Author! Author! :: Anne Mini's Blog

Author! Author!

“What do you you mean, your book’s not published yet?” and other light-hearted holiday table banter

November 27th, 2014

gingerbread family

While lazily re-reading the letters of Madame de Sévigné, as one so often does at this time of year, I stumbled across a particularly revealing review of a book released several centuries ago. Quoth the great lady:

This Morale of Nicole is admirable, and Cléopatre is going along nicely, but in no hurry; it is for odd moments. Usually, it is reading this that lulls me to sleep — the large print pleases me much more than the style.

That prompted me to cast a hurried eye at the calendar, as you may imagine. “Good gravy!” I exclaimed. “Aspiring writers across this great nation are about to be having Thanksgiving dinner with otherwise charming relatives and friends who wouldn’t know literature if it were floating in the cranberry sauce! It’s time to trot out my annual balm for the souls of writers passing the mashed potatoes while trying to answer well-meant questions like ‘So you’re a writer? What have you published?’ and ‘What — you’re still working on that novel after all this time?’ Not to mention the ever-popular ‘Oh, you’re writing these days? I’d just assumed you’d given up on that dream.'”

And writers throughout the land groan with recognition. There, there, campers — you didn’t think I was going to send you over the river and through the woods without a few words of encouragement, did you?

Yet already, the eyebrows of those new to treading the path literary shoot skyward. “But Anne,” bright-eyed neophytes everywhere murmur, “aren’t you borrowing trouble here? Everyone loves a dreamer, and everyone adores good writing; therefore, it follows as night the day that everyone must be just wild about a good writer’s pursuing the dream of publication. So what makes you think we need a pep talk prior to venturing into the no doubt warm and accepting bosoms of our respective families and/or dining rooms of our inevitably supportive friends?”

Experience, mostly. In descending order of probability, a writing blogger, a fellow writer, and an editor provide the three most likely shoulders aspiring writers will dampen with their frustrated tears immediately after the festive eating and good fellowship cease. Heck, this time of year, even relatively well-established authors often beard the heavens with their bootless cries.

“Why,” they demand of the unhearing muses and anybody else who will listen, “can’t Aunt Myra, bless her heart, stop asking me why she regularly sees worse books than yours on the bestseller lists? Why must Cousin Reginald tell me at such length about his co-worker’s experience with self-publishing, as if that were relevant to my more traditional path? And why oh why cannot my beloved fraternal quadruplet Cristobal refrain from accusing me of being lazy because the memoir I wrote six years ago wasn’t out last June as a beach read?”

Excellent questions, all, but ones that can be addressed with a single answer: most non-writers harbor completely unrealistic notions about how and why good books get published. They believe, you see, in the Publishing Fairy, that completely fictional entity assigned by a beneficent universe to carry manuscripts directly from first conception to published volume swiftly, easily, and with no effort required from the writer.

Apart from the sheer act of sitting down and writing the darned thing, of course. But Aunt Myra has always suspected that half the time you claim to be spending sitting in front of your computer, wrestling with the muses, you’re actually on Facebook.

I pity Aunt Myra, Cousin Reginald, and your former womb mate Cristobal, though, truly. As a direct result of their implicit belief in the Publication Fairy and her seldom-seen-in-practice ways, they feel compelled to regard the absolutely normal years their beloved writer has spent struggling to learn the craft, wrenching the soul into written form, finding an agent who resonates with a genuinely original voice and vision, alternately waiting and revising while said agent shops the manuscript to publishers, subsequent waiting and revising while the book is in press, and exhausting marketing process as, well, abnormal.

And that, in case you had been shaking your head in wonder over a turkey leg, is why so many honest-to-goodness nice folks who deeply care about you can sound so incredibly awful when they feel forced to inquire about your writing. All of those fears about why the Publication Fairy has passed you by — or, at the very least, hasn’t yet taken you by the hand and led you to Oprah, The Colbert Report, or The New York Times Review of Books, tend to be compressed conversationally at every stage into the same ilk of question: “Why isn’t your book published yet?” They’re trying, in short, to be kind.

That’s not always apparent in the minute, though, is it? And if you’re like the overwhelming majority of writers, you’ve probably tumbled at least once into the bear trap of assuming that it was your fault for talking about your writing at all.

Come on, admit it — you’ve wished in retrospect that you hadn’t brought up your book. How could you not, when, in the course of your detailed account of just how many inches you have gnawed off your fingernails while waiting for that agent who asked for an exclusive to get back to you — it’s been five months! — Grandmamma plucked your sleeve and murmured tenderly, “Honey, why isn’t your novel in the stores? I keep telling my friends that you write” over the pie course? Didn’t you struggle just a bit to come up with a different answer than you had given her the last four times she’d asked?

If it’s any comfort, that bear trap lurks in the shadows later in the publishing process as well. When you’re six days from a hard deadline to get a revision you think is a bad idea to your publisher, Uncle Clark may well chortle, “Memoir? What on earth do you have to write memoirs about? You’re not the president.” Bearing in mind that he is fully capable of saying this to you after you have been elected president provides scant comfort, I’m sorry to say.

Or, when you’re over the moon because an agent — a real, live, honest-to-goodness agent! — has agreed to represent your baby, Gertrude-who-doesn’t-have-any-family-locally will boom over her second helping of glazed carrots, “Oh, congratulations! When’s the book coming out?” Invariably, while you are struggling to explain the vital difference between signing a representation contract and a contract with a publisher, the relative responsible for inviting Gertrude will attempt to change the subject. Perhaps violently.

And every writer currently treading the earth’s crust has encountered some form of Cousin Antoinette’s why-isn’t-he-her-ex-husband-yet’s annual passive-aggressive attempt at hearty encouragement. “Still no agent, eh? I’d always thought that the really good books got snapped up right away. Have you thought at all about self-publishing? A good writer can make a lot of money that way, right?”

Am I correct that you have on occasion kicked yourself for your reaction — or non-reaction — to such outrageous stimuli? I’m sure you’ve told yourself that a sane, confident, unusually secure writer might well have answered: “Why, yes, Roger, I have indeed thought about self-publishing. As I had last year and the year before, when you had previously proffered this self-evident suggestion. Now shut up, please, and pass the darned yams.”

Or piped merrily, “Well, as the agents like to say, Uncle Clark, it all depends on the writing. So unless you’d like me to embark upon a fifty-two minute explanation of the intrinsic differences between the Ulysses S. Grant-style national-scale autobiography that you probably have in mind and a personal memoir about the adolescence in which you played a minor but memorably disagreeable role — a disquisition with which I would be all too happy to bore the entire table — could I interest you in a third helping of these delightful vermouth-doused string beans?”

Or chirped between courses, “You know, Gertie, that’s a common misconception. If you’d like to learn something about how the publication process actually works, I could refer you to an excellent blog.”

Or, while Grandmamma’s mouth is full of pie, observed suavely, “I so appreciate your drumming up future readers for my novel, dearest; I’m sure that will come in very handy down the road. But no, ‘trying just a little harder this year’ won’t necessarily make the difference between hitting the bestseller lists and obscurity. You might want to try telling your friends that even if I landed an agent for my novel within the next few days — even less likely at this time of year than others, by the way, as the publishing world slows to a crawl between Thanksgiving and the end of the year — it could easily be a year or two before you can realistically urge them to buy my novel. Thanks for your reliable support, though; it means a lot to me.”

Most of us aren’t up to that level of even-tempered and informative riposte, alas. We’re more inclined to get defensive, to tell Dad he doesn’t know whereat he speaks — or to stuff our traitorous mouths with mashed potatoes so we won’t tell Dad he doesn’t know whereat he speaks. In the moment, even the best-intentioned of those questions can sound very much like an insidious echo of that self-doubting hobgoblin that so loves to lurk in the back of the creative mind.

“If you were truly talented,” that little beastie loves to murmur in the ear of a writer already feeling discouraged, “an admiring public would already be enjoying your work in droves. And in paperback. Now stop thinking about your book and go score more leftover pie and some coffee; tormenting you is thirsty work.”

Admit it — you’re on a first-name basis with that goblin. It’s been whispering in your ear ever since you began to query. Or submit. Or perhaps as soon as you started to write.

Even so, you’re entitled to be a little startled when Bertie with the pitchfork suddenly begins speaking out of the mouth of that otherwise perfectly pleasant person your brother brought along to dinner because he’s new to town and has nowhere else to go on Thanksgiving. Instead of emptying that conveniently nearby vat of cranberry sauce over his Adonis-like curls, may I suggest trying to be charitable? Your brother’s friend may actually be doing you a favor by verbalizing your lingering doubts, you know.

“Wait — how?” you ask, cranberry-filled vat already aloft.

Well, it’s a heck of a lot easier to argue with a living, breathing person than someone whose base camp is located inside your head. Astonishingly often, an artless question like “Oh, you write? Would I have read any of your work?” from the ignoramus across the table will give voice to a niggling doubt that’s been eating at a talented writer for years.

Or so I surmise, from how frequently writers complain about such questions. “How insensitive can they be?” writers inevitably wail in the wake of holiday gatherings, and who could blame them? “I swear that I heard ‘So when is your book coming out?’ twice as often as ‘Pass the gravy, please.’ Why is it that my kith/kin/the kith and/or kin of some acquaintance kind enough to feed me don’t seem to have the faintest idea of what it means to be a working writer, as opposed to the fantasy kind that writes a book one minute, is instantly and spontaneously solicited by an agent the next, and is chatting on a couch with a late-night TV host immediately thereafter? Why is publication — and wildly successful publication at that — so frequently regarded as the only measure of writing talent?”

The short answer to that extraordinarily well-justified cri de coeur is an unfortunately cruel one: because that’s how society at large judges writing. I’m relatively certain, though, that the question-asking gravy-eschewers who drove the writers mentioned above to distraction (and, quite possibly, drove them home afterward) did not intend to be cruel. They’re just echoing a common misunderstanding of how books do and don’t get published.

Which brings us once again to our old pal, the Publication Fairy. Her pixie dust can blind even the most sensible bystander to the writing process. Not only does popular belief hold that the only good book is a published book — a proposition that would make anyone who actually handles manuscripts for a living positively gasp with laughter — but also that if a writer were actually gifted, publication would be both swift and inevitable, following with little or no effort hard upon typing THE END on a first draft. Commercial success arrives invariably for great books, too, because unless the author happens to be a celebrity in another field, the only possible difference between a book that lands the author on the bestseller lists and one that languishes unpurchased on a shelf is the quality of the writing, right? Because no one ever buys a book without reading it first.

Are you guffawing yet? More importantly, is Bertie the Hobgoblin? Trust me, anyone who works with manuscripts for a living would be rolling on the shag carpet by now.

Yet I sense that you’re not laughing. You’re not even smiling. In fact, if you’re honest about it, you and Bertie may have been nodding silently while reading through that list of risible untruths about publishing.

Because this is such a frequent source of self-doubt, let’s tease out the logic a little. If we accept all of the suppositions as accurate, there are only two conceivable reasons that a manuscript could possibly not already be published: it’s not yet completed (in which case the writer is lazy, right?) or it simply isn’t any good (and thus does not deserve to be published). That means, invariably, that a writer complaining about how hard the road is must either need a kick in the rump or gentle dissuasion from pursuing a dream that can’t possibly come true.

Fortunately for dinner-table harmony, most nice folks aren’t up to providing either to a relative they see only once or twice a year. (Although your Aunt Gloria is always up for a little rump-kicking, I hear.) Accordingly, they figure, the only generous response to a writer who has been at it a while, yet does not have a book out, must be to avert one’s eyes and make vaguely encouraging noises.

Or to change the subject altogether. Really, it isn’t your sister’s coworker’s fault that your mother told him to sit next to the writer in the family. Why, the coworker thinks, rub salt in the already-wounded ego of some poor soul writhing under a first query rejection, and who therefore clearly has no talent for writing?

Chuckling yet? You should be. While it is of course conceivable that any of the reasons above could be stifling the publication chances of any particular manuscript to which a hopeful writer might refer after a relative she sees only once a year claps her heartily on the back and bellows, “How’s the writing coming, Violet?” yet again, the very notion that writing success should be measured — or could be adequately measured — solely by whether the mythical Publication Fairy has yet whacked it with her Print-and-Bind-It-Now wand would cause the pros to choke with mirth.

So would the length of that last sentence, come to think of it. Ol’ Henry James must surely be beaming down at me from the literary heavens over that one. Unless he’s still lingering over the pecan pie with Madame de Sévigné, Noël Coward, and Euripides. (They’re always the last to leave the table.)

Again, though, my finely-tuned antennae tell me that some of you are not in fact choking with mirth. “But Anne,” frustrated writers everywhere point out, “although naturally, I know from reading this blog (particularly the informative posts under the HOW THE PUBLISHING INDUSTRY WORKS — AND DOESN’T category at right), listening carefully to what agents say they want, and observation of the career trajectories of both my writer friends and established authors alike, that many an excellent manuscript languishes for years without being picked up, part of me really, really, REALLY wants to believe that’s not actually the case. Or at least that it will not be in my case.”

See what I mean about the holidays’ capacity for causing those internalized pernicious assumptions to leap out of the mind and demand to be fed? Let’s listen for a bit longer; perhaps we can learn something more. Let’s get it all out on the table.

“If the literary universe is fair,” writers and their pet hobgoblins typically reason…

(Stop here for every agent, editor, and book promoter who has ever lived to snort with hilarity.)

“…a good manuscript should always find a home. If that’s true, perhaps my kith and kin are right that if I were really talented, the only thing I would ever have to say at Thanksgiving is that my book is already out and where I would like them to buy it.”

Actually, in that instance, you would be fending off injured cries of “Where is my free copy?” But we’ll talk about that later. Your hobgoblins were saying?

“Since it’s an agent’s job to find exciting new talent,” Bernie et al. continue, “and my query — not my manuscript — has been rejected by four agents and I’ve never heard back from the fifth who asked to see the first 30 pages, there’s really no point in continuing to try to find an agent for this book. They all share the same tastes, and anyway, they’d probably only want me to change things in my manuscript. Maybe Roger is right to urge me to self-publish. But then all of the costs and pressures of promotion would fall on me, and…”

“Wait just a book-signing minute!” another group of not-yet-completely-frustrated writers and their hobgoblins interrupt us. “What do you mean, many an excellent manuscript languishes for years without being picked up? How is that possible? Isn’t it the publishing industry’s job — and its sole job — to identify and promote writing talent? And doesn’t that mean that any truly talented writer will be so identified and promoted, if only he is brave enough to send out work persistently, until he finds the right agent for it?”

“Whoa!” still a third demographic and its internal demons shout en masse. “Send out work persistently? Rejected by four agents — and not heard back from a fifth? I thought that if a writer was genuinely gifted, any good agent would snatch up her manuscript. So why would any excellent writer need to query more than one or two times?”

Do you hear yourselves, people? You’re invoking the Publishing Fairy. Are you absolutely certain you want to do that?

It’s a dangerous practice for a writer, you know. The Publication Fairy’s long, shallow shadow can render seeing one’s own publication chances decrease over time. Following her siren song can lead a writer to believe, for instance, that the goal of querying is to land just any agent, rather than one who already has the connections to sell a particular book. Or that it would be a dandy idea to sending out a barrage of queries to the fifty agents a search engine spit out, or even to every agent in the country, without checking first to see if any of them represent a your kind of book. Or — you might want to put down your fork, the better to digest this one, my dear — to give up after just a few rejections.

Because if that writer were actually talented, how he went about approaching agents wouldn’t matter, would it? The Publishing Fairy would see to it that nothing but the quality of the writing would be assessed — and thus it follows like drowsiness after consuming vast quantities of turkey that if a writer gets rejected, ever, the manuscript must not be well-written. You might as well give up after the first rejection. Or before taking a chance on a query.

Why shouldn’t you, when by prevailing logic, it’s hardly necessary for the writer to expend any effort at all, beyond writing a first draft of the book? Those whom the Publishing Fairy bops in the noggin need merely toss off an initial draft — because the honestly gifted writer never needs to revise anything, right? — then wait mere instants until an agent is miraculously wafted to her doorstep.

Possibly accompanied by Mary Poppins, if the wind is right.

Ah, it’s a pretty fantasy, isn’t it? The agent reads the entire book at a sitting — or, better still, extrapolates the entire book from a swift glance at a query — and shouts in ecstasy, “This is the book for which I have been waiting for my entire professional career!” A book contract follows instantaneously, promising publication within a week. By the end of a couple of months at the very latest, the really talented writer will be happily ensconced on a well-lit couch in a television studio, chatting with a talk show host about her book, pretending to be modest.

“It has been a life-changing struggle,” the writer says brightly, courageously restraining happy tears, “but I felt I had to write this book. As Maya Angelou says, ‘there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.'”

You would be astonished at the ubiquity this narrative of authorial achievement enjoys amongst aspiring writers. They may not all believe it intellectually — they may have come to understand, for example, that since no agent in the world represents every conceivable type of book, it’s a waste of time to query an agent who does not habitually handle books in one’s chosen book category. At a gut level, however, every rejection feels like just more evidence of being ignored by the Publication Fairy.

Which must mean that the manuscript isn’t nearly as good as you’d thought, right? Why else would an agent — any agent — who has not seen so much as a word of it not respond to a query? The Publication Fairy must have tipped her off that something wasn’t quite as it should be.

Otherwise, where’s Mary Poppins? Aunt Myra may have a point.

‘Fess up — you’ve thought this at time or two. Practically every aspiring writer who did not have the foresight to become a celebrity (who enjoy a completely different path to publication) before attempting to get published entertains such doubts in the dead of night, or at any rate in the throes of being questioned by those with whom one is sharing a gravy boat for the evening. If the road to publication is hard, long, and winding, it must mean something, mustn’t it?

Why, yes: it could mean that the book category in which one happens to be writing is not selling very well right now, for one thing. Good agents are frequently reluctant to pick up even superlative manuscripts they don’t believe they could sell in the current market. It could also signify that the agents one has been approaching do not have a solid track record of selling similar books, or that for querying purposes, one has assigned one’s book to an inappropriate category.

Any of these can result in knee-jerk rejection. Even if a manuscript is a perfect fit and everyone at the agency adores the writing, the literary marketplace has contracted to such an extent in recent years that few agents can afford to take on as many truly talented new clients as they would like.

But those are not the justifications likely to pacify Bernie the Hobgoblin in the night. Nor are they prone to convince Uncle Clark, or make Grandmamma happy, or to awe Roger into the supportive acceptance you would prefer he evince until Cousin Antoinette finally gives him the heave-ho. If only there were some short, pithy quip you could trot out at such instants, if not to cajole these excellent souls into active support, at least to stop them from skewering you when you’re feeling vulnerable.

I cannot give you that magical statement, unfortunately. All I can offer you is the truth: offhand, I can think of approximately no well-established authors for whom the Publishing Fairy fantasy we’ve been discussing represents a real-life career trajectory.

Sorry, Dad — that’s just not how books get published. More pie?

The popular conception of how publishing works is, not to put too fine a point on it, composed largely of magical thinking. All of us would like to believe that if a manuscript is a masterpiece, there’s no chance that it would go unpublished. We cling to the comforting concept that ultimately, the generous literary gods will reach down to nudge brilliant writing from the slush pile (which no longer exists) to the top of the acceptance heap.

We believe, in short, in the Publication Fairy. That’s understandable in a writer: those of us in cahoots with the muses would prefer not to think that they were in the habit of tricking us with false hope. An intriguing belief, given that even a passing acquaintance with literary history would lead one to suspect that the ladies in question do occasionally get a kick out of snatching recognition from someone they have blessed with undoubted talent.

Edgar Allan Poe didn’t exactly die a happy man, people. Oscar Wilde was known to have run into a barrier or two. Louisa May Alcott toiled to churn out potboilers and war anecdotes to pay the coal bill for years before turning to YA, and the primary reason that we know the works of Percy Bysshe Shelley is that his wife happened to be a major novelist and the daughter of two major novelists; Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley was arguably the greatest literary publicist of all time.

And the first novel Jane Austen sold to a publisher? It didn’t come out until after her death.

The muses donate their favors whimsically. I ask you, though, through the lens of that historical perspective: is it really soon enough to judge your writing solely by its immediate commercial prospects? Is it ever?

To non-writers, these perfectly reasonable questions can appear downright delusional, or at the very least confusing. They have no experience having their passions bandied about by the muses, you see. To be fair, you cannot expect otherwise from an upstanding citizen whose idea of Hell consists of a demon’s forcing him into an uncomfortable desk chair in front of a seriously outdated computer and howling, “You must write a book!”

So we are left to ask ourselves: what can such a sterling soul possibly gain by believing that, unlike in literally every other human endeavor, excellence in writing is invariably rewarded? Even those who strenuously avoid bookstores often cling to the myth of the Publication Fairy with a tenacity that makes Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy turn chartreuse with envy. If only adults believed in them with such fervor!

If you doubt the strength of the Publication Fairy’s sway, try talking about your writing over a holiday dinner to a group of non-writers who haven’t asked about it. “So when is your book coming out?” that-cousin-whose-relationship-to-you-has-never-been-clear will inquire. “And would you mind passing that mysterious grey substance with which your roommate chose to trouble our family meal?”

“What do you mean, you haven’t finished writing that book yet?” Great-Aunt Mavis chimes in, helping herself to sweet potatoes. “You talked about writing it before Travis here was born, and now he’s on the football squad.”

“Are you still doing that?” Grandpa demands incredulously. “I thought you’d given up when you couldn’t sell your first book. Or is this still the first book?”

Your brother’s wife might attempt to be a bit more tactful; Colleen always tries, doesn’t she? “Oh, querying sounds just awful. Do you really want to put yourself through it? I have a friend who’s self-publishing, and…”

Thanks, Colleen — because, of course, that would never have occurred to you. You’ve never encountered a dank midnight in which you dreamt of thumbing your nose at traditional publishing at least long enough to bypass the querying and submission processes, rush the first draft of your Great American Novel onto bookshelves, and then sit back, waiting for the profits to roll in, the reviewers to rave, and publishers the world over to materialize on your doorstep, begging to publish your next book.

Never mind that the average self-published book sells fewer than five hundred copies — yes, even today — or that most publications that still review books employ policies forbidding the review of self-published books. Half of the books released every year in North America are not self-published, after all. Ignore the fact that all of the effort of promoting such a book falls on the author. And don’t even give a passing thought to the reality that in order for a self-published book to impress the traditional publishing world even vaguely, it typically needs to sell at least 10,000 copies.

Yes, you read that correctly. But the Publishing Fairy can merely wave her wand and change all of that, right?

If she can, she certainly doesn’t do it much. Chant it with me now: agents don’t magically appear on good authors’ doorsteps within thirty seconds of the words The End being typed. But someone predisposed to believe otherwise is also unlikely to understand that when you land an agent, you will not automatically be handed a publication contract by some beneficent deity. If every agented writer had a nickel for each time some well-meaning soul said, “Oh, you have an agent? When’s your book coming out?” we could construct our own publishing house.

We could stack up the first million or so nickels for girders. Mary Poppins could have a flat landing-place made out of dimes.

Try not to hold it against your father-in-law: chances are, he just doesn’t have any idea how publishing actually works.

But you do. Don’t let anybody, not even the insidious hobgoblins of midnight reflection, tell you that the reason you don’t already have a book out is — and must necessarily be — that you just aren’t talented enough. That’s magical thinking, and you’re too smart to buy into it.

I’m not suggesting, of course, that those of you who have yet to dine today deliberately pick a fight with your third cousin twice removed or any other delightful soul considerate enough to inquire about your writing in the immediate vicinity of pickled beets. I sense, though, that more than a few of you would enjoy having a bit of ammunition at the ready in anticipation for that particular battle, should it arise.

Okay, how might one gird one’s loins for that especially indigestible discussion? Had you thought about responding to the question “Published yet, Charlie?” by abruptly asking how everyone at the table feels about the recent election? Or universal healthcare? Or a certain grand jury verdict in Missouri?

You see the point, don’t you? Just as it’s risky to assume that everyone gathered around even the most Norman Rockwell-pleasing holiday table shares identical political beliefs, it’s always dangerous to presume that every kind soul there will be concealing under that sweater-clad chest a heart open to the realities of publishing as it actually occurs. Accepting the probable reality that even the most eloquent explanation will not necessarily sway hearts and minds from devotion to the Publication Fairy may be your best bet.

So what might a writer besieged by the Publication Fairy’s acolytes do to protect her digestion? How about limiting to the discussion to “The writing’s going very well. How’s your handball game these days, Ambrose?”

Seem evasive? Well, it is. But would you rather allow the discourse to proceed to the point that you might have to say to a relative that has just referred to your writing as Allison’s time-gobbling little hobby, “Good one, Sis. Seriously, though, I don’t want to stultify you with an explanation of how books really get published.”

Think about giving it a rest this year, in short. Don’t try to educate everyone in one fell swoop; it’s not your responsibility, and actually, the lecture you give this year may not be sufficiently remembered the next to help you. (Oh, that’s only my in-laws?) Unless you are willing to resign yourself to the inevitability of annual soapbox-mounting, you might want to consider letting your loved ones’ belief in the Publication Fairy survive another holiday season.

If your inherent sense of justice urges you to convey some small sense of your monumental effort toward writing and/or revising, or to share a glimpse into multitudinous stresses involved in querying, submission, and so forth, I’d advise keeping it brief for the purposes of general discussion. It can be easy to become carried away by a topic close to your creative heart, though. If you find yourself starting to launch into a major speech, a simple “Well, I could go on for hours, Horace, but suffice it to say that it’s really hard. I’m trying to take a day off from it, though” can easily bring it to a close. It can also allow you to control how long you’re on the spot.

Oh, now I hear some of you laughing. Yes? “Oh, Anne,” you say, wiping the tears of hilarity from your rosy cheeks, “it’s obvious you have never met my kith/kin/the relative strangers with whom I propose to spend the holiday. I anticipate being confronted not with the casual double-edged question, but with a level of intensive cross-examination and invasive scrutiny from which Perry Mason himself could glean a few pointers. I’m not worried about getting into the conversation; I despair of ever getting out of it.”

A tougher nut to crack, admittedly. I would recommend cutting it off at the first parry. “Wow, that’s a big subject, Gerard,” can often do the trick. Adding “I could prattle for weeks about the behind-the-scenes trials every author faces along the way, but my dinner would get cold, and I so want to hear about Cousin Blanche’s hysterectomy. Ask me again after the dishes are done, when we can make ourselves cozy in a corner and talk. How about during the football game?”

That last bit will, of course, work best if Gerard happens to be a die-hard football fan. It may feel like a low blow, but hey, all’s fair in love, war, and protecting your passions.

If pressed, you could always murmur, “I’d love to continue this fascinating exchange, Hermione, but would you mind if I grabbed my notebook first? Because everyone here is aware that anything you say can and will be used against you in a novel, right?”

An especially judgmental holiday table might be anticipated by the appearance of such a notebook beside your napkin, in fact. As any journalist or rationally self-protective memoirist could tell you, people are apt to clam up a little when they notice their words are being recorded for posterity. Applying pen to paper proactively, accompanied by a slight, rueful shake of the head and a chuckle, will at least turn the conversation from “Why aren’t you published?” to “What are you writing? What did I just say?”

The latter may well be spoken in a resentful tone, but you might be astonished how often it isn’t. Speaking as a memoirist, I’m here to tell you that it never pays underestimate the flattery inherent in finding people interesting enough to occupy page space. I’ve seldom met the Aunt Myra so iron-hearted that “Oh, wow — I’ve just got to write that quip down, Auntie! Talk amongst yourselves while I do” doesn’t soften her will to criticize, at least a little. And it’s a terrific defense for the moment Aunt Gloria decides your rump would benefit from some well-intentioned kicking about not polishing off your revision fast enough.

You could also call upon most people’s active dislike of boredom. An enthusiastic cry of “Oh, my goodness — you have no idea how happy I am that you want to hear all about my writing! Just a sec, while I power up my laptop. The scene I want to read you is a trifle on the long side, but you don’t mind keeping my food warm for me, do you, Eloise?”

Prepare to be stunned by the urgency with which Uncle George and his — what are they called at that age? — great and good friend Carlotta fling themselves into a discussion of the comparative merits of The Blacklist and White Palace as James Spader vehicles at that particular moment. Or Cousin Tremaine’s burning desire to share the scores of each of his eight children’s soccer games. For the last two years.

As I learned at my mother’s knee, any dinner table seating five or more people naturally breaks up into more than one conversation. (My parents threw a lot of literary dinner parties.) Use it.

If the proposed dramatic reading of your own writing doesn’t induce panic, try a burbling offer to declaim that passage in Melville that changed your life forever. Or Proust — in the original French, if necessary. (See earlier observation about what’s fair in love, war, and ego-preservation.)

Let’s assume for the sake of caution, though, that you’re facing a tableful of kith/kin/well-meaning relative strangers breaking bread with you so committed to showing you the error of your writing ways that there’s no graceful way to evade or shorten the conversation. Or that you are dining with a group whose belief in the Publication Fairy is so unquestioning as to border on the childlike (or imbecilic), and you hate the idea of any one of those people’s feeling sorry for you. Or maybe that your obnoxious brother Graham knows that the agent of your dreams has been sitting on your first 50 pages for nine long weeks, and he just enjoys needling you.

Whichever may be the case, what’s a nice (and most writers are nice) writer to do? I would recommend seizing the moment to engage in a little advance education on the practicalities of occupying the inner circle of a published author’s life. The sooner Great-Uncle Vic learns that there’s more to being a famous author’s relative than bragging rights and free books, the more comfortable everyone will be on the happy day when you do in fact become a famous author.

I find that concentrating upon the details tends to go over better than gentle nudges toward a more supportive attitude while folks are gnawing upon drumsticks. I would recommend, in short, of seizing the opportunity of disabusing them of the notion that they’re not going to have to buy your books.

Be prepared for a certain amount of incredulity: next to the Publication Fairy, the notion that authors’ kith and kin routinely receive free copies is one of your more ubiquitous misconceptions. It’s seldom true, at least not to the extent your relatives will think. Yes, Second-Cousin-Thrice-Removed Myrtle, publishers do generally provide their authors with an extremely limited stock of their books, with the expectation that such will be used for promotion. They’re going to want you to pass them along to book reviewers and bloggers and the clerk at your favorite bookstore, not to endow your relatives’ bookshelves, if you catch my drift.

The number of free copies will almost certainly be considerably smaller than either Great-Uncle Vic or Carlotta have been thinking, too. (Oh, you didn’t think he’d been expecting you to send him a signed copy for Carlotta, too? Think again.) Somewhere between 5 and 50 is the norm.

That means, in practice, that if you recklessly promise scads of free copies — and those of us in the biz are perpetually appalled at how often first-time authors often do — you will be facing some hard choices. To whom will you give those precious few books?

Undoubtedly more important to the folks with whom you are currently enjoying turkey, how many of them will not be on that short list? What about the person sitting across the table from you? To your left? To your right?

Before you answer, you might want to take a quick mental count of all the other people who might make sense as recipients. Will you want to send one to your favorite writing teacher? The lady at the archives who took all that extra time to help you research the book? What about your college roommate? Or that blogger who gave you hope when your relatives criticized you? (Oh, yes, authors constantly send me review copies. As much as I appreciate the gesture, please, don’t waste a book on me that you could send to what are euphemistically called opinion-makers: I’d be more than happy with a beautifully-phrased thank-you card, truly.)

All done toting up? Okay, here are 10 free copies. Are there any left for your relatives?

If the answer is no, trust me, it’s better you know it now. It’s also news that you might want to break with great care to your relatives.

Yes, yes, I know: you don’t want to do it. But tell me: will Myrtle be less hurt to hear about it now, or three days before your book drops? What about Uncle George, Aunt Gloria, or the rest of those quadruplets? Honestly, you would be saving them from future disappointment — and yourself from what can be quite a lot of well-intentioned pressure.

Oh, you want a foretaste? How about “What do you mean, you didn’t save a copy for your brother Ralph? You expect someone with whom you shared a bedroom for a decade to pay for his copy?”

Yes, you do. Or you will. It’s not merely that for every copy you give away, that’s one less copy sold. (Who did you think would buy your book, if not your kith, kin, and everyone who has ever known you?) That ultimately means fewer royalties for you, as well as possibly a harder time convincing a publisher to bring out your next book.

Not that it would be remotely politic to express any of this so bluntly, of course. Phrase it as gently as you know how; it will come as a blow to folks expecting not only never to have to pay a dime for a single word of your writing, but possibly — brace yourself — having also presumed that they would be on the receiving end of copies to distribute to their friends. (Hey, it’s a common fantasy amongst the author-adjacent.)

Just bear in mind that by speaking now, you’re ultimately saving the people you love from chagrin. If that doesn’t do the trick, try recalling that if you recklessly promise free copies — and again, those of us in the biz are positively aghast at how many first-time authors have — you will almost certainly be buying those gift copies yourself.

I don’t mean that conceptually, by the way: it’s exceedingly common for first-time authors to end up actually purchasing individual copies for their relatives and friends. To see why, you need only revisit that mental list of gift recipients.

That’s a difficult reality to accept, isn’t it? I can tell you now that you’re going to feel mean as you convey this information. Feel free to blame me as the source of the bad news: trust me, it would not be the first time “You’re not going to believe what I read on Author! Author!” was used as a blow-softener. I’m tough; I can take it.

More to the point, I’m not having Thanksgiving dinner with you, am I?

I can, however, anticipate your mother’s first tremulous question, and possibly yours: yes, authors do generally receive fairly substantial discounts on their own books, as long as those books are purchased directly from the publisher (and, in many cases, ordered in advance of the release date). Houses like to encourage their authors to carry around copies to resell to anyone who says, “Oh, you have a book out? Cool!”

That’s why, in case you’ve been wondering, authors so often show up at reading venues staggering under heavy backpacks or enormous purses. If the venue’s not a bookstore, those authors usually have a box or two of books in their cars, ready to pile in an attractive display next to the podium. (What, you thought the Publication Fairy brought them?)

What may interest you more than your mother to hear, however, is that copies purchased with the author’s discount virtually never count toward a book’s sales totals — and thus not toward royalties. That hefty discount arises from your price’s not reflecting royalty costs or negotiated deals with booksellers, you see. (You’re going to want to check your publishing contract carefully on this point; sometimes, it’s negotiable, as is the number of free copies.) A cost-conscious writer might also like to know before promising copies that one’s agent or acquiring editor might not think to point out that buying a lot of discounted books might not be to the author’s advantage.

They tend to assume that the bit about those copies’ not adding toward sales totals is quite a bit more widely known than it actually is; it’s not unheard-of for this tidbit not to be discussed at all at contract time, or even as the book is moving toward publication. The author usually hears about the number of free copies (“There you go, Mom!”) and the discount (“Okay, Great-Uncle Vic can think that his was free.”), but simply assumes that a book sold is a book sold. Why wouldn’t a discounted copy be included in the overall total and generate royalties?

Don’t believe that often comes as an unpleasant surprise? As recently as last week, I was chatting with a quite successful first-time memoirist. Her excellent book came out earlier this year, and, as is so often the case, she had underestimated the unpaid time, effort, and expense an author at a major house is routinely expected to devote to book promotion. She was particularly annoyed to learn that she had to buy and pay to ship 50 copies of her book to a speaking venue — and then to pay to have the 42 that hadn’t sold at the event shipped to her home. She wasn’t sure, she said, that she would be willing to do it again.

I commiserated. “And to think that after all that effort, those books will have no effect on your book’s sales totals. I’m so sorry.”

“Wait,” she said. “What? I won’t get royalties?”

So no, Mom, your baby’s probably not going to be coughing up the cover price for a copy for you, but it may be costly in other ways. Your in-house author may even be able to shake free a gratis copy for Great-Grandma Midge, who isn’t getting any younger, but please don’t feel guilty. Mom might want to get into the habit of telling more distant relatives — like, say, those cousins she made you invite to your wedding, although you hadn’t seen them since you were six — that they should plan on buying their own copies. You would be delighted to sign them afterward.

Trust the voice of experience: the more special she feels at the prospect of clutching her own free book — the only one in the family, because you’re such a good kid! — the more likely she is to go to bat for you. “Every single copy Tammy sells helps her,” she can say — and she’ll get better with practice. “I’ll understand if you can’t afford it, of course. She’s been working so hard for so many years on this book, but please don’t feel guilty.”

Translation: the best thing Aunt Myra could do to support your writing career would be to commit to buying your book(s) herself. Promise to sign it for her the instant she does. If you’re feeling adventurous, extend that promise to visiting her in order to inscribe copies for all of the friends she can cajole, blandish, and/or guilt into purchasing.

I have faith in your Aunt Myra. I think she can push some volumes.

All that being said, don’t kick yourself if you find you don’t have the heart to tell your relatives and friends any of this in the course of the current holiday season. This is big stuff, and even the best of us have people in our lives prone to judging the quality of a book by its position on the bestseller list. You have to pick your battles. You might want to bookmark this page, though, so you have the arguments handy down the line.

Heck, you could just forward the link to your kith and kin a few months before your first book comes out. Again, I don’t mind playing the heavy here, if it helps you. I’ve spent a lifetime explaining to everyone’s relatives that since the Publication Fairy so often falls down on the job, it’s up to the rest of us to support the writers in our lives.

I see no reason to stop now. Your writing deserves it, doesn’t it?

And you have that support within our Author! Author! community. Here, we don’t dismiss every book that doesn’t sell 150,000 copies. We don’t feel that large print contributes more to reading pleasure than the style of the writing. (Take that, Madame de Sévigné!) And most of all, we don’t believe in the Publication Fairy.

It’s sweet, in a way, that so many people do. By that logic, the Followers of the Fairy incur a greater obligation than the rest of us to buy the books of authors they know personally: the Fairy, and the industry, can only reward with success books that readers purchase. Anyone who wants to judge your dream to write by that yardstick should understand that they can, with a good will and the best of intentions, contribute to your sales totals. And thus to their opinion of the value of your writing endeavors.

As always, keep up the good work. Happy digestion to all, and to all a good night.

A rare unvarnished glimpse into post-publication life

November 2nd, 2014

The Red Book cover

I don’t usually post links to online articles, campers, but I wanted to give you a heads-up about an unusual piece just published on Café by the always thought-provoking Deborah Copaken. The article is a good example of short memoir writing — something I always like to celebrate. It’s also, I suspect, going to be of interest to pretty much anybody who has ever hoped to make a living as a writer.

You see, the popular conception that getting published — nay, signing a first book contract — means instantly quitting one’s day job is seriously outdated. It was never a particularly accurate view of how authorship worked (says the lady whose family has been publishing since the 1920s), of course. In recent years, though, the combination of plummeting advances, declines in hard copy book sales, and the costs of promotion and even editing being pushed onto authors has meant that one’s work being recognized by a major publisher isn’t necessarily a financial boon, if you catch my drift. Yet the myth persists that to have an even moderately successful book equals pulling in money by the wheelbarrow load.

It’s rare that an established author writes about this experience, except in retrospect. That’s why I’m so excited about Deborah’s piece: the lady’s had a novel on the bestseller lists, and not that long ago.

“Aha!” the masses cry, slapping its collective forehead. “That’s why I know the name! You’re talking about Deborah Copaken Kogan, author of the novel whose cover happens to be gracing the top of this post. If only someone would post links to The Red Book’s Amazon page, or, for those who prefer an indie bookseller, Powell’s.”

What an excellent idea, masses — and good for you for paying attention to our ongoing (if rather sporadic) discussion of book promotion. You’re well on your way to building up some excellent authorial karma. Chant the rule with me now: whenever you talk online about a book or author you like, it’s courteous to include a link. It’s especially kind if that link leads to a place to purchase the title in question.

My, we’ve learned a lot for what I’d intended as the briefest of notes, haven’t we? To learn even more, find yourself a nice, comfortable chair and take a sobering look at what it’s like to have a bestseller on your résumé. As I say so often, the more realistic an aspiring writer’s notions are going into the publishing, the happier that writer is going to be throughout the whole shebang.

Speaking of book promotion, the comments on this post would be a terrific place to post your questions/concerns/clawing, pathological fears about it. As soon as we polish off our current series on exclusives, we’re going to be hearing from some pros on the subject. After all, readers have to know that your book exists before they can read and fall in love with it, right?

Let’s keep building that tool kit — and learning from one another. As always, keep up the good work!

When “where do I send those requested materials?” is a multiple-choice question

November 1st, 2014

proposal drawing
proposal drawing3
proposal drawing 2

When last we met, before time so rudely interrupted me by passing in the conventional manner, we were deep in the throes of discussing the thorny issue of exclusive submissions, de facto and otherwise. As flattering as it is to be asked not to send your manuscript elsewhere while an agent or editor at a small press considers your writing, it’s not invariably to a conference pitcher or successful querier’s advantage to give into the almost universal initial impulse to shout, “Yes! Yes! A thousand times, yes!” before it’s entirely clear to what one is agreeing. Sometimes, that happy shout echoes later rather dismally in the ears of the writer caught in the ostensibly enviable situation of having a second agent or editor at a small press say yes to a query whilst the manuscript in question (or a partial) is dallying with the first.

That echo can be especially mournful, if you’ll forgive my bringing it up, to the writer who learned only through first-hand experience that just because an agent or editor asks, usually quite nicely, if she may read the book before any other pro does, it doesn’t necessarily speed up the consideration process. A request for an exclusive does not generally mean that the requester intends to clear his schedule to read those pages the instant they arrive, after all. That’s not too astonishing, considering how rare it is for any single request for an exclusive to be the only one an agent or editor makes in, say, a conference season. Or in six months’ worth of queries.

Oh, dear, did the behemoth thump that just shook the cosmos indicate that I should have advised you to sit down before reading that last paragraph? I’m not altogether flabbergasted, because frankly, misunderstanding — or even misreading — the terms of an exclusive submission request tends to be the norm, rather than the exception. All too often, overjoyed pitchers and queriers will respond to what they think the agent is asking, rather than what she actually says.

Completely understandable, right, when such requests so frequently come as a surprise? In the moment, even a simple “Hey, that was a good pitch; send me the first 30 pages” can sound like winning, if not the lottery, then at least a bet on a long shot at the Kentucky Derby. With every cell in a writer’s brain gurgling, “At last! At last!” it’s not particularly uncommon for conference pitchers to presume that any request for pages could only have been intended as an exclusive.

“But Anne!” those of you who joined me for our last discussion on the topic cry. “How can that be? Such expectations are always stated explicitly. So unless an agent or editor actually asks for an exclusive, or the agency for which the requesting agent works has a clearly-expressed exclusives-only policy posted on its website, why would it ever be to a submitter’s advantage to stop submitting to others while the requesting agent is reading the manuscript? Heck, why would it even be to that writer’s advantage to cease querying in the meantime?”

The short answer is that it wouldn’t — and how gratifying that you caught that, inveterate readers. It almost invariably slows down a manuscript’s search for a professional home to submit, much less query, only one agency at a time. And what does the writer gain by the delay, really? At best, submitting it to only one agent might save the writer from having to query and/or submit further. Not an insignificant conservation of energy, true, but bought at the expense of quite a risk.

“What risk?” those of you delighted by the very notion of having to query and submit only once over the course of a long and doubtless illustrious literary career. “Spending as little time as possible in this stress-fest sounds completely fabulous to me!”

And it could indeed be great — presuming that this agent is in fact the perfect fit for the book, literary market conditions appear to be favorable for that book category, and the manuscript itself is in great shape. Oh, and that our old pal and nemesis, Millicent the agency screener, happens to be in an exceptionally good mood on the day that the submission crosses her desk. If even one of those elements happens to be slightly off, resulting in Agent #1’s not saying yes, then that eager writer will have to start all over again from scratch.

Which, let’s face it, can require quite a bit more oomph than getting a set of queries out the door the first time around. Post-rejection querying, pitching, and even submission in response to the next yes calls for not only faith in your talent and your work — it also requires telling the hobgoblins of doubt to stop murmuring in the dead of night something that logic tells us cannot possibly be true: that a rejection from one agent must mean that every other agent currently trundling across the earth’s crust would just reject it, too.

“So why bother?” the hobgoblins chortle at 3 a.m. “Why not just write off the book into which you have been pouring your heart and soul for eons? You could always start a new one.”

Fortunately, hobgoblins are notoriously ignorant of the ways of the publishing industry. The next time they rear their ugly heads, inform them that good, even great, manuscripts get rejected all the time. It can take a while to find the right fit for a book. So shut up and let nice writers everywhere sleep, already!

Given that level of querying-, pitching-, and submission-related anxiety, it’s hardly astounding that the overwhelming majority of aspiring writers respond to requests for exclusives with an enthusiastic chorus of, “By all of the great heavenly muses, YES! If I overnight it to you, will that be soon enough to get started?” As long as you’re walking into it with a clear mutual understanding of what you and the requesting agent are and are not promising each other by agreeing to an exclusive, go ahead and be as enthusiastic as you please.

What’s that the masses are thinking so loudly? That you’d like a refresher in what the default terms would be? Happy to oblige.

If a writer agrees to grant an exclusive to an agent,

(a) only that agent will have an opportunity to read the requested materials;

(b) no other agent is already looking at it;

(c) the writer will not submit it anywhere else;

(d) in return for these significant advantages (which, after all, mean that the agent will not have to compete with other agents to represent the book), the agent will make a legitimate effort to read and decide whether or not to offer representation, but

(e) if no time restriction is specified in advance, or if the agent always requests exclusives, the manuscript may simply be considered on precisely the same timeframe as every other requested by the agency.

Sometimes, though, even knowing all of that in advance and acting with according wisdom will not prevent a conscientious submitter from running into exclusive-related problems. What happens, for instance, if Agent A, the original requester, hasn’t gotten back to the writer by the time another request for pages arrives? Oh, it could happen, if the writer has been serious enough about landing an agent to send out more than one query at a time.

That trajectory runs something like this: our hero/ine took a deep breath, girded his or her loins, and sent out a truly impressive array of queries to category-appropriate agents. Of those many recipients, several responded, asking to read pages. Response rates are as unique as snowflakes, though, so each agent responded in her own time. So once Agent A was delighted enough with the query to ask for an exclusive peek, it’s entirely possible that our intrepid writer will have already sent out a partial to Agent B, as well as full manuscripts to Agents C and D.

Then, too, sometimes requests for pages come in clumps. If an e-querier sends out a barrage of missives all at once, he might well receive several positive responses withina few days. If nobody asks for an exclusive, no problem: he can just send them all out simultaneously. But what if one of those agents wants to be the only one looking at it?

Are those of you devoted to conference pitching feeling left out? No need: let’s say that prior to a well-stocked writers’ conference, our hero/ine knelt before his or her computer and swore not to allow a single viable (yet polite) opportunity to pitch pass ungrasped. It’s entirely possible that s/he will stride away from those pitch sessions with more than one request. If only Agent A asked for an exclusive, should the our knight grant it, even if that means putting off non-exclusive requests from Agents B-D?

While we’re tossing around rhetorical questions, what is the writer to tell all of those other agents in the meantime? And, at the risk of terrifying you, may I also inquire what happens if the exclusive-requester doesn’t get back to the writer in a timely manner?

None of these are particularly uncommon dilemmas for submitters to face, incidentally. Often, though, writers who find themselves in these awkward positions are too embarrassed to discuss them. They tend to feel, sometimes with some justification, that they should have been prepared for any of these eventualities. After all, an exclusive is serious business, a matter of professional integrity, and therefore probably not the kind of thing to which a savvy writer would, upon mature consideration, grant lightly.

Say, in the midst of an extended fit of alternated giggling and hyperventilation because a REAL, LIVE AGENT has asked to see one’s work. At that particular moment, the other seventeen queries one has out and about might conceivably slip one’s mind.

Especially if, as is often the case, the request for an exclusive is a trifle vague. (“I’d like an exclusive on this, Minette,” is often the extent of it.) In the throes of delight, the impulse to scream “YES!” has occasionally been known to overcome the completely rational urge to ask, “Excuse me, but what precisely would that mean for me?” Or even, “Pardon me, O person who has the power to change my life, but what happens if I don’t say yes immediately?”

I can feel some of you quaking in your jammies over the idea of being bold enough to ask either of those questions. Or, indeed, any at all: follow-up questions in the wake of exclusive requests are as rare as spotting a unicorn having tea with the Loch Ness Monster on a blue moon. That’s unfortunate, since, as junior high school taught so many of us, picking dare in a game of truth-or-dare is dangerous precisely because one does not get to hear all the details of the dare before agreeing to attempt it.

Oh, like I was the only eighth grader who…well, never mind. Suffice it to say that in manuscript submission, as in life, one makes better choices if one knows the options prior to choosing amongst them.

Which is to say: you have more power here than you think, provided you are aware of it in advance. Why? Well, think about it: as flattering as a request for an exclusive is to an aspiring writer, granting it is optional.

Before anyone starts jumping up and down, thrilled to the gills at the idea of magnificent concessions writers might wrest from an agent averse to reading competition, the power to which I refer is fairly limited. The writer may say yes to the exclusive, or she may say no. She may also say, “Thanks, but not now.”

Not that the writer is required, or even encouraged, to give any of these responses directly to the agent, mind you. If the answer is anything but yes, don’t contact the agent to explain. Trust me, if your manuscript doesn’t arrive within a few months, Agent A will intuit that you’re not leaping to say yes to an exclusive. Since the manuscript’s arrival (accompanied, ideally, by a cover letter beginning, “Thank you so much for asking to read my pages on an exclusive basis,” or something similar) would be the accepted means of agreeing to an exclusive, there’s no call for the writer to fill Agent A’s inbox with notifications that it’s on its way, explanations that while an exclusive would be great, Agent B will have to respond first, or the most popular option of all: a long, whiny missive complaining that Agent C has had the manuscript for X amount of time without getting back to the writer, so could Agent A please retract that whole insistence-upon-an-exclusive thing?

I can tell you now that none of these communications will be appreciated. It’s hardly news to agents that aspiring writers query and submit widely these days; it’s quite normal for a savvy writer not to be able to grant an exclusive right away. Until that writer can, however, the particulars of who would need to respond simply don’t matter to Agent A.

And no, in response to what half of you just thought so loudly, if Agent A prefers an exclusive, or if his agency does, you’re not going to be able to talk him out of it. Regardless of how stressful you find the multiple-request situation, it’s not fair to expect the agent to solve it for you. If you can’t say yes now, say it when you can.

That doesn’t mean, though, that you need to grant an open-ended exclusive. Whether you already know that Agents B-D want to read pages, that they are considering your query, or just that you wish to keep your options open, it’s always a good idea to set a time limit on an exclusive. You should also reserve granting exclusives your top-choice agents.

What’s that? When two million of you are shouting, it’s hard to hear. Yes, 10,000 closest to me? “But Anne, I just want an agent! How the heck do I, someone brand-new to the business side of publishing, know who should be my top picks? All I really know about Agents A-D is that they represent books in my category!”

Actually, if you’ve done that much research, you’re ahead of the game: it’s not at all uncommon for aspiring writers to query agents without first checking to see what they do and don’t represent. (“An agent’s an agent, right?” they reason, wrongly.) It’s also pretty common for pitchers to approach agents at conferences without having any idea what they represent. That’s just annoying for everybody. It truly is in your book’s best interest to do a bit of homework about what kinds of books an agent has sold recently before trying to interest him in representing yours.

But let’s say that you didn’t, perhaps for a good reason. Perhaps a conference’s organizers simply assigned you to an agent for your pitch session; maybe you just entered thriller into one of those search engines, and it spit out every agent in the country that checked that box on a form. Or you spent most of your time with a guide to agents in the index-by-region section. Regardless of how you ended up with requests for pages from Agents A-D, you certainly have the means of finding out more about them before you submit, enabling you to decide which might be the best fit for you.

Why put in that effort, when all reputable agents sell books? Because, contrary to amazingly popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, no good writer wants to land just any agent; everyone wants the best agent for his or her book. Or should want that, at any rate.

How might a savvy writer figure out which interested agent that’s likely to be? Well, a simple web search isn’t a bad place to start. If the agency has a website — and not all of them do, believe it or not, even at this late date — it will usually list the major clients. Generally, it will also feature at least a brief bio for each of its member agents.

It’s also worth checking whether the agent (or the agency) has a blog or has given interviews about being an agent. Not every agent does, of course, but why not embrace the generosity of those who have taken the time to share their literary preferences with potential clients?

My point: it’s going to be awfully difficult to decide whether you’re already excited enough about Agent A to be positive that she is the agent of your dreams — positive enough that you’re willing to forego, at least for now, submitting to Agents B-D — in the absence of some substantive research about all of them. If, after doing that research, you don’t feel that you would say yes right away if Agent A offered to represent your book, are you sure that you want to give A an exclusive that’s going to limit your ability to show your manuscript to others?

Think of granting an exclusive as if you were applying for early admission to an Ivy League school: if the school of your dreams lets you in, you’re not going to want to apply to other universities, right? By applying early, you are saying that you will accept their offer of admission, and the school can add you to its roster of new students without having to worry that you’re going to go to another school instead.

It’s a win/win — but only if that actually was the school you wanted to attend. (I speak from experience here: once I got into Harvard early, I had a whale of a good time going to group interviews with my high school friends and saying, “Wow, that’s an interesting question, Mr. Alumnus. Allow me to turn that question into an opportunity to discuss the merits of Kathleen here.” And then Kathleen would get all excited, because Mr. Alumnus had the power to admit her to the school of her dreams.

Oh, you thought I woke up one bright day as an adult and suddenly became public-spirited? I regard a broad range of endeavor as team sport.)

If the best agent in the known universe for your type of writing asks for an exclusive, you might be well advised to say yes. But if you have any doubt in your mind about whether Harvard really is a better school for your intended studies than Yale, Columbia, or Berkeley — to mix my metaphors again, as well as irk my erstwhile classmates — you might want to apply to all of them at the same time. That way, you may later decide between those that do admit you.

In the extremely unlikely case that I’m being too subtle here: a request for exclusive is great only in proportion to how much you would like to be represented by the person asking for it. The good news is that you don’t have to wait around passively. Once you have done your homework, you can more easily decide whether you would prefer to go steady right off the bat or date around a little. Got it?

If not, I can keep coming up with parallels all day, I assure you. Don’t make me delve into my vast store of zoology metaphors.

Do all of those averted eyes mean that you have no intention of saying no to a REAL, LIVE AGENT that wants to SEE YOUR WORK? Or merely that you’re hoping desperately that the muses have abruptly decided to assign one of their number to make sure that of those 17 agents you have approached, the only one that prefers exclusive submissions contacts you first, swears to get back to you within 48 hours, and offers to sign you in 36?

Well, I wish the best for you, so I hope it’s the latter, too, but let’s assume for the moment that at least one writer out there falls into the former category. If you say yes, lone intender, set a reasonable time limit on the exclusive, so you don’t keep your manuscript or proposal off the market too long. This prudent step will save you from the unfortunately common dilemma of the writer who granted an exclusive a year ago and still hasn’t heard back.

Yes, in response to that gigantic collective gasp I just heard out there: one does hear rumors of agents who ask for exclusives, then hold onto the manuscript for months on end. Or even — brace yourself — a year or two.

I can neither confirm nor deny this, of course. All I can tell you that since the economic downturn began, such rumors have escalated astronomically.

Set a time limit, politely. Three months is ample. (And no, turning it into three weeks will almost certainly not get your manuscript read any faster. This is no time to be unreasonable in your expectations.)

No need to turn asking for the time limit into an experiment in negotiation, either. Simply include a sentence in your submission’s cover letter along the lines of I am delighted to give you an exclusive look at my manuscript, as you requested, for the next three months.

Simple, direct — and believe me, if Agent A has a problem with the amount of time you’ve specified, you will be receiving a call or an e-mail. It will probably come at the end of those three months, and it will probably be a request for more time, but hey, at least you will have established that you are not expecting to keep your manuscript out of circulation indefinitely.

Before those gusty sighs of relief blow anyone’s pets out of the room, I add hastily: protecting your ability to market your work isn’t always that simple. Negotiation generally isn’t possible with the other type of exclusive request, the kind that emerges from an agency that only reviews manuscripts exclusively, for the exceedingly simple reason that the writer is not offered a choice in the matter. Consequently, a request for an exclusive from these folks is not so much a compliment to one’s work (over and above the sheer desire to take a gander at some of it, that is) as a way of doing business.

In essence, exclusive-only agencies are saying to writers, “Look, since you chose to approach us, we assume that you have already done your homework about what we represent — and believe us, we would not ask to see your manuscript if we didn’t represent that kind of writing. So we expect you to say yes right away if we make you an offer. Now squeal with delight and hand over the pages, please.”

Noticing a homework theme running throughout all of these unspoken assumptions? Good. Let me pull out the bullhorn to reiterate: because agents tend to assume that any serious writer would take the time to learn how the publishing industry does and doesn’t work, submitters that don’t do their homework are significantly more likely to get rejected than those who do.

Oh, did some of you want to ask a question? Here, allow me to lower my bullhorn.

“But Anne,” the recently-deafened point out, uncovering their ears, “I don’t get it. Why might an exclusives-only submissions policy be advantageous for an agency to embrace?”

Well, for one thing, it prevents them from feeling pressure to snap up a manuscript before another agency does. If you send them pages, they may safely assume that you won’t be e-mailing them a week later to say, “Um, Agent Q has just made me an offer, slowpoke. I still would like to consider you, so could you drop everything else you might have intended to do for the foreseeable future and finish reading my manuscript so you can give me an answer? As in by the end of the week?”

Okay, so you wouldn’t really be that rude. (Please tell me you wouldn’t be that rude.) But agents who don’t require exclusive submissions do receive these types of e-mails fairly often: nervous writers often assume, mistakenly, that they should be sending agents who have their manuscripts constant status updates, if not pleading or outright ultimata. A writer’s sense of how long is too long can be awfully short. And agents hate the kind of missive mentioned in the last paragraph, because nobody, but nobody, reads faster than an agent who has just heard that the author of the manuscript that’s been propping up his wobbly coffee table is fielding multiple offers.

Which is precisely the point. Agencies who demand exclusivity are, by definition, unlikely to find themselves in an Oh, my God, I have to read this 400-page novel by tomorrow! situation. After the third or fourth panicked all-nighter, requiring exclusives might start to look like a pretty handy policy.

Increased speed is the usual response to multiple offers, note, not to hearing that other agents are reading a book. Since people who work in agencies are perfectly well aware that turn-around times have been expanding exponentially of late, the mere fact that other agents are considering a manuscript isn’t likely to affect its place in the reading queue at all.

All of which again begs the question: what does the writer get in return for agreeing not to submit to others for the time being? Not a heck of a lot, typically, unless the agency in question is in fact the best place for her work and she would unquestionably sign with them if they offered representation. But if one wants to submit to such an agency, one needs to follow its rules.

Happily, agencies that maintain this requirement tend to be far from quiet about it. Their agents will trumpet the fact from the conference dais. Requires exclusive submissions or even the relatively rare will accept only exclusive queries will appear upon their websites, in their listings in standard agency guides, and on their form-letter replies requesting your first 50 pages.

(Yes, in response to that shocked wail your psyche just sent flying in my general direction: positive responses often appear as form letters, too, even when they arrive via e-mail. I sympathize with your dismay.)

If exclusives-only agencies had company T-shirts, in short, they’d probably ask the silk-screener to add an asterisk after the company’s name and a footnote on the back about not accepting simultaneous submissions. If they’re serious about the policy, they’re serious about it, and trying to shimmy around such a policy will only get a writer into trouble.

Do I feel some of you tensing up again? Relax — not very many agencies harbor this requirement.

It limits their applicant pool, you see. Since they require their potential clients to bring their often protracted agent search to a screeching halt while the submission is under consideration, such agencies are, in the long run, more time-consuming for a writer to deal with than others. As a result, many ambitious aspiring writers, cautious about committing their time, will avoid approaching agencies with this policy.

Which, again, is a matter of personal choice. Or it would be, if you happened to notice before you queried that the agency in question required solo submissions. Do check their T-shirts in advance, because I assure you, no one concerned is going to have any sympathy for a writer complaining about feeling trapped in an exclusive.

They’ll just assume that he didn’t do his homework. Keep up the good work!

Sing it along with me now, submitters: torn between requests for pages, feeling like a fool. Is showing my manuscript to both of you breaking all the rules?

October 25th, 2014

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Ah, exclusivity. As a recent question from a member of the Author! Author! community reminded me, few issues trouble the sleep of writers new to submission more than this: if an agent asks to read my manuscript, may I show it to another while she’s reading it?

That burning question does not concern merely the stressed-out fortunate lucky enough to have received a request for an exclusive peek at their manuscripts, either. Writers’ minds are, let’s face it, unusually gifted at spinning out scenarios both fabulous and fabulously disastrous about what happens to their manuscripts after those pages disappear into the murky depths of an agency, doubt abounds — and multiplies unmercifully. What happens if an agent asks to see my book on an exclusive basis, the aspiring fret, and who could blame them? and she doesn’t make up her mind before another agent asks to see it? What if I’ve already sent pages to fifteen other agents, and somebody asks for an exclusive? What if one of those fifteen never gets back to me, so I don’t know whether I have a manuscript under consideration or not when a new one asks? While I’m at it, what if an agent really did want an exclusive, but I didn’t pick up some subtle, publishing-world-specific signal and mistakenly submitted my book widely? What if paper-devouring giants come along and inhale my pages between the time they land at the agency of my dreams and when the agent of the aforementioned dreams has a chance to read them? What if…

Enough, already. The short answer to all of these questions is this: you’re probably not going to find yourself in most of these situations. Particularly that one with the giants.

Or, as it happens, the one about being ethically bound not to show your work to a second agent while a first is pondering it. Contrary to popular dead-of-night fears, requests for exclusives — the perversely longed-for situation in which an agent cries, “Wait! I liked your query/pitch/first few pages that I read so much that I want to be the only agent in Christendom reading it! Don’t show it to anyone else until I have, ‘kay?” — are actually relatively rare. And contrary to rumors lingering from the writers’ conference circuit, it’s also not especially common for agents to demand exclusive peeks at manuscripts as a matter of policy.

Except that some agencies do harbor that policy. Some agents do ask for exclusives. And occasionally, a perfectly well-intentioned writer just trying to follow the rules finds herself singing the title of this post to a dark ceiling at 4 a.m.

How do I know this? Experience, mostly: the Author! Author! comment section has been the go-to source for writers’ anxiety for years now. During and after every single conference season — yes, and every single autumn, in the weeks after savvy writers have sent out post-Labor Day queries — successful pitchers and queriers have come creeping to me furtively with a terrified question: what have I done, and how may I fix it?

Oh, you think that’s an exaggeration, do you? Let me put it this way: for the last few years, I have asked these panicked persons — after I have soothed their heated brows, of course — to give me suggestions for what category title, if any, would most easily have caught their eye on the archive list at the height of their chagrin. Without exception, every single respondent has suggested that I include the word Help!

Usually with several exclamation points. I have some reason to believe, then, that there’s just a little bit of ambient confusion about when it is and is not okay to submit a manuscript to several agents or editor at a time. And, perhaps even more pertinent to the midnight terrors haunting many right about now, how should a writer lucky enough to walk away from a conference with more than one request for pages decide which agent or editor to submit to first?

The short answer, as it so often is in publishing matters, is it depends. The long answer is a question: what about these particular requests make you believe you have to rank them?

If you’re like most writers gearing up to submit, the answer to the long answer probably runs a little something like this: well, obviously, I shouldn’t submit to more than one agent at a time — that would be rude. Or is that I’ve heard that agents consider it rude? Anyway, I wouldn’t want to run the risk of offending anyone. Besides, if I submit only to the one I liked better — which was that again? — I don’t have to come up with a graceful way to say no to the other one. And it’s less work for me: if the first one says yes, I don’t have to go to the trouble of making up another submission packet. But if I do that, must I wait for the first to say no before I send out pages to the second? What if the first never gets back to me? Or what if the first doesn’t get back to me until after I’ve already submitted to the second, and then yells at me because he didn’t want me to show the book to anyone else? And what if…

Hey, I wasn’t kidding about writers’ being gifted at spinning out the ol’ plot lines. If that logic loop sounds familiar, the first thing to do is calm down. In the vast majority of multiple submissions, no problems arise whatsoever.

Especially if you’re clever and conscientious enough to have double-checked the various agencies’ websites and/or listings in a recent edition of one of the popular guides to literary agents. If an agency has a policy of demanding to be the only one considering a manuscript for representation, they’ll generally say so. It’s also quite normal for an agent expecting to read a manuscript without competition to ask for an exclusive point-blank.

And already, I hear sighs of relief bouncing off mountaintops around the cosmos. “Phew!” thousands of submitters mutter. “That was a close one. I’d heard that maybe all agents secretly expected me to submit, or even query, only one of them at a time. So when my already-bloodshot eyeballs caught sight of the title of this post, I instantly felt guilty!”

If so, you’re not alone. The welter of dire warnings and fourth-hand horror stories floating around out there has created a miasma of anxiety around querying and submission. Surely, I don’t have to tell any of you reading this that there’s an awful lot of querying and submission advice out there, much of it contradictory. (Which is, in case those of you searching frantically through the archives have been wondering, why I always provide such extensive explanations for everything I advise here: since so many of my readers are considering quite a bit of competing information — and frequently doing it in a moment when they are already feeling overwhelmed — I believe that it’s as important that you know why I’m suggesting something as to understand how to implement the suggestion. I never, ever want any of my readers to do what I say just because I say so. So there.)

I probably also don’t have to tell you — yet here I am doing it — that quite often, submission problems are the result of believing the common wisdom and applying it to every agent one might ever want to approach, rather than carefully reading each agency’s submission guidelines and treating each query/submission situation as unique.

Sometimes, though, even that level of hedging doesn’t prevent a writer from falling into a ditch. Witness, for instance, the situation into which Virginia, a long-time member of the Author! Author! community, innocently tumbled a while back.

Help! I submitted only two queries to two agents. One got back to me quickly and did ask for exclusive right to review. A few days after I agreed to this, the second agent replied and asked for pages. I don’t want to violate my agreement, but how do I tell the second agent I’m really happy she wants to see more but she has to wait?

Successful queriers and pitchers end up in this kind of dilemma all the time, often without understanding how they ended up there or why they’re stressed out about what was presumably the outcome they were seeking when they approached multiple agents simultaneously: more than one agent interested in reading their work. An exclusive is always a good thing, they reason nervously, a sign that an agent was unusually eager to see a queried or pitched book, and thus decided to bypass her usual method of requesting manuscripts.

Not always, no. But it depends.

Sometimes, a request for an exclusive genuinely does indicate an agent’s being so excited by a query or pitch (especially if that book has just won a major literary contest) that she’s afraid that another agent will snap it up first. Far more frequently, though, a surprise request for an exclusive is the natural and should-have-been-expected outcome when a writer approaches an agent working at an agency that has an exclusives-only policy.

Does that forest of hands springing up out there mean some of you have been paying attention? “But Anne,” attentive readers everywhere shout, “isn’t that precisely the kind of behavior you have been exhorting us not to practice?”

Yes, shouters: help yourself to a gold star out of petty cash. A savvy querier does indeed double-check every agency’s submission policies every time.

But let’s say that you didn’t. Again, that wouldn’t exactly place you in the minority — the overwhelming majority of queriers don’t read each individual agency’s submission guidelines before sending out those letters. At least the first time around, aspiring writers generally assume that all agencies operate in the same manner. And very few pitchers do much research on the agents and editors they plan to approach at conferences, beyond reading the blurbs in the conference brochure.

So if you find yourself teetering uncomfortably in Virginia’s steps, don’t worry. You’re certainly not the only aspiring writer that’s ever slipped into those moccasins. Heck, you’re probably not the only one to try to trudge a mile in them today.

Especially likely to find themselves limping through this dilemma: pitchers and queriers who do what virtually every aspiring writer asked to submit materials does — and what Virginia probably did here: sending out pages within hours of receiving the request.

It’s a completely understandable faux pas, in short, especially if the request for an exclusive arises from a query. Overjoyed at what they assume (in this case, wrongly) will be the only interest their queries will generate, many multiply-querying writers don’t pause to consider that multiple requests for manuscripts are always a possible outcome while sending out simultaneous queries.

Thus, it follows as night the day, so is a situation where one of those agents requests an exclusive. And it follows as day the night that an exclusive request is also a possibility when pitching at a conference.

This is why, in case any of you inveterate conference-goers have been curious, agents and editors invariably sigh when an aspiring writer raises his hand to ask some form of this particular question — and it’s not for the reason that other aspiring writers will sigh at it. (The latter usually sigh because wish they had this problem, and again, who could blame them?) The pros will sigh because they’re thinking, Okay, did this writer just not do his homework on the agents he approached? Or is he asking me to tell him that he can blithely break the commitment he’s made to Agent #1? Does this writer seriously believe all agents are in league together, that I would be able to grant permission to insult one of my competitors?

That’s why everyone else will sigh. I, however, sigh because my thought process runs like this: okay, I have to assume that the questioner is someone who hasn’t read any of my blog posts on querying or submission, as much as that possibility pains me to consider. But since I have a small army of explicitly-named categories on my archive list — conveniently located at the bottom right-hand side of my website’s main page, including such topics as EXCLUSIVES AND MULTIPLE SUBMISSION, EXCLUSIVES TO AGENTS, SIMULTANEOUS SUBMISSIONS, and WHAT IF MORE THAN ONE AGENT ASKS TO SEE MY MANUSCRIPT? — directly aimed at answering this question, and a battalion more that deal with it within the larger context of submission (under provocative headings like AFTER YOU RECEIVE A REQUEST FOR PAGES, AFTER YOU SUBMIT, HOW LONG BEFORE THE REQUEST FOR PAGES EXPIRES? HOW SOON MUST I SEND REQUESTED MATERIALS? INDUSTRY ETIQUETTE, IS IT OKAY TO SUBMIT TO SEVERAL AGENTS AT ONCE? and other similarly-named categories based upon panicked questions from members of our little community), as well as a dramatically-reenacted scenario directly related to this issue in the Industry Etiquette series. Yet I have to assume that the questioner is facing a situation that I have managed to overlook addressing in any of these posts. So I shall eschew the temptation just to send the questioner to any or all of those categories, try to understand how and why this situation is unique, and answer the question for the 1,477th time, because gosh darn it, a writer is in pain!”

Yes, I can think with that much specificity in mid-sigh, thank you very much. It’s just one of my many, many dubious talents.

All that being said — or, at any rate, thought exceptionally loudly — it is undoubtedly true that more writers than ever before seem to be finding themselves enmeshed in Virginia’s dilemma. Or simply unsure about whether it’s okay to submit to more than one agent at once. Quite a bit of the common wisdom out there, after all, dictates that writers should wait to hear back on one submission before sending out the next.

The short answer to that: poppycock! The long answer — and I sincerely hope that by now you saw this coming — is it depends.

On what? On the individual agency’s policies, of course, as well as how the agent in question phrased the request for pages. And, lest we forget, upon the writer’s planned submission schedule.

Let’s face it, more than one agent’s reading your pages simultaneously constitutes a fairly significant advantage. In an environment where submission volumes are so high that even a requested full manuscript may well sit on a corner of an agent’s desk for a year or more — and that’s after Millicent has already decided she liked it enough to pass it along to her boss– just presuming that any agent would prefer to be the only one considering a manuscript could add years to the submission process. If an agency has a no-reply-if-the-reply-will-be-no policy, stated or unstated, the hapless submitter can have no idea whether silence means (a) no, (b) the manuscript got lost in transit, (c) the manuscript got lost at the agency, d) those pesky giants made a meal of it — or e), most common of all: the agent just hasn’t had time to read it yet.

Well might you turn pale. As agencies have been cutting their staffs over the last few years (and aspiring writers who wouldn’t have had time to query or submit before the economic downturn have been digging old manuscripts out of bottom desk drawers), turn-around times lengthened demonstrably. Not entirely coincidentally, the practice of not informing a submitter if the answer is no has increased dramatically. So has hanging on to a manuscript someone at the agency likes in the hope that market conditions will improve for that type of book.

An unfortunate side effect: more and more submitters who just don’t know whether they can legitimately grant exclusives to another agent or not. How could they, when they have heard that writers should never bug agents while their manuscripts are under consideration?

All of which is to say: let’s not be smug when a fellow writer finds himself stuck in this particular tar pit. It actually isn’t fair to leap to the conclusion that if aspiring writers read agents’ websites and agency guide listings more thoroughly, they would never end up in this situation. Sometimes, an exclusive request does come out of a genuinely blue sky, whacking a conscientious multiple querier or submitter right in the noggin.

How is that possible? Amazingly often, the writer simply does not know that exclusivity is even a remote possibility until an agent asks for it. Unless an agency has an exclusives-only policy (do I need to remind you again to check?), the prospect generally will not be mentioned in its submission guidelines.

Then, too, the request for an exclusive is seldom formulated in a manner that informs a writer not already aware of the fact that she can say no. Or that she can defer saying yes, granting the exclusive at a later date. Or put a time limit on the exclusive, if she agrees to it at all.

All are perfectly legitimate responses to a request for an exclusive, incidentally. But whether any of them is situationally-appropriate depends on the actual content of the request; they vary more than one might think.

I can, however, rule out a couple of possibilities up front. First, there is no such thing as an implied request for an exclusive; such requests are always directly stated. So unless an agent or editor specifically asked for an exclusive peek at all or part of a manuscript or the agency has a clearly-posted exclusives-only policy on its website, a writer does not need to worry at all about offending Agent A by submitting simultaneously submitting the same manuscript to Agent B.

Yes, really. Just mention in your cover letters to each that another agent is looking at it — no need to say which one — and you should be fine.

Would you fling the nearest portable object in my general direction, though, if I swiftly added that the advisability of even this morally blameless route sometimes depends upon factors beyond the writer’s knowledge and control? Back in my querying days, I blithely sent off requested materials to a seventh agent, while six were already considering it. In that, I was being completely ethical: all seven’s agencies websites, communications with me, and listings in the standard agency guides failed to mention any exclusives-only policies. Nor did #7’s request for the manuscript specify that he wanted an exclusive. That being the case, I simply told him in my cover letter that he was not the only agent reading the book.

You can see this coming, can’t you?

I must admit, I didn’t — his irate announcement that his agency never considered multiple submissions left me pretty gobsmacked. But once he had expressed that preference, I was compelled to abide by his rules, even though they were late-breaking news: I had to choose whether to e-mail him back to say I accepted his terms, and would be telling Nos. 1-6 that my manuscript was no longer available, or to apologize for not being aware of what I could not possibly have known and withdraw my submission to him. I chose the latter, and lived to submit another day.

I sense some of you seething, do I not? “But Anne!” the hot-blooded among you cry. “That wasn’t fair! Why didn’t you insist that he abide by what you thought were the original terms of the submission?”

Because, passionate ones, as Thomas Hobbes once so rightly observed, rights are the ability to enforce them. Arguing with an agent about his own submission policies is always a losing proposition for a writer.

So before you say yes to an exclusive, make sure you understand its terms, as well as what granting it would mean for you. Read that request very, very carefully, as well as the agency’s website. (Yes, again; they might have changed their policies since you sent your query.) Will the exclusive be open-ended, or is the agent asking for you to hold off on submitting elsewhere for a particular period of time? If the request doesn’t specify an end date — and most exclusive requests don’t — would you feel comfortable setting the request aside for a few months while you responded to any other agents that had already expressed interest? Or if it took three months to get an answer from an agent that already had the manuscript?

Stop gasping like a beached whale. A three-month turn-around on a manuscript submission would be a positively blistering rate, by current standards.

While you’re asking those follow-up questions, here’s another: are you absolutely positive that the agent is asking for an exclusive? Sometimes, in the heat of excitement at hearing a yes, a successful querier — or, even more commonly, a successful pitcher — will slightly misinterpret what he’s being asked to do.

Yes, really. Many a super-excited conference attendee has floated away from a pitch meeting falsely believing that he and the agent have hit it off so darned well in that ten-minute conference that obviously, the agent must be expecting an exclusive. Heck, good ol’ (fill in polite pitch-listener’s name here) would be positively hurt if her new buddy allowed another agent so much as a peek at it, right?

Um, wrong. Chant it with me now, close readers: unless an agent specifically asks for an exclusive or her agency has an established exclusives-only policy, you are free to submit as widely as you wish. The same holds true if you have indeed received a request for an exclusive, but have not yet granted it. While the manuscript remains in your hands, you retain complete control.

Feel better, submitters? I thought so. Remember, a request for an exclusive is in fact a request, not a command. Even if a writer receives one or more requests for an exclusive, she’s not under any obligation to grant any or all of them– nor does she need to agree to any right away.

That’s vital to know going in: the instant the writer has agreed to an exclusive, she does in fact have to honor it. So it’s in the writer’s best interest to give the matter some advance thought.

I just felt half of you tense up at the very notion of delaying so much as forty consecutive seconds before bellowing, “Yes! Yes! Whatever you want, agent of my dreams,” but think about it. If Virginia had pondered Agent A’s request for a week or two, wouldn’t she have found herself in a much, much happier dilemma when Agent B’s epistle arrived? Then, she would merely have had to decide to which she wanted to submit first, the one that wanted the exclusive or the one that didn’t.

What would have been the right answer here, you ask with bated breath? Easy: it depends.

Upon what? Feel free to pull out your songbooks and sing along: if Agent A’s agency’s had a posted exclusives-only submission policy, he had a right to expect Virginia to be aware of it before she queried, and thus to believe that by querying him, she was agreeing to that condition. If an agency will only accept solo submissions, that’s that: it’s not as though Virginia could negotiate an exception in her case.

It would also depend upon whether the agent put a time limit on the request. It’s rare that an agent or editor includes a start date in an exclusive request (they have other manuscripts waiting on their desks, after all), but they do occasionally specify how long they expect the exclusive to be.

Given Virginia’s surprise, though, my guess is that neither of these conditions applied. That means, ethically, the choice of when the exclusive would commence would be up to her.

The only thing she could not legitimately do was submit to both A and B after A said he would read it only as an exclusive. That does not necessarily mean, however, that if Virginia wanted to submit to A first, she could not suggest a time limit on the exclusive, in order to enable her to take advantage of B’s interest if A decided to pass.

And a thousand jaws hit the floor. Yes, yes, I know: the very idea of the writer’s saying, “Yes, Agent A, although you did not indicate a time limit, I would love to grant you a three-month exclusive — here’s the manuscript!” would seem to run counter to the idea that the requester gets to set the terms of the exclusive. But in Virginia’s case, I happen to know (my spies are everywhere) that Agent A is of the ilk that does not habitually specify an end date for an exclusive. So proposing one would not constitute arguing with him; it would merely be telling him how long she believes she is agreeing to refrain from sending the manuscript elsewhere.

He could always make a counterproposal, after all. Or ask for more time at the end of those three months. It’s a reasonable length of time, though, so he probably won’t say no — as he would, in all likelihood, if she set the time at something that would require him to rearrange his schedule to accommodate, like three weeks.

Why so glum? Was it something I said? “Three months?” the impatient groan. “I thought you were kidding about that earlier. To me, three weeks sounds like a long time to hear back! If the agent is interested enough to request an exclusive, why shouldn’t I expect a rapid reply?”

Ah, that’s a common misconception. 99.999% of the time, what an aspiring writer asked for an exclusive thinks the agent is saying is not, “Okay, your book sounds interesting and marketable, but I don’t want to have to rush to beat competing agents in reading the manuscript. Please remove the necessity of my having to hurry by agreeing not to show it to anyone else until I’ve gotten back to you.”

Which is, incidentally, what a request for exclusivity means, at base. Rather deflating to think of it that way, isn’t it? It is, however, realistic.

By contrast, what 99.999% of aspiring writers in this situation hear is “Oh, my God — this is the most exciting book premise/query/pitch I’ve ever heard. I’m almost positive that I want to represent it, even though I have not yet read a single word of the manuscript or book proposal, and thus have absolutely no idea whether it is written well. Because my marrow is thrilled to an extent unprecedented in my professional experience, I shall toss all of my usual submission expectations and procedures out the nearest window. If you grant my request for an exclusive, exceptional writer, I’m going to clear my schedule so I may delve into this submission the nanosecond it arrives in my office. May I have it today — or, at the very latest, tomorrow — so I can stop holding my breath until it arrives?”

And then the giddy submitter is astonished when weeks or months pass before the agent makes a decision, precisely as if there had been no exclusive involved. The only difference between that and a regular old submission, from the writer’s point of view, is that he was honor-bound not to approach other agents until he heard back.

Pardon my asking, but what did the writer gain by granting that exclusive? Or by not politely attempting to place a time limit upon it from the get-go?

I’m sympathetic to the impulse not to look that gift horse firmly in the mouth, but frankly, many, if not most, aspiring writers confuse initial interest with a commitment. Too often, aspiring writers consider an agent’s request for materials, whether as an exclusive or not, as a signal that the long quest to find a home for that manuscript has come to an end. Acceptance is assured, right?

“Why would an agent ask to see a manuscript exclusively,” they reason, “unless she already thought she might want to sign the author? There must be something else going on. Like hungry giants having overrun the agency.”

A fair enough question, except for the giants part, but I’m not sure you’re going to like the answer. Typically, an agent won’t ask for an exclusive (or to see the manuscript, for that matter) unless she thinks representing it as a possibility; it is a genuine compliment. However, as agents who ask for exclusives seldom make the request of only one writer at a time, it’s not very prudent for a writer to presume that his will be the only exclusive on the agent’s desk.

If that last bit made your stomach drop to somewhere around your knees, please don’t feel blue, or even slightly mauve. The vast majority of writers who have ever been asked for an exclusive peek at their work were under laboring under the same presumption. Often, aspiring writers agree to an exclusive without understanding what it will entail — and usually are either too excited or too shy to ask follow-up questions before they pack off those requested materials.

For the benefit of those overjoyed and/or excited souls, I’m going to invest some blog space into going over what granting that solo peek will and will not require. If you’re planning upon querying an agency that will only consider submissions exclusively, you might want to bookmark this page, for your rereading pleasure.

Within the context of submission, an exclusive calls for a writer to allow an agent time to consider representing a particular manuscript, a period during which no other agent will be reviewing it. In practice, both the agent and the writer agree to abide by certain rules:

(a) only that agent will have an opportunity to read the requested materials;

(b) no other agent is already looking at it;

(c) the writer will not submit it anywhere else;

(d) in return for these significant advantages (which, after all, mean that the agent will not have to compete with other agents to represent the book), the agent will make a legitimate effort to read and decide whether or not to offer representation, but

(e) if no time restriction is specified in advance, or if the agent always requests exclusives, the manuscript may simply be considered on precisely the same timeframe as every other requested by the agency.

Is everyone clear on the rules? Be honest: they differ quite a bit from what you were expecting, don’t they?

Now that we know what Virginia agreed to do in granting an exclusive to Agent A, as well as what her options would have been had she received Agent B’s request before she had sent off the first submission, let’s take a gander what she should do about the situation she described in her question. (You knew I would get to it eventually, right?)

The answer is, as you have probably guessed, it depends. If she wants to play by the rules — and she should, always — her choices are three.

If she specified a time limit on the exclusive when she granted it to Agent A, the answer is very simple: if less than that amount of time has passed, don’t send the manuscript to anyone else until it has. On the day after the exclusive has elapsed, she is free to submit to other agents.

What is she to tell Agent B in the interim? Nothing, if the agreed-upon length of the exclusive is reasonable — say, between three and six months.

Breathing into a paper bag will stop that hyperventilation in no time. While you recover, consider: agencies often face monumental backlogs. It’s also not uncommon for agents and editors to read promising manuscripts at home, in their spare time, because they are so swamped.

And no, Virginia, waiting that long before submitting requested materials to B will not seem strange. Agents are perfectly used to writers taking some time to revise their manuscripts. B probably wouldn’t blink twice if she didn’t get back to him for a few months.

Remember, it’s not as though an agent who requests materials sits there, twiddling his thumbs, until he receives it. He’s got a lot of manuscripts already sitting on his desk — and piled on the floor, threatening to tumble of his file cabinet, stacked next to his couch, and causing his backpack to overflow on the A train. Not to mention the legions of paper hanging out in Millicent’s cubicle, awaiting a first screening.

Besides, what would Virginia gain by telling him she’d already promised an exclusive to another agent, other than implicitly informing him that she had already decided that if Agent A offered representation, she would take it? How exactly would that win her Brownie points with B? Or, indeed, help her at all?

And no, Virginia, however tempting it is, informing A that B is twiddling his thumbs, impatiently waiting for A to polish off those pages, will not necessarily speed A’s reading rate. Why should it, when A’s got an exclusive?

In practice, then, all waiting on fulfilling the second request means is that Virginia will have an attractive alternative if A decides to pass on the manuscript. That’s bad because…?

Oh, wait: it isn’t. Actually, it’s an ideal situation for a just-rejected submitter to find herself occupying. Way to go, Virginia!

“But Anne!” I hear the more empathetic among you fretting. “I’m worried about what might happen to Virginia if Agent A doesn’t get back to her within the specified time frame? It’s not as though she can pick up the phone and tell him his time’s up, is it? (Please say yes. Please say yes. Please say yes.)”

I’m going to say no to that last one — it’s always considered rude to call an agent while he’s considering your manuscript — but relax. Our Virginia still has several pretty good options: one completely above-board, one right on the board, and the last slightly under it.

First, the high road: a week or two after the agreed-upon exclusive expires, Virginia could send Agent A a courteous e-mail (not a call), reminding him that the exclusive has elapsed. Would A like more time to consider the manuscript solo, or should Virginia send the manuscript out to the other agents who have requested it?

Naturally, if A selects the latter, she would be delighted to have him continue to consider the manuscript also. That’s fortunate, because I can already tell you the answer will be the former, if A has not yet had a chance to read it.

It’s also quite possible, though, that the response to this charming little missive will be silence. Quite a bit of it. As in weeks or months of it.

Oh, stop clutching your chests — Virginia’s polite request did not insult A into silence. He was already silent, right? That delay might mean that Agent A is no longer interested, but it might also mean that he intended to answer and forgot. Or that he’s planning to read her manuscript really, really soon. Or that he’s taking her at her word about no longer enjoying an exclusive, but honestly believes he can make a decision on the manuscript before another agent has a chance to make an offer. As each of these is actually pretty plausible, Virginia should not take A’s silence as an invitation to load him with recriminations about not getting back to her.

Which, unfortunately, is what submitters in this situation usually do. It’s entirely wasted effort: if the answer was no, jumping up and down to try to regain the agent’s attention won’t change that; if the agent hasn’t had a chance to read it yet, reproaches will seldom move a manuscript up in a reading queue. And that phone call that seemed like such a good idea at the time will generally result in rejection on the spot.

So what is Virginia to do? Well, ethically, she is no longer bound by that exclusive. She should presume that A’s answer was no, elevate her noble chin — and send out that submission to Agent B without contacting A again.

That’s the high road. The writer doesn’t achieve much by taking it, usually, other than possibly an extension of the exclusive, but you must admit, it’s classy. The level road is cosmetically similar, but allows the writer more freedom.

It runs a little something like this: a week or two after the exclusive has elapsed, Virginia could write an e-mail to Agent A, informing him courteously and without complaint (again, harder than it sounds) that since the agreed-upon period of exclusivity has passed, she’s going to start sending out requested materials to other agents. If A decides he would like to represent the book, she would love to hear from him. Then she should follow through on her promise immediately, informing Agent B in her cover letter that another agent is also considering the work.

I heard you gasp, but you read that right: Virginia should submit those requested materials to Agent B without waiting to hear back from Agent A. That way, she gets what she wants — the ability to continue to circulate her work — while not violating her agreement with Agent A and being honest with Agent B. All she is doing is being up front about abiding by the terms of the exclusive.

Might she receive an e-mail from A afterward, asking for more time? Possibly. If so, she can always agree not to accept an offer from another agent until after some specified date. That was what Agent A had in mind when he asked for the exclusive in the first place, right, the chance to be first in line to ask to represent the book?

The slightly subterranean third option would be not to send an e-mail at all, but merely wait until the exclusive has lapsed, then send out the manuscript to Agent B. Virginia should, of course, inform B that there’s another agent reading it. I don’t favor this option, personally: despite the fact that she would be perfectly within her rights to pursue it, if Agent A does eventually decide to make an offer, Virginia will be left in a rather awkward position.

Enviable, of course, but still a bit uncomfortable. I’d stick to one of the higher roads — unless, of course, after months of waiting, Virginia isn’t certain that she can resist pointing out to Agent A that time is in fact linear, and quite a lot of it has been passing. It’s not in her interest to pick a fight, after all.

The shortness of the space between here and the bottom of this post is making some of you nervous, isn’t it? “But Anne,” you quaver, shifting in your desk chairs, “I’m going to be up all night, wondering what happened next in Virginia’s story. I can see another possible road here: what happens if the exclusive Virginia agreed to grant Agent A didn’t have a time limit? How long must those of us who deal in linear time wait to submit to an Agent B? That seems like the most complicated option of all, so I’m really, really hoping that you’re not planning to trot out that annoying it depends line again.”

Well, her options would depend on quite a number of things, but you’re quite right that discussing the perils and escape hatches of the unlimited exclusive is too complex to toss off in an aphorism. I shall deal with it in depth next time.

For now, suffice it to say that as exciting as a request for an exclusive may be, it is not a gift horse to clamber upon without some pretty thorough examination of its dentistry. Before you saddle it — and yourself — take the time to consider what the ride might be like. And, of course, keep up the good work!

Overcoming those bare-page blues, or, getting those wheels spinning productively

October 13th, 2014

spinning lady

One of the things I miss most about no longer being able to blog on a consistent basis — if not every day or week, then at least as often as I’d like — is constant interaction with aspiring writers and their questions. The Author! Author! community asks such trenchant questions, you see. Unfortunately, the answers to those questions are not always seen by the excellent many with the time to read only the most recent posts.

One misses quite a lot that way, from a blogger’s perspective: even when I’m not posting fresh material, I’m often answering questions quietly behind the scenes. Reasonably enough for a blog with archives this extensive, great questions frequently appear in the comments on posts weeks, months, or even years old.

That doesn’t mean that the issues raised might not be of every bit as much interest as those upon which I have written more recently. Take, for instance, a comment reader Firma asked some months back:

First of all, I want to say superb blog! I had a quick question that I’d like to ask if you do not mind. I was interested to find out how you center yourself and clear your mind prior to writing.

I have had a tough time clearing my mind in getting my thoughts out. I truly do enjoy writing; however, it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes are generally lost simply just trying to figure out how to begin.

Any suggestions or hints? Thank you!

A very good question about a problem that plagues a great many writers, right? Indeed, it may well sneak up upon all of us from time to time: hands up, everyone who has ever staged at a blank screen or page, feeling it taunting you to fill it up.

I do indeed have a number of suggestions, but first, let’s talk about why this species of writer’s block annoys so many, and why it’s so hard to overcome. Heck, while we’re at it, let’s also take a swing at why, compared to more major forms of I just can’t seem to write today! syndrome, it’s comparatively little discussed in writing circles. And when it is, the sufferer is very often made to feel that a lack of dedication, patience, or even story must be at fault.

Just to clear the air: none of those explanations is necessarily apt, in practice. Plenty of highly dedicated aspiring writers with the patience of medieval saints apply themselves to stories that would knock your socks off — and still find themselves staring helplessly at that blank page for the first twenty minutes of every writing session.

Darned frustrating, even if you didn’t have to fight tooth and nail, as so many committed writers do, to free that writing time from other obligations. No one needs to remind you that you could have used that time more productively. So I have an idea: let’s all agree that informing a writer acutely aware of a ticking clock is, at best, redundant.

At worst, it’s kind of cruel, isn’t it? Good writers, after all, tend to be rather sensitive people: to paraphrase H.G. Wells, it takes a mind unusually open to stimulus to produce strong sensations on the page. (Actually, he was talking about matters below the waist at the time, but it’s still a useful principle, is it not?)

Instead of nagging Firma — who, I think we all can agree, has been doing an awfully impressive job of nagging herself — to use her time better, let’s dig into why she and hundreds of thousands of other writers experience difficulty jump-starting that writing session. Part of the problem, in my experience, lies in the expectation that every last second a writer spends with a manuscript should be productive, as if the writing process consisted solely of slapping words on a page. To be fair, there’s certainly a lot of external validation of that attitude; heck, there’s even a month every year devoted to exhorting folks who haven’t found the time to sit down with their stories for the past eleven months to write a whole novel in thirty days.

Why, that month is coming up very soon, isn’t it? What a remarkable coincidence.

As any established author chafing under a deadline can tell you, pressure to produce X number of pages within a short time frame has a nasty habit of exacerbating writer’s block. Even if the deadline in question exists only in the mind of the writer — an obligation that can be as nebulous as plan to finish that chapter by the end of the week, or a commitment to try to write X number of words in any given writing session — finding the time and energy to sit in front of the computer may not the hardest part of the process by a long stretch. For many, many writers, the biggest challenge emerges from the intimidation of that blank screen, that bare sheet of paper.

It’s conquering the fear of starting.

If you feel this way, you are certainly not alone. Many writers have terrific ideas, but find themselves stymied once it is time to commit those ideas to paper. Almost invariably, those newer to the game blame themselves, as if falling prey to writer’s block were a question of character. (Experienced writers know better: they blame the unreasonableness of their deadlines. But that’s another story.)

The demons of self-doubt can be deafening, can’t they? Especially for a creative mind looking for an outlet. Stumped writers worry that they are not talented enough, or that no one will be interested in what they have to say, or that their writing is not important enough to justify taking time away from all of their other obligations. So they just don’t start, or if they do, once they do clear the time from their busy schedules, they feel guilty for not utilizing every nanosecond of it with productive keystrokes.

Obviously, you’re never going to find out for sure how talented, interesting, or important you are as a writer if you don’t make the time to write in the first place, but ultimately, I suspect this fear isn’t a rational phenomenon as much as a matter of conditioning. Americans are, after all, trained from birth to work as hard as possible, and to feel that there is virtue in slogging through quotidian workplace tasks, because there is a paycheck attached to them. By contrast, since the rewards of writing tend to fall into the very, very long-term range, writing feels like a luxury.

Which, as any lifetime writer can tell you, it isn’t. Not if the storytelling urge is really in your blood.

That last sentence made half of you feel guilty, didn’t it? I’m not surprised: in the throes of writer’s block, even encouraging statements can induce guilt or feelings of inadequacy. “If I were really meant to write,” the blocked writer scolds herself, staring in frustration at the blank computer screen, “my fingers would be flying right now.”

Not necessarily. Blank screen-staring is a vital part of any successful writer’s job description. The pros call it processing.

So do not, I beg you, conclude from a few isolated bouts of block that this is not the life for you or stop trying to write after merely a week or two of effort. Do not conclude it even if it goes on for weeks or months at a time, or if you find yourself making excuses about why you can’t write today. This type of block is common, I tell you, and transcends boundaries of talent.

As does coming up with creative ways to prevent oneself from sitting down to stare at that infernal screen. Heck, about a third of the working writers I know can’t make themselves sit down to write until after every iota of the housework is done, right down to the last folded t-shirt and balled-up sock. For some reason they can’t quite define, writing for them seems to be a perpetual when-I-have-time-for-it phenomenon.

I’m not going to lie to you –- if you find that you’re not cozying up to a computer on a regular basis and writing, it’s going to take an awfully long time to produce something publishable. If you are waiting until you have an entire day free of work, laundry, and other obligations, you may well be waiting for quite a long time. Most Americans work far, far too much (and in return receive the lowest amount of vacation time in the industrialized world) to have a lot of leisure time available to give free rein to their creativity.

Again, I could parrot other writing advice-givers, blaming every difficulty upon a lack of willpower. I could, for instance, order you crabbily to turn off the TV/DVD/DVR/iPod/TiVo/other electronic distractions, but honestly, we live in a world. Things happen. I would be the last person to advise you to be less aware of what is going on around you.

Mr. Wells’ sensitive nervous tissue, you know. Anyway, chances are that by the time you collapse in front of the TV, you’re pretty exhausted from work, keeping up with the kids, and so forth.

I could also echo William Faulkner’s famous advice to Eudora Welty, when she complained about how difficult it was to find writing time while taking care of her ailing mother: I believe his plan involved a window and a flinging action. Somehow, however, I can’t feel that urging you to defenestrate your nearest and dearest would free your mind from clutter when you next pulled up a chair to your writing desk.

Besides, where would that leave you when you wanted to take Mr. Wells’ advice literally? After a productive writing session, some human contact can be very nice. Best to keep supportive folks on this side of the sill, I say.

That being said, and as much as it pains me to tell you this, it probably will not get your book written to expend your few leisure moments daydreaming about the month-long vacation at a mountain cabin that would permit you to dash off a first draft in its entirety. Even professional writers, the ones who are making a good living at it, seldom have huge chunks of completely untrammeled time at their disposal. Life is obtrusive, after all.

If you can afford to take such a retreat, great. There are plenty of artists’ colonies and secluded bed-and-breakfasts that would simply love to shelter you for a period of limited, intense work. (Check out the back of Poets & Writers magazine, where many fellowships for such retreats are advertised.)

But I would bet a nickel that the very idea of arranging your life to disappear for a month’s writing retreat feels impossible right about now. You’re a responsible person with obligations. If you have kids, it’s hard to imagine disappearing for that long; if you have a demanding job, it may well be impossible. Not to mention the need to pay your bills throughout this theoretical retreat.

So it probably behooves you to make the most of the work time you already have – and to make a commitment to using it productively.

If you have been able to carve out an hour or two per day, or a few hours at a stretch each week, good for you! Yet the need to make the most of every second can in and of itself can be intimidating; as I mentioned above, if you waste your scarce writing time, you feel terrible, right? (Which, incidentally, is why most writers are so sensitive to our kith and kin’s remarking that we seem to be sitting in front of our computers staring into space, rather than typing every instant. Reflection is necessary to our work, but it is genuinely difficult sometimes NOT to fall into a daydream.)

Here’s one trick the pros use, one that I find works well for editing clients writing everything from bone-dry dissertations to the Great American Novel. It may seem suspiciously simple, but I assure you, it works: play the same piece of music at the moment you sit down to write.

As in every time you sit down to write. Not just the same album — they still make those, right? –but the same song. Preferably one that reminds you in some way of the project at hand.

Do select something you like, because it’s going to be your book’s soundtrack for a while. And do pick more than one song to play — always in the same order, please. It’s fine to create a playlist, or you can listen to the same CD beginning to end. You’re going to want at least half an hour’s worth of music, enough to play in the background until well past the point at which your brain generally starts switching into writing mode.

Here’s the trick, though: if inspiration does not come winging to you immediately, don’t do anything else but write. Stay there in front of that blank screen and think about your story. It’s fine to write something other than the scene you planned, as long as it remains within the world of your book. Go ahead and write character sketches, if you like. Brainstorm an outline for a future scene. Write a hunk of dialogue that doesn’t currently have a place in the storyline. Picture taking your protagonist and antagonist out to a four-course meal at the restaurant of their choice. It’s up to you.

Oh, stop groaning: it’s better than berating yourself in silence for those first ten minutes of trying to write, isn’t it?

What you may not do, if you want to give this experiment a valid try, is plan out other books in your series. Don’t write on another project. And, of course, don’t give up and start answering e-mails. Don’t surf the net. Don’t check Facebook.

I’m serious: don’t do anything else for at least half an hour. The time is going to pass slowly, but don’t give up. It doesn’t matter if you’re bored — in fact, for the purposes of correcting the problem, it would be great to bore yourself in this manner.

Why, you ask in horror? You’re prompting the creative part of your mind to get cracking — and that you’re willing to sit there until it stops resisting getting to work on the darned interesting book you’re writing.

“But Anne,” I hear the blocked cry, and who could blame you? “Won’t this take a lot of time? I mean, I’ve already been flogging myself mentally for not beginning to write the instant my writing time begins — won’t this just feel like punishing myself further?”

Ah, but isn’t part of the problem that your creative urges have been taking their time to start flowing? This is a way to make it pellucidly clear to those pesky Muses that you are indeed committed to your writing process — not merely to the story itself. There is a difference, you know, on the composition level, necessarily so if what you are writing is a book-length piece.

Why? Well, contrary to what the hobgoblins may have been hissing at you in the wee hours, no author, no matter how gifted, writes an entire book in one sitting. (Not a good one, anyway.) Nor do talented authors typically whip off a first draft that’s published as is. That means, in practice, that committing to writing a good book entails a long, hard effort over time.

“Aha!” the part of your brain eager to procrastinate announces triumphantly. “In other words, what I do today doesn’t matter. Maybe, if I resist plunging into the task of writing for another three minutes, the rest of my mind will get frustrated and decide to do something else.”

Sound familiar? And see why it might take a firm resolve to keep staring at that blank screen to convince that truant portion of your mind to stop skylarking?

Both the wait time and the musical repetition may drive you crazy at first, but be consistent. Before long, your brain will come to associate that particular song with writing — and with spending some serious time not doing anything but writing. That in turn will help you sink into your work more quickly. Be consistent, and do be prepared to keep it up for a good dozen writing sessions, to set the pattern.

“But not forever, right?” you ask nervously. “I’m not committing myself to a lifetime of listening to nothing but John Denver’s greatest hits, just so I can write productively, am I?”

Naturally, you can play other music later on, but I would recommend always beginning with the same song for at least a few months. Until your brain has become accustomed to snapping immediately into creative mode, not yielding to the temptation of playing something else in those early minutes. You want the message to sink into every synapse: hearing this means it’s time to write.

Stick with it. And do be aware that if this trick works — and it usually does, if a writer gives it a solid chance — you will forever associate that music with the book. There are worse fates. Even now, I can’t hear more than a bar or two of Yaz’s Upstairs at Eric’s without falling into musings about my long-completed dissertation.

Do I see some timid raised hands out there in the ether? Yes? “But Anne,” some of you murmur, “I’m already pretty easily distracted; that’s part of my problem. Hadn’t it occurred to you that if I don’t write to music, that might have been a sensible, deliberate choice?”

It did, actually; thus the swiftness of my snappy comeback: it actually doesn’t matter what your getting-started-writing ritual is, so long as you perform it consistently. The point is to provide all of that sensitive nervous tissue with a set of nonverbal clues that it’s time to get down to writing.

You’re a creative person — experiment. If music’s not your thing, try lighting the same scented candle just before you sit down to write, if you can do it safely. (Make sure it’s set in a fireproof holder.) Burn some incense. Drink a particular flavor of tea. Always wear the same pair of socks.

At least for the duration of that particular writing project. You might want to set up a different set of stimuli for your next book. Why? Well, it will help you at revision time: a fringe benefit of establishing a ritual for the first draft is that it can make getting back into that book’s mindset a snap.

“Oh,” the creative parts of your noggin will shout, “that’s Alice Cooper singing Cheek to Cheek. It must be time to write about the planet Targ again.”

And another forest of hands has sprouted. “But Anne,” timorous writers everywhere protest, “I’m willing to try these wacky things, because I’m desperate. I can’t even begin to imagine how crazy it’s going to drive my spouse/significant other/neighbors/particularly judgmental cat to hear All the Single Ladies six times a week, but I’ll risk it.

“I’m scared, though: what do I do if this doesn’t work for me? Hand myself over to the hobgoblins of self-doubt then and there?”

No, no, fearful ones; this certainly isn’t the only way of approaching the problem. My sleeves are positively stuffed with fresh cards to toss into the game.

Before I start whipping ‘em out, though, I would like to ask of you coping with the writer’s-block blues: what other ways have you been experiencing it? Dead-of-night self-critique? Backspacing over half of what you’ve written in a day? The impulse to toss completed manuscripts into the nearest geyser?

There are many different strains of the phenomenon, after all, and sometimes, coming up with a specific diagnosis provides half the cure. In the meantime, pressing forward — and not just because you resolved to do it, or because a calendar told you so, but because you believe in the story you have to tell and your ability to express yourself well.

And, as always, keep up the good work!

As the screen goes wavy again, or, what had already begun to bore Millicent by the time talkies rolled around

May 8th, 2014

Orphans_of_the_Storm_(1921)_2

No time for a long-winded missive today, campers, but I could not let the occasion pass without posting a few words. What occasion rises to the mandatory observation level, you may well ask, eyeing both the lapse between this and my last post and the undeniable fact that Author! Author!’s older posts are still, alas, unhappily plagued with extraneous symbols? Participating in a species of conversation all too common behind the scenes in publishing circles.

It tends to run something like this: someone whose job it is to read submissions, all day, every day (except, of course, on those days she invests in skimming a few hundred queries at a sitting) quietly goes nuts while reading the 531rst submission of the month. Grounding her no doubt expensively straightened teeth to an extent that her former orthodontist would deplore, our Millicent — for yes, it is she, everybody’s favorite agency screener — she vents her frustration upon a sympathetic friend while she is waiting in line for her latté.

“It’s happened again,” she murmurs into her phone. “Three submissions in a row in which the text asserted that what was going on was…wait for it…just like something in a movie!”

Having been savvy enough to call a fellow professional reader, she’s sure to meet with sympathy. Calling me, however, might not have been the best choice. “I know, I know: it’s maddening to see writers rush to use the same metaphor, over and over again. But you must admit, it isn’t those three writers’ fault that you happened to read their submissions back to back.”

“Not their fault!” Predictably, Millicent burns her lip on her too-hot latt?. “Everybody knows that saying something happening on the page was just like a movie is bad writing.”

I can’t resist teasing her; we’ve had this discussion too many times. “It depends upon how the sentence using that tired old concept is constructed, doesn’t it? I could imagine it being expressed very prettily.”

“Fine. I’ll send the next fifteen manuscripts that use it to you, so you can compare their delightful sentence structure.”

She’s laughing by the time we hang up, but I must admit, she has a point. As anyone who reads for a living could tell you — particularly agents, editors, and the screeners they employ, all of whom by necessity must read manuscripts one after another, due to sheer volume — nothing quite makes the mind scream like spotting the same phrase, concept, or metaphor crop up repeatedly, page after page. When those pages happen to belong to different manuscripts, the frustration can be even greater: after the fourth or fifth time in a week, even the most literature-loving Millicent can start to wonder if half of the writers in the English-speaking world gathered someplace secret five months ago, to agree upon what the clich? of the season will be.

Hey, there are fashions in writing, just as in anything else that requires taste to appreciate. And, just as in runway fashion, once an innovative author hits the big time with a unique offering, the pros are used to seeing dozens — nay, hundreds — of copycat submissions flooding their inboxes shortly thereafter.

At first, that can be exciting: it’s no secret that publishers often attempt to capitalize upon the success of a bestseller by bringing out similar books in short order. Which makes sense, right? A certain group of readers have already demonstrated that they like that kind of book; why not offer them similar titles?

Actually, there’s a pretty good answer to that: after what can be an astonishingly short time, however, the readership for a particular type of story can, well, get tired of it. Perhaps more to the point for those trying to break into print, the Millicents tasked with screening all of those remarkably similar stories can begin to find them a bit predictable.

And those Millies are not the only ones. “Another Twilight knock-off?” their bosses exclaim. “This one had better have an awfully different spin.”

The rapid rise and fall of bestsellers and their followers is too well known in literary circles to raise many aspiring writers’ eyebrows these days. Come closer, though, and I’ll let you in on a little professional secret: that’s not the kind of repetition that causes Millicent to fling aside a submission, rend her garments, and rush out the door for a coffee refill. It’s seeing how many otherwise original, well-written manuscripts utilize precisely the same standard comparisons and hackneyed phrases as those that are neither prettily constructed nor particularly unique.

Seriously, it’s kind of startling to spot on the page. A pro will be reading along, enjoying a good story well told, when she’s abruptly confronted with a paragraph like this:

Ambrose staggered, stunned by the force of the blow. The world wavered before his eyes, as if he were watching an old movie and a flashback was just about to begin.

Nothing wrong with the writing there — so why might that last clause send Millicent’s hand automatically reaching for a form letter beginning Thank you so much for your submission, but I’m afraid it does not meet our needs at this time? Could it have anything to do with the fact that an hour ago, she had just rejected a manuscript containing this gem?

Mignonette clutched her head, trying to make sense of it all. It was surreal. She felt as if she was in a movie.

Leaving aside the relatively rare editorial pet peeve regarding how often narratives describe perfectly comprehensible scenes as surreal — not nearly so often as they label a situation utterly devoid of irony as ironic, admittedly, but still, frequently enough to become annoying — is it really so hard to understand why the lingering memory of Mignonette’s affection for film might color Millicent’s perception of the freshness of Ambrose’s reaction to the blow?

And a thousand writers’ hands shoot into the air. Yes? “This is ridiculous, Anne,” film aficionados everywhere grumble. “Why shouldn’t two writers embrace the same comparison, if they write about it differently? Feeling like you’re in a movie is a fairly common experience, after all; eschewing writing about it would be akin to declaring that depicting a character drinking milk an instant-rejection offense.”

An excellent argument, grumblers, but part of the problem is that so many manuscripts don’t write about it differently. Even in conversation, it was just like a movie is a clich? for a reason, after all: in everyday life, people tend to describe what you rightly point out is a common feeling in the modern world in a common way.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t one of the primary goals of developing an individual authorial voice not to express things precisely like everybody else does? And don’t we writers pride ourselves upon presenting our readers not merely with a mirror held up to their own lives, accompanied by a transcript of what they already hear, but our own personal take on reality, phrased in a way that is like no one else’s prose?

Do I sense writers of third-person fiction leaping to their collective feet, shouting, “Yes, by gum! Down with hackneyed phrases and concepts!” while those of you who spend your time crafting first-person narratives sat on your hands? I’m not entirely astonished: writers of first-person fiction and memoir frequently work under the principle that if good first-person narration reads as though an actual human being might conceivably have said it out loud, and if most people incorporate clich?s into their everyday speech, then loading a first-person narrative with clich?s is only being true to life, right?

Well, arguably. It can — and all too often does — result in a narrative voice that sounds not like a specific individual, but just anybody. Millicent is also confronted with this kind of opening many times a day:

Oh, my God, I can’t believe it. I’m sick of this. The gall of some people! I’m so over it. I’m out of here.

Believable verbal expression? Oh, yes. But I ask you: what do those stock phrases actually tell you about this narrator? Or about the situation, for that matter?

Hackneyed phrases and concepts are, after all, generic. That’s why polite exchanges so often bore readers: by definition, those phrases that everybody says in particular situations convey no individualized meaning.

Did I just hear some eyebrows hitting the ceiling? I kid you not: as delightful as courtesy is to encounter in real life, it can be stultifying on the page. Take a gander:

Kendrick held out his right hand. “Nice to meet you.”

“Pleased to meet you, too,” Ghislaine said. “Beautiful day, isn’t it?”

“Yes, the weather is nice. Oh, here’s Maurice. How are you, Maurice?”

They shook hands like old friends, as indeed they were. “Fine,” Maurice said. “How are you?”

“Oh, fine. Ghislaine, this is Maurice.”

Maurice shook her hand. “How are you?”

“Fine. How are you?”

Longing yet for death’s sweet embrace? What if you had read similar personality-free conversations eight or nine times today?

Does that prospect appall you? Or have you caught up pitchforks and torches for some other reason?

“Oh, come on, Anne,” polite people everywhere scoff, genteelly brandishing weaponry. “Everyone understands that these are stock phrases — but that’s the point, isn’t it? By having the characters spout courteous clich?s, the narrative is letting the reader know that these are nice people.”

Perhaps, but surely, that’s not the only way to demonstrate their many sterling qualities. If Kendrick complimented Ghislaine on her fetching frock, would he not come across as a pretty nice guy? If she were rushing back from her volunteer work with homeless children, pausing only briefly to exchange pleasantries before her shift at the leper colony began, might the reader not gain an inkling of her other-orientation? If Maurice had just experienced the loss of his beloved pet ocelot, would you consider her rude if he mentioned it?

Actually, that last one’s not the best example, as Millicent would hasten to tell you. She could not even begin to estimate how many times in any given week of screening her tired peepers fall on a scene like this:

“How are you?” Kendrick asked.

“Fine.” Maurice drew his sleeve across his eyes. “Except my beloved pet ocelot, Coriolanus, has just passed away.”

“I’m sorry for your loss,” Kendrick said. “Oh, here comes Ghislaine. Ghislaine, Coriolanus died!”

“Oh, Maurice!” she exclaimed. “I’m so sorry for your loss.”

I could go on and show what the policeman on the corner, all seventeen of Maurice’s coworkers, and his great-aunt said upon hearing the news, but you’re sensing a pattern, right? I’ve said it before, and I shall no doubt say it again: just because people say something in real life doesn’t mean that it will make good reading on the page.

Or, to put it another way: strong dialogue doesn’t need to sound like everyday speech to work in print. It’s needs to be more interesting than everyday speech.

If it’s to impress Millicent with its originality and beauty, that is. After hours of too-polite dialogue, imagine what a relief it could be to read an exchange like this:

Ghislaine realized that she knew the man tugging on her arm. “Why, Kendrick, you look just awful!”

“I feel as if my guts have been ripped out.” He managed a brave smile. “Haven’t you heard about Maurice’s ocelot?”

Her intestines squirmed with anticipated horror. “What’s happened to Coriolanus?”

“Killed in a freak basketball accident. He was prowling along the top of the backboard, and a rogue shot knocked him to the ground.”

“Oh, my God!” Ghislaine cried. “It’s just like something in a movie!”

Oh, so close! Millicent was just settling in for a nice, interesting read, and the manuscript had to throw up a red flag. It might not be the final red flag for this submission — you would want to find out why there’s an ocelot in this story, right? — but in most professional readers, Ghislaine’s cri de coeur would at least elicit a roll of the eyes.

Were there other problems on the page, though, it might well prompt a cry of “Next!” Remember, it’s Millicent’s job to thin the submission pile. Her boss, the agent of your dreams, can only take on a few new clients per year; naturally, there’s a heck of a lot of competition for those spots.

That being the case, is it truly sensible submission strategy to decorate your manuscript with that observation about how the ongoing situation resembles what one might expect to encounter on the big screen?

Do I hear some cries of despair out there in the ether? “There you go again,” frustrated writers complain, and who could blame you? “You’re just accepting Millicent’s claim that everybody knows that the movie comparison is bad writing. At the risk of repeating the grumble from earlier in this post, doesn’t it all depend upon the writing?”

Yes, of course — and no. You see, good writing doesn’t exist in a vacuum; readers of every stripe tend to read more than one author in their lifetimes. They have come to expect the work of one author to differ from every other’s.

And they’re right to expect that: imagine how boring life would be if all well-written books sounded as though they had all been written by the same person!

In an agency, publishing house, or even within the context of a writing competition, good writing doesn’t magically rise to the top of the submission or entry pile. To get to it, Millicent and her ilk read through everything else. Since a submitter cannot control the order in which his work is read, it really doesn’t make strategic sense to rely upon the hope that his use of the movie trope — or any other commonly-employed comparison or phrase — will not pass under a screener’s eyes immediately after somebody else’s attempt to do the same thing.

Even the best of literary devices can start to seem overused with repetition after all. Think about Millie’s screening day for a moment. What kind of pretty prose do you suppose greeted her over the morning’s first latté?

She ran through the bleak forest, her long, red hair streaming behind her. Were those dogs she heard in the distance? Why had Fidelio placed her in this horrible position?

No time to wonder — those villagers with torches would catch up with her any minute now. If she’d been the monster in a Frankenstein movie, she couldn’t have been in more danger.

Come on, admit it — you’re starting to tire of the film references. And although I’m certain it doesn’t feel that way, so far, only four of the examples in this post have contained it.

Yes, really. This comparison gets old fast.

Picture, then, how Millicent’s weary eye must twitch upon catching sight of yet another iteration of the same concept. Especially if the next manuscript in the pile read like this:

Silvia couldn’t believe it — this was all so surreal. She didn’t even feel like herself: it was like she was watching herself on television.

In response to what fully a quarter of you just thought: no, Virginia, referring to television instead of a movie wouldn’t lessen the negativity of Millicent’s reaction. She would merely think that the writer of that last one didn’t get out as often as the writer of the one before it.

She would have a hard time justifying sliding either page under her boss’ nose, and not just because, like any experienced professional reader, the agent for whom Millie works may safely be assumed to have seen the movie/television/music video comparison thousands of times already. Like many publishing professionals, that agent may also feel a certain resentment towards movies, television, music videos, and new media for taking up time that right-minded people used to devote to reading.

But it didn’t occur to our submitter to say that Silvia’s surreal experience was like something in a novel, did it?

Still not convinced? Okay, I’m dropping all pretense: there’s one other reason that Millicent might hesitate to overlook this particular red flag on the page. This next example is infected with a mild case of the phenomenon; see if you can spot it.

Ricardo ducked behind the nearest desk, gasping as if he were about to have a heart attack. What a great movie this chase would make! Except that no one would believe it.

Yes, this passage contains the dreaded movie comparison, but did you catch the secondary problem? Essentially, what a great movie this chase would make! is a review of the scene currently in progress: not only is the narrator telling the reader that this chase would be exciting on the big screen — the text goes so far as to say that the result would be great.

If Millicent and her kind cringe when they spot a hackneyed phrase or concept in a submission, they see red when they think a manuscript is indulging in self-review. “It’s not your job to tell me how great you are,” she’s likely to snap at the manuscript. “It’s your job to show me. And it’s my job to decide whether you’re great, good, or so-so.”

The moral here, should you care to know it: it’s a heck of a lot easier to impress a professional reader with good writing that’s original than good writing that strays into overused territory, either in terms of wording or concept. Stock phrases and comparisons might sound right in the privacy of your writing studio — as well they should: people actually do talk in clich?s. But by definition, clich?s are not fresh; clichés are not original.

And trust me on this one: that clich? about how the current scene is like a movie ceased causing agents and editors to exclaim, “Wow, I’ve never seen that on the page before!” approximately two and a half years into the silent era.

Maybe it’s time to give it a rest. Instead, why not startle and delight Millicent with an insight and phrasing only you could have produced?

It’s worth a try, anyway. Keep up the good work!

Hey, what happened?

April 7th, 2014

Many, many apologies to those of you who have been trying to trawl the famous Author! Author! archives over the last few weeks, campers — for reasons completely beyond my control (and largely beyond my understanding), my website’s host simply threw out my site. In other news, that host has since gone out of business.

Thanks to the semi-heroic efforts of the new hosting entity, Author! Author! is once again back online, as you may see, all ready to chat about your burning writing-related questions and publishing-concerned anxieties. Back, at least, are the posts from prior to June of 2013, the last date upon which the old hosts evidently made a system-wide backup.

What does that mean for you fine people’s use and enjoyment of my blog’s contents? Well, first off, it’s going to take me a while to repost the last ten months’ worth of our interactions here. That may take a little while. I’m told, though, that — brace yourselves — it may never be possible for me to restore the comments on individual posts from that period; I gather that would require my searching more recent screenshots and retyping each comment into the current system, one by one. As sad as I am to lose all of that good feedback, since 90% of blog readers don’t look at the comments, I’m not entirely convinced that recreating my readers’ original voices by proxy will necessarily do the trick here.

Readers did ask a tremendous number of intriguing and thought-provoking questions during the now-lost period, however, and you’ll be delighted to hear that one of the Muses habitually taps me on the shoulder each time I read a question that really does deserve an entire post to itself. I saved quite a few of them, question and answer both, in separate files, in anticipation of the happy day upon which I would have time to spin my observations at my trademarked greater length. Rather than recreating those exchanges in the comments, then, I shall be revisiting them as posts over the next couple of months.

Less easy to rectify: the newly-restored backup seems still to be infected with spatters of obnoxious additional code throughout old posts, the residua of a former upgrade that — wait for it — my old host may not have handled entirely exquisitely. I had been spending off moments for much of the last year trying to clear up these maddening distractions; evidently, most of my efforts to that end are no longer visible.

So again, my apologies. I wish I had an army of minions to sweep in and clear up problems like this in an hour or two, but blogging is, alas, a solitary activity. And, at least for the next little while, a fairly time-consumptive one.

I appreciate your patience and good thoughts throughout this trying period. Please feel free to keep posting questions in the interim — in the comments on the most recent post is fine, Gary, in response to your now-defunct recent comment — and as always, keep up the good work!

Please raise a glass (or three) to my 1600th post!

February 23rd, 2014

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A few weeks ago, while I was deep in the throes of contemplating what subject I should tackle for this, my 1600th post at Author! Author!, a non-writer — or so I surmise, from the bent of her discourse — abruptly flung a rather profound question in my direction. It was, happily for today’s post, one of those questions that would never, ever occur to anyone who had devoted serious time to courting a Muse.

“You’ve been blogging for 7 1/2 years on the same subject?” she gasped, practically indignant with incredulity. “You’ve posted hundreds of times, haven’t you? It’s only writing — what could you possibly still have to say?”

I know, I know: I was sorely tempted to laugh, too. From a writer’s or editor’s perspective, the notion that everything an aspiring writer could possibly need or want to know about the ins and outs of writing and revising a manuscript, let alone how to land an agent, work with a publishing house, promote a book, and/or launch into one’s next writing project, could be covered adequately in a mere 1599 blog posts borders on the absurd. Writing a compelling book constitutes one of the most challenging endeavors life offers to a creative persons mind, heart, and soul; it’s not as though there’s a simple, one-size-fits-all formula for literary success.

At the same time, I could hear in her question an echo of a quite ubiquitous compound misconception about writing. It runs a little something like this: if people are born with certain talents, then good writers are born, not made; if true writers tumble onto this terrestrial sphere already knowing deep down how to write, then all a gifted person needs to do is put pen to paper and let the Muse speak in order to produce a solid piece of writing; since all solid pieces of writing inevitably find a home — an old-fashioned publishing euphemism for being offered a contract by an agent or publishing house — if a writer has been experiencing any difficulty whatsoever getting her book published, she must not be talented. Q.E.D.

With a slight caveat: all of those presumptions are false. Demonstrably so — egregiously so, even. Just ask virtually any author of an overnight bestseller: good books are typically years, or even decades, in the making.

What could I possibly still want to say to writers to help them improve their manuscripts’ chances of success? How long have you got?

We’ve come a long way together, campers: when Author! Author! first took its baby steps back in August, 2005, in its original incarnation as the Resident Writer spot on the nation’s largest writers’ association’s website, little did I — or, I imagine, my earliest readers, some of whom are still loyal commenters, bless ‘em — imagine that I will still be dreaming up post for you all so many years into the future.

Heck, at the outset, I had only envisioned a matter of months. The Organization that Shall Remain Nameless had projected even less: when it first recruited me to churn out advice for aspiring writers everywhere, my brief was to do it a couple of times per week for a month, to see how it went. They didn’t want me to blog, per se — in order to comment, intrepid souls had to e-mail the organization, which then forwarded questions it deemed appropriate to me.

As your contributions flew in and my posts flew up, I have to confess, the Organization that Shall Remain Nameless seemed rather taken aback. Who knew, its president asked, and frequently, that there were so many writers out there longing for some straightforward, practical-minded advice on how to navigate a Byzantine and apparently sometimes arbitrary system? What publishing professional could have sensed the confusion so many first-time writers felt when faced with the welter of advice barked at them online? What do you mean, the guidelines found on the web often directly contradict one another?

And what on earth was the insidious source of this bizarre preference for the advice-giver’s being nice to writers while explaining things to them? It wasn’t as though much of the online advisors actually in the know — as opposed to the vast majority of writing advice that stems from opinion, rumor, and something that somebody may have heard an agent say at a conference somewhere once — were ever huffy, standoffish, or dismissive when they explained what a query letter was, right?

That rolling thunderclap you just heard bouncing off the edges of the universe was, of course, the roars of laughter from every writer who tried to find credible guidance for their writing careers online around about 2006.

Yet the officers of the Organization that Shall Remain Nameless were not the only ones mystified that there was any audience at all for, say, my posts on how to format a manuscript professionally. Or how to give a pitch. Or how to spot editor-irritating red flags in your own writing. They actually tried to talk me out of blogging about some of these things — because every writer serious about getting published already knows all of that, right?

So why precisely did I think it would be valuable for my readers to be able to see one another’s questions and comments? If I was so interested in building writing community, they suggested, why didn’t I join them in transforming what had arguably been the writers’ association best at helping its members get published into a force to help those already in print find a wider audience? Wouldn’t that be, you know, more upbeat and, well, inspirational than giving all of that pesky and potentially depressing practical advice?

Almost a year and many brisk arguments about respect for writers later, I decided to start my own website. That enabled me to turn Author! Author! into a true blog, a space that welcomed writers struggling and established to share their thoughts, questions, concerns, and, sometimes, their often quite justified irritation at the apparently increasing number of hoops through which good writing — and, consequently, good writers — were being expected to jump prior to publication.

Oh, those of you new to searching for an agent have no idea how tough things were back then. A few of the larger agencies had just started not responding to queries if the answer was no — can you believe it? Some agencies, although far from all, agents had begun accepting e-mailed queries, but naturally, your chances were generally better if your approached them by letter. And I don’t want to shock you, but occasionally, an agent would request a full manuscript, but send a form-letter rejection.

Picture the horror: a book turned down, and the writer had no idea why!

Ah, those days seem so innocent now, do they not? How time flies when you don’t know whether your manuscript is moldering third from the top in a backlogged submission pile, has been rejected without comment, or simply got lost in the mail. Sometimes, it feels as though those much-vaunted hoops have not only gotten smaller, but have been set on fire.

Let’s face it: the always long and generally bumpy road to publication has gotten longer and bumpier in recent years. Not that it was ever true that all that was necessary in order to see your work in print was to write a good book, of course; that’s a pretty myth that has been making folks in publishing circles roll their eyes since approximately fifteen minutes after Gutenberg came rushing out of his workshop, waving a mechanically-printed piece of paper. Timing, what’s currently selling well, what is expected to sell well a couple of years hence, when a book acquired now by a traditional publisher would actual come out, the agent of your dreams’ experience with trying to sell a book similar to yours — all of this, and even just plain, dumb luck, have pretty much always affected what readers found beckoning them from the shelves.

But you’d never know that from most of what people say about how books get published, would you? To hear folks talk, you’d think that the only factor involved was writing talent. Or that agencies and publishing houses were charitable organizations, selflessly devoted to the noble task of bringing the best books written every year to an admiring public.

Because, of course, there is universal agreement about what constitutes good writing, right? And good writing in one genre is identical to good writing for every type of book, isn’t it?

None of that is true, of course — and honestly, no one who works with manuscripts for a living could survive long believing it. The daily heartbreak would be too painful to bear.

But I don’t need to explain that to those of you who have been at this writing gig for a while, do I? I’m sure you recall vividly how you felt the day when you realized that not every good, or even great, manuscript written got published, my friends. Or has that terrible sense of betrayal long since receded into the dim realm of memory? Or, as we discussed over the holidays, does it spring to gory life afresh each time some well-meaning soul who has never put pen to paper asks, “What, you still haven’t published your book? But you’ve been at it for years!”

Now, you could answer those questions literally, I suppose, grimly listing every obstacle even the best manuscript faces on its way to traditional publication. You could, too, explain at length why you have chosen to pursue traditional publishing, if you have, or why you have decided to self-publish, if that’s your route.

I could also have given that flabbergasted lady who asked me why I thought there was anything left to say about writing a stirring speech about the vital importance of craft to fine literature. Or regaled her with horror stories about good memoirs suddenly slapped with gratuitous lawsuits. I could even, I suppose, have launched into a two-hour lecture on common misuses of the semicolon without running out of examples, but honestly, what would have been the point? If wonderful writing conveys the impression of having been the first set of words to travel from a talented author’s fingertips to a keyboard, why dispel that illusion?

Instead of quibbling over whether it’s ever likely — or possible — for a first draft to take the literary world by storm, may I suggest that those of us who write could use our time together more productively? For today, at least, let’s tune out all of the insistent voices telling us that if only we were really talented, our work would already be gracing the shelves of the nearest public library, and settle down into a nice, serious discussion of craft.

Humor me: I’ve been at this more than 7 1/2 years. In the blogging realm, that makes me a great-grandmother.

At the risk of sounding as though I’m 105 — the number of candles on my own great-grandmother’s last cake, incidentally; the women in my family are cookies of great toughness — I’d like to turn our collective attention to a craft problem that seldom gets discussed in these decadent days: how movies and television have caused many manuscripts, fiction and nonfiction both, to introduce their characters in a specific manner.

Do I hear peals of laughter bouncing off the corners of the cosmos again? “Oh, come on, Anne,” readers not old enough to have followed Walter Winchell snicker, “isn’t it a trifle late in the day to be focusing on such a problem? At this juncture, I feel it safe to say that TV and movies are here to stay.”

Ah, but that’s just my point: they are here to stay, and the fact that those forms of storytelling are limited to exploiting only two of the audience’s senses — vision and hearing — for creating their effects has, as we have discussed many times before, prompted generation after generation of novelists and memoirists to create narratives that call upon no other sense. If, at the end of a hard day of reading submissions, an alien from the planet Targ were to appear to our old pal, Millicent the agency screener and ask her how many senses the average Earthling possesses, a good 95% of the pages she had seen recently would prompt her to answer, “Two.”

A swift glance at the human head, however, would prove her wrong. Why, I’ve seen people sporting noses and tongues, in addition to eyes and ears, and I’m not ashamed to say it. If you’re willing to cast those overworked peepers down our subject’s body, you might even catch the hands, skin, muscles, and so forth responding to external stimuli.

So would it really be so outrageous to incorporate some sensations your characters acquire through other sensible organs, as Jane Austen liked to call them? Millicent would be so pleased.

If you’d really like to make her happy — and it would behoove you to consider her felicity: her perception of your writing, after all, is what stands between your manuscript and a reading by the agent or editor of your dreams — how about bucking another trend ushered in by the advent of movies and television? What about introducing a new character’s physical characteristics slowly, over the course of a scene or even several, rather than describing the fresh arrival top to toe the instant he enters the book?

Sacre bleu!” I hear the overwhelming majority of hopeful novelists and memoirists shouting. “Are you mad? The other characters in the scene — including, if I’m writing in either the first or the tight third person, my protagonist — will first experience that new person visually! Naturally, I must stop the ongoing action dead in its tracks in order to show the reader what s/he looks like. If I didn’t, the reader might — gasp! — form a mental image that’s different from what I’m seeing in my head!”

Why, yes, that’s possible. Indeed, it’s probable. But I ask you: is that necessarily a problem? No narrative describes a character down to the last mitochondrion in his last cell, after all; something is always left to the reader’s imagination.

Which is, if we’re being truthful about it, a reflection of real life, is it not? Rarely, for instance, would an initial glance reveal everything about a character’s looks. Clothes hide a lot, if they’re doing their job, and distance can be quite a concealer. And really, do you count every freckle on the face of each person passing you on the street?

You might be surprised by how many narratives do, especially in the opening pages of a book. Take a gander at how Millicent all too often makes a protagonist’s acquaintance.

A lean man loped into the distance, shading the horizon with his length even from eighty yards away. Tall as his hero, Abe Lincoln, Jake’s narrow face was hidden by a full beard as red as the hair he had cut himself without a mirror. Calluses deformed his hands, speaking eloquently of years spent yanking on ropes as touch as he was. That those ropes had harnessed the wind for merchant ships was apparent from his bow-legged gait. Pointy of elbow and knee, his body seemed to be moving more slowly than the rest of him as he strode toward the Arbogasts’ encampment.

Henriette eyed him as he approached. His eyes were blue, as washed-out as the baked sky above. Bushy eyebrows punctuated his thoughts. Clearly, those thoughts were deep; how else could she have spotted his anger at twenty paces?

His long nose stretched as he spoke. “Good day, madam,” he said, his dry lips cracking under the strain of speech, “but could I interest you in some life insurance?”

Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this description, as descriptions go. Millicent might legitimately wonder if Henriette is secretly Superman, given how sharp her vision seems to be at such great distances (has anybody ever seen Henriette and Superman together?), and it goes on for quite some time, but she might well forgive that: the scene does call for Henriette to watch Jake walking toward her. Millie be less likely to overlook the five uses of as in the first paragraph, admittedly, but you can’t have everything.

Oh, you hadn’t noticed them? Any professional reader undoubtedly would, and for good reason: as is as common in the average submission as…well, anything you’d care to name is anywhere it’s common.

That means — and it’s a perpetual astonishment to those of us who read for a living how seldom aspiring writers seem to think of this — that by definition, over-reliance on as cannot be a matter of individual authorial voice. Voice consists of how an author’s narratives differ from how other writers’ work reads on the page, not in how it’s similar. Nor can it sound just like ordinary people talk, another extremely popular narrative choice. For a new voice to strike Millicent and her boss as original, it must be unique to the author.

The same holds true, by the way, for the ultra-common narrative practice of blurting out everything there is to know about a character visually at his initial appearance: it’s not an original or creative means of slipping the guy into the story. It can’t possibly be, since that tactic has over the past half-century struck a hefty proportion of the writing population as the right or even the only way to bring a new character into a story.

Don’t believe that someone who reads manuscripts all day, every day would quickly tire of how fond writers are of this method. Okay, let’s take a peek at the next few paragraphs of Henriette’s saga.

She backed away, her brown suede skirt catching on the nearby sagebrush. She tossed her long, blonde hair out of her face. Her hazel eyes, just the color of the trim on her prim, gray high-necked blouse, so appropriate for the schoolmarm/demolitions expert that she was, snapped as strongly as her voice. A pleasing contralto, when she was not furious, but Jake might never get a chance to hear her sing.

“On your way, mister,” she hissed, adjusting her two-inch leather belt with the fetching iron clasp. Marvin had forged that clasp for her, just before he was carried off by a pack of angry rattlesnakes. She could still envision his tuxedo-clad body rolling above its stripy captors, his black patent leather shoes shining in the harsh midday sun. “We don’t cotton to your kind here.”

An unspecified sound of vague origin came from behind her. She whirled around, scuffing her stylish mid-calf boots. She almost broke one of her lengthy, scarlet-polished fingernails while drawing her gun.

Morris grinned back at her, his tanned, rugged face scrunching into a sea of sun-bleached stubble. His pine-green eyes blinked at the reflection from the full-length mirror Jake had whipped out from under his tattered corduroy coat. It showed her trim backside admirably, or at least as much as was visible under her violet bustle. Her hair — which could be described no other way than as long and blonde — tumbled down her back, confined only by her late mother’s cherished magenta hair ribbon.

Morris caught sight of himself in the mirror. My, he was looking the worse for wear. He wore an open-collared poet’s shirt as red as the previous day’s sunset over a well-cut pant of vermillion velvet. Dust obscured the paisley pattern at the cuff and neck, embroidered by his half-sister, Marguerite, who could be spotted across the street at a second-floor window, playing the cello. Her ebony locks trailed over her bare shoulder as her loosely-cut orange tea gown slipped from its accustomed place.

Had enough yet? Millicent would — and we’re still on page 1. So could you really blame her if she cried over this manuscript, “For heaven’s sake, stop showing me what these people look like and have them do something!”

To which I would like to add my own editorial cri de coeur: would somebody please tell this writer that while clothes may make the man in some real-world contexts, it’s really not all that character-revealing to describe a person’s outfit on the page? Come on, admit it: after a while, Henriette’s story started to read like a clothing catalogue. But since it’s a novel set in 1872, long before any of the characters could reasonably have been expected to watch Project Runway marathons, could we possibly spring for another consonant and let the man wear what most people call them, pants, instead of a pant?

Does that slumped posture and defeated moaning mean that some of you manuscript-revisers are finding seeing these storytelling habits from Millicent’s perspective convincing? “Okay, Anne,” you sigh, “you got me. Swayed by the cultural dominance of visual storytelling, I’ve grown accustomed to describing a face, a body, a hank of hair, etc., as soon as I reveal a character’s existence to the refer. But honestly, I’m not sure how to structure these descriptions differently. Unless you’re suggesting that Henriette should have smelled or tasted each new arrival?”

Well, that would be an interesting approach. It would also, I suspect, be a quite different book, one not aimed at the middle grade reader, if you catch my drift.

Your options are legion, you will be happy to hear: once a writer breaks free of the perceived necessity to run a narrative camera, so to speak, over each character as she traipses onto the page, how to reveal what appearance-related detail becomes a matter of style. And that, my friends, should be as original as your voice.

If my goal in blogging were merely to be inspirational, as Author! Author!’s original hosts had hoped, that would have been a dandy place to end the post, wouldn’t it? That last paragraph, while undoubtedly possessed of some sterling writing truths, did not cough up much actual guidance. And you fine people, I know from long experience, come to this site for practical advice, illustrated by examples.

For insight into how breaking up a physical description for a new character can knock the style ball out of the proverbial park, I can do no better than to direct your attention to that much-copied miracle of authorial originality, Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. To render this example even more frantically literary, I have transcribed these excerpts from the 1908 F.F. Collier and Son edition (W. Blaydes, translator) Philip K. Dick gave me for my eleventh birthday.

Why that particular edition, for a reader so young? Because the Colliers had the foresight to corral another novelist in whose work Philip had been trying to interest me, into writing the introduction. Henry James was considered a real up-and-comer at the turn of the twentieth century.

Feeling sufficiently highbrow? Excellent. Here’s the reader’s first glimpse of the immortal Emma Bovary:

A young woman, clad in a dress of blue merino trimmed with three flounces, came to the threshold of the house to receive M. Bovary, whom she introduced into the kitchen where there blazed a big fire. The breakfast of the household was ready prepared and boiling hot, in little pots of unequal size, distributed about. Damp clothes were drying within the chimney-place…

That’s it. Rather sparse as physical descriptions go, isn’t it, considering that this novel’s account of this woman’s passions is arguably one of the most acclaimed in Western literature? Yet at this moment, set amongst the various objects and activities in M. Roulaut’s household, she almost seems to get lost among the furniture.

Ah, but just look at the next time she appears. Charles, the hero of the book so far, now begins to notice her, but not entirely positively.

To provide splints, someone went to fetch a bundle of laths from under the carts. Charles selected one of them, cut it in pieces and polished it with a splinter of glass, while the servant tore up sheets to make bandages and Mlle. Emma tried to sew the necessary bolsters. As she was a long time finding her needle-case, her father grew impatient; she made no reply to him, but, as she sewed, she pricked her fingers, which she then raised to her mouth and sucked.

That’s a nice hunk of character development, isn’t it? Very space-efficient, too: in those few lines, we learn her first name, that she’s not very good at sewing, and that she’s not especially well-organized, as well as quite a lot about her relationship with her father. Could a minute description of her face, figure, and petticoat have accomplished as much so quickly?

But wait: there’s more. Watch how the extreme specificity of Flaubert’s choice of an ostensibly practically-employed body part draws Charles’ sudden observation. At this point in the novel, he and Emma have known each other for two pages.

Charles was surprised by the whiteness of her nails. They were bright, fine at the tips, ore polished than the ivories of Dieppe, and cut almond-shape. Her hand, however, was not beautiful: hardly, perhaps, pale enough, and rather lean about the finger joints; it was too long, also, and without soft inflections of line in the contours.

His being so critical of her caught you off guard, did it not? The paragraph continues:

A feature really beautiful in her was her eyes; although they were brown, they seemed black by reason of their lashes, and her glance came to you frankly with a candid assurance.

This passage reveals as much about Charles as about Emma, I think: how brilliant to show the reader only what happens to catch this rather limited man’s notice. Because his observation has so far been almost entirely limited to the physical, it isn’t until half a page later that the reader gains any sense that he’s ever heard her speak. Even then, the reader only gets to hear Charles’ vague summaries of what she says, rather than seeing her choice of words.

The conversation at first turned on the sick man, then on the weather, the extreme cold, the wolves that scoured the fields at night. Mlle. Rouault did not find a country life very amusing, now especially that the care of the farm devolved almost entirely on herself alone. As the room was chilly, she shivered as she ate, and the shivering caused her full lips, which in her moments of silence she had a habit of biting, to part slightly.

Didn’t take Charles — or the narrative — long to slip back to the external, did it? Now, and only now, is the reader allowed the kind of unfettered, close-up look at her that Millicent so often finds beginning in the first sentence in the book that mentions the character.

Her neck issued from a white turned-down collar. Her hair, so smooth and glossy that each of the two black fillets in which it was arranged seemed a single solid mass, was divided by a fine parting in the middle, which rose or sank slightly as it followed the curve of her skull; and, covering all but the lobe of the ears, it was gathered behind into a large chignon, with a waved spring towards the temples, which the country doctor now observed for the first time in his life. Her cheeks were pink over the bones. She carried, passed in masculine style between two buttons of her bodice, eye-glasses of tortoise-shell.

Quite a sensuous means of tipping the reader off that she’s a fellow reader, isn’t it? Two paragraphs later, we hear her speak for the first time:

“Are you looking for something?” she asked.

The initial words a major character speaks in a story, I’ve found, are often key to developing character on the page. Choose them carefully: in a third-person narrative, it’s the first time that this person can speak for herself. Make them count.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not urging any of you to copy Flaubert. His narrative voice would be pretty hard to sell in the current literary market, for one thing — did you catch all of those which clauses that would have been edited out today? — and, frankly, his work has been so well-loved for so long that a novel that aped his word use would instantly strike most Millicents as derivative. As some wise person once said, a strong authorial voice is unique.

Oh, wait, that was me, and it was just a few minutes ago. How time flies when we’re talking craft.

I hear those gusty sighs out there, and you’re quite right: developing an individual voice and polishing your style can be time-consuming. It took Flaubert five years to write Madame Bovary.

Take that, naysayers who cling to the notion that the only true measure of talent is whether a first draft is publishable. The Muses love the writer willing to roll up her sleeves, take a long, hard look at her own work, and invest some serious effort in making sure that all of that glorious inspiration shows up on the page.

So what, in the end, did I say to the lady who exclaimed over the notion that I could possibly have spent more than seven years writing about writing? Oh, I treated to her the usual explanation of how tastes change, trends waver, and the demands of professional writing differ from year to year, if not day to day. If the expression in her stark blue eyes was any indication, she lost interest midway through my third sentence.

The true answer, however, came to me later: in all of these years, and in 1599 posts, I had never shared my favorite depiction of falling in love with you charming people. A shallow love, to be sure, but a memorable description. And for the prompt to whip out this volume, I owe that lady some thanks.

Do I have more to say about writing? Just try to stop me. Keep up the good work!

Avoiding the writer’s classic holiday blues, or, what to say when Aunt Myrna exclaims, “What? You’re still working on that book? I thought you’d have it published by now!”

November 28th, 2013

potato star

My apologies for the long, long posting hiatus, my friends. I’ve been on crutches since July 4, and it turns out that, contrary to what Tiny Tim may have led even the best of us to expect, hobbling is not necessarily conducive to comedy writing. At least not to the type of bright, witty banter about deadly serious topics we like to cultivate here at Author! Author! Yet another major holiday is upon us, however, so it’s time to dust off the keyboard and get cracking again.

Why so surprised? You didn’t think I was going to send you into Thanksgiving dinner without a few words of encouragement, did you?

Already, the eyebrows of those new to treading the path literary shoot skyward. “But Anne,” bright-eyed neophytes everywhere murmur, and who could blame you? “What makes you think that writers, of all people, would need to gird their loins prior to venturing into the no doubt warm and accepting bosoms of their respective families and/or dining rooms of their invariably supportive friends?”

Experience, mostly. In descending order of probability, a fellow writer, a writing blogger, and an editor provide the three most likely shoulders aspiring writers will dampen with their frustrated tears immediately after the festivities cease. Heck, established authors often beard the heavens with their bootless cries this time of year.

Why, those new to the game ask breathlessly? Because, let’s face it, most non-writers harbor completely unrealistic notions about how and why good books get published.

Don’t believe me? Okay, what do make of it when Aunt Myrna plucks your sleeve and asks tenderly, “Honey, why isn’t your novel out yet? I keep telling my friends that you write.”

Or when Uncle Clark chortles, “Memoir? What on earth do you have to write memoirs about?”

Or, heaven help us, when Cousin Ritchie wheels out his annual passive-aggressive attempt at encouragement: “Still no agent, eh? I had really thought that a book as good as yours would get snapped up right away. Have you thought at all about self-publishing?”

A sane, confident, unusually secure writer might well answer: “Why, yes, Ritchie, I have. As I had last year and the year before, when you had previously proffered this self-evident suggestion. Now shut up and pass the darned yams.”

Or pipe merrily, “Well, as the agents like to say, Uncle Clark, it all depends on the writing. So unless you’d like me to embark upon a fifty-two minute explanation of the intrinsic differences between the Ulysses S. Grant-style national-scale autobiography that you probably have in mind and a personal memoir about the adolescence in which you played a minor but disagreeable role, could I interest you in a third helping of these delightful vermouth-doused string beans?”

Or, while Aunt Myrna’s mouth is full of pie, observing suavely, “I so appreciate your drumming up future readers for my novel; I’m sure that will come in very handy down the road. But no, ‘trying just a little harder this year’ won’t necessarily make the difference between hitting the bestseller lists and obscurity. You might want to try telling your friends that even if I landed an agent for my novel within the next few days — even less likely at this time of year than others, by the way, as the publishing world slows to a crawl between Thanksgiving and the end of the year — it could easily be a year or two before you can urge them to buy my novel.”

But most of us aren’t up to that level of even-tempered and informative riposte, are we? And for good reason, too: in the moment, even the best-intentioned of those questions can sound very much like an insidious echo of that self-doubting hobgoblin living in the back of the creative mind.

“If you were truly talented,” that little beastie loves to murmur in moments when we’re already feeling discouraged, “an admiring public would already be enjoying your work in droves. And in paperback. Now stop thinking about your book and go score more leftover pie and some coffee; tormenting you is thirsty work.”

Come on, admit it — you’re on a first-name basis with that goblin. It’s been whispering in your ear ever since you began to query. Or submit. Or perhaps even as soon as you started to write.

Even so, you’re entitled to be a little startled when Bernie with the pitchfork suddenly begins speaking out of the mouth of that otherwise perfectly nice person your brother brought along to dinner because she’s new in town and has nowhere else to go on Thanksgiving. Try to be charitable: your brother’s friend may actually be doing you a favor by verbalizing your lingering doubts, you know.

How? Well, it’s a heck of a lot easier to argue with a living, breathing person than someone whose base camp is located inside your head. Astonishingly often, an artless question like “Oh, you write? Would I have read any of your work?” from the ignoramus across the table will give voice to a niggling doubt that’s been eating at a good writer for years.

Or so I surmise, from how writers tend to complain about such questions. “How insensitive can they be?” writers inevitably wail in the wake of holiday gatherings, and who could blame them? “I swear that I heard, ‘So when is your book coming out?’ twice as often as ‘Pass the gravy, please.’ Why is it that my kith/kin/the kith and kin of some acquaintance kind enough to feed me don’t seem to have the faintest idea of what it means to be a working writer, as opposed to the fantasy kind that writes a book one minute, is instantly and spontaneously solicited by an agent the next, and is chatting on a couch with a late-night TV host the next? Why is publication — and wildly successful publication at that — so frequently held as the only measure of writing talent?”

I’m relatively certain that the question-asking gravy-eschewers who drove these writers to distraction (and, quite possibly, drove them home afterward) did not intend to be cruel. However, the short answer to that well-justified wail is an unfortunately cruel one: because that’s how society at large judges writing.

I know, I know: I don’t like it, either, but it’s pervasive. Not only does popular misconception holed that the only good book a published book — a proposition that would make anyone who actually handles manuscripts for a living positively choke with mirth — but also that if a writer were really talented, publication would be both swift and inevitable. Commercial success arrives invariably for great books, too, because unless the author happens to be a celebrity in another field, the only possible difference between a book that lands the author on the bestseller lists and one that languishes unpurchased is the quality of the writing, right?

Are you laughing yet? More importantly, is Bernie the Hobgoblin? Trust me, anyone who works with manuscripts for a living would be.

Yet I sense that you’re not laughing. Okay, let’s tease this logic out a little. If all of those suppositions are true, there are only two possible reasons that a manuscript could possibly not already be published: it’s not yet completed (in which case the writer is lazy, right?) or it simply isn’t any good (and thus does not deserve to be published). Accordingly, the only kind response to a writer who has been at it a while, yet does not have a book out, must be to avert one’s eyes and make vaguely encouraging noises.

Or to change the subject altogether. Because, honestly, it isn’t your sister’s coworker’s fault that your mother told him to sit next to the writer in the family. Why, the coworker thinks, rub salt in the wound of someone who clearly has no talent for writing?

Chuckling yet? You should be. While it is of course conceivable that any of the reasons above could be stifling the publication chances of any particular manuscript to which a hopeful writer might refer after a relative she sees only once a year claps her heartily on the back and bellows, “How’s the writing coming, Gladys?” again, the very notion that writing success should be measured — or even could be measured — solely by whether the mythical Publication Fairy has yet whacked it with her Bind-It-Now wand would cause the pros to choke with mirth.

So would the length of that last sentence, come to think of it. Ol’ Henry James must surely be beaming down at me from the literary heavens over that one.

Yet I sense that some of you are not in fact choking with mirth. “But Anne,” frustrated writers point out, “although naturally, I know from reading this blog (particularly the informative posts under the HOW THE PUBLISHING INDUSTRY WORKS — AND DOESN’T category at right), listening carefully to what agents say they want, and observation of the career trajectories of both my writer friends and established authors alike that many an excellent manuscript languishes for years without being picked up, part of me wants to believe that’s not really the case. Or at least that it will not be the case in my case.”

See what I mean about the holiday table’s capacity for causing those internalized pernicious assumptions to leap out of the mind and demand to be fed? Let’s listen for a bit longer; perhaps we can learn something.

“If the literary universe is fair,” writers and their pet hobgoblins typically reason, “a good manuscript should always find a home, right? And if that’s true, perhaps my kith and kin are right that if I were really talented, the only thing I would ever have to say at the Thanksgiving table is that my book is already out and where I would like them to buy it.”

“Wait just a book-signing minute!” another group of not-yet-completely-frustrated writers roar. “What do you mean, many an excellent manuscript languishes for years without being picked up? How is that possible? Isn’t it the publishing industry’s job — and its sole job — to identify and promote writing talent? And doesn’t that mean that any truly talented writer will be so identified and promoted, if only he is brave enough to send out his work persistently, until he find the right agent for it?”

“Whoa!” still a third sector shouts. “Send out work persistently? I thought that if a writer was genuinely gifted, any good agent would snatch up her manuscript. So why would any talented writer need to query more than one or two times?”

Do you hear yourselves, people? You’re invoking the Publishing Fairy. Are you certain you want to do that?

It’s a dangerous practice for a writer, you know. The Publication Fairy’s long, long shadow can render seeing one’s own publication chances rather difficult. Following her specter can lead a writer to believe, for instance, that the goal of querying is to land just any agent, for instance, rather than one who already has the connections to sell the book. Or that it would be a dandy idea to sending out a barrage of queries to the fifty agents a search engine spit out, or even every agent in the country, without checking to see if any of them represent a particular kind of book. Or — you might want to put down your fork, the better to digest this one, my dear — give up after just a few queries or submissions.

Because if that writer were actually talented, how he went about approaching agents wouldn’t matter, right? The Publishing Fairy would see to it that nothing but the writing quality would count — and thus it follows like drowsiness after consuming vast quantities of turkey that if that writer gets rejected, ever, the manuscript must not be well-written.

Heck, by this logic, it’s hardly necessary for the writer to make any effort at all, beyond writing a first draft of the book, is it? Those whom the Publishing Fairy bops in the noggin need merely toss off a first draft — because the honestly gifted writer never needs to revise anything, right? — then wait patiently until an agent is magically wafted to her doorstep. (Possibly accompanied by Mary Poppins, if the wind is right.)

Ah, it’s a pretty fantasy, isn’t it? The agent reads the entire book at a sitting — or, better still, extrapolates the entire book from a swift glance at a query — and shouts in ecstasy, “This is the book for which I have been waiting for my entire career!” A book contract follows instantly, promising publication with in a few weeks. By the end of a couple of months at the very latest, the really talented writer will be happily ensconced on a well-lit couch in a television studio, chatting with a talk show host about her book.

“It has been a life-changing struggle, Oprah,” the writer says brightly, courageously restraining tears, “but I felt I had to write this book. As Maya Angelou says, ‘there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.'”

You would be astonished at how pervasive this narrative of authorial success actually is amongst aspiring writers. They may not all believe it intellectually — they may have come to understand, for example, that since no agent in the world represents every conceivable type of book, it’s a waste of time to query an agent who does not habitually represent books in one’s chosen book category — but at a gut level, every rejection feels like just more evidence of being ignored by the Publication Fairy.

Which must mean that your manuscript isn’t nearly as good as you thought, right? Why else would an agent — any agent — who has not seen so much as a word of it not respond to a query? The Publication Fairy must have tipped her off that something wasn’t quite as it should be. So Aunt Myrna may have a point.

Come on, admit it — you’ve thought this at least once, haven’t you? Practically every aspiring writer who did not have the foresight to be a celebrity (who enjoy a completely different path to publication) before attempting to get published entertains such doubts in the dead of night. If the road to publication is hard, long, and winding, it must mean something, mustn’t it?

Why, yes: it could mean that the book category in which one happens to be writing is not selling very well right now, for one thing. Good agents are frequently reluctant to pick up even superlative manuscripts they don’t believe they could sell. It could also mean that the agents one has been approaching do not have a solid track record of selling similar books, or that one has assigned one’s book to an inappropriate category.

Either can often result in knee-jerk rejection. Or, even if the manuscript is a perfect fit and everyone at the agency adores the writing, the literary marketplace has contracted to such an extent that the agent cannot afford to take on as many talented new clients as she would like.

But those are not the justifications that pacify Bernie the Hobgoblin in the dead of night, are they? Nor are they likely to convince Uncle Clark, or to awe Cousin Ritchie into the supportive acceptance you would prefer he evince. Which is interesting, as offhand, I can think of approximately no well-established authors for whom the Publishing Fairy fantasy we’ve been discussing represents an actual career trajectory.

If you have fallen prey to these feelings, especially after having spent even a few minutes having to defend one’s writing habit to non-writers with whom one is sharing a gravy boat for the evening, try not to be too hard on yourself. The popular conception of how publishing works is, not to put too fine a point on it, composed largely of magical thinking.

There’s a reason for that, I suspect: all of us would like to believe that if a manuscript is a masterpiece, there’s no chance that it would go unpublished. We cling to the comforting concept that ultimately, the generous literary gods will reach down to nudge brilliant writing from the slush pile to the top of the acceptance heap.

We believe, in short, in the Publication Fairy. That’s understandable in a writer: those of us in cahoots with the Muses would prefer not to think that they were in the habit of tricking us. An intriguing belief, given that even a passing acquaintance with literary history would lead one to suspect that they do occasionally get a kick out of snatching recognition from someone they have blessed with talent. (Edgar Allan Poe didn’t exactly die a happy man, people.)

In non-writers, though, this attitude can seem a bit less reasonably derived. What, after all, does an otherwise upstanding citizen whose idea of Hell consists of a demon’s forcing him into an uncomfortable desk chair in front of a seriously outdated computer and howling, “You must write a book!” possibly gain by believing that, unlike in literally every other human endeavor, excellence in writing is invariably rewarded?

Yet even those who strenuously avoid bookstores often seem to cling to the myth of the Publication Fairy. If you doubt that, try talking about your writing over a holiday dinner to a group of non-writers.

“So when is your book coming out?” that-cousin-whose-relationship-to-you-has-never been clear will ask. “And would you mind passing the gravy?”

“What do you mean, you haven’t finished writing that book yet?” Great-Aunt Mavis chimes in, helping herself to sweet potatoes. “You’ve been working on it for years.”

“Are you still doing that?” Grandpa demands incredulously. “I thought you’d given up when you couldn’t sell your first book.

Your cousin’s wife might try to be a bit more tactful. “Oh, querying sounds just awful. Have you considered self-publishing?”

Because, of course, that would never have occurred to you. You’ve never encountered a dark midnight in which you dreamt of thumbing your nose at traditional publishing — at least long enough to bypass the querying and submission processes, rush the first draft of your Great American Novel onto bookshelves, and then sit back, waiting for the royalties to roll in, the reviewers to rave, and publishers the world over to materialize on your doorstep, begging to publish your next book.

Never mind that the average self-published book sells fewer than five hundred copies — yes, still — or that most publications that still review books employ policies forbidding the review of self-published books. Over half of the books released every year in North America are not self-published, after all. Ignore the fact that all of the effort of promoting such a book falls on the author. And don’t even give a passing thought to the reality that in order for a self-published book to impress the traditional publishing world even vaguely, it typically needs to sell at least 10,000 copies.

The Publishing Fairy can merely wave her wand and change all of that, right?

Contrary to what some intrepid readers might be beginning to suspect, I’m not bringing all of this up in order to depress everyone into a stupor about just how difficult it is for a first-time author to bring a book to publication, or even as a precursor to breaking the sad, sad news that a good 80% of the fine folks who don’t now get that agents don’t magically appear on good authors’ doorsteps within thirty seconds of the words The End being typed also won’t understand when you land an agent, you will not automatically be handed a publication contract by some beneficent deity.

Yes, really. If every agented writer had a nickel for each time some well-meaning soul said, “Oh, you have an agent? When’s your book coming out?” we could construct our own publishing house. We could stack up the first million or so nickels for girders.

No, I’m raising these unpleasant realities to provide a bit of ego salve for the many, many aspiring writers whose otherwise charming Thanksgiving table partners might not have been as supportive of their writing aspirations as they might have liked. Try not to hold it against your father-in-law: chances are, he just doesn’t have any idea how publishing actually works.

But you do. Don’t let anybody, not even the insidious hobgoblins of midnight reflection, tell you that the reason you don’t already have a book out is — and must necessarily be — that you just aren’t talented enough. That’s magical thinking, and you’re too smart to buy into it.

I’m not suggesting, of course, that those of you who have yet to dine today deliberately pick a fight with your third cousin twice removed or any other delightful soul considerate enough to inquire about your writing. In fact, I’ve been deliberately delaying my own foray into the kitchen in order to help you avoid that particular argument — or, more likely because writers tend to be awfully nice people, avoid the hurt feelings that those unwilling to fight often find hard to swallow.

How might one side-step that especially indigestible discussion? Had you thought about abruptly asking how everyone at the table feels about the recent government shutdown? Or universal healthcare?

You see the point, don’t you? Just as it’s risky to assume that everyone gathered around even the most Norman Rockwell-pleasing holiday table shares identical political beliefs, it is always dangerous to presume that everyone at an agency or publishing house will share the worldview or life experiences of the submitter. Or that everyone around the holiday table will be concealing under that sweater-clad chest a heart open to the realities of publishing as it actually happens.

So how might a writer besieged by the Publication Fairy’s adherents do to protect his digestion? How about limiting to the discussion to, “The writing’s going very well. How’s your handball game these days, Ambrose?”

Seem evasive? Well, it is. But would you rather allow the discourse to proceed to the point that you might have to say to a relative that has just referred to your writing as Allison’s time-gobbling little hobby, “Good one, brother. Seriously, though, I don’t want to bore you with an explanation of how books actually get published.”

If pressed, you could always add, “I’d love to continue this fascinating exchange, Hermione, but would you mind if I grabbed my notebook first? Everyone here is aware that anything you say can and will be used against you in a manuscript, right?”

If you do feel compelled to try to nudge your loved ones toward a more supportive attitude while they are gnawing upon drumsticks, dinner might be an excellent time to disabuse them of the also quite ubiquitous notion that author’s kith and kin routinely receive free copies of books. Yes, publishers do generally provide their authors an extremely limited stock of their books, but it’s with the expectation those will be used for promotion, not to grace one’s mother’s bookshelves, if you catch my drift.

That means, in practice, that if you recklessly promise free copies, you will almost certainly be buying them yourself. And to answer your mother’s next question: yes, Mom, authors do often receive a discount upon their own books, but the books the author buys do not count toward sales totals.

Translation: the best thing Aunt Myrna could do to support your writing career would be to commit to buying your book(s) herself. Promise to sign it for her when she does. If you’re feeling adventurous, extend that promise to visiting her in order to inscribe copies for all of the friends she can cajole, blandish, and/or guilt into purchasing.

Or just bookmark this page and forward the link to your kith and kin a few months before your first book comes out. I don’t mind playing the heavy here. I’ve spent a lifetime explaining to everyone’s relatives that since the Publication Fairy so often falls down on the job, it’s up to the rest of us to support the writers in our lives. I see no reason to stop now.

Your writing deserves that support, doesn’t it? Happy digestion to all, and to all a good night. And, as always, keep up the good work!

John, have you seen Jon, James, and/or Jeremy lately? What about Jessica, Jacqueline, Jessamyn, or Jasmine?

July 16th, 2013

cardinal richelieu tripych

Three guesses: which particular species of word repetition am I going to tackle today?

Actually, that was a trick question — I’m going to be talking about two of the most common, gratuitous character name repetition and character naming that inadvertently gives the impression of same. Why talk about them together, you ask? Because in manuscript submissions, faux pas of a feather tend to flock together.

Why, yes, that was a mixed metaphor, now that you mention it. Would that the following not-all-that-uncommon type of fiction opening suffered from only metaphor-blending.

Morris strode into the opulent drawing room, so oddly out of keeping with the rest of the austere log cabin. “Mona, I’ve had enough,” Morris said. “It’s me or Maurice!”

Mona moaned. “Darling Morris,” Mona mentioned, “whatever do you mean? Marius means nothing to me, and Mencius hasn’t entered my thoughts for years. Now Merton, on the other hand…”

“Aha!” Morris gloated audibly. “Hoist with your own petard, Mona!”

“I haven’t used a petard in years, Morris,” Mona murmured, but he seemed not to hear her.

“I wasn’t talking about that twit Marius, Mona — I am accusing you of being in love with Maurice!” Morris muscled aside a dainty occasional table. “What have you to say to that, Mona?”

Mona looked blank. “Maurice who?”

Maddening to read, is it not? If you really want to drive yourself mad, try reading it out loud. Or simply step into Millicent the agency screener’s shoes and read a good third of the fiction openings on any given day.

Why are these phenomena so pervasive in submissions? Believe it or not (but I hope you select the former), as evident as the too-similar names would be to virtually any reader, most aspiring writers — nay, most writers, period — seem to have a hard time noticing how their name choices can distract the reader. Or so I surmise from how defensive writers often get when editors like me suggest, however gently, that perhaps their manuscripts might benefit from some name fine-tuning.

In fact, I would bet a wooden nickel of the variety that folks are always urging one not to take that a fairly hefty proportion of the otherwise excellently-humored writers reading this have already taken a bit of umbrage from the nation’s seemingly inexhaustible supply. “But character names are a creative choice!” writers everywhere protest, indignant. “And if I like a character’s name, why shouldn’t I use it a lot? It’s necessary for clarity, you know!”

Is it now? More to the point, is it always? I ask because usually, what indignant name-dropping writers have in mind as the only feasible alternative is something like this:

He strode into the opulent drawing room, so oddly out of keeping with the rest of the austere log cabin. “I’ve had enough,” he said. “It’s me or him!”

She moaned. “Darling, whatever do you mean? He means nothing to me, and that other guy hasn’t entered my thoughts for years. Now a third fellow, on the other hand…”

“Aha!” he gloated audibly. “Hoist with your own petard!”

“I haven’t used a petard in years,” she murmured, but he seemed not to hear her.

“I wasn’t talking about that twit — I am accusing you of being in love with You Know Who!” He muscled aside a dainty occasional table. “What have you to say to that?”

She looked blank. “Who?”

Yes, this pronoun-fest would be a bit difficult for your garden-variety reader to follow. As justifying examples go, however, you must admit that this one’s a bit of a straw man. I’m not saying that you should never mention your characters by name at all. No one — no one sensible, anyway — would seriously suggest that, because you’re right: naming characters can be awfully handy for identification purposes.

Nor is anyone here arguing that character names don’t fall firmly within the province of authorial discretion (but don’t be surprised if your future agent/editor/some random guy from your publisher’s marketing department harbors few thoughts on the subject). No, what we sensible editorial types have in mind was a revision more along these lines:

Morris strode into the opulent drawing room, so oddly out of keeping with the rest of the austere log cabin. “Elaine, I’ve had enough,” he said. “It’s me or Armand!”

She sat bold upright on a chaise clearly designed for supporting an inclination to recline. “You mean Armand Jean, the Duc du Plessis, otherwise known as Cardinal Richelieu? Why, he’s been dead for either decades or centuries, depending upon when this scene is set!”

Morris sank to the floor, clutching his head in his hands. “Oh, God, have I been time-traveling again?”

Just kidding — that was the edit the guy from marketing wanted. (Oh, come on — you wouldn’t keep reading?) Simply making the names less similar would produce a run of text a little more like this:

Morris strode into the opulent drawing room, so oddly out of keeping with the rest of the austere log cabin. “Elaine, I’ve had enough,” Morris said. “It’s me or Arnold!”

Elaine moaned. “Darling Morris,” Elaine mentioned, “whatever do you mean? Stefan means nothing to me, and Ned hasn’t entered my thoughts for years. Now Edmund, on the other hand…”

“Aha!” Morris gloated audibly. “Hoist with your own petard, Elaine!”

“I haven’t used a petard in years, Morris,” Elaine murmured, but he seemed not to hear her.

“I wasn’t talking about that twit Stefan, Elaine — I am accusing you of being in love with Arnold!” Morris muscled aside a dainty occasional table. “What have you to say to that, Elaine?”

Elaine looked blank. “Arnold who?”

Come on, admit it — that’s easier to follow, isn’t it? As little as writers might want to hear it, anyone who has ever screened manuscripts or judged contest submissions could tell you (quite possibly whilst clutching his aching head and/or bathing his weary eyes) that the best or only test of the strength of a character’s name is not whether the writer happens to like it.

Yes, yes, I see your hackles rising, defenders of authorial rights: the writer of this turgid little exchange may well have been deeply enamored of every name in the original draft. I can guarantee, though, that the reader will find this set of monikers considerably more individually memorable — and thus more conducive to matching with each character’s personality.

While you’re retracting those hackles, however, let me ask you: this time through, did you notice how often Morris and Elaine’s names appeared for no good reason?

If you’re like most writers, the answer is no. Seriously, folks, you’d be astonished at just how often a given character’s name will pop up within a single page of text in the average manuscript submission — and even more astonished at how difficult it is for chronic name-repeaters to spot the problem in their own writing. Like the bugbear of our last few posts, the ubiquitous and, major characters’ names seem to become practically invisible to self-editing writers.

But you know better, right? In a two-person scene, is it remotely necessary to keep reminding the reader who those two people are? Yes, it’s helpful to identify speakers the first time around, but couldn’t any reader familiar with the principle of alternating dialogue be relied upon to keep track of which is speaking when thereafter?

And while we’re at it, isn’t audibly a trifle redundant here? What else are the quotation marks for, if not to alert the reader to words having been uttered aloud? Could not the writer assume sufficient intelligence in the reader to render this rendition a viable option?

Morris strode into the opulent drawing room, so oddly out of keeping with the rest of the austere log cabin. “I’ve had enough. It’s me or Arnold!”

Elaine moaned. “Darling, whatever do you mean? Stefan means nothing to me, and Ned hasn’t entered my thoughts for years. Now Edmund, on the other hand…”

“Aha! Hoist with your own petard!”

“I haven’t used a petard in years,” she murmured, but he seemed not to hear her.

“I wasn’t talking about that twit Stefan — I am accusing you of being in love with Arnold!” He muscled aside a dainty occasional table. “What have you to say to that?”

She looked blank. “Arnold who?”

Oh, there go those writerly hackles again — it takes so little to raise them. Clarity and flow not enough for you?

“I guess that’s fine,” hackle-raisers mutter, kicking the nearest piece of heavy furniture, “but really didn’t see a problem with the earlier version. I miss the fun names.”

Of course you do — as a writer. As a reader, you almost certainly wouldn’t; let’s face it, the similarity of the names of Mona’s presumptive lovers could only be amusing for so long. It’s also a type of joke that our Millicent sees often enough in submissions that even if it did tickle her funny bone at first, it could hardly strike her as original. On the whole, she’s more likely to be pleased to see some naming restraint. She spends so much time trying to remember which character is which, you see.

Oh, you think that’s not difficult? Okay, try a little experiment: hie yourself to the nearest well-stocked bookstore and pull twenty books off the shelves. Stack them neatly before you and read the first page of each. Wait five minutes, then jot down as many of the main characters’ names as you can.

It’s not so easy. Especially if you happened to select books in which the characters boast similar names. Which prompts me to ask: everyone did catch the plethora of Js in today’s title, right?

I sincerely hope so: names beginning with J have for years been by far the most common in submission, especially in YA. Isn’t that right, Jeremy, Josh, and Jesse? And don’t even get me started on the many, many years during which John, Jon, Jonathan, Jack, and Johnny traipsed merrily through the pages of virtually any novel one might happen to pick up in an airport.

Just between us, Justin, a screener or contest judge doesn’t have to be on the job for very long to start longing for the odd Anthony, a wayward Terence, a charming Gregory, merely for the sake of variety. “Would it kill the average submitter,” Millicent moans into her third latt? of the morning (hey, something’s got to keep her awake), “to give a passing thought to naming his protagonist Keith?”

Oh, Millie, I feel your pain — but at the risk of repeating myself (oh, John, must we go over this again?), it’s my considered opinion that on the manuscript page, writers just don’t spot the problem. Partially, that’s attributable to an unfortunate fact of submission: a good 90% of writers currently sending off manuscript pages to agencies, small publishers, and writing contests have never actually clapped eyes upon another writer’s manuscript.

So is it really any wonder that any given submitter should be unaware that by the time Millicent meets his protagonist, Joshua Jefferson, in the course of her screening day, she will have already had the pleasure of making the literary acquaintance of 13 other Joshes, Jeffs, and possibly their sons? As far as they know, her Josh is the only one in town.

Then, too, all of us are just used to knowing quite a few people with the same first name. So is Millicent. In her case, though, all the sympathy this experience sparks is to wonder why so few writers seem to have noticed that in the real world, it’s often kind of inconvenient when several people moving within the same circles share the same name.

Says the former coed who could walk into her collegiate dining hall, shout “David!” and see a third of her male classmates turn around. Someone in the admissions office — and in the nation’s maternity wards a couple of decades earlier — sure must have been awfully fond of it.

Before any of you slice-of-life aficionados leap to your feet to argue the virtues of having a manuscript’s naming strategy hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature, let me hasten to add that it’s really, really common for readers to confuse characters whose names begin with the same capital letter, let alone the same first syllable. It may be fun to plan a story about adventurous twins Ken and Kendra, but on the page, it’s likely to confuse a skimmer. So are those intrepid best friends, Dustin and Justine.

Oh, you don’t believe me, friends of Morris, Maurice, and Marius? Okay, let’s take a peek at some of these naming faux pas in their native environment, the manuscript page. If you’re having trouble reading such small type so fast, I recommend holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image.

For those of you who would like to replicate Millicent’s experience within the comfort of home, I invite you to try to read your way all the way down the page in less than 30 seconds. On your marks, get set — squint!

name rep example

How did you do? Award yourself a gold star if you spotted all 9 iterations of John in the body of the text — and another if you caught the author’s name in the header. (No, that wouldn’t count as repetition in the text, now that you mention it, but to a repetition-weary Millicent at the end of a long day, it might contribute subconsciously to her sense of being bombarded by Johns. She’s only human, you know.)

So far, so good. But let me ask you: did the 6 Paulines bug you at all? Or did they simply fade into the woodwork, because your brain automatically accepted them as necessary to the text?

Again, for most writers, the answer would be no — as long as this page had fluttered gracefully out of their own manuscripts. Admittedly, though, not all of them would have instantly leapt to their feet, crying, “My heavens, Mr. or Ms. Johns, have you never met a pronoun you’ve liked?”

That’s quite a bit more charitable than what a nit-picky reader would have shouted — and since that demographic includes practically everyone who has ever read for a living, including agents, editors, and contest judges, you might want to worry about that. Millicent, I assure you, would have found the level of name-repetition here eye-distracting.

How eye-distracting, you ask with fear and trembling? Well, let me put it kindly: how distracted from your fine writing would you find it acceptable for her to be? Wouldn’t you rather she focused upon the many excellencies of your style than all of those Js and Ps?

News flash: proper nouns are as susceptible to over-use in writing as any other kind of words. Although aspiring writers’ eyes often glide over character and place names during revision, thinking of them as special cases, to professional eyes, there is no such thing as a word exempt from being counted as repetitive if it pops up too often on the page.

In fact, proper noun repetition is actually more likely to annoy your friendly neighborhood Millicent than repetition of other nouns. (Did you catch how frequently fog appeared in that last example, by the way?) Too-frequent repetition of the character and place names makes the average editor rend her garments and the garden-variety agent moan.

If it’s any consolation, they’ve been rending and moaning for years; proper nouns have been asserting and re-asserting themselves on the manuscript page for a couple of decades now. Pros used to attribute this problem to itsy-bitsy computer screens.

Oh, did that reference perplex you, children? Ask your parents about the early Macs’ postcard-sized screens. They weren’t even tall enough to give a life-sized reflection of an adult face. If the user made the text large enough to read, the screen would only hold a dozen or so lines.

But as technology has progressed, the screens on even inexpensive computers have gotten rather large, haven’t they? Even on a tablet, you can usually view of half a page, at least. My extra-spiffy editor’s monitor can display two full-sized manuscript pages side by side. I could serve a Thanksgiving dinner for eight upon it, if I so chose.

I never have so chosen, in case you were curious. But it’s nice to have the option.

Given how much easier it is to see words on a screen now than in days of yore, Millicent is left at a loss to explain why writers so seldom have a clear idea of how distracting name repetition can be on a page. Could it possibly be as simple as writers tending to christen their major characters with their favorite names (I’m looking at you, John), ones they like so much that they simply cannot see the darn things crop up often enough?

Good guess, Millie, but I don’t think that’s all that’s going on. I suspect it has to do with how differently the eye reads text on a backlit screen: it definitely encourages skimming, if not great big leaps down the page. But for the most part, I believe it has to do with how infrequently writers read their own work in hard copy.

Hear that Gregorian-like chanting floating through the ether? That’s every writer for whom I’ve ever edited so much as a paragraph automatically murmuring, “Before submission, I must read my manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.” I repeat this advice so often that writers who read this blog religiously have been heard to mutter this inspiring little axiom unconsciously their sleep, under their breath during important meetings, on their deathbeds…

So my prescription for learning to head this Millicent-irritant off at the pass will not, I suspect, come as a complete surprise: the best way to catch any visual pattern on the printed page is, you guessed it, to print out the page in question and read it. As I think you will soon discover, proper nouns are unusually gifted at flagging down a reader’s attention.

Since I don’t see too many of you stampeding in the direction of your manuscripts to verify this in your own writing, here’s another example. Again, you’ll get the most out of this exercise if you read it at top speed.

name rep 3

Did you notice how your eye longed to leap from one T to the next, even if it meant skipping some text? That’s only natural. Come a little closer, and I let you in on a closely-held professional readers’ secret: the skimming eye is automatically attracted to capital letters.

That’s why, in case you had been wondering, not-especially-literate people tend to Capitalize Words for Emphasis. When they’re not placing words that no one has ever said aloud inside quotation marks, that is — another widespread professional readers’ pet peeve. It’s virtually always grammatically incorrect to Use Punctuation to Attract Unwarranted Eyeballing, just as it’s seldom literarily acceptable to “surround” words like “this,” presumably to demonstrate to the “reader” that were these words being “spoken aloud,” someone might emphasize them, but that doesn’t seem to stop devotees of either practice.

To be fair, using punctuation as a substitute for writing that calls attention to itself does indeed work. Just be aware that among print-oriented people, that attention will probably not be positive.

Proper nouns, on the other hand, claim capitalization as a natural right. Completely legitimately, they jump off the page at the reader — which can be a good thing, if a manuscript is crammed to the gills with action, unnamed characters, and other literary titivations that do not involve the named characters. That way, reader’s eye will be drawn to the major players when they show up. Problem solved, right?

In most manuscripts, no. It’s pretty common for narratives to remind readers unnecessarily often of even the protagonist’s name. And since most novels and pretty much all memoirs deal with their respective protagonists on virtually every page, that can result in a whole lot of capital letters competing for Millicent’s attention.

Are you satisfied with that outcome, John? John? If you don’t start paying attention, I’ll have to page Pauline.

Millicent’s constantly confronted by scenes constructed by authors evidently terrified that some reader will forget who is speaking. Or so she must conclude by the frequency with which characters address one another by name — much more often than would be bearable in real life. And it’s not just the characters that seem to fall prey to this fear: narratives often compulsively name and rename everyone in sight. Heck, while we’re at it, why not remind the reader of how those characters are interrelated?

“But that’s not fair, Mom!” Cecile wailed.

Her mother stroked her bent head. “Now, Cece, you knew running for Congress was going to be hard.”

The daughter batted the maternal hand away. “It’s no use, Mom. I simply cannot kill another baby. My pucker is broken.”

Call me zany, but I cling to the hope that when one character refers to another as Mom, a conscientious reader will be able to figure out that the latter is the former’s mother. Similarly, once that reader has been made aware that the latter gave birth to the former, I’m pretty confident that the conclusion that Cecile is the daughter will not be an especially surprising revelation.

Besides, we’re not dealing with legions of characters here. Unless the one of the characters happens to have multiple personalities, most readers will leap to the radical conclusion that the names of the conversants will not alter substantially within the course of a few pages of dialogue. So why keep labeling the participants in a scene where there’s little probability of confusing the reader?

A fine question — and the reason professional editors so frequently cut tag lines (he said, she said), rather than having the narrative identify every speaker every time s/he opens his or her pretty mouth. Once the narrative has established the speakers in two-person dialogue (far and away the most common variety, by the way), a reasonably intelligent reader is more than capable of remembering what both of those people are called by their kith and kin.

So if your text seems to have broken out in capital letters, look first at the dialogue, both inside the quotation marks and without. In dialogue where the use of tag lines has not been minimized, proper names can pop up so frequently that it’s like a drumbeat in the reader’s ear.

And it’s my job to get you to hear it as you read. I can keep producing these examples all day, people.

“I don’t think that’s fair of you, April,” Louisa snapped.

“Why not?” April asked.

“Oh, don’t be disingenuous with me, April. I’ve known you too long.”

April played with a nearby paperweight. Was she testing its weight for throwing? “Honestly, Lou, I haven’t the slightest idea what you’re talking about. Unless this is about John?”

“Of course it’s about John,” Louisa huffed. “How many husbands do you think I have?”

“Just one,” April said, smiling. “It’s been just John since the seventh grade.”

Louisa’s eyes stung for a moment. April always had known how to push her buttons. “Don’t change the subject, April. Next, you’ll be reminiscing about that time we tarred and feathered our classmate when we were in the fourth grade.”

April sighed. “Those were the days, eh, Lou?”

“I’ll say,” Louisa said, edging out of paperweight-tossing range. “She should have known better than to beat you at tetherball.”

Yes, speakers in the real world do call one another by name this much sometimes, but like so much of real-life dialogue, that level of repetition would be snore-inducing, if not downright hypnotic, on the page. Especially when name-bearing tag lines are featured in the text, even dialogue between just a couple of characters can convey the sense of a very crowded room.

Does that combination of frantic jumping and wild arm-waving mean that some of you would like to add something here? “But Anne,” some perennial reader-distrusters point out, “wasn’t that last example rather unwise? I mean, if you took your vicious red pen to that exchange, slashing all of the proper nouns but the first set required to set up the alternating dialogue rhythm, you’d end up in precisely the dilemma we saw at the top of this post, the one you dismissed as a straw man: a scene in which the characters share a pronoun. Get out of that one, smarty-pants!”

In the first place, I seldom edit with red pens: due to early school training, virtually any adult will perceive red-inked marginalia as more critical than commentary scrawled in another color. (And you might be shocked at how excited some adult writers become when they learn that if a paragraph is especially good, I have been known to slap a gold star next to it. Book-length revisions have been fueled by the hope of gold stars.) And in the second place, with a little finesse, depicting an exchange between pronoun-sharers need not be at all confusing.

We’re writers, after all: why should the only possible word choice to replace a proper noun be a pronoun? Use your creativity, as well as your scissors. And don’t be afraid to rearrange a little text.

“I don’t think that’s fair of you, April,” Louisa snapped.

“Why not?”

“Oh, don’t be disingenuous with me. I’ve known you too long.”

April played with a nearby paperweight. Was she testing its weight for throwing? “Honestly, I haven’t the slightest idea what you’re talking about. Unless this is about John?”

“Of course it is. How many husbands do you think I have?”

“Just one. It’s been just John since the seventh grade.”

Louisa’s eyes stung for a moment. April always had known how to push her buttons. “Don’t change the subject. Next, you’ll be reminiscing about that time we tarred and feathered our classmate when we were in the fourth grade.”

“Those were the days, eh, Lou?”

She edged out of paperweight-tossing range. “She should have known better than to beat you at tetherball.”

We weren’t exactly flung headlong into a morass of confusion there, were we?

“But Anne,” pronoun-eschewers protest, and who could blame them? “You keep giving us dialogue examples. I find myself going out of my way to eschew pronouns in narrative paragraphs as well. Is there then no hope of quelling my deep and abiding fear of being misunderstood when I’m describing a couple of similarly-gendered characters?”

Never fear — we already have a very capable quelling device in our tool kit. And look, here’s a dandy excerpt to which we can apply it, fresh from the pen of someone terrified that two shes in a scene is one lady too many.

Eve slapped her laptop shut with a bang and glanced around, annoyed, for her waitress. Naturally, Tanya was nowhere in sight. Eve ostentatiously drained her drink to its dregs, but when Tanya did not come running, Eve filched a straw from the table next to her. The guy tapping away on his laptop never even noticed. Eve made slurping sounds on the bottom of her glass with it.

Still no sign of Tanya. For good measure, Eve upended the glass, scattering swiftly melting ice cubes messily all over the starched white tablecloth, and began banging the now-empty vessel upon the now-sodden linen.

Silently, Tanya retrieved Eve’s glass from Eve’s waving hand. Tanya inclined her head toward the wall clock: ten minutes past closing time.

Eve looked up at Tanya with that my-daddy-is-someone-important air that always worked with bank tellers, hot dog vendors, and waitresses who lived primarily upon their tips. Haughtily, Eve tapped her fountain pen on each of the seven empty Perrier bottles before her. How dare Tanya treat her like a drunk?

At this juncture, dare I hope that you found this at least a bit annoying to read? Come on, admit it — if I had opened the post with this example, it would have struck you as better prose, right? Which is why, I can reveal at long last, I’ve been positively burying you in examples today: until you’ve had to read page after page of name-heavy prose, it can seems a trifle counter-intuitive that reusing a single word — any single word — within two consecutive lines might be irritating to a reader.

Yes, even if the word in question is not a proper noun. The capitalization of a name merely makes it stand out more, bellowing at Millicent, “Look at me! Repetition here! Wouldn’t want to miss it, would you?”

So what, the fearful ask, are we to do about it? Clearly, we can’t just replace all of the proper nouns with she; the narrative might conceivably become confusing. (If you retain any linger doubts about how confusing a narrative can be when no proper names are used at all, get a 4-year-old to tell you the plot of a movie he’s just seen.) And clearly, going after tag lines and characters naming one another wouldn’t be helpful in a scene containing neither.

That doesn’t mean, however, that we can’t perform a little judicious proper noun removal surgery. We’ll just have to exercise a little more creativity. Here’s the same scene again, streamlined to minimize the perceived necessity of naming the players.

She slapped her laptop shut with a bang and glanced around, annoyed, for her waitress. Naturally, Tanya was nowhere in sight. Eve ostentatiously drained her drink to its dregs, but when no one came running, she filched a straw from the table next to her — the guy tapping away on his computer never even noticed — and made slurping sounds on the bottom of her glass with it.

Still no sign of life. For good measure, she upended the glass, scattering swiftly melting ice cubes messily all over the starched white tablecloth, and began banging the now-empty vessel upon the now-sodden linen.

Silently, Tanya snatched the glass in mid-flight. She inclined her head toward the wall clock: ten minutes past closing time.

Eve looked up at her with that my-daddy-is-someone-important air that always worked with bank tellers, hot dog vendors, and waitresses. God, she hated being treated like a drunk. Haughtily, she tapped her fountain pen on each of the seven empty Perrier bottles before her?

Anybody confused? I thought not.

Before any of you proper noun-huggers out there start grumbling about the care required to tell when a pronoun is appropriate and when a proper noun, let me hasten to point out that this was not a very time-consuming revision. All it required to alert the reader to which she was which was a clear narrative line, a well-presented situation — and a willingness to name names when necessary.

That, and an awareness that repeating names even as far apart as three or four lines just doesn’t look good on a printed page; it can draw the eye away from an orderly, line-by-line reading, and therefore detrimental to the reading experience. A proper noun repeated more than once per sentence, or within a single line of text, almost always seems just a trifle odd to a reader — and more than a little annoying to Millicent.

Feel as though you will be excising proper nouns in your sleep? Excellent; my work here is done. Night-night, John-John, and keep up the good work!

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