Don’t be arrogant

by Tess Gerritsen

Last year, I received an email from an unpublished novelist who had been sending out query letters, plus the first fifty pages of his manuscript, to literary agents.  None of the agents had asked to see the entire novel.  "What's the problem here?" he asked.  "I have Hollywood writing credits.  I have a background in story analysis. But all I get back from these agents are form-letter rejections."  He wondered, was the New York publishing world such a closed shop that you have to know someone just to get your foot in the door?  

His background did indeed sound impressive.  He'd worked as an executive in the film industry and had been associated with some major names.  Just based on his work experience, I would think that a literary agent would have been very interested in this man's novel. So why was he getting only rejections?  I told him I couldn't read his manuscript, but I offered to look at his query letter.

And that's where I found the answer.

The letter starts off well enough, describing the writer's extensive experience in Hollywood.  He certainly seemed like a man who'd be able to recognize a great story when he sees it.  Were I a literary agent, I would definitely have sat up and paid attention.  

But then he commits a fatal mistake:  He says, essentially: "This novel is superbly written and bound to be a success."  

The letter doesn't offer even the barest description of the plot. Instead, it commands: "Read these first three chapters, then call me for the rest.  What you'll find is a great plot and amazing twists.  Read it, and then let's get down to business."  

Finally, he closes by saying that he's sending this material out simultaneously to some big-shot agents.  The unspoken message is clear: you'd better get your ass in gear if you don't want to miss out on the book deal of a lifetime!

I stared at that letter for quite some time, debating whether or not I should tell this writer the painful truth.  I could have taken the easy and cowardly way out and written back: "Gee, it beats me why it's not selling!  Good luck and see ya!"  But I must have had a few glasses of wine that night, because I ended up telling him exactly what I thought: If I were an agent, I wouldn't take you on in a million years.  

I explained that his letter was a turn-off in so many ways.  First, he announces to the agent that he is a brilliant writer.  (Oh yeah?  Says who?)  Second, he doesn't provide a synopsis (because synopses are for the common folk?).  He expects the agent to read his chapters and immediately recognize his genius.  Third, he tells the agent how she's supposed to react to his work.  He tells her how to do her job.  I can almost hear what the agent is muttering as she sits at her desk reading this letter.

And she's not saying nice things. 

Maybe this outrageous display of overconfidence is something you learn if you work too long in Hollywood.  Maybe it's part of doing business in a town where everyone is striving to be skinnier, richer, and on the covers of more magazines than anyone else, where everyone has a personal publicist whose only job is to tell the world how bodacious you are.  

I don't think this sort of noisy chest-beating goes over well in the more sedate publishing world. Yet unpublished authors, whether or not they come from Hollywood, often seem to commit the same sins as this man did. In query letters, they'll describe their manuscript as "well-written," or "sure to be a hit" or "as thrilling as The Da Vinci Code — only more literary!"  Way too many of them will tell you that "my mom loves it!  And she knows a good book!"    

Literary agents don't give a damn what your mother thinks about your book. They don't want to be told that your book is wonderful and that you're the next John Grisham.  They want to know what your story is about, who your characters are, and why readers should care about them.  They want to know that you're cooperative and willing to work hard.  They want to know that you're not a jerk.  

And sending them an arrogant query letter doesn't help your cause.

Published novelists who've been in the business a while know that the writing profession is far more likely to breed humility than arrogance.  We're forced to live with uncertainty.  No matter how well your last book sold, your next one could be a flop.  You could be a bestselling author today, and a few years later be unable to land a book contract. It took me ten years and ten books before I hit the bestseller list.  During those first ten years, I wondered if I'd ever make a living at the craft.  Even now, I never stop worrying that I've lost my touch, that people will stop buying my books, that I'll never write another good one.  I never forget that my success is built just as much on sheer good luck as it is on my talent.  It's hard to be arrogant when I know how easily it all could have turned out differently.

After I wrote back to that aspiring novelist, telling him how much I disliked his query letter, he took it very well.  He said that I was right, that he could see how his query letter would turn off agents.  I told him to take out all the chest-pounding, include a synopsis, and stop talking about what a great book it is.  He said he would re-write the letter and send it out again.  

Only a few weeks later, he happily told me that an agent had just taken him on, and publishers were already expressing interest.  Clearly the man has talent; it was his attitude that got in the way of making the sale.  But he was able to step back and re-evaluate his approach and see where he'd gone wrong.  And he was willing to fix it.

I look forward to reading his book when it's published.  I hope it's a hit.

23 thoughts on “Don’t be arrogant

  1. tess

    >>There’s a fine line between an attractive self confidence and off-putting arrogance<< Absolutely! A writer shouldn’t hesitate to list his writing credits and awards and all relevant job experience, since those are facts, not subjective statements.

  2. Kathryn Lilley

    You really did that guy a favor! A guy who had been working as an executive in the film industry was probably used to having arrogance “work” for him. It’s a different story for a writer. Hey, why is that, by the way? Don’t we ever get to be arrogant? (grin).

  3. toni mcgee causey

    Great advice, Tess. I’m glad the guy took it and that it’s working out for him.

    [I am amused, though, about his original query. He was probably so used to the fact that so many people don’t read things in Hwd… they skim, or read the synopsis, but they don’t read the actual material unless someone’s touting what a wonderful read. As an exec, he’d probably been that “someone” touting others’ material as a great read for years. Old habits.]

    [And I am giving him the benefit of the doubt since he had the smarts to hear what you were saying and take your advice. A truly obnoxious know-it-all would’ve assumed you were just trying to keep him out of the game because he was a threat to your income.]

  4. pari

    Tess,It was very kind of you to take the time to respond to the man honestly.

    I wonder if his background was part of the problem. I suspect the rules are different when it comes to breast-pounding in a movie pitch session and other contexts.

    What I love in your post today is the fact that real communication happened between the two of you. So much “communication” today stops when the message is uncomfortable or difficult.

  5. Jake Nantz

    Ms. Gerritsen,Considering how recently you’d decided to stop blogging for a while because you didn’t want to be the target someone was setting you up to be, I think what you did for that guy was more than kind. I think it was very brave.

    So often I see people take the easy way out, because they know the potential blowback if they are totally honest (even if done in a nice way). I think you had a lot of guts, just like he had a lot of guts to really look in the mirror and realize you were right (instead of, as someone else said, thinking you were just trying to keep him out of the game).


  6. Alexandra Sokoloff

    You do see that kind of wince-inducing arrogance in Hollywood, but as you say, Tess, I’ve seen it just as much in unpublished authors.

    Quite often it’s a case of not having done their homework about what a query letter is really supposed to look like. We’re all lucky that there are SO many great resources on the Net about exactly what agents want to see in queries- there’s no excuse not to take the time to get it right.

  7. Rena

    Tess, very valuable information. He’s lucky someone was honest with him and it’s good that he was able to listen. Some writers won’t listen at all. Plus, there’s a wealth of information out there to help authors craft good query letters.

  8. Ali

    The guy sounds like a right dick

    It was funny reading it and you are so honest, someone else might have just ignored the idiot.

    Manners maketh man as my mom used to say



  9. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Tess

    Interesting topic, and I congratulate you, also, for taking the time and courage to give the guy your honest opinion. As you said, so many times people are after endorsement of their actions rather than advice.

    We are in a very egocentric business. Without a certain amount of arrogance, no fiction writer could ever believe that people would want to read the jumblings out of their head. No book would ever get finished.

    But a little goes a long way … ;-]

  10. Flash Bristow

    This story reminds me of an ex-colleague who wanted to move to America. I understand that there are particular processes to be followed, but that doesn’t excuse his CV. It read quite well in the first half, but then he wrote “IF you are to employ me YOU MUST…”

    He wondered why he hadn’t got a flood of interest, particularly as he was willing to take a salary below that which he currently earned, so desparate was he to emigrate. I explained how his CV sounded rather demanding, but I don’t think he listened.

    Last time I heard, he was dossing on friends’ floors in various parts of the UK, not only jobless but now homeless, and of course still in this country. I hope things have looked up for him, and wonder if he’s finally learnt to take advice.

  11. Louise Ure

    Your Hollywood type reminds me of an ex-advertising buddy of mine. When he started writing, he insisted upon sending out queries with his “head shot” (his words, not mine)and a boastful letter about how great the book was. He failed to mention that he hadn’t written but sixty pages of it.

  12. Rob Gregory Browne

    Tess, I think this is a testament to YOUR generosity in taking the time to not only tell this guy the truth, but to read his query letter and respond at all.

    And I’m glad it all turned out well.

  13. Laura

    It was kind Tess, but why call him arrogant or the letter arrogant – it was what he believed he should do – it’s how a lot of people in LaLa Land pitch.

    He simply did it a different way than the way you suggested, isn’t life tough enough without us being so tough on people?

  14. tess gerritsen

    Laura,perhaps a more accurate way of saying it would be: “it came off as being arrogant.” Because you’re right, the letter may simply be the accepted way of doing business in Hollywood, and not be a reflection of the person himself.

    But I think most of us would agree that if someone came up to us and said, “I’m a great writer, and you’d better do what I say,” we’d consider him arrogant.

  15. Kelly

    I wouldn’t have considered him arrogant. I would have considered him…uneducated in what it is that literary agents are interested in. Which would be the story itself. I didn’t use to understand the impulse to say “my work is great, take my word for it and read it.” But since I’ve been teaching, I have learned that this phrase — and its many variations — is a clear clue that the writer doesn’t know that his or her book hook is what is going to get a read. And, of course, said writer hasn’t got a clue what a book hook is, either.

    I think you did the writer (obviously) and the readers of this blog a huge favor with this post advice: Leave yourself-the-author out of the query. Put in the story that made you spend hours to write, craft, recraft and edit. That’s what will make the agent/editor want to read your novel.

    You also did me a huge favor. I give this advice out on a monthly basis. Now I can just refer to this blog post 🙂



  16. James A. Ritchie

    From my fairly brief experience with Hollywood (I’ve had four screenplays optioned, but none turn into movies), this guy is the norm. If you don’t brag, boast, and come across as arrogant in Hollywood pitch sessions, no one listens.

  17. Jenifer

    Kudos to both of you: you for being kind to take a look at this fella’s query, but forthright about what was wrong. Kudos to him for not having a hissy fit and taking what has turned out to be very valuable advice.

  18. deversm

    I have found the advice hardest to accept is that which you need most.

    Congratulations to the author on having enough sense and the proper perspective to accept and apply your advice. Maybe his Hollywood experience (where a movie does not get made without a great deal of collaboration) prepared him for your direct and astute advice.

  19. Cynthia Stubbs

    It amazes me how helpful authors are to wanna be writers! Always I find a lot of truth in fiction ironically because it is made up. Maybe that is why s. King is so successful, he is so honest! Tess, you are a great writer I think and I have read probably a million books! I want to write about haunted houses and a sassy ghost buster? Humor and horror-can you give me a clue who to send it to?


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