SIOA, Part V: combating the “Oh, God — have I blown it?” blues

Earlier this week, I told you the story of SIOA-avoider Zack, who had talked himself into a fairly common agent-soliciting writer’s dilemma. He had pitched successfully — so much so that he had been asked to send both the first 50 and the whole manuscript, respectively, to a number of different agents — but he had become so intent upon revising the book that he never quite managed to get any of those requested materials packets out the door.

Not that he intended not to send them out when he was pitching — no, at the time, and even for a few weeks after, he was willing and even eager to place his work under as many agents’ noses as possible. He certainly stressed out often enough about it. But somehow, he kept delaying making those last crucial changes.

And one day, he woke up to realize that five months had gone by. Or seven. Or a year.

It may have been as little as four weeks, but regardless of the actual number of cast-off calendar pages involved, it was long enough to prompt that thought always so close to the front of a writer gearing up for submission’s mind:

“Oh, God, have I blown my big chance?”

From that cri de coeur, it was only a small step to talking himself into believing that the agents in question would be miffed over the delay, so his submission really didn’t have a chance, anyway. Why, he reasoned, waste postage, now that rejection was a foregone conclusion?

For one very, very good reason, Zack: it wasn’t.

What doomed the submission was not anything that happened on the agent’s end; what guaranteed failure was not pulling out of the SIOA-avoidance spiral. There are, of course, plenty of things a submitter can do to render rejection more LIKELY, but at the risk of sounding like the proverbial broken record, the only manuscript that has absolutely no chance of being picked up by an agent is one that no agent ever sees.

So today I’m going to ask the question the Zacks of the world should be asking themselves: what precisely do you have to lose by sending it out at this point?

And yes, that’s a perfectly serious question.

Admittedly, I wouldn’t ADVISE waiting 7 or 8 months to submit requested materials (or pushing it for longer than a year, regardless of the reason), but it’s not as though Millicent the screener will take one look at the return address, consult a list of expected arrivals, and toss it aside unread, muttering, “Well, we’ll never know if THAT one had potential, will we?”

For one thing, handling it this way would require her to take the 14 seconds required to check a list — and for someone to have gone to the trouble of creating and maintaining such a list. Ripping open an envelope marked REQUESTED MATERIALS and starting to read is, when multiplied by a hundred manuscripts.

So if Zack’s long-delayed manuscript falls into her hands, Millicent probably just going to — you guessed it — rip open the envelope and start reading. Oh, she will probably roll her eyes at the line in his cover letter that mentions at which conference her boss requested the enclosed pages, but in all likelihood, she’s going to take a gander at the first page, at least.

PLEASE do not, however, regard that likelihood as carte blanche to push off revising that requested material until some future point when you’ll have unbroken time to revise. Some agents do take umbrage at long delays, particularly after face-to-face pitching.

You can see their point, can’t you? Listening to many pitches in a row is pretty exhausting, after all, and one of the first reactions someone who makes her living by selling books is likely to have to the pitch that truly excited her is to start brainstorming quietly about which editors might be interested in the book in question. Don’t you want to keep that train of thought going — or at least (hold on, racking my brains for a train metaphor here) place your good writing under her nose while that moment of excitement is still within living memory?

(Couldn’t come up with an appropriate follow-up railroad metaphor, obviously.)

If you want to build upon the excitement generated by a pitch or query letter, it’s prudent to try to get it out the door within 6 weeks of the request (not counting standard publishing not-at-home periods, like the three weeks leading up to Labor Day). The common wisdom dictates 3, but since agents hear SO many pitches at conferences and Millicent sees SO many queries, it’s unlikely that either is going to recall details of a pitch or query.

It IS nice, though, if you can get it to ‘em soon enough so SOMETHING about your project seems at least vaguely familiar. More than that isn’t necessary, strictly speaking, because you will have written REQUESTED MATERIALS in big, fat marker on the outside of the envelope and reminded them in the first line of your cover letter that they did, in fact, ask to see it. (If anything in the last sentence came as a surprise to you, I would highly recommend taking a gander at the SUBMISSION PACKET category at right.)

Less than 6 weeks is ideal, but if you can send it out in under 3 months, there really is no need to apologize for the delay. (As writers often do, and at great length.) Longer than that, though, and it’s a good idea to add a sentence to your cover letter, apologizing for the delay.

What you do NOT need to do is query again and ask for permission to send it at all. A crisp, businesslike cover letter set on top of your requested materials will do beautifully. Something along the lines of this is ample:

Dear (Requesting Agent’s Name),

Thank you for asking to see the first fifty pages of my novel, INVISIBLE INK. Please find it enclosed, along with a SASE for its safe return.

I had hoped to get these pages to you a trifle sooner, but the confluence of an unusually protracted work crisis and a bright idea for improving Chapter Two rendered my proofreading eye a bit slower than usual. I apologize for the delay.

Thank you for considering this, and I look forward to hearing from you soon.


Charlotte Brontë

Nice, clean, professional — and most importantly, not maudlin. No need to go on at length about what actually delayed you; you’re just being polite here, not filling in a long-lost buddy about the last six months of your life. (If you don’t like the work crisis line, try a computer meltdown: everyone can identify with that.) All you really need to do here is to establish that you realize that you may have been slow to SIOA, and that you don’t plan to make a habit of it.

If you DO plan on making a habit of it, you can buy yourself some additional time if you are polite about any anticipated delays early on. Naturally, if you experience a genuine life crisis, that’s beyond your control — and if one occurs within the first couple of months after a request, it is perfectly proper to send out a courteous (and BRIEF) e-mail or letter to the requesting agent, stating that there’s going to be an unavoidable delay in sending those pages he asked to see.

Do everything in your power, though, to keep the lapse between request and submission under a year, especially for a follow-up on a conference pitch. (Since conferences are annual, and agencies frequently send different agents in different years, it can be really, really obvious if a submitter’s cover letter refers to the 2007 or 2008 conference.)

One more piece of practical advice: if you are SIOAing after a substantial delay, I would HIGHLY recommend submitting your work via mail, rather than as an e-mail attachment. Yes, even if the agent or editor originally suggested that you send it via e-mail.

Why? Because while Millicent will almost certainly open even a months-late envelope, she may not open a months-late attachment. Most agencies will not open unrequested e-mail attachments, anyway, due to fear of viruses, and the chances of your submission’s being mistaken for unsolicited grows as your name recognition at the agency fades.

If, knowing all this, you still find yourself firmly in the do-not-send-it-out-until-Groundhog-Day camp, I have one last question for you: are you positive that you really want to submit this book at all?

That may sound flippant, but listen: chronic SIOA-avoidance is a extremely common phenomenon, but in my experience, its severity does not correlate with how ready the book in question is to be marketed or the inherent talent of its writer. It’s very frequently a manifestation of fear of rejection, a way to protect one’s baby from criticism.

And that’s completely understandable, right? A manuscript that is never submitted cannot be rejected. It’s logically impossible.

So for many aspiring writers, it just feels more comfortable to cut the process short by not mailing requested materials — in essence, rejecting their own work before the agent can do it — than to take the risk of exposing their books to professional critique. That way, they can never learn for sure whether their books are marketable or not.

Let me be clear here: I have absolutely nothing negative to say about writers who create solely for their own pleasure. Bless the Emily Dickinsons of this world, I say, who limit their audience to people they already know. This can be wonderfully fulfilling, if the writer is honest about it, embracing the desire for an intimate readership — and doesn’t torture herself by continually trying to find an agent and/or editor she doesn’t really want or need.

However, the VAST majority of writers write in order to be read by people they DON’T know. To do that necessarily means risking rejection.

And let’s not kid ourselves about the kind of personal strength taking that level of risk requires: you have to be damned brave to send your work out to hyper-critical strangers. Let’s face it, there aren’t a lot of professions where the practitioner’s FIRST official act is to take a piece of her soul and allow people a couple of time zones away to examine it under a microscope for minute flaws.

So, just for today, let’s celebrate how courageous we are when we do send out our work, rather than castigating ourselves when we don’t. Just for today, let’s clap our hands for all of us who have taken the great leap of submission. And for those who are going to pluck up the courage to break the SIOA spiral now.

Chins up, my friends, and keep up the good work!

8 Replies to “SIOA, Part V: combating the “Oh, God — have I blown it?” blues”

  1. Fortunately I do not have, or at least I haven’t fallen prone to SIOA Avoidance Syndrome. Perhaps my personal philosophy regarding it can best be summed up in a quote attributed to baseball legend Babe Ruth. He supposedily said, “Don’t let the fear of striking out keep you from swinging!” (And yes, I seem to remember passing this bit of wisdom along last year, no doubt when SIOA was once before the topic under discussion.)

    Anyway, I see the analogy as follows. You are up to bat. (You’ve queried or pitched, and have been asked to send a partial submission.) You can stand there with the bat on your shoulders, and if the pitcher is good, strike out looking. Or you can swing at what looks like a good pitch. You have a chance of connecting and maybe even getting a hit. Perhaps you’ll miss and go down swinging, but at least you tried. (Not sending requested material in is somewhat akin to leaving the bat at rest. It’s a foregone conclusion that you won’t have any offers for representation or even requests for additional portions of your work. Sending the requested materials along is equivalent of swinging. You still might strike out…be rejected… but you do have the chance of a hit…being offered representation, or being asked for more of your work.

    If that particular agent (pitcher) rejects (strikes) you (out), you will be coming to bat later in that game, and there are more games to play (agents to query).

    1. I seem to remember that a comment of yours put this one in my quote book, yes, but it would be hard to reproduce it too often. I really, really like this analogy.

      And to add to it, as the former star hitter of the Super Saints (I kid you not) softball team: nobody is born knowing how to hold a bat correctly, and pretty much everyone has to be taught how to slide into first base. Making mistakes is an excellent way to learn — and a sharp learning curve means that a writer is smart, learning the game.

  2. Should I send requested materials to an agent that I took a genuine dislike to? During the panel, she said she had never picked up anyone from a conference and didn’t hope to. During my pitch she was brusque, kept cutting me off, and I had the feeling she only requested to get rid of me.

    Should I chalk it up to jetlag, headache, hangover, being from New York, MBLS (Millicent Burned Lip Syndrome), and send them anyway?

    I suppose I could always say no later, but she’s from a fairly big agency and I’d just assume cold-query someone else from there if it’s going to be a longterm relationship.

    1. What a trenchant question, Anon! I can already feel half the agents I know lining up to glower at me for what I’m about to say…

      It’s not unheard-of for a good agent-client relationship to emerge from a so-so or even downright hostile pitch meeting. Warm personal interaction at a first meeting doesn’t necessarily guarantee a good future working relationship. (Partially because being a nice person is not an indispensable prerequisite for being either a good agent or a good writer.)

      Nor is it unheard-of for a nice agent to put on a standoffish persona in conference situations, to avoid being swamped. And there are, alas, agents out there who are immensely friendly to pitchers whose work they have no intention of picking up.

      In short, an agent’s sales record is pretty much always a better indicator of how well she will represent your work than her level of charm on any given day.

      Agents end up at conferences for a lot of different reasons — including drawing the short straw when the person the fairly large agency usually sends can’t do it this year. An agent who didn’t really want to be there might easily have made the statement you report. As might someone new to conferences — or, as you point out, who is hung over, jet lagged, or just plain rude.

      However, a hung-over, unhappy-to-be-there, naturally brusque, etc. person is infinitely more likely to get a writer to go away by saying no than by saying yes, so it’s worth considering the possibility that she genuinely wants to see your material. Or thinks your book might interest someone else at her agency — agents at large agencies do occasionally pass along submissions to one another. Perhaps that isn’t the case here, but it’s worth checking out.

      If she falls in love with your writing, it’s unlikely that she’s going to be anything but nice from there on out — and if she doesn’t, then her interpersonal skills won’t affect you. But it’s entirely possible that she wouldn’t have perceived herself as being brusque at all — I know plenty of agents who would begin to hurry a writer through a pitch the moment they decided that they wanted to see it. If they’ve already decided to read it, the logic runs, what more is there to say?

      Especially if every syllable uttered in her presence sounds like a jetliner breaking the sound barrier somewhere within her brainpan. The demon drink does affect everyone differently. Heck, I attended a conference this summer where the behind-the-scenes parties were so intense that some of the agents didn’t make it to their morning pitch meetings at all.

      But when it comes right down to it, this agent DID make a professional commitment to read your work; expect her to honor it. If she was being brusque to hide that she was too much of a softie to say no, or to scare off potential submitters, well, that’s just sort of quixotic, and it’s not worth your energy to second-guess her.

      Unless you already know for a fact that another agent at the agency has a strong track record of representing your kind of book AND you were planning to cold-query that agent within the next couple of months, I would go ahead and send the requested materials. Perhaps not with high hopes, but especially if she has scared off other potential submitters (thus reducing the number of manuscripts she will have received from the conference), I don’t think you’ll lose anything by doing what she asked you to do.

      Even if she did, out of some bizarre desire to make more work for herself, say yes when she meant no (not a common practice, as I said, for the habitually insensitive), it’s highly unlikely that she would have let her Millicent in on her evil plan. At least not in enough detail to cause Millie to take one look at your cover letter, giggle, and pass it directly into the reject pile.

      But even if the agent has refined sadism to such an extent (which really isn’t in the agency’s interest. ultimately), I still don’t think you will have lost much. There’s nothing to stop you from waiting six months and cold-querying another agent at the agency, after all.

      I say go for it.

        1. Glad to do it — and the more I think about it, the happier I am that you brought it up. I’m adding it to the to-write-about list.

  3. Anne,

    I think I have a variation of this. Talked to you a while back about how several agents have been sitting on requested partials and fulls for a while. You suggested I contact them.I was too scared. I’ve queried over 100 agents already, this is a difficult book I think, but I know that it’s quite good—so what I’ve begun to do now is sell excerpts. Even *that* takes so much time and weeks turn into long months. I did write to an agent who had the full for 6 months, he said he didn’t remember getting it so I sent it again (electronically) and asked him to let me know he got it. He didn’t. That was two months ago.

    I’m more concerned about a couple of agents who have partials. They seem to be good fits for me, but they just haven’t replied and it’s been 6 months. I’ve resolved to send it again, this time on paper, with a note. (Actually one of these agents *did* get it on paper originally. Why would so many agents be so eager to see my book and then not even reply to reject it?)

    Well, I need to recuperate from a head cold. When I get better, I hope by the end of the week, I’m going to get these things out in the mail.

    And while it’s getting harder to hold this pose, my chin is still up pretty high.

    1. Since the first agent has now spaced out twice, you are more than within your rights to call his office and tell him that other agents are looking at it. Two months is long enough for courtesy.

      FYI, the accepted method of asking for receipt confirmation is to send a self-addressed, stamped postcard (with a hard copy, obviously) and ask the agent in your cover letter to drop it in the mail when he receives it. The other common method is to send the pages via a mail service (and the USPS does offer this cheaply) that requires a signature upon receipt.

      Two more reasons that paper submissions are far, far better for writers than electronic ones.

      If it’s been six months on the others, you would also be within your rights to call — but either way, you should do so immediately, because by six months, pretty much any agency will expect a writer to have asked if a manuscript got lost.

      Writers tend to be much too shy about following up; if they’ve misplaced a manuscript, they are going to want to know about it. Check first, though, to make sure that the agencies in question have not in the intervening months established a policy that they do not send out rejections — quite a few of the send-it-by-email crowd have started to do that, unfortunately, to save themselves some time.

      In answer to your parenthetical question about why they would be so eager to see the manuscript and then not read it, the answer is simple: sheer volume. A reputable agency will receive in the area of 1000 queries per week; if they agree to see even 1% of them (and most do not ask to see that many), that’s 10 sets of requested materials per week. Even assuming that 70% do not actually send in the submissions — which is why an agent would not take the time to follow up with a writer if a submission got misplaced, by the way — that’s still 3 submissions per week, or 156 per year, roughly. Even if the agent is only asking for 50 pages from each, that’s 7,800 pages of extra reading per year, on top of processing all of those queries AND selling clients’ books. And don’t forget that the agent also has to read any new material his clients may have written lately, as well as keeping up with the current literary market.

      After all that, out of those 156, the agent may pick up only one client. And that one is unlikely to bring money into the agency for the first year or two.

      Then, too, requests for submission are generally form letters — yes, even when they come by e-mail; since every yes says essentially the same thing, it doesn’t make sense to compose afresh each time — so the eagerness expressed in them is necessarily generic. But since that yes is so exciting to the writer, it’s hard to bear that in mind — thus all of those writers who rush right home after conferences to overnight or e-mail requested materials.

      So yes, it’s annoying — but since discovering new clients actually isn’t an agent’s primary business, it is perhaps understandable that reading submissions from the aspiring would not necessarily be a top priority on any given day. But writers do have a right to expect a response within a reasonable amount of time — so as a general rule of thumb, start following up after 3 months or double the turn-around time estimate the agent has given you.

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