The experience is often a bit like that child psychology class I took in college where I got a whole semester of "101 ways you WILL ruin your child's life before it's even born." The only difference here is that instead of ruining your child's life, you're destroying your book before it's even published.
But it doesn't have to be that way.
The agent panel at the Writer's Digest Conference taught me that finding an agent boils down to 3 principles:
- Do Your Homework
- Don't Be Stupid
- Quit Obsessing
Do Your Homework. This includes obvious things like researching the agents before querying or knowing the word count parameters for your genre or target age group. It also means finishing the book before you query (for fiction and memoir) and sending material to the agent the way he or she wants to get it (i.e. don't snail mail if he asks for email, don't send an attachment if he prefers pages in the email text).
Don't Be Stupid. There are no-brainers like: "don't send naked pictures with your query" (do people actually do that?) and "don't make claims about your internet presence if you don't have the numbers to back it up" (i.e. don't lie). But some mistakes they mentioned were also more subtle. For example: if you have an editor at a publishing house who's already looking at your work, let the agent know.
Notice how there is a significant correlation between this principle and the previous one. In short, if you do your homework and use common sense you will seriously cut down your chances of doing something incredibly stupid. And that's a good thing.
Quit Obsessing. This was probably the principle that most made an impression on me. A few examples:
- Of course you want to know what the word count parameters are for your genre but don't obsess if your book lies a little outside the limits. As Donald Maass put it: "When a book is powerful, I never hear editors comment about length."
- It's a good idea to have your book professionally edited, but that doesn't mean you have to shell out a gazillion dollars to do it. A couple of insightful beta-readers can be just as professional.
- Don't apologize for not having credentials. Most authors have had one book that came before they had "credentials." It's called a first book.
- As for genre, you worry about all those fancy marketing terms like "commercial women's fiction" (stuff for women that sells) but in the end, it's about figuring out where your book will find a home in the book store. And in the words of Donald Maass: "Genre is a 20th century concept." Considering how book retail is changing, I think he may have a point. In other words, don't panic if your book falls outside the genre pigeonholes.
I don't know about you, but that makes me feel a lot better.