First Impressions: Common Sense Advice for Writers

Long before Twitter made the under-140-character limit de rigueur for quotable quotes, someone said “You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.”

This is good advice. What it means in practical terms is that if I greet my new boss with “I sure hope you’re not the same as the old boss – she was a real witch, and I don’t mean witch but I’m trying to be polite by replacing the letter ‘b’ with a more acceptable letter” or “Is it okay if I drink heavily on the job? Because I can only work drunk since this place really sucks” I’ll probably miss out on that promotion I was hoping for.

First impressions matter.

This is especially true in publishing, where you’re competing for headspace and shelfspace with a squillion other writers. In publishing, you don’t have just one first impression to make. You have a bunch. Here are some to consider (and a tip or two on how to make your impression memorable for all the right reasons).

The elevator pitch. Strike up a conversation when it’s appropriate and be concise when you talk about your book. Don’t pitch to an agent who looks especially burned-out. Don’t pitch to an agent who is snarfing her lunch while standing at a deli counter between conference appointments. And even if she invites conversation by asking if your stall has any toilet paper, do not pitch an agent in the bathroom. Oh, and be yourself. Practicing your pitch is good for learning what’s important about your book – but use your own voice when talking with an agent.

The conference appointment. Arrive on time. Get to the point. Don’t stay late. And somehow, yeah, be yourself.

The query. Study the agent’s guidelines and, without losing your writer’s voice, tailor your query accordingly. Also, don’t query agents who don’t rep your genre.

The sample chapter. If your best writing begins in chapter four, you’re not ready to query agents. Keep editing until your first three chapters are brilliant. Seriously. If you don’t capture readers with the first chapters, you’ll never capture an agent either.

The publishing industry googler. Tweet a hundred times a day. Update your Facebook status hourly if you so choose. Blog every day and comment all you want on other people’s publishing-related blogs. But never forget that an agent (or editor) who decides to google you [why does that phrase always come across as creepily sexual?] could run across any of your words. If the first words she reads are “agents are stupid” you just made a bad impression. Unless you’re referring to secret agents. But why would you do that? That would be stupid. Secret agents are the epitome of cool. Stop badmouthing secret agents, okay? Thanks.

The editor. So you get lucky and land a publishing contract. Good for you. Now, make nice with your editor. She’s not just someone with a red pen, she’s your collaborator. You don’t want your collaborator to hate you. Not right away, anyway.

The marketing and sales staff. Be enthusiastic about your role in the marketing and sales process. If you give the impression that you’re expecting them to do all the work, you’re shooting yourself in the [book] spine. Announce your availability and willingness to do whatever it takes during your very first conversation with these fine, under-appreciated folks.

The reader. Some readers will love your words. They’ll fill Amazon’s review section with high praise and high fives. But some will hate you for wasting a few hours of their lives. Resist the urge to slap back at these people. Just smile and say “thank you” to all who comment. And learn what you can from both the fanatic fans and the determined detractors.

The booksigning visitor. Unless you’re intentionally going for that “lives in a dumpster” look, make a tiny bit of effort to look good for the masses who will hover at your table, eager to meet a successful writer in 3-D. And bring breath mints. Lots of them.

[Thanks to my older brother for suggesting this blog topic. I can't be certain what his first impression was of me. After all, I was just a few days old at the time.]

Soon, But Not Yet

As most of you probably know, Real Life has been rather difficult these past few weeks. My premie granddaughter, Ayla, has been fighting for life since she was born on November 11, sixteen weeks early. I’ve been spending much of this time focusing on the needs of my young son, his equally-young girlfriend and their tiny, beautiful little girl. Sadly, it looks as though her fight is nearly over. Until things settle down here, I just can’t find a lot of emotional energy to write witty, wise things for this blog. However, this blog and its associated community of loyal subjects are important to me.

I have a dozen posts in the “to be written” queue. I’m sure they’ll be Truly Helpful and Utterly Meaningless as always. (Like the “choose your own adventure” approach to determining whether self-publishing or traditional publishing is best for you. Or the mostly-serious post on all the “first impressions” a new writer must manage on the path to publishing.)

But it’s not quite time to write those.

Until then…play football with your sons and buy your daughters ponies. And offer love and grace to those who need it. (That would be all of us.)


From the Office of Admissions

Let’s not call them confessions, okay? Because that reeks of guilt. And for many of the following, I feel no guilt whatsoever.

I admit…

  • I am immediately turned off by best-selling books because I hold fast to an erroneous belief that for something to be popular, it must cater to the lowest common denominator and I prefer to believe I am far above that line.
  • I am not above that line.
  • I pick up a book based on its cover and only rule out a possible purchase if the blurb on the back bores me to tears. Otherwise, I’ll buy it and give the author every opportunity to surprise me.
  • I read more “debut” novels than any other category and am frequently pleasantly surprised.
  • I believe the sophomore slump for writers is usually more about lack of time to write than lack of talent.
  • I believe some writers only have one good book in them.
  • Great writing intimidates me to the point of wanting to give up.
  • Great writing inspires me to superglue my ass to the chair and write until I get it right.
  • I’m constantly conflicted by great writing. And I spend way too much money on superglue.
  • If people ask me what my favorite book is, I tell them “Tender Is the Night” when I want to sound smart and well-read, or “Go, Dog. Go!” if I just want them to stop asking me questions.
  • I haven’t read Anna Karenina, War & Peace, The Brothers Karamazov or anything by Danielle Steel.
  • I have at least 15 books sitting around my apartment (or on the back seat of my car) that I recently purchased and haven’t yet read. I will buy at least 15 more books before I’ve read half of the ones I already own.
  • I am infinitely more bothered by poor characterization or lazy plotting than misspellings or other typos.
  • I am quick to fall in love with a writer whose book makes me remember what it’s like to feel the deepest feelings of longing and loss. Then I stalk her with charming and clever emails. When presented with a restraining order, I am initially disappointed to discover that the language in the restraining order is boilerplate and not from the writer’s pen. At first, this hurts. But then I realize she is only choosing this approach because she knows the distance it creates between us will inevitably cause me to remember what it’s like to feel the deepest feelings of longing and loss. She is so clever. I love her.
  • Sometimes I believe it when people refer to me as “brilliant.”
  • Not really.
  • I love my job, even though it occupies my brain 24/7.
  • I have no idea what I’m doing 23/7.
  • The best measure I have of whether or not my novel-in-progress is any good comes when I go back to re-read an old section and find myself wondering who’s been tampering with my file and re-writing all the crap so it’s actually entertaining and witty.
  • I suffer from low self-esteem.
  • I love everybody.
  • Except when I hate everyone.
  • I labor over every Tweet, every e-mail, and every blog post (except maybe this one).
  • When I write a short story, I don’t always know where it’s going. This, despite the fact that I usually write the last sentence first.
  • I am pretty sure John Irving does this, too.
  • I would never compare myself to John Irving.
  • Unless he tends to fall in love with writers who make him feel the deepest feelings of longing and loss and subsequently stalks them. Then we might have something in common.
  • Unlike how I write my stories, I didn’t start with the last line of this blog post and therefore I have no idea how I’m going to end it.
  • Or do I?

A Guest Post Elsewhere

First of all, if you’re coming here from @katdish’s “Hey Look, a Chicken” blog, don’t click on the link below. It’s just going to take you right back to her post and then you’ll be stuck in an infinite loop and will eventually die of starvation. Or boredom. But since you’re here, feel free to look at older posts about writing and stuff. Just don’t click the link in the next paragraph. I mean it.

But if you’re coming here from somewhere else, go ahead and click this link so you can read what I wrote for Kathy’s blog. It’s a post called “The Unbearable Being of Linus” and it’s kind of about writing.

Meanwhile, I’m working on a highly entertaining post for this blog that I hope to publish over the weekend. And by “highly entertaining” I mean mildly humorous to anyone who’s had at least three glasses of wine.

Oh, and here’s a picture. It might be a metaphor. Or it could just be a picture of a zookeeper cleaning an elephant cage.