How To Tank Your Book Proposal

Today my guest is literary agent, screenwriter and entertainment attorney Mike Farris. Book Proposal

A few years back, I listened to Mike bring the house down with these witty remarks at a national writer’s conference in San Antonio. Since Mike’s an agent, you know that he’s talking about real life book proposals that were sent to him in all seriousness and hopes of getting published. Read on to learn what not to do if you’re trying to impress an agent.

U. S. residents may comment to this post by August 8 to be entered to win Robert Hinkle’s memoir that Mike co-wrote. Hinkle starred with James Dean in “Giant”.

Book Proposal

Mike Farris

     The road to publication, just like the road to hell, is paved with good intentions.  Some writers, though, seem deliberately determined to shortchange themselves when querying agents.   So, if you’re one of those writers who fears
success, learn from those who have gone before you by reading these actual excerpts of query letters from wannabe writers.

Tell the agent you’ve written a fiction novel.

 Even though a novel is fiction by definition, calling it a fiction novel shows your skill at redundancy.  Better yet, call it a fictional novel – that means your novel doesn’t actually exist, and the agent can send a fictional rejection.

Tell too much about yourself.

 “I’m 34, having trouble finding work & am living with my parents.”  George Costanza, is that you?

Tell the agent your book is a surefire bestseller.

 “Send for my screenplay, read as much as you like, then when you see how great it is and how much money we’ll win, put it on your schedule to market it.  I would like at least $800,000.  (It’s that good.)”  I move e-mails like these into a special mailbox along with my other “special” e-mails.  Then, at the end of the day, I sit back with a steaming cup of Kona coffee and read about winning the UK lottery, opportunities to help Nigerians invest money in the U.S., and the promise of untold wealth from commissions off your future bestseller.  I’ve already got the money spent.

Badmouth yourself or your own work.

One writer wrote, “My writing style needs a lot of assistance, please do not reject the story based upon my ability to tell it on paper.”  Yet another said, “I do not consider myself a good writer, my key board [sic] skills are poor, my spelling is awful and I have forgotten most of what I learned about punctuation.”  Need I point out the irony of these correspondents seeking representation as writers?

Misspell as many words as possible.

“I have just complete my frist drama script of a series of twenty.  I want an anget who can work with me until it gets to the move production house.”  Or consider this: “I, am writeing ahorror story.  Ti is about a teenage girl that is hoving dream,s about people walking to her with there arm,s out crying asking her to help them.”  I pitty the pour riters who kan’t spel or punkchuate any better then that.

Conversely, rely too heavily on Spellcheck.

In touting a novel about a magician, one writer said: “My family holds patents on some elusions reviled in this novel.  They were performed during their world wild acts.”

Respond unprofessionally to rejection.

Don’t just accept rejection with grace and dignity.  No, instead fire off a reply that says “You strike me as pathetic.”  Or “I’m a 69 year old retired man, who used to chew people like you up and spit them out for practice.”  Yikes!  I’m not ashamed to admit I actually trembled when I got that one.  I still tremble today when I re-read it.

Be overanxious.

If you haven’t gotten a response to your e-query within 48 hours, send this:  “Is it that no one reads e-mail or you just don’t answer any?  I find your agency to be totally lacking in business ethics – typical of an attorney who couldn’t make it in private practice.”  What a low blow – attacking an attorney when
he’s down.  That one made me weep.  Even today, my self-esteem is so low I can’t look myself in the mirror.  Excuse me –I’m getting a little misty here.

Be partially incoherent:

“I Am A Freelance Journalist and Columnist writes to YOURS from remote India REGARDING FOR HELP FROM YOURS LITERARY AGENCY HELP –FOR A BREAK TO MY FUTURE AND RECOGNITION FOR MY WORKS.”  There’s genius in using that subliminal thing of slipping the word HELP in there twice HELP.  And don’t we all want a break to our futures and recognition for our works?

Be totally incoherent:

“Writers address learning, personal &fundamental issues.  Some plagued by elusive,idealized understanding.  Fears, doubts &mystery . . . Not able to find &use worthy self-venture set-void in endeavor often-obligated &omenous-pulled in,unsettling intent of a writer.  In a difficult outstandingly, taught world.”  Are mind-altering drugs at work here, perhaps?  Groovy, man!

There are plenty of others, of course, but space limitations dictate that I stop here.  And remember, success isn’t for everyone.

When you comment to win Mike & Bob’s University of Oklahoma Press paperback, which is a great read by the way, mention what you remember about “Giant”.  Or if you’ve never seen the movie, give us your impressions of Marfa. 

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  1. Hey, i thot dey sunded purty good ta me. so where was the bad’ens? If memory serves me correctly, I have seen “Giant” six times.
    – Jared McVay, author of: Bears, Bicycles & Broomsticks andThe Legend of Joe, Willy & Red

  2. Okay, okay, funny stuff! Just glad I didn’t see any of MY mistakes in your article! Yikes!!

  3. It was pretty funny when this same agent told me my book would be a tough sell for Hollywood because it was a period piece. I opened up the paper that day and found four period pieces in theaters that week. Most of us serious, professional writers (who can type) could do a pretty good column on stupid things agents have written.
    In the span of one week, I had one agent tell me I’ve “bitten off more than I can chew” and another that said that my topic wouldn’t be enough to sustain a book.
    Anyway, just soldier on and forget what agents have to say. My book was ultimately published by a respected academic press and won several awards. (I got to keep my 15 percent, too).
    Hopefully, literary agents will soon go the way of travel agents. That day may be coming sooner than you think.
    – Stew Magnuson, author of The Death of Raymond Yellow Thunder: and Other True Stories from the Nebraska-Pine Ridge Border Towns

  4. I giggled at the mistakes, but am so used to seeing those in a senior English class. By the end of the year things were better (there is hope!) I adore all things Texan and have seen the movie numerous times. James Dean’s character brings back memories of Glenn McCarthy the wildcatter from Houston. He was larger than life, doing things bigger and better. I was a young girl when the Shamrock was in its heyday, so the hotel scenes ring true with me.

  5. Over the years of observing the Spur winners, I have come to the conclusion that the chances of winning are very much enhanced if the book is published by a major traditional publisher or a university press.
    In order to be considered by those publishers, you must have an agent.
    For that reason, I will soon begin my journey down that long lonely road. I understand that agents get paid, but who doesn’t? And when it comes right down to it, writing really isn’t about the money.
    I never knew how many writers there were in the world until I decided to try and be one. As I have honed my skills and built my platform, I have had limited success with publishers, literary contests, and magazine articles.
    One goal I have set for myself is a Spur Award from WWA. A lofty goal, I admit, but only people who have wild dreams ever exceed them.

  6. Hi, Mike!

    I met you and Susan at a writer’s conference in the Baytown area a number of years ago. Glad to see you associating with the likes of Stephanie Barko. She’s a keeper!

  7. I enjoyed this unique post. “Giant” was memorable and I have watched it numerous times. Texans rule and rock. The mistakes are precious. Best wishes.

  8. You see these types of errors every day and not just in spam either. All kinds of supposedly professional people commit these sins with abandon. Maybe that means it’s true that no one reads any more. I hope it just means they don’t stop to think about what they write like we writers should do. Thanks for a good laugh at work.

    The thing that I think of when I hear of “Giant” is vast, open, dry space. Not having lived in Texas, it made me think the whole state was one big, dried-out ranch when I first saw the film as a boy.

  9. Reading all these egregious mistakes makes me wonder if I would ever try to get a book published, even though I have. I loved reading the book Giant by Edna Ferber and seeing the extra long movie with Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean. I loved seeing them age and deal with racial problems and other social issues. Edna Ferber is in the same class of writers as Margaret Mitchell. But Ms. Ferber was a prolific writer whereas Ms. Mitchell wrote only one masterpiece. I wonder if she would have written others if she had had a really good agent and had lived long enough?

  10. Interesting post. Unfortunately, much of it says more about the quality, or lack there of, of our educational system.
    The BE TOTALLY INCOHERENT section reminds me of a “conversation” I had with someone in Haight-Ashbury, CA back in 1967. It was an undecipherable 15 minute ramble by a complete stranger in a bookstore.
    It is a difficult business for all concerned. I can understand why so many have turned to self-publishing, but for the reader, that means a lack of quality control. There are many good self-published books out there. There are also many whose authors should have listened to the rejection letters they received. A good agent can make all the difference for an author. However, not all agent/author relationships work out. If you have the time, talent, and tenacity to do it all yourself, more power to you. For most, a good agent is a necessity.

    I never did see “Giant”. As for Marfa, I assume you mean Marfa, Texas. I visited their website and am pleased by what the area has to offer. We hope to visit the Big Bend area in the next few years and Marfa looks like it would be worth a visit.

  11. Oh my goodness! I am a HUGE James Dean fan! Giant is one of my favorite movies! Love it!

  12. Enjoyed this posting very, very much!

  13. I love this list! If I ever decide to become a writer, I have it printed out – just on the off chance, Thanks for a great post, Mike!! It was very informative 🙂

  14. Great stuff. Who can be funnier than people?

    I was at the Write to Market conference this weekend. They really get into how to pitch an agent. I learned a lot. I hope it works.

  15. I found the posting very interesting. Have never seen “Giant”. Please enter me in contest.

  16. Great post! Very entertaining. But unfortunately I don’t think I’ve ever seen “Giant” before.

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