Five Ways (Not) to Squander Contacts and Alienate Agents (Feature Post)

By Ginger McKnight-Chavers

Sometimes the universe bestows unexpected gifts upon writers. Through friends, colleagues or the hundredth query letter, we finally land a face-to-face with an agent.  I’ve learned the hard way that it’s easy to unintentionally screw up these golden opportunities in ways beyond the obvious no-no’s (tardiness, rudeness, b.o.).  They may seem obvious, but read on:

  1. Test your submission.  Don’t trust that your “track changes” setting is off, even if you turn it off.   You must “accept all changes” to ensure that your redlines don’t end up in the wrong hands.  I sent many drafts to my instructors and writing groups (we’re all Mac users) without issue.  En route to an agent meeting, I attempted to print out my manuscript at Kinko’s, and what emerged was a heavily redlined early draft, rather than the unmarked final version on the computer screen.  Of course this also happened when the agent opened my email on his pc.  The only upside to this fiasco was that it alerted me that there might be a problem with what I emailed to the agent, and I was able to preemptively raise the issue during our meeting.  Still, not a good look.  I now always send test emails to friends first.
  2. Dress appropriately.  We all know to look presentable and practice proper hygiene when meeting an agent.  But appearing too polished may work against a writer.  I once planned to attend a fancy ladies’ luncheon after a meeting with a potential agent.  My slacks and blouse were conservative, but I wore killer heels and a fringe-y designer jacket with long, Texas hair and nice makeup.  It wasn’t outrageous – I could have worn this outfit to my old law firm office.  But the agent seemed appalled.  Writers are supposed to be pale, serious sorts that sit behind typewriters in windowless rooms, not big-haired Texans in stilettos.  I’m African-American, so I can’t do pale, but I could have worn flat shoes and a modest sweater and then dolled up in the ladies room afterwards.
  3. Query.  Even if you’re not cold-calling an agent, set up your correspondence as if she’s a complete stranger that doesn’t date your cousin.  A friend set me up with her agent, to whom I sent a friendly email to arrange coffee that included a link to a page describing my fellowship with an excerpt of my work.  I promoted this agent’s client to hundreds of folks, organized a book party for her and connected her to friends in the autism advocacy community (the subject of my friend’s book), but the agent still chastised me about not complying with her query email guidelines and the impropriety of including web links in queries.
  4. Agent-related dementia.  When you enter an agent’s office, he may instantly forget that you were college roommates.  Granted, he’s bestowing valuable time and attention upon you, which is a gift.  But don’t assume that your meeting will be a friendly get-together of like-minded professionals just because you have a personal connection or did him a favor (see, e.g., #3).  I once morphed into an alien upon crossing the threshold of an agent introduced by a mutual friend.  Knowing that he specialized in a different genre, I asked questions about publishing in general and sought advice regarding securing an agent.  He curtly told me to subscribe to Publishers Lunch and was perplexed that I reached out to him, when simple research would reveal he wasn’t interested in my genre.  I didn’t state the obvious – that I was on the outside looking in.  A face-to-face with any agent, particularly one of his reputation, was the Holy Grail – an opportunity to network and at least gain a good referral or advice.  Besides, he agreed to meet me?  An agent may forget why you’re in front of him, so you must have a plan to sell yourself or at least make good use of his time, when your Poets & Writers list of winning questions are dismissed or discarded.
  5. Texas is not interesting . . . unless you’re Larry McMurty or an ex-President.  To clarify, I mean that Texas as a topic in and of itself doesn’t seem to interest agents, particularly those of the New York variety.  Though probably obvious to writers less obsessed with their home state than I am, I learned the hard way to pitch my story more than the atmospherics.

Ginger McKnight-Chavers, a Dallas native, is a graduate of Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service and Harvard Law School.  After sixteen years practicing corporate and arts/entertainment law, she became a full-time writer and was the 2008-09 Gurfein Fellow at Sarah Lawrence College.  She resides in the New York City area and recently completed her first novel, Messages From Midland.  Her short story, The Maslins, will soon appear in the Oil and Water…and Other Things that Don’t Mix anthology of women writers to benefit Gulf Coast clean-up efforts.  She has also contributed articles to SheWrites.com.

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