What Makes You Stand Out?

I had a phone conversation with an author last week—a friend of mine insisted I call her sister (a writer with connections and a fabulous agent) for advice.  While I wasn’t familiar with her work (the call was a little spur-of-the-moment), I was familiar with her agent’s reputation and duly impressed. This sister was lovely, and completely kind to spend a few minutes of her day talking to me.  She advised me on general things, and on contracts, and when our conversation ended, she told me she’d be happy to look something over for me.  I agreed to send her the said something, but as we wrapped up our conversation and I hung up the phone, my spidey senses tingled with the knowledge that I would never hear from her again. [I got this same spidey-sense feeling the week before when a contractor told me over the phone that he would call me “later”…]

I’m not bitter.  At all.  Life is busy, and she really was kind just to talk to me. But our exchange got me thinking about why things ended the way they did, and what I could have done differently.
Hers wasn’t a rejection really, it was more of a,“You’re nice, but I don’t have time for you just now,” brush-off—much like a query letter rejection (or lack of response). The whole situation reminded me so much of querying, in fact, I wrote a list of things I could have done better.

1) [This is personal one] I could have contacted her a different way.  Conversing on the phone is not my strength; I am rubbish at it. I feel insecure when I can’t see faces and gauge reactions.  Is this an official phobia? [it is; I just looked it up: telephobia] because I have it.  Email, postcard, communication by carrier pigeon is better than phone for me.

Which makes me realize that as much as I hate writing query letters, I should be happy that at least we don’t have to speak our book ideas over the phone. [look at that: a query letter silver lining!]

2) I could have been familiar with her work (I should have done my homework).  I could have commented specifically on an aspect of it. Who isn’t thrilled, and more invested in a conversation, when someone is aware of your work?

3) I could have been more confident. I fill my silences (and sometimes my sentences) with silly “maybes, hems, and has, if you don’t mind, I think, er, possiblys” and they weaken what I say.  I don’t want to be aggressive. I don’t want to use people for their connections (I love what Erin Shakespear said about not trying to network). But I definitely could have been more confident and competent-sounding.

4) [This is the big one] I didn’t make myself desirable and/or memorable enough. Frankly, I didn’t stand out.

The funny thing is, I probably could have if I’d made less of an effort [here’s a funny truth about my voice]: I have a mild British accent, but on the phone with strangers, I put on an American one because I don’t want to bother with miscommunication/repeating myself.  My American accent feels fake to me, and sometimes I shudder, but try ordering a taco and water at a drive-in with a British accent [seriously—try it], and then imagine that every time you pick up the phone….

A friend told me he knew someone who got a highly-desired job because of a recommendation from a previous employer who said, “She would be better than a potted plant”.  Apparently, that statement was so memorable—intriguing even—that the applicant stood out among others enough for an interview. (After which I can only assume she wowed with more skills than stationary vegetative growth).

I understand this.  When I was at university, I had a job giving tours (on golf carts!) to people visiting campus. It was the best job ever. After I graduated, I got a full-time position. I was in charge of hiring student tour guides. Whenever we posted a job opening, even for just one day, we got hundreds of applicants.  It was impossible for me to interview them all.  I didn’t have the time to even feel badly about this.  I had to develop a method of selecting whom to interview.  I chose to interview the students who wrote extra comments on their applications (things like, “I ‘d love this job!” “I’ve always wanted to do this!”).  Just showing that extra bit of effort and enthusiasm got them out of my slush pile and into the interview chair. [It was still hard to find really fabulous tour guides—I’m sure I missed some great ones, simply because they didn’t grab my attention at that very first moment.]

I love the idea that we need to write the novel that only we can write.  I believe it. We all have our own experience and expertise. I know I could read Tolstoy for years, but I would never feel comfortable writing novels about 19th Century Russian society. I would, however, feel comfortable writing about places I have lived and experienced personally (Welsh villages, Utah cities, London boroughs, New England country….) or imagined (outer space and alternate universes are free game) as long as I felt passionate about it.

In summary: when querying, being aware of your strengths is important, as is being aware of your audience (doing your homework), having confidence, and sounding competent. Standing out enough to get an agent’s attention (but not in an insincere/gimmicky way) is a must [your voice should be distinct from the get-go].  But your own personal voice matters too.  If I was an agent, I’d like to read, “I got this idea from . . .” It would get me into your head for a second [which is about the amount of time they have to spend on your query letter]. If I liked what I saw, I’d want to read more.


Emily Manwaring spent her childhood in Wales, her adolescence in Utah and the time since in England and New Hampshire respectively. She has a degree in English Literature from BYU and currently lives in Northern Utah with her husband and children.  She likes to sleep [mostly she just misses it], read, and write [this makes her sound very lazy].  She is currently working on a picture book series.

4 thoughts on “What Makes You Stand Out?

  1. Emily, I love this idea of being enthusiastic and genuine as a way to stand out. And I'm with you–I abhor the phone. Though I'm not as bad as my husband, who once racked up a $500 bill on an impounded car (this was before we were married!) because he didn't want to call the place to find out how to take care of it . . .


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