Trying to speak through a gag is hard

I’m absolutely livid today, over developments with my memoir that I am not allowed to tell you about, for legal reasons that make absolutely no sense to me. In fact, I’m so angry that I’ve just spent the last hour writing version after version of what’s happened as a hypothetical rumination on the implications of the First Amendment, as an allegory set in Roman antiquity, and as an 8-line poem ostensibly about flowers. There was even one version peopled entirely by goblins and werewolves. Yet even in these formats, as distanced from real-world events as it is possible to be, what I had to say was still so pointed, so scurrilous, that people who love me and who possess good legal reasoning skills have convinced me not to post any of them. Even the haiku was deemed too pertinent to what is actually going on, more’s the pity.

Sorry – I can’t compose something new with all of these people sitting on me.

I’ll fill you in the second I can figure out how to do so without violating any of the restrictions my publisher has placed upon my freedom of speech. I may be reduced to interpretive dance soon.

Mmmmph mmmmph mmm.

— Mmmm Mmmm

Still more terms every writer should know, but many are afraid to ask

Here are the rest of the industry glossary terms; every fiber of my being wants to call for a pop quiz now, but I am resisting the temptation with all of my might. Just a flashback to my former incarnation as an academic. It’ll pass.

Once again, if there is a term that you were waiting breathlessly for me to define that did not make the list, feel free to drop me a line via the COMMENTS function, below, and ask about it in the days and weeks ahead. It’s going to be a long, cold, dark winter, my friends (at least up here in Seattle, where the days start getting AWFULLY short after Halloween, and where already the squirrels and raccoons in my backyard are displaying a suspicious plumpness of fur), and nothing lights up a dreary day like a good industry-speak definition.

(Okay, okay — it’s possible I’m mistaken about that. But through the magic of self-delusion, I shall attempt to act as though I believe it all the same.)

Here are more definitions:

Rookie mistake, n.: An error in a manuscript or finished book that a pro would be unlikely to make, which betrays the fact that the writer (or sometimes, the editor) is new to the publishing industry. The classic rookie mistake is submitting a manuscript that is not in STANDARD FORMAT.

Shameless friend, n.: A writer’s buddy who appoints him/herself part time publicist for the writer’s work. A shameless friend does everything from gushing to everyone who will listen (“This is the best book in the world! You’ve got to read it now!”) to posting flattering reviews on Amazon to downright guerrilla marketing, such as picking up the friend’s book off the shelves at Barnes & Noble, walking around with it prominently displayed under her arm, and then setting it down casually on the bestseller table. (My standard shameless friend activity is to find my friends’ books and turn them face-out on the shelf, rather than spine-out, so they are more likely to sell.) The more shameless friends you can recruit before your book hits print, the better off you will be; other writers make terrific shameless friends. Treat them very well: they are worth many times their weight in gold.

Shelf life, n.: The length of time any given book will remain on a bookseller’s sales floor before being returned to the publisher or — stuff a pillow in your mouth, because this is horrible — being pulped. In some major bookselling chains that shall remain nameless, this time can be as short as three weeks, which leaves little time for word of mouth to develop. The moral: it really behooves an author to be out there plugging his book for the first few weeks after publication.

Ship date, n.: The date upon which actual copies of your book will be sent to booksellers (and those fine folks who pre-order my memoir on Amazon!), as opposed to the publication date, which is when bookstores may begin selling the tomes. You may have heard about this differential with respect to the latest HARRY POTTER book: bookstores had the books from the SHIP DATE, and thus were responsible for implementing security measures that would have made J. Edgar Hoover writhe with envy in order to prevent any copies from being leaked prior to the publication date. (Those of us who have friends who write book reviews have heard about this endlessly, because Scholastic has not sent out REVIEW COPIES for the last two HARRY POTTER books – so I know several book reviewers for major newspapers who were forced to buy the books at midnight like everybody else, read it overnight, and write the review before the next day’s deadline. Somehow, I suspect that sleep deprivation does not render a reviewer kindly.)

Simultaneous submission, v. (also known as MULTIPLE SUBMISSION): (1) The practice of querying more than one agent at the same time. Contrary to rumor amongst writers, most agents are more than willing to accept that the querying process is too time-consuming if the writer sends out only one submission at a time. If a given agent objects to the practice, the agency will say so explicitly in the standard agenting guides, so do check. (2) When agents send out a book (or book proposal) to several editors at once, in the hope of engendering competitive bidding. Not all agents favor this practice, particularly for fiction. (3) Being involved with more than one dominatrix at once.

SLUG LINE, n.: (1) The line in the top margin (either right or left-justified) of every page of a standard manuscript, bearing the following information in caps: author’s last name, abbreviated title, page #. Thus, every page of my memoir has MINI/A FAMILY DARKLY/# on it. (2) The trail left by a Pacific Northwest invertebrate.

SLUSH PILE, n.: The holding pen in a publishing house or agency where UNSOLICITED MANUSCRIPTS await Judgment Day or for someone to have time to read them; basically, these books are on indefinite hold. In the bad old days, senior editors would buy pizza and beer for the junior editors one night per month, and everyone would sit around and go through the slush pile. Now, most of the major publishing houses will NEVER keep an unsolicited novel in the slush pile; it will simply be returned unread. A few still hold pizza parties for NF, but the practice has become exceptionally rare. The moral: bypassing the rules of submission is not very likely to work in your favor.

STANDARD FORMAT, n.: The way everyone in the publishing industry expects a manuscript to look. Manuscripts not in standard format are often discarded unread. (If you want to learn the rules of standard format, check out my posting of August 31.)

SUBSIDY PUBLISHING, v.: The act of printing and distributing a book with a press that purports to share the production expenses with the author. In fact, most subsidy presses charge authors significantly more than the actual cost of publication, as these presses’ profits tend to be derived from author contributions, rather than book sales. As a result, subsidy publishing is usually quite a bit more expensive for the author than SELF-PUBLISHING. Most of the time, the authors end up distributing the books themselves, and the vast majority of reviewing publications have hard-and-fast rules against reviewing books produced by subsidy presses.

SUBSTANTIVE EDITING, v.: Giving content feedback on a manuscript, as opposed to COPY EDITING or LINE EDITING, which is concerned with grammar and clarity. Increasingly, editors at major publishing houses have time to do neither kind of editing, which leaves the author in the uncomfortable position of editing her own book. (As soon as the final editing of my memoir is complete, I shall be blogging EXTENSIVELY about my experience with this phenomenon.)

SYNOPSIS, n.: A brief exposition in the present tense of the plot of a novel or the argument of a book. (See my blog of Sept. 9 for tips how to write a stellar synopsis.)

TABLE OF CONTENTS, n.: A list of chapter titles and the corresponding page numbers where those chapters begin in the book. Not to be confused with an Annotated Table of Contents, which is the 2-3 page section in the nonfiction book PROPOSAL which gives the title of each chapter, accompanied by a 2-3 sentence description of what is in each chapter; including a simple TABLE OF CONTENTS in a book proposal is one of the most common ROOKIE MISTAKES. The Annotated Table of Contents does not include projected page numbers. (For guidance on how to create an Annotated Table of Contents, or indeed any part of a NF book proposal, see my posting of August 29.)

TITLE PAGE, n.: (1) The page of a manuscript that contains the title (obviously), the author’s pen name, the author’s actual name, contact info for the author (or the author’s agent), book category, and WORD COUNT. (If you are in the throes of formatting a TITLE PAGE, check out my posting of Sept. 9 for tips.) (2) The page of a published book that contains the title, author’s name, and name of the publishing house. To format a manuscript’s title page like a published title page is a ROOKIE MISTAKE.

TRADE DISCOUNT, n.: The percentage off the cover price of a book granted by publishers to booksellers; generally, the trade discount is in the 40-50% range. Most PUBLICATION CONTRACTS specify that the author may purchase an unlimited number of books at the TRADE DISCOUNT, but let the author beware: books so purchased do not count toward the author’s sales totals.

TRADE LIST, n.: A publisher’s catalogue of all books currently in print. (If you want to see a real, live example, here is the link to my listing in my publisher’s catalogue: You might want to check it out soon, because I suspect that a ROOKIE MISTAKE was made regarding the cover, and it may be changed soon.) The purpose of listing the ISBN and other publication data is to make it as easy as possible for booksellers and private citizens to order the book in question.

TRADE PAPER, n.: The level of print quality between hardcover and mass-market paperback; a book with high print standards, but no glossy dust jacket. Increasingly, publishers are releasing serious fiction and memoir in trade paper, bypassing the hardback stage entirely, because hardbacks are so very expensive to print.

TRANSLATION RIGHTS, pl. n.: The publication rights to an English-language book printed in any other language, sold on a by-language basis. (Perversely, books sold in English in Great Britain are considered to be foreign-language books for contractual purposes.) These are sold usually separately from the RIGHTS, which refers to first North American rights, minus Mexico. However, occasionally an American publisher will try to score a sweet deal and try to get the WORLD RIGHTS as part of the initial deal, but if the book is expected to have LEGS abroad, this generally does not work out well for the author: typically, if a book is reprinted in a second language and a North American house owns the foreign rights, the domestic publisher scrapes an automatic 20% off the top of any foreign-language royalties accrued by the author. (If this seems a trifle technical, it’s because I had rather a struggle to retain my memoir’s foreign rights; my publisher wanted ‘em, big time. But they’re mine, I tell you, all mine!)

UNSOLICITED MANUSCRIPT, n.: (1) The doorstop of the publishing world. (2) Any book excerpts, up to and including entire manuscripts, sent to agents who have not asked for them. I tremble to tell you this, but often, these are sent INSTEAD of query letters, and thus end up as definition (1). (3) Any manuscript sent to a publishing house without the author’s first ascertaining that a specific editor there would like to see it. At best, these manuscripts end up in the SLUSH PILE; at worst, they are thrown out. (As nearly as I can tell, few publishing offices are serious about recycling, alas.)

VANITY PRESS, n.: (1) The more virulent version of a press that specializes in SUBSIDY PUBLISHING. Vanity presses often woo aspiring authors with misleading promises, in order to tempt writers into plunking down hard cash to see their words in print. (2) A SUBSIDY PUBLISHING press that produces extremely expensive, coffee-table quality books for its clients. (3) What almost everyone in the publishing industry calls a press that specializes in SUBSIDY PUBLISHING; a term of insult.

WOMEN’S FICTION, n.: A category of prose whose definition varies depending upon whom you ask. The more old-fashioned use it as a synonym for romance novel, often with a slight sneer, but these same people virtually never refer to thrillers as Men’s Fiction, although the actual purchase rates would indicate that this would be an apt moniker. Currently, the term is used to denote novels whose readership is expected to be overwhelmingly female. However, this is less descriptive than one might think: over 80% of the fiction purchased in North America is bought by women, including the vast majority of literary fiction. So there.

WORD COUNT, n.: Not, as one might imagine, the ACTUAL number of words in a document; no, that would be too easy. Rather, the actual number or words rounded to nearest 100 OR the number of manuscript pages in Times or Times New Roman multiplied by 250. The latter is the standard by which the publishing world operates.

WORLD RIGHTS, n.: First North American rights + all foreign rights = world rights.

WRITING RESUME, n.: A list of an author’s writing and speaking credentials. You should be maintaining one of these on an ongoing basis, and no, you don’t have to have been paid for a publication to include it here. Ideally, to keep your writing resume up to date, you should try to add at least one item to it per year: placing in a contest, giving a public reading of your work, publishing an article or story (no matter how small the publication…The idea here is to show that you have been spending your time while you wait to be discovered wisely, adding tools to your writer’s bag of tricks, so you will be ready when your big break comes.

YA (Young Adult), n. and adj.: The moniker attached to novels intended for readers from the ages of 12 to 17, despite the fact that literally no country in the world considers 12-year-olds to be adults. Created, as I understand it, by those who felt that “Children’s books” had a pejorative ring to it.

That’s the end of the alphabet — hurrah! Starting tomorrow, I shall be alternating between the kind of practical advice that I’ve been giving for most of the past month and blow-by-blow accounts of my memoir’s rather amusing and totally counterintuitive adventures traveling from contract to print. Follow my book’s hilarious journey from first book proposal to sale to traumatic lawsuit; look on in awe as I struggle to obtain ANY feedback from my editor, who has apparently taken a vow of silence; marvel at the bizarre sense of timing (wait three months, rush around for two days, wait two months, demand results overnight…) that renders it a perpetual miracle that any books are ever published at all!

And in the meantime, keep up the good work!

— Anne Mini

P.S.: For all of you kind souls who have tuned in because you heard on the grapevine about the threatened lawsuit against my memoir: while the legal folderol is going on, I’m actually not allowed to talk about it here in any amount of juicy detail, as much as I would LOVE to do so. In fact, some earlier discussions have required trimming, alas. Since it’s all very interesting — the question of who owns memories is certainly one that would have fascinated Philip K. Dick, and whether I can publish my own memories of him is the crux of the current case — I would love to be able to share the ins and outs on a daily basis, but my typing hands are tied, so to speak. I hope to be able to fill you in soon, though, in vivid Technicolor, so watch this space.

Even more terms every aspiring writer should know (but most don’t)

Well, I had thought that I could get through the rest of the alphabet today, but it turns out that people in the publishing industry favor words ending in N and beyond. Go figure.

And, to be perfectly honest, blogs full of definitions are a trifle easier on me. I write this free, gratis, and without pay, out of my great love for the PNWA and its members, and I have a HUGE deadline coming up this Saturday. As in BOOK deadline.

Thus, I’m a little strapped for time. Since Friday is my birthday, I would like to have enough done so I could sneak away from my computer for a couple of hours to celebrate. It’s my 39th, and since there’s a lawsuit pending over my memoir (A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK, available for presale now on Amazon! The more often I repeat this information, the happier my agent is.), I may well not have any worldly possessions remaining by my 40th. This year, then, would seem to be the year to whoop it up.

And if you would like to give me a birthday present, loyal reader, do me a favor: READ YOUR ENTIRE MANUSCRIPT IN HARD COPY AND OUT LOUD BEFORE YOU SEND IT OUT TO ANY AGENTS AND EDITORS. It would make me very, very happy.

Okay, here are the definitions du jour:

LEGS, n.: A book’s capacity to keep selling over a long period of time, as in, “My, that book has legs!” This is one of the few advantages that books by unknowns have over books by celebrities: celebrity books, even the ones that sell magnificently at first, almost never have legs.

OPTION CLAUSE, n. (also known as RIGHT OF FIRST REFUSAL): In a PUBLICATION CONTRACT, the section that specifies that the publisher gets the first look at the author’s next book (or sometimes, the next book in the same genre), before it is shown to other publishers. The option clause does not guarantee publication of the next book. Basically, this is the standard clause that came into fashion when two-and three-book contracts, which used to be the norm, fell out of favor. (There were too many second books that did not live up to the promise of the first. Judith Guest’s ORDINARY PEOPLE was brilliant, but did anyone but me read her next? Not enough of us, apparently.)

PROPOSAL, n.: An array of materials about a NF book or article not yet written, designed to sell the book in question to editors. If you are interested in writing a nonfiction book, check out my earlier blogs (August 23–29) discussing the ins and outs of this difficult task.

PUBLICATION CONTRACT, n.: The formal agreement between the publisher, the author, and the agent (if any) that specifies that timing and terms of publication. This is the document that will spell out the ADVANCE, ROYALTY rates, etc., all of which your agent will negotiate for you. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read it over very carefully before you sign it, however.

PUBLICIST, n.: A person who sets up readings and interviews for book; often also the person who prepares the PRESS KIT. In the past, publishing houses had in-house publicists; now, it is not unusual to expect the author to be her own publicist. (And lest you think that sending out your own media kit is a waste of time, recall this: well over half of the stories in any given newspaper are either placed by publicists and/or are the direct result of material provided by press kits.)

QUERY, v.: To send a cover letter and synopsis out to an agent or editor in the hope of exciting professional interest. Do keep that in mind: the SOLE purpose of the query is to engender interest; make sure you are marketing your work effectively. If you are gearing up to send out a query, do yourself a favor and read my earlier posts (circa Sept. 7-8) to get tips seldom seen in writers’ guides.

QUERY LETTER, n.: A polite, formal introduction of the author to the agent or editor.

READING, n.: Any opportunity to read your work aloud in public, to be listed on your WRITERS’ RESUME. It’s definitely worth your while to give readings periodically before you have a book out, both for the experience (it’s not as easy as it looks to read aloud well, especially if you are nervous) and as a SELLING POINT for you as an author: editors like authors who have experience presenting their own work.

REQUESTED MATERIALS, n.: What you should write on the outside of the envelope containing chapters an agent or editor has asked to see. This phrase will help keep your work out of the SLUSH PILE.

RETURNS, pl. n.: Unsold books that the bookseller sends back to the publisher for credit. Publishers, understandably, do not like these.

REVIEW COPIES, pl. n.: BOUND GALLEYS sent to book reviewers and other opinion-makers in advance of publication. Very often with plain or unattractive covers, the major publications get literally hundreds of these per week.


RIGHTS, n.: Generally, refers to the ability to be the first press in North America to print a piece of writing. The foreign rights (also known as TRANSLATION RIGHTS) are usually sold separately.

ROYALTIES, n.: The author’s share of the cover price of a book; as these are not standardized, first-time authors generally receive a lower rate than established ones. Hardcovers, TRADE PAPER, and paperbacks usually yield different rates of royalties for the author. Often, contracts will specify that the author’s percentage rises with the number of books sold (e.g., 10% for the first 10,000 copies, 12.5 for the second 10,000…). The PUBLICATION CONTRACT will specify these rates, as well as the rates for serialization rights, etc.

SASE, n.: Acronym for Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope. What you should send with EVERY submission to an agent. Use actual stamps, rather than metered postage.

SELF-PUBLISHING, v.: When the author pays for every aspect of publication, handles distribution herself, and keeps all of the profits. Often confused — erroneously — with SUBSIDY PUBLISHING. A risky venture, but occasionally very lucrative. (Kevin Trudeau’s controversial NATURAL CURES ‘THEY’ DON’T WANT YOU TO KNOW ABOUT, for instance, has been immensely profitable, but then, he had an immense promotional budget that permitted lengthy infomercials.) A big caveat, however: most newspapers and periodicals have hard-and-fast rules that prevent self-published books from being reviewed.

SELLING POINT, n.: Any attribute that makes you and your book stand out from the mass of other books. Too many writers assume that their books should be published simply because they have written them. To a publishing professional, the question is not so much WHETHER a particular book should be published as “WHY should I publish it?” The selling points form the answer to this question. I have discussed selling points within the context of my earlier postings on how to write a book proposal, but if you missed that, I shall be writing about how to determine what your book’s selling points are again soon. Same bat time, same bat channel.

I shall stop here for today – Ss are inordinately popular in the industry, so there isn’t a convenient stopping-place nearby. Remember, if you have a term you would like to see me define that I have not covered here, drop me a note via the COMMENTS function, below. Always glad to be of service.

And in the meantime, keep up the good work!

— Anne Mini

More terms you should know

Last week, I started a glossary of terms that every book-loving, agent-seeking aspiring writer should know, phrases that are tossed about in writer-oriented publications with a blithe disregard of whether those new to the field might not know them. (And not just the newbies: I have been a professional writer and editor for over a decade, and I still run across terms I do not know from time to time.) So it’s time to bite the bullet and learn what those phrases mean.

Again, if there is a term that you were really hoping I would define here that did not make the list, please send me a message via the COMMENTS function, below, now or at some point in the future. I am always happy to track down definitions for my readers.

My apologies to readers of my last posting: alphabetically, the first listing of today’s should have been in last Friday’s. However, someone suggested over the weekend that I include it, and I’m not about to let the tyranny of the alphabet deprive my dear readers of a necessary definition.

ELEVATOR SPEECH, n.: The three-minute version of a book, designed to be spoken aloud while in transit, containing the essential PREMISE, the target MARKET, and hitting all of the MARKETING POINTS of the book. All too often, aspiring writers walk into conferences with a PITCH (the three-sentence version) all prepared, but neglect to develop this longer selling tool. As a result, authors often run out of steam a minute into an all-important first meeting with an agent. The essence of a good elevator speech is knowing when to stop talking. (The more I define this, the more I think it deserves a blog of its own – watch for it in the coming week.)

JACKET BLURB, n.: The short synopsis of the book typically printed inside the flaps of a hardback’s dust cover. Generally runs about 100 words. (Not to be confused with BLURB, defined last week.)

LITERARY FICTION, n.: (1) Another ambiguous category of prose. Depending upon whom you ask, it can mean either character-driven fiction where the writing style is more important than the plot or character-driven fiction that assumes its target audience has a college-level vocabulary. (The average book published in North America assumes a tenth-grade vocabulary, by contrast.) If you want to start a lively controversy at any literary gathering, start asking people whether they consider John Irving’s work literary or mainstream. (2) Any work of fiction that contains a semicolon.

MAINSTREAM FICTION, n.: The vast majority of fiction sold in North America. Conforming to none of the standard genre classifications, mainstream fiction appeals to readers from across demographic groups. When mainstream fiction is well-written, or when it receives either a significant prize or critical adulation, it tends to be categorized as literary fiction. If you want to start a lively controversy at any literary gathering, start asking people whether they consider Alice Walker’s work mainstream or literary.

MANUSCRIPT, n. (often abbreviated MS): An unbound, single-sided complete draft of a book, for submission to editors and agents. Manuscripts differ from published books in a number of important ways: for instance, they always have at least 1-inch margins, are double-spaced, and are in 12-point type. For other ways in which manuscripts differ from published books, see STANDARD FORMAT.

MARKET, n.: (1) The demographic group most likely to buy a specific book, as in “Wow — your book would do really well in the YA market.” You should know the target market of your book, and why your book will appeal to that market, BEFORE you start pitching your work. (2) The current selling environment for books, as in “I can’t place this book in the current market.”

MARKET, v.: To present work to people who might buy it. Thus, a novelist markets his work to an agent; the agent then markets it to an editor; the editor markets it to the rest of the publishing firm, and the publishing company markets it to the public.

MARKET ANALYSIS, n. (also known as a COMPARATIVE MARKET ANALYSIS): A semi-objective view of the other books currently available on your topic AND an examination of the demographics of who might buy your book. For nonfiction, this is a formal section of the book proposal; for fiction, it’s just a good idea to for the author to conduct. In a conversation about your work with a publishing professional, under NO circumstances should you EVER admit that you have not performed a market analysis, because from the point of view of an agent or editor, the FIRST thing an author should do upon coming up with a great idea is to find out who else has written something similar.

MARKETING POINTS, pl. n.: Any facts about you or your book that will make it easier to sell. Make sure that your query letter AND your pitch both include the major marketing points for your book.

OUTLINE, n.: For nonfiction, an outline is essentially an expanded table of contents: a list of chapter or section titles, with each title accompanied by a 2-3 sentence summary of what that chapter or section will contain. Generally, when discussing fiction, the person using this term actually means a SYNOPSIS. Double-check.

PACKET, n.: An array of materials about a proposed book, used to attract interest within the publishing community. For fiction, this might include a synopsis, a bio, and the first chapter of the novel; for nonfiction, it would include the BOOK PROPOSAL and a cover letter.

PITCH, n.: (1) Verbally, your 30-second synopsis of your book. Frequently, agents and editors at conferences will prefer to hear pitches from authors, rather than reading any of the author’s work. (2) In writing, the three-sentence teaser for a book. (3) The second paragraph of most query letters to agents. (See my earlier postings about how to write query letters, if this is news to you.)

PITCH, v.: To recite your pitch to an agent or editor. If you are really doing your job at a conference, you should be pitching at least several times an hour, to anyone who will listen. It’s great practice.

PLATFORM, n.: For nonfiction, the array of credentials, expertise, and life experience that qualifies you as an expert on the topic of your book. Generally, the first thing an editor will want to know about a prospective NF author.

PREMISE, n.: The underlying logical proposition of a piece of fiction; often synonymous with the HOLLY WOOD HOOK. Usually, the premise is easier to identify for genre fiction (“hardboiled detective with a soft spot for curvy dames gets embroiled in city hall intrigue”) than for MAINSTREAM or LITERARY FICTION. In the latter case, the premises of, for instance, THE REMAINS OF THE DAY (“A butler butles for years on end.”) or THE ENGLISH PATIENT (“A severely burned man lies still and has flashbacks.”) must have required considerable embroidery upon the underlying premise to pitch successfully.

PRESS KIT, n.: An array of materials used to convince newspapers, radio stations, and television stations that you and your work deserve attention. It used to be that publishing houses put these together for authors, but now, most authors need to assemble and distribute their own press kits. (Don’t worry; it will be the subject of a future blog.)

That’s all for today – I should be able to finish the rest of the alphabet tomorrow.

But while I still have your attention, I am going to digress from my very serious subject matter to pursue the shade of the lovely and talented Ralph Fiennes. This weekend, I took a MUCH-NEEDED break from manuscript revision to see THE CONSTANT GARDENER and CORPSE BRIDE, a double feature with a whole lot of dead women in it. Has anyone but me noticed that, cinematically speaking, the mortality rate of any female character that gets romantically involved with a Ralph Fiennes character in a movie is 100%? This film, THE ENGLISH PATIENT, THE END OF THE AFFAIR, SCHINDLER’S LIST… What’s next, ANNA KARENINA? I’m sure women worldwide would have much happier fantasy lives if his love interests were occasionally allowed to survive the final frame. If I met him in a dark alley – or, still worse, in a desert – I would instantly run in the opposite direction.

All right, there is your dose of serious career-building information AND total whimsy for the day. Go out and enjoy the first days of autumn.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Glossary of terms you need to know

Now that conference season has wound to a close, many of you are probably poring over agent and editor guides, trying to figure out whom to query. Isn’t it annoying that every single one of them seems to ask for something different?

At the risk of seeming too basic, I thought it might be useful to pass along definitions of the terms that tend to get tossed about in these guides (and at conferences), in case anyone was afraid to ask.

ADVANCE, n.: Money paid to an author prior to the publication of a book; often quite small. Typically, the advance is paid in three installments: 1/3 on contract signing (although it is not unusual for this to arrive MONTHS after the ink is dry), 1/3 upon acceptance of the manuscript by the editor (or, again, months afterward), and 1/3 upon publication. As this money is a prepayment of anticipated royalties, the author will then receive no royalties until the advance amount has been reached. However, if the author’s share of sales does not ever reach the amount of the advance, the author generally does not have to pay back the difference.

AGENT, n.: For fiction, the first judge of whether your book will get published; for non-fiction, the person who uses his/her connections to get you a publishing contract. Your advance, royalty, etc. checks will go directly from the publisher to your agent, not directly to you, so do make sure to sign with someone you trust.

AGENCY CONTRACT, n.: What an agent has you sign prior to representation; you should read it very carefully, for it lays out with great specificity what your financial arrangements will be. Contracts can either be per book (so you would need to renew it when you wrote your next) or per year (regardless of how many books you write.) Typically, agents receive 15% (non-negotiable) for North American sales of your writing, 20% or more for foreign sales. (For reasons I have not been able to fathom, my agency takes 23% of sales in the Baltic republics, so they’ll really score if my memoir takes off in Lithuanian.)

AUTHOR PHOTO, n.: A picture taken at the author’s expense that graces either the inside back cover or the back of the dust jacket; often, it will appear in the publisher’s catalogue and/or on the publisher’s website as well. It need not be in black-and-white, but often is; for established authors, author photos are often a decade or more out of date, which is why you don’t always recognize your favorite authors at book signings. Since you will need to produce this picture immediately after the book contract is signed, you might want to consider getting your picture taken now. Trust me, it will take you several tries to get a photo you like enough to want to see mass-produced.

BIO, n.: A 1/3 – 1/2 page (single-spaced) description of your writing credentials, relevant experience, and educational background. Writers are now responsible for producing these themselves.

BLURB, n.: A statement by a famous person/published author/anyone you can cajole about how good your book is. Typically, these are printed on the back jacket. If you have a really good one (say, from a famous writer), for heaven’s sake, include it in your query letter. It is completely acceptable to start garnering blurbs prior to selling your book; if some Eminence Grise of the literary world says your novel is the most important book since MADAME BOVARY, feel free to mention it in your query letter. However, skip including rave reviews from your friends, family, or professors: in a professional context, they will not come across as impressive.

BOOK PROPOSAL, n.: The indispensable marketing tool for selling a nonfiction book, to be prepared with care, as everything in it is essentially a writing sample; you wouldn’t believe how many book proposals look as though they were thrown together in a couple of hours. The typical proposal includes a synopsis of the book being proposed, a narrative description of what the book is about and why this author is the best person to write it, an outline, a comparative market analysis, a marketing plan, an author bio, and 1-3 chapters of the book. (If you missed my many-part series of postings on how to write a book proposal, check them out below.)

BOUND PROOF, n.: A softback edition of a book that is sent to reviewers, potential blurb-givers, and other “opinion-makers” prior to publication of the book.

CHICK LIT, pl. n.: Definition varies upon whom you ask: some say sex-positive work for adult women readers; some say bouncy novels about Republican bimbos; some say anything vaguely humorous written by an American or British woman under the age of 40. Like art, everyone knows it when she sees it, but has trouble defining precisely what it is.

CLIPS, n. (also known as CLIPPINGS): Photocopies of your previously published articles, often included in a book proposal or query letter to a magazine.


COPY EDITING, v.: (1) Proofreading a manuscript for grammatical, spelling , and logical errors. (2) What editors at publishing houses used to do for authors, and authors are now expected to do for themselves.

COPY EDITING, n.: The stage of the publication process AFTER the editor’s substantive editing changes have been incorporated. Generally speaking, this process is not conducted by the editor him or herself.

COVER LETTER, n.: The massively polite missive you should send along with ANYTHING you EVER submit to an agent or editor, reminding them that they have asked to see the work enclosed. A lot of writers forget to include this, instead just sending an undirected manuscript or book proposal. ALWAYS include a brief cover letter, thanking the agent or editor for their interest in your work.

EDITOR, n.: For fiction and non-fiction, the official who does acquisitions for a publishing house. For articles, the person who does acquisitions for a magazine.

EXCLUSIVE, n.: When an agent or editor wants you to promise not to show your work to any other agent or editor until she has made up her mind. A courtesy you extend to people who have the power to make or break your work. Exclusives are always requested specifically; if an agent has not asked for an exclusive, either directly or through a listing in a guide, then you are free to submit to several agents simultaneously. Always place a time limit on exclusives (3 weeks is reasonable).

FREELANCE EDITOR, n.: A person who edits writing for clarity, grammar, etc., who is paid by the author, not a publishing house or agency. Many editors also do substantive editing as well.

FRESH, adj.: Industry term for an unusual look at a well-worn topic; marketable. The industry truism is that they’re always looking for an author who is fresh, but not weird. (Weird can mean anything from a topic never written about before to an unpopular political spin to a book proposal in a non-standard folder.)

GALLEYS, n.: The unbound proofs of a book in production, produced so the author and editor may check them for accuracy. Unlike the manuscript, the galleys will show the book as it will actually appear in print.

HOLLYWOOD HOOK, n.: 1-sentence or 25-word description of the concept of a book at its most basic level, cast in terms of other people’s successes. A famous example was Star Trek’s original pitch: “It’s Wagon Train in space!”

I shall continue with the rest of the alphabet on Monday, tightness of deadline and legal conditions permitting. In the meantime, if you see a term, here or elsewhere, that you would like me to define for you, drop me a line via the COMMENTS function, below.

And keep up the good work!

–Anne Mini

The questions to ask about your work before you send it out

Let’s assume for the moment that you have done everything I spoke about in yesterday’s post: found a sterling feedback-giver or two (and actually listened to them!), and you feel that your manuscript is good to go. Then, mirabile dictu, after an admirable query, you have been asked to send a few chapters (or even the whole book!) to your dream agent.

First, take few minutes to feel hugely, immensely, magnificently proud of yourself. It is no small achievement to have stood out in the crowd enough to be asked to send material, and don’t let your anxiety over the ultimate goals — in the short run, to get an agent; in the long run, to sell your book — convince you to under-celebrate the fact that you have reached a legitimate milestone. Dance and sing in the streets a little.

Then, get down to work. “It is time to smooth the hair,” as Emily Dickinson wrote, “and get the dimples ready.” Read every page that you are sending OUT LOUD and IN HARD COPY, to weed out any lingering errors, then sit down and ask yourself some hard questions:

(1) Am I sending what the agent asked to see, no more, no less?

A surprisingly high number of aspiring authors blow their chances by failing the first test an agent sets them: demonstrating that they know how to follow directions. I know that it is tempting, when asked to send the first 50 pages, to round it up a little, to round out the chapter.

Don’t. Leave ‘em in mid-sentence – your goal here is to make them clamor to see more.

(2) Is my manuscript in standard format?

See my earlier posting on the rules of standard format, if you’re not sure. If it’s in a fancy typeface, change it to 12-point Times, Times New Roman, or Courier immediately. Make sure that your margins are at least one inch on all sides, and double-check your slug line (the line in the header that reads AUTHOR’S LAST NAME/TITLE OF WORK/#).

Yes, these are purely cosmetic matters, and they have nothing to do with the actual quality of your writing. But if you do not use standard format, I assure you, your work will not be taken as seriously — basically, your writing will have to be twice as good to capture an agent’s attention. (The standard rejection-letter euphemism for this is “Consider taking some classes on marketing your work.”)

And think about it: would you show up for a job interview at a Fortune 500 company dressed in a clown suit? (Okay, I have to admit, if you actually would, I have a certain fondness for you already. However, you probably would not get the job.)

(3) Do I have a great opening line, or is my real killer buried a few pages in?

This may seem like an odd question, but it is my editorial experience that most good writers tend to put their zinger first lines somewhere on pages three to six. What comes before tends to be set-up or preamble.

Read your submission carefully to see if you have done this. Once you find your killer first line, reconsider what comes before it: could it go? Could the information it gives come more gradually?

(4) If I took away everything in my packet except for the first page of my submission, would the agent be desperate to learn what happens on the subsequent pages? What about if I took away everything but the first paragraph?

If the answer to both questions is not yes, you should probably perform a few revisions.

Writers know their own work so well that it sometimes becomes very hard to see it from a new reader’s perspective. Getting a reader to continue past the first few lines, and definitely past the first page, is an act of seduction, my friends. Those first few bits really have to count.

The best way to test for this is to hand the first page to someone who doesn’t know the plot of your book, have him read it, and then ask him to speculate on what comes next. If his guess is too dead-on, you might want to incorporate a bit more quirkiness into your opening.

If your reader looks puzzled and says, “I honestly have no idea where this is going,” take a good look at your opening. Does it actually fit your book?

(5) Would I buy this book, based upon these short excerpts?

This is a tough question for you to answer about your own work, but a necessary one. You’re your best writing is not in your first chapter or two, consider presenting the parts you deem best AS the first chapter. I know this sounds wacky, but you can always say later that you’ve rethought the running order of the book. Remember, both fiction and nonfiction often changes considerably after an agent takes it on – and often even more after an editor acquires the book. Your first pages as they currently stand will probably be revised at some point in the future.

And the sole purpose of your first chapter when you submit it to an agent is to get the agent to want to read more of your writing. Period. It needs to be your very best writing, even if the chapter in question will ultimately be in the middle of the book. If it sings, and you can legitimately present it as a first chapter, consider presenting it as such.

If this seems a bit draconian to you, try rearranging the chapter so that your favorite passage appears on page one. Don’t think of this page one as the opening to your long dreamt-of book. Instead, think of it as your very first opportunity to show this agent that you can write up a storm.

(6) Is there sufficient action in the first five pages, or is it mostly build-up? (Check this, even if you are writing nonfiction.) If I do not currently begin with action, could I?

It is also very common for first novels not to get going for awhile. In Britain, this is actually considered rather stylish: I keep reading acclaimed British novels where almost nothing happens for the first 50 pages! And as much as I enjoy them, I invariably shake my head and think, “This author would never be able to land an agent in the U.S.”

Remember how busy I said agents and their assistants were in my earlier postings about query letters? Guess what: they’ll still be extraordinarily busy when the time comes to read your chapters. In fact, it’s not at all uncommon for agents to reserve a new author’s manuscript to read at home, in their spare time: I think the theory here is that if they like your style enough to keep reading when they could be doing something else, you must be really talented! It means, however, that your chapters may well be competing with the agent’s children, spouse, aikido class, rottweiler, favorite TV show, and many other claims upon her attention.

So keep it exciting. In a submission, even the most literary of literary novels has to keep moving.

(7) Does the material I am sending stand alone, or would I be happier if I could be standing over the agent’s shoulder, explaining?

This is no joke: it is a serious question. If your answer was the latter, read through again: if there is so much as a parenthetical aside that you feel will not be utterly clear from what is actually said on paper, go back and clarify it.

(8) Read every syllable of your submission out loud, preferably to another person. Does it make sense? Have you left out a word here or there? (A very common mistake that computer screens render difficult to catch.) Are there logical leaps?

Aha, you thought you could get away with ignoring this sterling piece of advice when I suggested it above, didn’t you? There is no excuse for not doing this, even if the agent asked you to send your materials right away. Don’t blow your big chance on a simple error or two.

Tinker accordingly. Once you are happy with your responses to all of these questions, send it out — and see if you don’t get better responses.

Oh, and for heaven’s sake, don’t forget to take a great big marker and write REQUESTED MATERIALS on the outside of your envelope, so your marvelous submission doesn’t get tossed into the unsolicited manuscript pile for a few months. It’s a good idea, too, to mention that these are requested materials in your HUGELY POLITE cover letter that you enclose with the manuscript: “Thank you for asking to see the first three chapters of my novel…”

Always, always include a SASE — a stamped, self-addressed envelope – with enough postage (stamps, not metered) for your manuscript’s safe return, and MENTION the SASE in your cover letter. This marks you as a polite writer who will be easy to work with and a joy to help. If you want to move your reputation up into the “peachy” range, include a business-size SASE as well, to render it a snap to ask you to see the rest of the manuscript. Make it as easy as possible for them to get ahold of you to tell you that they love your book.

One last thing, another golden oldie from my broken-record collection: do not overnight your manuscript, unless you have specifically been asked to do so; priority mail, or even regular mail, is fine. You may be the next John Grisham, but honey, it is unlikely that the agent’s office is holding its collective breath, doing nothing until it receives your manuscript. Hurrying on your end will not speed their reaction time.

And since turn-around times tend to be long (a safe bet is to double what the agent tells you; call or e-mail after that, for they may have genuinely lost your manuscript), do not stop sending out queries just because you have an agent looking at your chapters or your book proposal. If the agent turns you down (perish the thought!), you will be much, much happier if you have other options already in motion.

The only circumstance under which you should NOT continue querying is if the agent has asked for an exclusive – which, incidentally, you are under no obligation to grant. However, politeness generally dictates agreement. If you do agree to an exclusive (here comes another golden oldie), specify for how long. Three weeks is ample. Then, if the agent does not get back to you within the stated time, you will be well within your rights to keep searching while she tries to free enough time from her kids, her spouse, her Rottweiler, etc. to read your submission.

And the best of luck!

Before I sign off, I’d like to thank all of you who have been sending me such wonderful, supportive messages about my memoir’s stormy publication process, both through the Comments function and (for those of you who already knew me) by e-mail. I really do appreciate it.

The saga is going to go on hiatus for a little while, however, as I’ve been asked by my publisher not to talk about it directly. So, if, for instance, something exciting happened to occur, I would perhaps have to present it as a hypothetical, if there were in some alternate universe any development that might conceivably be of interest or help to you. But for now, ix-nay on the awsuit-lay.

Keep up the good work!

— Anne Mini

So they’ve asked you to send chapters – and a request for your help

Once you have sent off a great query letter, or made a fabulous pitch at a conference, you hit the jackpot: an agent asks to see your work. And you’ve got it made, right?

Well, not necessarily, if your writing is not in apple-pie order. (And no, I don’t know where I picked up that particular homey phrase. Probably in my wayward youth, from someone like Louisa May Alcott’s Jo March or Carol Ryrie Brink’s Caddie Woodlawn. It has a 19th-century ring to it.) Just as your marketing materials should be so impeccably put together that they can travel by themselves with no excuses, even in the most literate circles, just as your title page has to be a paragon of professionalism, your initial chapters need to be in well-nigh perfect shape before you send them out.

I tremble to report this, but it is very, very common for writers to send off the first chapter or three of their novels WITHOUT EVER HAVING ANYONE ELSE READ THEM. Thus, for many writers, the agent’s feedback, which is often quite minimal, is the first time many writers EVER get an outside opinion of their work.

Or at least without having been read by anyone at all likely to be able to give an objective opinion; as I have discussed before, the feedback of your best friend, your mother, your siblings, and/or your lover (s), however charming it may be, is unlikely to yield the kind of concrete, tangible feedback every writer needs. No offense to your kith and kin, but it’s true. Even if your mother runs a major publishing house for a living, your brother is a high-flying agent, and your lover reviews major novelists regularly for THE WASHINGTON POST, they are unlikely to have the perspective necessary to give you objective feedback. Nor should they have to. It’s their job to make you feel better about yourself – or to make you feel worse about yourself, depending upon your taste in relationships and familial patterns. Ties of affection do not necessarily good readers make.

If you haven’t shown your writing to another trustworthy soul — be it through sharing it with a writers’ group, workshopping it, having it edited professionally, or asking a great reader whom you know will tell you the absolute truth — you haven’t gotten an adequate level of objective feedback. I know it seems as though I’m harping on this point, but I regularly meet aspiring writers who have sent out what they thought was beautifully-polished work to an agent without having run it by anyone else — only to be devastated to realize that the manuscript contained some very basic mistake that objective eyes would have caught easily.

At that point, trust me, wailing, “But my husband/wife/second cousin just loved it!” will not help you.

I can’t tell you what a high percentage of my clients come to me after years of following the advice of people who, while well-meaning and sharp-eyed, could only identify problems in the text, but had no idea how to fix them. I want to save you, dear readers, as much disappointment as possible. Out comes my broken record again: good writing is a necessary condition for getting published, but not sufficient alone. Good writing needs to be presented professionally, or it tends not to find a home.

And emotionally, what are you doing when you send out virgin material to a stranger who can change your life? It’s the equivalent of bypassing everyone you know in getting an opinion on your fancy new hairdo and going straight to the head of a modeling agency. Professionals have no reason to pull their punches; very often, the criticism comes back absolutely unvarnished. Even when rejection is tactful, naturally, with the stakes so high for the author, any negative criticism feels like being whacked on the head with a great big rock.

I’m trying to save you some headaches here.

But even as I write this, I know there are some ultra-shy or ultra-independent Emily Dickinson types out there who prefer to write in absolute solitude — then cast their work upon the world, to make its way as best it can on its own merits. No matter what I say, I know you hardy souls would rather be drawn and quartered than to join a writers’ group, wouldn’t you? (Despite the fact that the PNWA provides contacts for those who are interested in joining one within its geographic confines. For free, no less.) You are going to persist in deciding that you, and only you, are the best judge of when your work is finished.

And maybe you are right.

I am not saying that a writer can’t be a good judge of her own work — she can, if she has a good eye. I would be the last person to trot out that tired old axiom about killing your darlings; hands up, everyone who has attended a writers’ workshop and seen a promising piece that needed work darling-chopped into a piece of consistent mediocrity. CONSIDERING killing your pet phrases is often good advice, but for a writer with talent, the writer’s pet phrases are often genuinely the best part of the work.

However, I would argue that until you get an objective opinion, you cannot know for sure how good your own eye is — and I would suggest that it is a trifle masochistic to use your big shot at catching an agent’s attention as your litmus test for whether you are right about your own editing skills. Even if you find only one person whom you can trust to tell you the absolute truth, your writing will benefit from your bravery if you ask for honestly locally first.

Dear me, I have gotten so carried away with my topic that I shall have to defer my actual tips until tomorrow’s posting! (For those of you who haven’t been following my saga over the last 6 weeks, I am in the midst of fighting off a lawsuit against my forthcoming memoir AND have a deadline for getting a book to a publisher by the end of next week – by my birthday, as it happens. So my time is a LITTLE tight these days.)

For those of you who have been following my saga of triumph and woe, may I presume to ask a favor? This is National Banned Books Week (September 19-23); in celebration, would you consider logging on to one of the Philip K. Dick fan sites ( would be an admirable choice) and weighing in on the subject of the Dick estate’s continuing attempts to censor my book, A FAMILY DARKLY? It would only take a couple of minutes, and it would help both me and all future writers of memoirs. The issue here is actually very simple: is it or is it not fair to tell an author what she can and can’t write about her own life?

Normally, I would not ask, but after all, this is the week to speak up.

And if you are writing or know of other books that have been stymied at the point of publication by pernicious lawsuits, please fill me in via the Comments function, below. At the moment, I’m in a pretty good position to pass along links and resources that might be useful to silenced authors.

As always, keep up the good work! And happy National Banned Books Week!

– Anne Mini

Standard format for title pages

Yes, I know: title pages seem pretty straightforward, right? Surely, if there is an area where a writer new to submissions may safely proceed on simple common sense, it is the title page.


Believe it or not, the title page of a manuscript tells agents and editors quite a bit about both the book itself and the experience level of the writer. There is information that should be on the title page, and information that shouldn’t; speaking with my professional editing hat on for a moment, virtually every manuscript I see has a non-standard title page, so it is literally the first thing I will correct in a manuscript. I find this tendency sad, because for every ms. I can correct before they are sent to agents and editors, there must be hundreds of thousands that make similar mistakes.

Even sadder, the writers who make mistakes are their title pages are very seldom TOLD what those mistakes are. Their manuscripts are merely rejected on the grounds of unprofessionalism, usually without any comment at all. I do not consider this fair to aspiring writers, but once again, I do not make the rules, alas.

In fact, properly-formatted title pages are rare enough that a good one will make your manuscript (or your excerpt, if an agent asks to see the first chapter or two) shine preeminently competent, like the sole shined piece of silver amidst an otherwise tarnished display. It is well worth your effort, then, to make sure that your title page does not scream: “This writer has never sold a book before!”

In the first place, the title page should be in the same font and point size as the rest of the manuscript – which, as I have pointed out before, should be in 12-point Times, Times New Roman, or Courier. Therefore, your title page should be in 12-point Times, Times New Roman, or Courier. No exceptions, and definitely do not make the title larger than the rest of the text. It may look cool to you, but to professional eyes, it looks rather like a child’s picture book.

“Oh, come on,” I hear some of you saying, “the FONT matters that much? What about the content of the book? What about my platform? What about my brilliant writing? Surely, the typeface pales in comparison to these crucial elements?”

You’re right — it does, PROVIDED you can get an agent or editor to sit down and read your entire submission. Unfortunately, though, this is a business of snap decisions, where impressions are formed very quickly. If the cosmetic elements of your manuscript imply a lack of knowledge of industry norms, your manuscript is entering its first professional once-over with one strike against it. It may be silly, but it’s true.

Most of my clients do not believe me about this until they after they switch, incidentally. Even queries in the proper typefaces tend to be better received. Go ahead and experiment, if you like, sending out one set of queries in Times New Roman and one in Helvetica. Any insider will tell you that the Times New Roman queries are more likely to strike agents (and agents’ assistants) as coming from a well-prepared writer, one who will not need to be walked through every nuance of the publication process to come.

Like so many aspects of the mysterious publishing industry, there is actually more than one way to structure a title page. Two formats are equally acceptable from an unagented writer. (After you sign with an agent, trust me, your agent will tell you how she wants you to format your title page.) The unfortunate technical restrictions of a blog render it impossible for me to show it to you exactly as it should be, but here is the closest approximation my structural limitations will allow:

Format one, which I like to call the Me First, because it renders it as easy as possible for an agent to contact you after falling in love with your work:

Upper left-hand corner: Upper right-hand corner:

Your name Book category

First line of your address Word count

Second line of your address

Your phone number

Your e-mail address

(Skip down 10 lines, then add, centered on the page:)

Your title

(skip a line)


(skip a line)

Your name (or your nom de plume)

There should be NO other information on the title page.

Why, you may be wondering, does the author’s name appear twice on the page in this format? For two reasons: first, in case you are writing under a name other than your own, as many writers choose to do, and second, because the information in the top-left corner is the contact information that permits an agent or editor to acquire the book. Clean and easy.

If you are in doubt about which category your book falls within, read one of my last three postings.

Word count can be approximate — in fact, it looks a bit more professional if it is. This is one of the advantages of working in Times New Roman: in 12-point type, everyone estimates a double-spaced page with one-inch margins in the business at 250 words. If you use this as a guideline, you can’t go wrong.

Do not, under any circumstances, include a quote on the title page. Many authors do this, because they have seen so many published authors use quotes at the openings of their books. Trust me: putting your favorite quote on the title page will not make your work look good.

While the Me First format is perfectly fine, the other standard format, which I like to call the Ultra-professional, is more common in the industry. It most closely replicates what most agents want their authors’ ultimate manuscript title pages to look like:

Upper right corner:

Book category

Word count

(Skip down 12 lines, then add, centered:)


(skip a line)


(skip a line)

Your name (or your nom de plume)

(Skip down 12 lines, then add in the lower right corner:)

Your name

Line 1 of your address

Line 2 of your address

Your telephone number

Your e-mail address

Again, there should be NO other information, just lots of pretty white space. After you sign with an agency, your agent’s contact information will appear where your contact information does.

That’s it, my friends – the only two options you have, if you want your title page to look like the bigwigs’ do. Try formatting yours accordingly, and see if your work is not treated with greater respect!

Having trouble picturing this? Completely understandable. You’ll find visual examples here. Keep up the good work!

— Anne Mini

Nonfiction book categories – and a cheerier Anne

Hello, dear friends —

Well, I’m in a much better mood than I was last week: I realized over the weekend that since I don’t own much of anything, it matters less if I’m sued over my memoir, A FAMILY DARKLY, than if I were well-to-do. If my publisher, which I believe IS well-to-do, isn’t taking the lawsuit threats particularly seriously, I suppose I should be even less concerned.

It did get me thinking, though, about the ironies of this business. When the marketing department came up with the title of my book, I was actually pretty annoyed: I had wanted to call it IS THAT YOU, PUMPKIN?. (Just so you know, first-time authors very seldom get to name their own books; I have it on reliable authority that there are publishing houses that automatically change EVERY title that they acquire, just to put their stamp upon the book.) “What does that title MEAN?” I asked, with some heat. “What precisely is dark about my family? And while we’re at it, can I at least beg for a comma, to create at least the illusion of its being grammatically correct?”

I never really got an answer, except to have it pointed out to me repeatedly that a movie based upon one of Philip’s books (A SCANNER DARKLY, which everyone should rush out and read immediately) is scheduled to come out approximately when my book does. The connection between my book and the movie, I gather, is to be almost subliminal.

In any case, I threw a fit over it at first. I told them that I could never bring myself to say it with a straight face. I argued; I complained; I believe I even whined, to no avail. A FAMILY DARKLY it was.

I’ve had the summer to get used to it, but to be absolutely frank, it didn’t really start to grow on me until I started receiving threats from the Dick estate. Actually, I had kind of liked Philip’s kids before that; I had thought we were getting along pretty well, until they decided that I was the Anti-Christ, for reasons I have yet to fathom. Many other writers have said far, far worse things about their father than I do, and yet I’m the only one that they’ve ever threatened to sue. Go figure.

They threatened first in early July, promising a bumper crop of demanded textual changes by the first week of August. The list of demands never came, however, so I thought, understandably, that they’d changed their minds. So the letter from their lawyer, delivered to my doorstep in early September, came as something of a surprise.

Turns out that one of their objections is that they believe that my book gives the false impression that they agree with my point of view. It doesn’t, but there’s no convincing angry people of anything that they don’t want to hear. In fact, the only thing in it that I can find in the book that might remotely be construed, if read backwards and upside-down, to indicate approval is a description of one lunch we had together, and one brunch at my house.

I don’t know about you, but I often eat meals with people who disagree with my opinions. I don’t feel it commits me to anything.

In any case, I’ve been revising like mad, to remove any vestige of an impression that these people and I ever agreed on so much as the time of day; unless I’m very much mistaken, the draft going to press will not even allow the reader to conclude that they were remotely civil to me. I hope they shall be pleased. (The funny thing is, it was not even hard to switch the tone: one of the complainants spent the first half-hour of her visit to my house rudely snooping around, staring at all of my possessions as if she were trying to value them for future sale. For all I know, she was: how am I to know if she was already contemplating a lawsuit, before she had even read the book?)

Now, I feel the title of the book is really, really appropriate: not to describe my family, but theirs. All’s well that ends well, right?

Okay, on to the promised topic du jour: the categories of nonfiction books. Again, the category belongs in the first paragraph of your query letter, as well as on the title page of your book and as part of your verbal pitch. Like genre, NF categories are the conceptual boxes that books come in, telling agents and editors roughly where it would sit in a bookstore. (The nonfiction categories are a much rougher indication of location than the fiction. Do be aware that the categories used in the publishing industry are not necessarily the same as those used by bookstores. In my own area, for instance, I have noticed that Barnes & Noble tends to shelve biography, autobiography, and memoir together; Amazon lumps memoir into the autobiography category.)

By telling an agent up front which category your book is, you make it easy for her to tell if it is the kind of book she can sell. Do bear in mind that the first things an agent or editor now tends to look for in a NF book query is not a great idea, but the platform of the writer. Your job in the query letter will be to sell yourself as the world’s best-qualified person to write this book.

Fortunately, most of the categories are pretty self-explanatory.

ENTERTAINING: no, not a book that IS entertaining; one ABOUT entertaining.

HOLIDAYS: about entertaining people at particular times of year.

PARENTING AND FAMILIES: this includes not only books about children, but books about eldercare, too.

HOUSE AND HOME: so you have a place to be PARENTING and ENTERTAINING your FAMILIES during the HOLIDAYS. This is for both house-beautiful books and how-to around the home. At some publishing houses, includes GARDENING.

HOW-TO: explains how to do things OTHER than house- and home-related tasks.

COOKBOOK: I suspect that you’ve seen one of these before, right?

FOOD AND WINE: where you write ABOUT the food and wine, not tell how to make it.

LIFESTYLE: Less broad than it sounds.

SELF-HELP: if you have ANY platform to write one of these, do so. These are the books that can land you on Oprah.

HEALTH: body issues for laypeople. If your book is for people in the medical professions, it should be classified under MEDICAL. Diet books are sometimes listed here (if there is a general philosophy of nutrition involved), sometimes under FOOD (if it is less philosophical), sometimes under COOKBOOK (if there are recipes), sometimes under FITNESS (if there is a substantial lifestyle/exercise component).

FITNESS: exercise for people who consider themselves to be out of shape.

EXERCISE: fitness for people who consider themselves to be in relatively good shape.

SPORTS: exercise for competitive people in all shapes.

HISTORICAL NONFICTION: Your basic history book, intended for a general audience. If it is too scholarly, it will be classified under ACADEMIC.

NARRATIVE NONFICTION: THE hot category from a few years ago. Basically, it means using fiction techniques to tell true stories.

TRUE CRIME: what it says on the box.

BIOGRAPHY: the life story of someone else.

MEMOIR: the life story of the author, dwelling on personal relationships.

AUTOBIOGRAPHY: the life story of the author, focusing on large, generally public achievements. The memoirs of famous people tend to be autobiographies.

ESSAYS are generally published in periodicals first, then collected.

WRITING: technically, these are HOW-TO books, but editors love writing so much that it gets its own category.

CURRENT EVENTS: explanations of what is going on in the world today, usually written by journalists. Do be aware that if you are not already a recognized expert in a current event field, your book probably will not be rushed to market, and thus perhaps will not be on the market while the event you have chosen is fresh in the public mind. Bear in mind that most books are not published until over a year after a publisher buys the book. This really limits just how current the events a first-time writer comments upon can be.

POLITICS: About partisan ideology.

GOVERNMENT: about the actual functions, history, and office holders of the political realm.

WOMEN’S STUDIES: a rather broad category, into which history, politics, government, and essays related to women tend to migrate. Logically, I think it’s a trifle questionable to call one book on labor conditions in a coal mine in 1880 HISTORY, and call a book on labor conditions in a predominantly female-staffed shoe factory in 1880 WOMEN’S STUDIES, but hey, I’m not the one who makes the rules.

GAY AND LESBIAN: Much like WOMEN’S STUDIES, this category includes works from a varied spectrum of categories, concentrating on gay and lesbian people.

LAW: This includes books for the layman, as well as more professionally-oriented books. Some publishers compress this category with books about dealing with governmental bureaucracies into a single category: LAW/GOVERNMENT.

ARTS: a rather broad category, no?

PHILOSOPHY: Thought that is neither overtly political nor demonstrably spiritual in motivation.

RELIGION: books about the beliefs of the major established religions.

SPIRITUALITY: books about beliefs that fall outside the major established religions. Often, the Asian religions are classified under SPIRITUALITY, however, rather than RELIGION. Go figure.

EDUCATION: Books about educational philosophy and practice. (Not to be confused with books on how to raise children, which are PARENTING AND FAMILIES.)

ACADEMIC: books written by professors for other professors. Tend not to sell too well.

TEXTBOOK: books written by professors for students.

REFERENCE: books intended not for reading cover-to-cover, but for looking up particular information.

PROFESSIONAL: Books for readers working in particular fields.

MEDICAL: Books for readers working in medical fields. (Not to be confused with HEALTH, which targets a lay readership.)

ENGINEERING: I’m going to take a wild guess here – books written by and for engineers?

TECHNICAL: Books intended for readers already familiar with a specific field of expertise, particularly mechanical or industrial. Unless the field is engineering, or computers, or cars, or medical…

COMPUTERS: fairly self-explanatory, no?

INTERNET: again – speaks for itself.

AUTOMOTIVE: I’m guessing these aren’t books for cars to read, but to read about cars. (Sorry, I couldn’t think of anything remotely funny to say about this. I’ve had a really long day.)
FINANCE: covers both personal finances and financial policy.

INVESTING: finance for those with more than enough money to pay the rent.

BUSINESS: this is another rather broad category, covering everything from tips for happy office interactions to books on executive manners.

CAREERS: books for people who are looking to break into a field. Includes books on how to find a job, how to interview, how to write a resume…

OUTDOORS AND NATURE: again, rather broad, as it encompasses everything outside a building that does not involve SPORTS, EXERCISE, FITNESS…

TRAVEL: Books on how to get there and what to do when you do get there.

TRAVEL MEMOIR: First-person stories about someone who went somewhere.

PHOTOGRAPHY: both books about and books of.

COFFEE TABLE BOOK: Books with big, gorgeous pictures and relatively little writing.

GIFT BOOK: Impulse buys.

Looking at this list, it strikes me as rather incomplete set of categories to explain all of reality. However, these are indeed the major categories – and as with fiction, you definitely need to specify up front which your book is.

Boy, am I glad to be finished with this set of information! I’m not a big fan of lists, as reading matter goes. Tomorrow, I shall show you how to format a standard title page, which will be much more fun.

In the meantime, keep up the good work!

— Anne Mini

Genre categories – and more of my saga

Okay, take a deep breath, boys and girls: we’re going to tackle the rest of the fiction book categories today. (Don’t worry, I’ll get back to that jolly interesting stuff about my memoir being the target for an ill-conceived lawsuit threat at the end of the post. I just didn’t want to leave all of you anxious queriers out there in the lurch, category-less.)

Yesterday, for those of you who missed it (I posted considerably later than usual), I went through the standard general fiction categories. Picking a category for your work is important, because (a) you only get to pick one, no matter how badly you would like to form hyphenate composites like Erotica-Western (and who wouldn’t want to read THAT?), and (b) the category you pick will determine to a very great extent whether any given agent or editor will be even remotely interested in your work. Because yes, Virginia, there are professionals who will simply not read a query or listen to a pitch unless it is for a book in one of their chosen categories.

Furthermore, you cannot dodge this kind of negative snap judgment by avoiding making a choice at all amongst the dozens of available categories, or by hiding your choice in the middle of your query letter. Oh, no: agents expect to see a straightforward statement of your category in the first paragraph of your query letter, on the title page of your manuscript (I’ll show you how to format a title page next week, legal difficulties permitting), and in your pitch.

Agents and editors LIKE making snap judgments, you see. It saves them time.

There is an unfortunately pervasive rumor on the writers’ conference circuit that a genre label automatically translates into writing less polished than other fiction in professional minds. No, no, no: genre distinctions, like book categories, are markers of where a book will sit in a bookstore, not value judgments. Naturally, agents and editors expect a book to reflect the conventions of books within the stated genre, but believe me, an agent who is looking for psychological thrillers is far more likely to ask to see your manuscript if you label it PSYCHOLOGICAL THRILLER, rather than just FICTION.

Case in point: I once had the misfortune to be assigned at a writers’ conference to be critiqued by an editor who did not handle mainstream or literary fiction, which is what I was writing. Since he had been good enough to read my first chapter and synopsis, I sat politely and listened to what he had to say. What he had to say, unsurprisingly, was that while he found the writing excellent, but he would advise that I change the protagonist from a woman to a man, strip away most of the supporting characters, and begin the novel with a conflict that occurred two thirds of the way through the book, concerning the fall of the Soviet Union. “Then,” he said, beaming at me with what I’m sure he thought was avuncular encouragement, “you’ll have a thriller we can market.”

Perhaps I had overdone the politeness bit. “But it’s not a thriller.”

He looked at me as though I had just told him that the sky was bright orange. “Then why are you talking to me?”

The rumor that genre carries a stigma has resulted in a lot of good manuscripts that would have stood out in their proper genres being pitched as mainstream or even literary fiction. Thus, queries and pitches have been aimed at the wrong eyes and ears. By labeling your work correctly, you increase the chances of your query landing on the desk of someone who genuinely likes your kind of book astronomically.

So label your work with absolute clarity. Many first-time genre authors make the completely understandable mistake of simply labeling their work with the overarching genre: MYSTERY, ROMANCE, SCIENCE FICTION, etc. However, did you know that each of these categories has many, many subcategories?

The more specific you can be, the more likely your work is to catch the eye of an agent or editor who honestly wants to snap up your book. (Or so the professionals claim. Really, it’s a shortcut that enables them to weed out queries outside their area with a minimum of letter-reading; that’s why agents like to be told the category in the first paragraph of the letter. It saves them scads of time if you tell them instantly whether your book is a hardboiled mystery or a caper mystery: if it isn’t the variety they are looking for today, they can weed it out almost instantly.)

Let me state outright that the major genres all have wonderful writers’ associations which can undoubtedly give you more specific information than I can here. This list is intended to guide people’s first forays into picking a category.

Let’s start with SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY, because it is the genre closest to my heart. My first writing teacher was an extremely well-known science fiction writer, so my first efforts at short stories were naturally in that genre. It may amuse those of you who write SF (the professionals NEVER call it Sci Fi, incidentally) that Philip, arguably one of the best-selling SF writers of all time, told me from the very beginning that he thought I should not write in his genre, no matter how well I did it: it was, he said, too hard for any good writer to make a living at it.

But times have changes substantially since Philip was writing, and if you write SF or Fantasy, you have many options within the genre. You can, of course, simply list SCIENCE FICTION or FANTASY, if your work does not fall into any of the subcategories.

SCIENCE FICTION ACTION/ADVENTURE: The protagonist must fight incredible odds or impressive beasties to attain his (or, less frequently, her) goals. Eek – is that an Ewok behind that tree?

SPECULATIVE SCIENCE FICTION (what if X were changed?) and FUTURISTIC SCIENCE FICTION (what if my characters lived in a future society where X was different from now?) are often mistakenly conflated into a single category. Wait – is this a government plot?/>
ALTERNATE HISTORY: What if X had changed in the past? What would the present be like? Philip’s THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE, predicated on the premise that the other side won World War II, is the usual example given for this subgenre.

CYBERPUNK: I have heard a lot of definitions for this subgenre, ranging from THE MATRIX to NEUROMANCER. Think technology-enhanced alternate realities with a dark twist.

DARK FANTASY: Fear skillfully woven into a what-if scenario. Until CYBERPUNK got its own following, its books tended to be marketed as DARK FANTASY.

COMIC FANTASY: Elves on ecstasy.

EPIC FANTASY: Wait – my friends the centaur, the half-human, half-canary, and a centipede have to save the universe AGAIN? If Tolkein were writing today, his LORD OF THE RINGS series would probably be marketed under this category.

If you are in serious doubt over where your SF/FANTASY book falls, go to any bookstore with a good SF/fantasy section and start pulling books off the shelves. Find a book similar to yours, and check the spine and back cover: the subgenre is often printed there.

VAMPIRE FICTION is sometimes categorized as fantasy, sometimes as horror. But there is something hypnotic…about your eyes…

HORROR is its own distinct genre, and should be labeled accordingly. Never get into a car without checking the back seat, and for heaven’s sake, if you are a teenager, don’t run into the woods.

Okay, take another deep breath, because we are now going to delve into the many, many ROMANCE subcategories.

EROTICA is not your grandmother’s idea of pornography anymore. (Well, I guess it might be, depending upon what your grandmother was into.) Sexually-explicit writing where arousal is the point.

HISTORICAL ROMANCE has a zillion subcategories, primarily because its subcategories are often specific to period and locale. A few of the biggies: REGENCY, SCOTTISH, MEDIEVAL, TEXAS, WESTERN, MIDDLE EASTERN. ELIZABETHAN ENGLAND.

TIME TRAVEL: You have given up on the opposite sex in your own timeframe.

INSPIRATIONAL: If your romance novel is informed by spirituality, it belongs here.

CONTEMPORARY: Having a current-affairs issue at its core OR a protagonist who is a woman deeply devoted to her career.

FANTASY and CHICK LIT are hyphenates within the genre: basically, the conventions of these categories are grafted onto the ROMANCE genre. Natural choices, I think.

MULTICULTURAL: Not all of the people falling in love are white. Seriously, that’s what this means. I don’t quite understand this euphemism, since generally books labeled MULTICULTURAL are about a single culture, but hey, I don’t make the rules.

ROMANTIC SUSPENSE: this used to be called Women in Jeopardy or, more colloquially, Bodice Rippers. No comment.

PARANORMAL and GHOST ROMANCE are divided by a distinction I do not understand. Sorry. Check with Romance Writers of America.

CATEGORY ROMANCE: This is actually what many people think of automatically as a romance novel – the Harlequin type, written according to a very rigid structure.

Okay, hang in there, because here comes the last of the many subcategoried genres: MYSTERY. Again, I would urge you to consult the excellent resources provided by the Mystery Writers of America, if you are in serious doubt about which subgenre to select.

HISTORICAL: Again, self-explanatory?

COZY: An amateur sleuth is solving the crimes. VERY popular: about a quarter of the mysteries sold in North America fall into this category.

POLICE PROCEDURAL: The people who are supposed to be solving the crimes are solving the crimes.

LEGAL: A lawyer misreads his or her job description, and gets involved with solving a case.

PROFESSIONAL: A doctor, professor, reporter, etc. misreads his or her job description, and gets involved with solving a case.

PRIVATE INVESTIGATOR: A PI reads his or her job description correctly, and gets involved with solving a case.

PSYCHOLOGICAL or FORENSIC: A psychologist or forensic scientist plays around with his or her job description, refusing to leave the rest of the crime-solving to the police.

SUSPENSE: Wait, is ANYBODY going to solve the crime here? Hello? Is anybody else in the house? Hello?


HARDBOILED: There’s this guy, see, who lives by his own rules. He ain’t takin’ no guff, see – except maybe from a beautiful dame with a shady past. Often, she has legs that won’t quit AND go all the way to the ground. (A genre with surprising longevity: in 2003, hardboiled mysteries were 5% of the mysteries sold.)

ROMANTIC SUSPENSE: This time, the beautiful dame with a past and the legs IS the protagonist.

COPS AND KILLERS: What it says on the box.

SERIAL KILLER: Baaad people.

CHICK LIT: With how much time the protagonist spends in bed, it’s AMAZING that she finds the time to solve the case AND coordinate her shoes with her Prada handbag.

BRITISH: You may be wondering why I asked you all here.

SPY THRILLER: You may be wondering why I have you tied to that chair, Mr. Bond.

NOIR: This loner drifts into town, where he collides romantically with someone else’s wife under magnificently moody lighting conditions. What’s the probability that he’ll get fingered for a murder he didn’t commit?

CAPER: The protagonists are non-career criminals, often with wacky tendencies. Can they pull it off? Can they?

The remaining genre categories, WESTERN and ACTION/ADVENTURE, speak for themselves. Or, more precisely, I don’t have anything smart alecky to say about them.

And that’s it. In my next posting, I’ll cover the nonfiction categories – and we’ll finally be done. Hurray!

To put my own adventures into perspective, the threat to my book, A FAMILY DARKLY, has now entered the LEGAL THRILLER stage of its development. Even as I write this, lawyers are scratching their learned heads over the puzzling allegations made about my memoir. Of particular interest is the issue of whether my telling the truth about a relationship that has been hush-hush since, oh, before the Bicentennial (yes, one of my claims to fame is that Philip K. Dick laughed like hell when I told him about having to dress up as a miniature colonial wife and wield a mean flatiron in an elementary school diorama on Housework Before Modern Technology) should seriously bother anyone now.

Also at issue: since the woman who, ahem, borrowed my mother’s first husband on a semi-permanent basis has written her own book about the break-up of one marriage and the establishment of the next, and Philip has written a fictionalized account of it, is there any logical or ethical reason that my mother’s side of things (as seen through my vision, darkly) should not see print? Can you, in fact, be a public figure and be selective about what is divulged about you after your death?

On the bright side, though, everyone concerned seems rather eager to get these issues resolved before A FAMILY DARKLY comes out, or to be more precise, before the marketing blitz for A SCANNER DARKLY begins. A big-budget film, I’m told, based upon Philip’s 1979 novel. Sort of the end of an era for me, to see concepts and characters I pictured in my head while Philip so much about during revisions, translated into big-screen images. Let no one say that the creative process isn’t often pretty surreal.

It may surprise you to learn – it surprised me, I’ll confess — that the author actually has very little to do with a lawsuit of this nature: it’s all handled by the publishing house and, at the moment, a wildfire of argument about whether my book should be censored amongst habitués of the many PKD fan sites. It’s actually rather maddening, to be stuck on the sidelines while discussion rages over what is after all my baby.

I shall keep you posted, of course, on what happens. And in the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini