It’s all in the timing

Have you finished sending out your fall’s quota of query letters to agents yet? Or, if you are dealing directly with editors, have they already received your manuscripts? Well done, if so: I release you to pursue a well-deserved long winter’s nap. I’ll wake you up around Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

If you have not, and if you are the kind of impatient person who gets upset if her letters are not answered within a month or two, I would seriously advise delaying your next set of queries until well after everyone’s New Year’s resolutions have had time to peter out — the experts say that takes about three weeks, on average.

As regular readers of this blog already know, you’re far better off using the intervening time to polish your submissions into perfection than sending out fresh queries. From now through the end of the year, the publishing world is a dead zone; for the first month of the year, it is a madhouse. Either way, it means delays and frustration for writers caught in the maelstrom.

For those new to the sad reality, almost no new business is conducted between Thanksgiving and Christmas in the NYC publishing industry. Agencies recognize this, and roll back their efforts accordingly. Some ambitious souls do launch back in with a will between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, although it is rare, because everyone is cringing with anticipation over the annual descent of the twin horrors of January: both publishing houses and agencies need to get all of their tax data out to authors by the end of the month, which invariably causes a flurry of paperwork, and almost every unpublished author in North America sends at least one query letter in the first month of the year.

Including all of those timid souls who were too intimidated by the process even to consider sending out queries back in June. Think about it: if you have spent the last eight or ten months working up nerve to show your work to others, what’s your single most likely New Year’s resolution?

The result, as any agent or editor will tell you with rays of horror shooting from her eyes, is a perfect avalanche of queries and unsolicited manuscripts. Tends to make the readers a might testy – and testy is the last thing you want the person screening your precious submission to be, right?

If you were not aware of this two-month hiatus, it’s not your fault: it is just one of those rules of the game that someone has to tell you. I have met writers with YEARS of submissions under their belts who continued, mystified, to rush to their mailboxes throughout each Yuletide season, only to be disappointed to find nothing more than holiday cards from long-lost friends, presents from close kith and kin, and perhaps a few candy canes left by the postman. That most coveted of presents, a contract from an agent or a publisher, is almost never found under the Christmas tree.

So don’t bother asking your local department store Santa for it. I’ve tried, and it doesn’t work.

Fortunately, you have come to the right place to avoid your work getting lost in the crowd. In the first place, NEVER send an unsolicited manuscript — even if you read in a fairly credible guide that the publishing house or agency will consider them. Yes, you should always send exactly what the agent or editor has asked to see, but trust me, you are ALWAYS better off asking first, rather than going to the considerable expense and trouble of sending an entire manuscript. Unsolicited manuscripts almost always end up in one of three places: in the garbage can/recycling bin, in the author’s mailbox, accompanied by a form letter stating that it does not meet our needs at this time, or, in the best-case scenario, sitting in a dank storeroom with hundreds of other unsolicited manuscripts, waiting for the company’s annual let’s-go-through-the-slush-pile party or the Second Coming, whichever comes first.

Second, and even more important for your sanity, don’t bother querying during the dead time. It’s far, far better to be one of three hundred query letters in a week than one of three thousand.

I found out only this last week what publishing houses and agencies are DOING during the December dead time. I had always thought that they just whooped it up during the holidays, but no: it is a sort of winter cleaning, when everyone catches up on the work that has fallen through the cracks in the previous eleven months. Think of it as the chrysalis stage of the publishing process, when all the little editors are wrapped up tight in their cocoons, waiting for spring.

Did you find that image soothing? Did it reconcile you to the long wait to come?

I didn’t think so. But once again, here is a situation where knowing a bit about how the publishing industry works can save you minutes, hours, or even weeks of soul-wrenching doubt about whether the quality of your work is the reason you have not heard back yet.

Let me save you some chagrin: the quality of the work, good or bad, is almost NEVER the reason for a delayed response; internal pressures at the agency or publishing house almost always are to blame. (For a more complete explanation of how these factors work, see my postings from early September.) It’s tempting to attribute a long turn-around time to the agent’s showing your query or your manuscript around to a delighted staff, in order to get everyone on board, or to an editor’s wanting to read your submission for the third time, in order to convince himself that it really is as brilliant as he had thought the first time through. For the more masochistically-minded, it is tempting to conclude that the work is terrible, and so has been set aside, pending future guffaws.

But the simple fact is, this is an industry where people are EAGER to clear paper off their desks: if you have not heard back on a submission, far and away the most probable explanation is that no one has read it yet. And if you sent it between Thanksgiving and MLK, Jr., Day, that probability soars to a near certainty. Is it really worth torturing yourself with that kind of delay?

Instead, why not treat your work to a stimulating rewrite during the holiday season? Better still, why not read it from front to back in hard copy, so you can catch any lingering errors? Then – rested, refreshed, and perfected by its holiday spa treatment – you can send it out into the world in the new year, confident that your work is at its best and brightest.

Just an early holiday notion, my friends, designed to keep that seasonal sparkle alight in your eye. Keep up the good work!

— Anne Mini

Help! It’s the point-of-view Nazis!

A couple of postings ago, I used the term “point-of-view Nazi” in passing. Several readers have asked me since what it means, if I made it up, and what was I doing making light of Nazism, anyway? For the benefit of those unfamiliar with the phrase, I shall write about this phenomenon at length today.

No, I did not invent the term: it’s fairly widely-known industry jargon. A point-of-view Nazi (POVN) is a reader — often a teacher, critic, agent, editor, or other person with authority over writers — who believes firmly that the ONLY way to write third-person-narrated fiction is to pick a single character in the book or scene (generally the protagonist) and report ONLY his or her thoughts and sensations throughout the piece. Like first-person narration, this conveys only the internal experience of a single character, rather than several or all of the characters in the scene or book.

Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this kind of narration: it combines the advantages of a dispassionate narrator with the plotting and pacing plusses of a single perspective. It permits the author to sink deeply (or not) into the consciousness of a chosen character without losing the emotional distance of an omniscient narrator. It renders the later actions of other characters more surprising to the reader. It is not, however, the only third-person narrative possibility — a fact that drives your garden-variety POVN wild.

All of us have our own particular favorite narrative styles, and many of us have been known to lobby for their use. What distinguishes a POVN from a mere POV enthusiast is his active campaign to dissuade all other writers from EVER considering the inclusion of more than one POV in a third-person narrative. He would like multiple-consciousness narratives to be wiped from the face of the earth, if you please. He has been known to tell his students — or members of his writing group, or his clients, or the writers whom he edits or represents — that multiple POV narration in the third person is, to put it politely, bad writing. It should be stamped out, by statute, if necessary.

So much for Jane Austen and most of the illustrious third-person narrative-writers of the 18th and 19th centuries, who used multiple perspectives to great effect.

I bring up our forebears advisedly, because one of the reasons that POVNs are so common is that in the post-World War II era, the prose stylings of the 18th and 19th centuries tended to be rejected as old-fashioned by writing teachers. Many of today’s more adamant POVNs are merely transmitting the lessons they were taught in their first good writing classes: for years, many English professors set it down as a general rule that multiple POVs were inherently distracting in a third-person narrative.

Now, I have to admit something: I am not a big fan of this species of sweeping rule. I like to read an author’s work and consider whether her individual writing choices serve her story well, rather than rejecting it outright because of a preconceived notion of what is possible.

In fact, I have a special affection for authors whose talent is so vast that they can pull off breaking a major writing commandment from time to time. Alice Walker’s use of punctuation alone in THE COLOR PURPLE would have caused many rigid rule-huggers to dismiss her writing utterly, but the result is, I think, brilliant. I had always been told that it is a serious mistake to let a protagonist feel sorry for himself for very long, as self-pity quickly becomes boring, but Annie Proulx showed us both a protagonist AND a love interest who feel sorry for themselves for virtually the entirety of THE SHIPPING NEWS, with great success. And so on.

One effect of the reign of the POVNs — whose views go through periods of being very popular — has been the production of vast quantities of stories and novels where the protagonist’s POV and the narrator’s are astonishingly similar — and where the other characters are exactly as they appear to the protagonist, no more, no less. (The rise of television and movies, where the camera is usually an impersonal narrator of the visibly obvious, has also contributed to this kind of “What you see is what you get” characterization, if you’ll forgive my quoting the late great Flip Wilson in this context.) Often, I find myself asking, “Why wasn’t this book just written in the first person, if we’re not going to gain any significant insight into the other characters?”

I suspect that I am not the only reader who addresses such questions to an unhearing universe in the dead of night, but for a POVN, the answer is very simple. The piece in question focused upon a single POV because there is no other way to write a third-person scene.

Philosophically, I find this troubling. In my experience, there are few real-life dramatic situations where everyone in the room absolutely agrees upon what occurred, and even fewer conversations where all parties would report identically upon every nuance. I think that interpretive disagreement is the norm amongst human beings, not the exception.

So do I like to hear the thoughts of multiple players in a scene, to capture the various subtleties of interpretation? You bet. If I want to hear a single POV, I reach for a first-person narrative. Call me wacky.

These are merely my personal preferences, however; I am perfectly willing to listen to those who disagree with me. And there I differ from the POVN, who wishes to impose his views upon everyone within the sound of his voice, or reach of his editorial pen.

To be fair, too-frequent POV switches can be perplexing for the reader to follow — and therein lies the POVN’s primary justification for dismissing all multiple POV narratives as poor writing. One of the more common first-novel problems is POV switching in mid-paragraph, or even mid-sentence. But heck, that’s what the RETURN key is for, to clear up that sort of confusion.

If you are involved with a writing teacher, writing group compatriot, agent, or editor who is a POVN, you need to recognize his preference as early in your relationship as possible, in order to protect your own POV choices. Otherwise, you may end up radically edited, and some characterization may be lost. Take, for example, this paragraph from PRIDE AND PREJUDICE :

“Elizabeth, having rather expected to affront him, was amazed at his gallantry; but there was a mixture of sweetness and archness in her manner which made it difficult for her to affront anybody; and Darcy had never been so bewitched by a woman as he was by her. He really believed, were it not for the inferiority of her connections, he should be in some danger.”

I might quibble about Austen’s use of semicolons, but it’s not too difficult to follow whose perspective is whose here, right? Yet, as a POVN would be the first to point out, there are actually THREE perspectives in this single brief paragraph, although there are only two people involved:

“Elizabeth, having rather expected to affront him, was amazed at his gallantry…” (Elizabeth’s POV)

“but there was a mixture of sweetness and archness in her manner which made it difficult for her to affront anybody” (the POV of an external observer)

“Darcy had never been so bewitched by a woman as he was by her…” (Darcy’s POV)

A POVN in Jane’s writing group would undoubtedly urge her to pick a perspective and stick to it consistently throughout the book; a POVN agent would probably reject PRIDE AND PREJUDICE outright, and a POVN editor would pick a perspective and edit accordingly. The resultant passage would necessarily be significantly different from Jane’s original intention:

“Elizabeth, having rather expected to affront him, was amazed at his gallantry; but there was a mixture of sweetness and archness in her manner which made it difficult for her to affront anybody. Darcy remained silent.”

At this rate, the reader is not going to know how Darcy feels until Elizabeth learns it herself, many chapters later. Yet observe how easily a single stroke of a space bar clears up even the most remote possibility of confusion about who is thinking what:

“Elizabeth, having rather expected to affront him, was amazed at his gallantry; but there was a mixture of sweetness and archness in her manner which made it difficult for her to affront anybody.

Darcy had never been so bewitched by a woman as he was by her. He really believed, were it not for the inferiority of her connections, he should be in some danger.”

The moral here, my friends, is that you should examine writerly truisms very carefully before you accept them as invariably true. Grab that gift horse and stare into its mouth for awhile. You may find, after serious consideration, that you want to embrace being a POVN, at least for the duration of a particular project; there are many scenes and books where the rigidity of this treatment works beautifully. But for the sake of your own growth as a writer, make sure that the choice is your own, and not imposed upon you by the beliefs of others.

To paraphrase the late Mae West, if you copy other people’s style, you’re one of a crowd, but if you are an honest-to-goodness original, no one will ever mistake you for a copy.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini