whatever you do, don’t lie to me

At more than one conference where I’ve participated in the agent panel, we’ve gotten asked what our pet peeves happen to be. I know that most of the people asking that question want to know what to avoid in their manuscript so that they have a better chance of snaring the interest of the agent they want. I used to tell this story about how I didn’t like first person narratives. Hated them. And then one day, I had a friend in the audience when I made that claim. Afterwards, they pulled me aside and told me that not only had I represented a book written in first person but that it had been published. I didn’t believe them. They had to drag me off to the bookstore and show me. The moral of that story is that even if there is some element of writing a person tends not to like, if someone does it well, that resistance can be overcome. And besides I got over my first person problem anyway. I’d just been reading bad examples and reached that flawed conclusion.

That’s not what I set out to rant about this morning, though. While a person might have the talent to write the perfect novel, there are a couple things that will still be a problem in terms of building a writing career. One of those is dishonesty. It starts right at the query level. The thing that set me off last night was a package that I received which was labeled as requested. Requested is supposed to mean that I asked for it. This means that either I’ve received a query and responded. Or I’ve met the person at a conference (or, more rarely, somewhere else) and asked for it. Somewhere online I’ve read advice telling people to just put requested on packages because an agent will never remember whether they asked for it or not. Do not do this. I don’t know if every agent recalls every request. But I have a well-trained memory for linking authors/titles from my Waldenbooks days. Plus, I write them down at conferences. And I keep the query until the requested material shows up. Therefore, I have a record of what I expect to receive. If you do not fall into one of these two categories but send me a POD book and label the package as requested, you are attempting to begin a potential business relationship by trying to mislead me and/or manipulate me. Needless to say, one isn’t inclined to work with a person like that. I also tend to have this feeling that it implies the author doesn’t think I’m that bright. I’m not sure what that says about the writer, either, if they are willing to work with an agent so easily fooled.

I don’t like being lied to. I don’t like being tricked. There is every likelihood I will find out at some point if it occurs. Lying is hard to maintain. I like mystery novels – my favorite part is figuring it out before the detective. I adore puzzles. ‘Nuff said. When I write it out like that, it just sounds so obvious to me….

(I apologize if this is less coherent than usual. Little to no sleep last night. It’s definitely slowing me down.)

31 responses to “whatever you do, don’t lie to me

    • Likewise, I’m sure. This approach always stumps me.

      • There is a class of people who on the one end of the scale are sociopathic con artists, and on the other end are self-absorbed artistes. The commonality that defines the class is that they are incapable of thinking about things from another’s point of view.
        Some of them, unfortunately, want to be writers.
        (And this inability must necessarily effect their writing, often resulting in wooden or Mary Sue characters. And so they don’t bowl over agents or editors, and continue believing in the conspiracy against them–because it’s all about them, you know–and start to do stupid things to counteract the conspiracy. I have learned to view such people as amusing science exhibits, because otherwise I want to smack them.)

  1. There will never be a day when the myth that agents do not read query letters, or their slush piles, ends. Most people do not accept there book was rejected because the agent did not like it. We all sit here believing you agent’s employ a temp with a shredder who sits all day shredding mail as it arrives and putting form rejections in SAE’s. Thus we sit and plot how to get you evil agents to look at our work because when you do you cannot possibly turn it down after all we bled to create that.
    OK the above is said with irony and I know its untrue but I think that is a common belief from what I hear in unpublished writer’s circles.
    Tairis Anders

  2. I completely agree with you. I don’t keep the query letters themselves, but I have a nice little Excel document that I use to keep track of what I’ve requested and when it arrives… it’s extraordinary useful in cases like this.

  3. When I first started, I do remember hearing people say that — but I never did it because it seemed sneaky. Now I often forget even when it is requested…sigh.

  4. Why would someone want to do this?
    Why would someone want to start any sort of a career with a lie? It makes no sense.
    Boggled indeed.

  5. What’s with agents not liking people writing in the first person? What’s wrong with the first person? Some of the best novels ever written were written in the first person.

    • First of all, I can’t speak for any other agents. There are probably even some who prefer first person narratives. Just like there are probably many readers who aren’t agents that either like or disklike it. There are many great novels written in a variety of forms and fashions. Ultimately, everyone is entitled to their opinion and one person’s best novel ever written could be another person’s worst. Plus, as I said above (I’m not sure from your response if you read that part), I obviously got over it. I had read several books where it was done badly and just needed to have enough good experiences to realize that fact.

      • I understand that you got over it, it just baffles me a little when people say “don’t write in the first person” — something I’ve heard more than once.
        And “one person’s best novel is another person’s worst” is a little disingenuous. Yes, there’s subjectivity in literature, but there’s also a sort of baseline agreement of quality, where two people will generally agree that something is done well, even if it’s not to the taste of one or the other. For instance, it would be a hard sell indeed for someone to say “William Shakespeare is a bad playwrite.” All questions of connonicity aside, William Shakespeare simply was not a bad playwrite. Likewise, it would be hard to argue that books like Huck Finn, Moby Dick or The Sound and the Fury (all in the first person) are bad.

        • ‘For instance, it would be a hard sell indeed for someone to say “William Shakespeare is a bad playwrite.”‘
          Tolstoi did. George Orwell wrote an essay about his speculations on why.

        • Catcher in the Rye. Worst. Book. Ever. No, go back and read what I said. It is the worst written book ever. Yet people constantly spew about how great it was. I think that it is looked upon as so great because it keeps getting banned. That or the profanity. But in my opinion, it’s trash. Not because of the profanity, but because it simply sucks. Yet, so many people I’ve met say this is one of the best novels. So I don’t think it was disingenuous. (And further, it happens to be first person.)

          • That wasn’t me, but I concur that Catcher was the worst book ever written.

            • I don’t think it was the worst book ever written, but I didn’t like it at all. I think it’s certainly one of the most overrated books ever written.
              As far as the “requested materials” thing…there’s a group of people out there who like to tell writers to do whatever they have to do to get their work seen, that being sneaky or having a gimmick is the key to success, that the system doesn’t work and we must circumvent it. They’re generally called “scam artists” but unfortunately some of them are just ignorant people who like to advise others, even thought they have no idea what they’re actually talking about.
              Personally, I’d do “Return to Sender”, too–with a note on the envelope that told them why.

              • Catcher in the Rye & Return to Sender
                I agree on Catcher – I never liked it either. I’m glad to know there are one or two other folks in the universe who agree.
                I like the return to sender suggestion! Does that work?
                — Virginia Miss

            • Me too! Hated Catcher. Hated it so much.

          • I loved Catcher in the Rye because when I read it, I related to it almost completely. The feeling of being lost. That indifference that comes with being young and angry and sometimes hateful. Seeing the world through eyes that fit mine made me look deeper into literature and realize that I really enjoyed reading so many novels. It all started with that book.
            And all simply because I related to it. Thats Why I think its an outstanding book.

        • Yes, there’s subjectivity in literature, but there’s also a sort of baseline agreement of quality, where two people will generally agree that something is done well, even if it’s not to the taste of one or the other.
          There is?
          I just read a book that someone I know, whose opinion I trust, ADORED. Contrarian that I am, I loathed the thing. Later, in talking with my friend about the book, it turns out that it was precisely those things that I thought badly done, over the top, and irritating that she thought were beautifully evoked, pertinent, and moving.
          In my experience, there isn’t an objective quality baseline; it’s every reader for herself.

    • First person, if it’s written well enough, I can grok (although I’ve seen few examples of well-written stories in that vein, including my own aborted attempts to write something that I would not usually touch with a thirty nine and a half foot pole); what I find more difficult to read is first person, present tense. And yes, I’ve read Gravity’s Rainbow. I wouldn’t read it again, but I did read it, once.
      Agents are only human, with their own reading preferences. What one dislikes, another may love, so long as it’s written well.

  6. Not that I’m an agent, but if I received something like that, and I knew it wasn’t requested, I’d either discard it as spam or return it to the sender. I’d find it annoying, especially if I ended up receiving more than one of them: that would smack too much of the spam that gets into my email address box’s spam filter (except for the noes which are spam, but they fail to catch, so I have to mark them manually).
    One of those days, huh?

  7. timing
    This is a pretty funny thing for me to read right at this minute, because my husband and I were just on a walk and I was explaining the query stuff to him. He said, and I quote, “It’s kind of werid that there are whole books written on how to write queries when it sounds like it’s just common sense and courtesy.”
    P.S. I generally hate third person until I read something great and don’t even notice that it’s third person.

  8. Darn, and I had this lovely trilogy, all my own work, I wanted to sell you –>title: Lord of the Gold Bands You Put on Your Fingers….
    Fully understand what you mean though. And it’s sad the kind of tricks people will play to try and manipulate themselves into a successful career, whilst avoiding the hard work of learning. I’ve even seen it, alas, from some veteran authors who should know better.

  9. Eww. That strikes me as a bit creepy.

  10. This is why i don’t even put “Requested Materials” on a package where they were requested. I assume that most agents I send to know if they’re getting a package they probably requested it. Plus I include my initial query letter and a cover letter thanking them for their interest. Even if they don’t remember me I’ll remind them when they open my package.
    It boggles me that over on Absolute Write there are people who throw ten kinds of fix about agents rejecting them. Even on woman who got all the way to the full stage then was ultimately rejected for having a 165k romance jumped to the conclusion that said agent was a scam and stealing her mss to sell under someone else’s name just because the agent took more than 2 months to get back to her. I suppose there is a thin line between confidence and egotism.

    • requested
      While I agree that it makes me feel a bit presumptious to put “requested” on an envelope, even if it is (which is the only time I do it, of course), I still go ahead because who knows who sorts the mail? Especially at large publishing houses. I suppose if anyone actually notices it, they probably laugh because I usually write “*Name of Manscript* Requested per query on June 11th by email” or something equally descriptive so they know what it is without opening it, in case they can’t remember my name or whatever. This all fits on a mailing label that I put under my return address…I don’t scrawl it all over the envelope!

  11. yep yep yep
    There’s nothing like having your intelligence insulted by an idiot to make you mad…

  12. Hmmm.. among lies, do you count saying “I am a writer” and finding out that they actually can’t write?

  13. I am currently job seeking, and as such, I was idly reading job seeking websites. One website swore that the best way to get a job was to send in a resume with a handwritten post-it note that says something like “This one’s great! -J” on account of, it will flag it as something to notice, and the secretary/intern who’s sorting the good from the bad will think that’s one to notice.
    I was a bit skeeved by that.

    • Stupid people
      O man, what a stupid idea! If you get hired, J is going to think you’re a weird stalker type and if you don’t the boss is going to think J is a little strange to be so heartily endorsing someone who is not a good candidate (assuming, of course, this nebulous J character actually exists). I wish people would give the “lowly secretary” and the “forgetful agent” some razzin frazzin credit.

  14. I have no idea what a writer was thinking by starting a business relationship off with a lie. An agent/writer relationship is so intimate, like a marriage and trust is a key component to keeping it alive.
    N.C. Murphy

  15. I write more comfortably in first person and its just a preference thing. I find I have more control of my writing that way.
    Knowing that everyone in the world has an opinion about something, I can’t hold it against you for ever not liking it.
    and the whole Lying on the envelope? I have seen that notice on a few Writing Workshop websites. It always seemed wrong to me.

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