RJSWriter

    A calm, sane voice seems to be a rare thing on the ‘net. Add me to the thanking ranks… I think at this point a lot of us have read too many people venting their frustrations on Twitter and forget that mostly it’s… venting. (I have, myself, lamented having sent out samples in Courier, having seen more than one tweet grousing over its use).

  27. In other words, RELAX and concentrate on doing your best writing. Thanks so much for the important reminder. 😉

  28. 28 Hollywood Clown

    First off, allow me to say, has a ginormous STAR WARS fan, I love love love the Emperor Palpatine reference!

    Now on to business… this is an amazing post that I will be tweeting, writing on the bathroom walls and shouting from the rooftops about as a must read for aspiring authors. From an outsiders view (I’m an actor and sketch comedy writer) the literary world is as terrifying as Mordor. Most of us without any connections to that world have to rely on what we research online and I can’t agree more with Mr. Root that “too much information can be paralyzing.” I spent three months doing extensive research on one agent (whom happens to be an agent at The Waxman Literary Agency) before sending them a query letter. I was scared that my query letter was too “un-professional” and did over 30 drafts before I was content and researched out enough to press “send”.

    The whole process can be very overwhelming and intimidating so I want to thank you for letting us outsiders know, deep down, you’re all people just like us. Agents and Publishers want to find the next great writer as much as we want to be the next great writer. If you do good work it’ll be found by the right person to represent it.

    Did I mention I LOVED the Emperor Palpatine reference?

    Thanks Holly!

  29. Great post, Holly!

    While you are among my list of “agents with class” there are too many out there with less than professional practices that are frustrating at best (no response to requested material) and downright rude at worst (publicly mocking a query).

    And while I understand that there are writers who don’t bother to learn anything about the submission process, there are that many more who painstakingly follow every rule an agent lays out.

    Thank you for reminding writers that agents aren’t gods, they’re just people who love books and read for a living.

  30. Wow. You are excellent. Not only have I been struggling with this exact phenomenon, but I wore a blue shirt today… and I never wear blue shirts. Thank you for this post!

  31. Hallelujah! I’d kiss you if I could, so help me. I get so fed up with all the advice. I totally agree. Write the best book you know how.


  32. This post made me feel so much better! I will be ready to start sending queries to agents in a few months so I’ve been doing research and some of the advice out there is just plain scary.

  33. Of course you’re not Emperor Palpatine. Duh. You’re Queen Amidala.

  34. I’m amazed at how many people don’t know who Emporer Palpatine is. But I suppose most people’s don’t have homes with umbrella stands full of plastic lightsabers and Star Wars action figures all around their tubs. Having a son is so enlightening.

    As for the query. I’ve found that when I was a very raw newbie, babbling about theme and why I write, and admitting my first word count, I actually had more luck with partial requests than when I began sending out the query made to fit the models on so many agent blogs. I’ve been working on finding a happy middle. I got a request this week. Squee!

  35. This is a much needed post. I’ve seen far too much of “everybody says” lately because everyone is so afraid they’ll get rejected for breaking any rules. I was told by multiple writers during a critique that I shouldn’t use omniscient viewpoint. I got variations of “Agents reject for it” and “Why give an agent a reason to reject you?” And I’m thinking, “Doesn’t what’s right for the story count for anything?”

    Don’t be afraid of breaking the rules to take chances!

  36. Hey Holly! Thank you so much for writing this post. I actually just queried you on Tuesday, and then was terrified to see that the double-spaced formatting on the sample pages just kind of … didn’t happen. Thanks for letting us know that your decisions don’t rest on formatting errors (if we tried our hardest).

  37. Helpful advice Holly. I’l take it… well not all of it, I’ll leave some for the others as well.

  38. Holly, it’s always good not to forget about Occam’s razor 🙂
    again, the simplest advice = the best one

  39. 39 Danica Rice

    Incredible post.. I read this through your interview with the Guide to Literary Agents’ blog and your writing is excellent, and refreshing to someone who has only just begun the terrifying process of gathering potential agents to query. I may still be working on my novel, but your “no-nonsense” approach makes me absolutely sigh with relief as you’re very right, too many people get caught up in the ‘fine print.’

    Thank you, and I hope to have the pleasure to query you someday!

  40. Thank You! I’ve just completed the first edit of my first novel and am doing everything I can to put off taking the next step. It’s too scary. Thank you so much for talking me down from the ledge. You’re right. I just need to breath into the jangled panic resting just beneath my sternum and give it a moment to melt away. And then get on with it. I can do this.

  41. I’m glad to hear this from a literary agent. I tried to take all the advice I heard and put it into my query letter. After 15000000 rejections I ripped it up and just wrote it from the heart. I’m hoping for better responses this time.

    I’m a Special Education Teacher in South Carolina and I am trying to expose one of the school districts as prejudice. Some of the things I have seen need to be put in writing and made available to the rest of the country so that more children do not have to have crappy teachers and principals because the school district wants to hold onto some money for their own pocket lining.

    Do you think literary agents will be interested in this non-fiction account when the book is completed?

  42. Thanks Holly.

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