Are we poisoning our chances for publication?

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Common snowberry, or Symphoricarpos albus, is a deciduous shrub in the honeysuckle family. It grows wild on shady hillsides and woodland areas but its attractive clusters of white berries have also made it a popular ornamental shrub in many gardens.

It grows in wild abundance on our family’s Okanagan property and provides winter food for quail and pheasant. In other areas it’s also browsed by deer, bighorn sheep and bear.

On a recent visit I admired the shrub and came home to research its name. Despite its innocuous appearance, I found one source (Wikipedia) that said snowberries are considered poisonous to humans. “The berries contain the isoquinoline alkaloid chelidonine, as well as other alkaloids. Ingesting the berries causes mild symptoms of vomiting, dizziness, and slight sedation in children.”

We have a lot of wild berries in BC, many of which are edible, but some are known to be poisonous while others are of doubtful edibility or are just plain unpalatable. Around our property each spring we have bushes that bear small red berries that I think are huckleberries. In fact, I’m pretty sure that’s what they are… but not sure enough to eat them. I’m going to take a sample to our local nursery next spring and get a knowledgeable opinion.

In this case I think I’m smart to admit I don’t know what I don’t know. When in doubt, be cautious. Go do some research. That’s not a bad philosophy in writing, too. Barging headlong into unfamiliar situations without first doing adequate research can often cause irreparable damage.

A couple years ago agent Rachelle Gardner posted a “Friday Rant” about people who fall into her inbox looking for an agent. They pitch work that she doesn’t rep; they’ve clearly made no effort to read guidelines or learn about the querying process; they “aren’t taking the time to approach publishing seriously.” In their ignorance they alienate agents and effectively kill any chance of having their work considered.

That’s not very smart if their goal is publication.

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When tackling something new in life or writing, how do you determine the proper approach? Do you prefer to jump in first and ask questions later? And here’s another question: Do you think it’s unfair to be penalized for ignorance?

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11 thoughts on “Are we poisoning our chances for publication?

  1. Elisa Michelle says:

    Barging headlong into unfamiliar situations without first doing adequate research can often cause irreparable damage.

    I think that goes for anything in life, you know? No matter what the situation, always research and think out your options and moves. Otherwise, you burn your chances.

    And here’s another question: Do you think it’s unfair to be penalized for ignorance?

    Honestly, that’s a great question. A tough one, too! I think when it comes to business, especially industries like writing, there is a learning curve, but it’s a private one. You’re supposed to do research, learn how to write, learn about agents, publishers, and so on. That’s your learning curve. Otherwise, if you just spam a bunch of agents that are not even interested in your genre, your ignorance burns bridges. I think they remember the really annoying and rude submissions more than anything because those are the people they’d probably never want to work with, which seems fair. Some people also stay ignorant on a willful and destructive level. They think they know everything and that they’re a big star. That type of ignorance will definitely damage your career.

    Sorry for the long-winded comment!

  2. planaquarium says:

    Great photo analogy! I queried agents and publishers ‘properly’ for years, but found myself in the inevitable catch-22: agents wanted writers who had been published, but publishers wouldn’t consider un-agented writers! Ignorance is one thing, but I wish editors would consider quality writers who follow the process and show potential, even if they don’t yet have an agent.

  3. Jennie Dugan says:

    I do plunge head first into things I don’t know about! I do it routinely, and learn as I go. My current in-process manuscript has CAP PHRASES where information is needed, which could be the difference. I’m getting better at knowing what I don’t know.
    As far as agents/editors, I like Elisa Michelle’s comment above about the learning curve. Yet, because my husband and I also ran an online magazine for a year or so, I’m a little more sensitive to being careful. On the other hand, yesterday I read a Christian agent’s blog in which he ridiculed people misspelling his name. I’ve read that this agent is a great guy, and considered approaching him, and now I’m not so sure. People misspell my name routinely, or call me Jean instead of Jennie. It just doesn’t faze me, and I wouldn’t consider ridiculing somebody for it.
    I think there’s a line between knowing your market or topic, and turning it into a pass/fail game. But as far as my manuscript? If I get these details wrong, people might stop reading and miss what I hope is a great story, so it is my job to get it right.

  4. I think it’s a learning process. I sent off manuscripts as a teenager and was devastated I received a form rejection with “We do not publish this genre” checked off a list. I don’t think it’s punishment. I was annoyed about the rejections, but it drove me to learn about the market, about researching publishers and agents and what they were actually looking for.

    As Elisa says, it’s a business, and I think of it as a job application. Would we submit our resume and cover letter to a job that we’re not suited or trained for? No, and yet in my last position, we routinely received resumés where the applicant had clearly not read the criteria, if we were even hiring at the time. They were rejected. And that may sound mean, but isn’t that what happens when we writers submit to a market not interested in our genre? Same thing if we don’t follow their guidelines.

    Learning can be painful, but it is a natural part of life, right?

  5. joylene says:

    I’m constantly struggling over judging others. And your question brings that to mind. It’s hard not to judge though, and my first instinct is to say writers are lazy. I’m including me in that analogy so God won’t be too disappointed in my judgment call. Which brings up another issue: judging oneself too harshly. But back to the question. There’s too much info out there not to do the research first, then ask the appropriate questions.

  6. Jenn Hubbard says:

    Tip about the plant: When you go to the nursery, bring a branch with leaves and berries on it, not just the berries, to make identification easier.

    Although a basic mistake will not lead to an offer of representation at the time, I think that if the mistake is innocent, it’s forgotten, and you may succeed with a future well-researched, well-targeted query. Agents get so much mail that I would bet only the really egregious errors stick with them. Those basic mistakes do waste everyone’s time, though, so they’re worth doing the homework to avoid. But my suggestion would be: do everything in your power to get things right, but if you find out you made an inadvertent mistake, don’t beat yourself up. Learn and move on.

  7. karen evans says:

    Writing is an industry that must be learned. I was so “green” and didn’t know anything when I first started and made mistakes. I look at it like kids-they don’t know things until they are taught. The catch-HOW they are taught. 🙂

  8. Sue Harrison says:

    I’ve been involved in writing and publishing since the 1980s and sometimes still feel very “green”. As the years pass, the “rules” and expectations of editors and agents change, especially with the advent of social media. When I wrote my first novel, simultaneous submissions to agents were frowned upon. Over a period of 5 years, I submitted to seventeen agents, sometimes waiting for six months for a rejection and the “permission” to submit to another agent. (Although they always DID send a notice of rejection.) Now simultaneous submissions via email make the whole process a lot less tedious.

    New writers often don’t know the process and aren’t aware that they have a lot to learn.One new writer asked for my agent’s phone number and address and told me that she was short of money and needed to have a publishing contract in 3 weeks. Hmmmm….

  9. Thanks, everyone. It’s good to get all your feedback on this topic today. Getting involved in the publishing industry is an ongoing learning curve. I think Sue’s comment about very new writers not knowing the process and not recognizing they have a lot to learn is probably bang on. I wonder if more experienced writers and agents could “give back” more by using their websites better and providing more basic, ground level information directed to the newcomers. Of course, as Rachelle mentioned, it’s often those very newcomers who *aren’t* checking websites for guidelines and information. Anyone have suggestions as to how this problem might be handled?

    • Elisa Michelle says:

      Having run small groups on online sites as well as little contests and such, I can tell you some people will never read the rules and claim ignorance later. Unfortunately, they’ll keep doing it, too, and get upset that you’re not too thrilled with them. I think it’s that type of person the agents and publishers get so fed up with. At least that’s what I see.

  10. I hope a person doesn’t get penalized for ignorance or I’m in trouble, Carol. 😉

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