Giving that gift horse a thorough dental inspection

Yesterday, in wrapping up my series on how advances work, I made passing reference to differences in how agents like to submit their clients’ work to editors — differences which can determine whether there is any possibility of your first book’s generating competitive bidding between publishing houses. I had suggested, in fact, that you might want to have a wee chat with any agent interested in signing you about which strategy s/he prefers.

Today, I want to talk a bit about that conversation, in the hope that some of you will be having it very soon with agents who read your submissions over the Labor Day weekend. (And also, if I’m honest, to distract you while you are waiting for everyone in the publishing industry to get back from summer vacation. I’m a big fan of multi-tasking.)

While you’re waiting to hear back from an agent is a great time to come up with your list of questions for when you are offered representation. (It’s also a good time to send out more queries, to be on the safe side. Unless the agent who has your work has specified that he will only accept an exclusive submission, you are under no obligation to keep your work under wraps while he is making up his mind. Keep moving forward.)

Why should you come up with questions in advance, or come up with your own list distinct from the ones the AAR suggests? Well, for many writers, the actual moment of solicitation can be very, very disconcerting: after years of plowing through uncertainty and rejection, an agent who says yes can look a whole lot like the Archangel Gabriel, descending from heaven in a cloud of glory, book contract in hand.

In my experience, writers are often too dazzled by their own good fortune in being solicited as a client to ask pertinent questions. One does not, after all, lightly question a burning bush.

However, choosing an agent is one of the most important decisions you will ever make as a writer — more important, conceivably, than deciding to sign a publication contract. You need as much information as you can get, in order to make sure that you are making the right decision.

I know, I know: when you don’t have an agent, any agent sounds pretty good. But all you have to do to learn otherwise is walk into a group of three or more agented writers. Give them an hour, and at least one will be complaining about her agent. Not all agents are good ones; as in any profession, there are bound to be ones who are better at it than others. More importantly, there will be some who are better fits for you than others.

Trust me, you will be happier in the long run if you ask about the issues that are important to you up front. Remember, this is a long-term relationship you are setting up: for years to come, your agent will be the FIRST person you call when you have a professional crisis or triumph. Get to know this person a little before you say yes. My favorite pre-signing question of the moment is, “How often do you typically have contact with your clients? How often should I expect updates from you?” followed closely by, “If I have questions or concerns, would you prefer that I e-mailed you, or picked up the phone?”

Why are these at the top of my list? Because, to be absolutely truthful, I am the only writer I know who has as much contact with her agent as she wants. (And why am I so sure about that? Because I am often in those groups of three or more agented writers that I mentioned above.) Before I signed with her, I told her that I would have a lot of questions — because I am a habitual crier of “But why? — and that I wanted to make sure that I could feel free to ask them without imposing on her time or getting on her Manhattan-frazzled nerves.

I knew to ask, because I’d previously been with an agent whose only time to chat was between 5 and 6 a.m. Pacific Standard Time. Why so early? Well, she was a perverse soul who would not answer the phone at all after noon New York time (that was when she called editors, you see.) and who couldn’t seem to remember which Washington had the pleasure of my citizenship. In short, my former agent was prone to forget about the time difference between her coast and mine. Not being a habitually early riser myself (I often write in the dead of night, when the phone is unlikely to ring), I certainly did not want to repeat this experience with my new agent.

Judging from my current agent’s reaction, I would guess that I was the first prospective client who had ever asked for that kind of ground rule up front. Moral of the story: when you are first dealing with an agent, remember that you are two human beings who don’t know each other very well. The clearer you can be about how you would like to be treated (over and above the fact that you would like the agent to sell your books for you), the more likely you are to get what you want out of the relationship.

Don’t badger, of course, but be straightforward. Also, be as precise as you can. “What are your plans for my book?” for instance, tends to elicit rather vague replies, giving a false impression that the agent is either being evasive or that they have not thought about it much.

However, to the ear of a good agent, this question translates thus: “Who specifically will you be approaching first? Will it be a phone call, lunch, or coffee? Why is your first choice the best publishing house for it?” Agents do not tend to think in vague terms: they’re concrete people, by and large.

So throw ‘em a lifeline. Ask instead, “Are you planning to do individual submissions, or multiple submissions?” This question does not require translation for the agent to understand, and will elicit much of the information that most writers have in mind when they ask for a plan.

Which brings me back to yesterday’s distinction between individual and mass submissions — just as I reach the end of my blogging day, I notice. Tomorrow, I shall go into the logic behind these two major submission strategies, as well as giving you a better idea of what the agent could conceivably do on your behalf.

In the meantime, keep up the good work!

The great advance mystery, Part III

Well, it’s a beautiful day — sunny, without being too hot — and after that refreshing dip in the self-esteem pool with Jordan yesterday, I think we’re all in good shape to tackle the great advance mystery once again. The good news is that this time, there is some good news.

Oh, yes — I heard those whimpers of anguish after my last two posts on the subject. “So, Anne,” I heard some of you crying, “are the stories we’ve all heard about monumental advances just great big lies? Why, oh why would anyone do anything so cruel to people who are treading a hard path and want to dream big?”

No, the huge advances still do happen sometimes, if the book seems marketable enough to a publisher — but again, the big numbers are usually affiliated with NF books that already have plenty of name recognition behind them. A sterling platform, as they like to say in the biz. Occasionally, though, a first book has BESTSELLER written all over it in letters so large that even the accounting department at a major publishing house can see them, and those books do in fact attract large advances, often due to competitive bidding.

But again, it’s extremely rare. Usually, the big advances go to writers with established track records — and thus established readerships. The big advances, in short, are not often evidence of a publishing house gambling on a new voice, but rather of their putting their chips on a relatively safe bet.

As you may have noticed if you have been querying for awhile, people in this industry are not, generally speaking, wild risk-takers. You also may have noticed that their rhetoric at writers’ conferences might lead a naïve listener to conclude the opposite. That’s one of the mysteries of the industry, too.

But honestly — how big a chance is a publisher actually taking by bringing out the next HARRY POTTER book? Practically none. And when a publishing house does take the occasional chance on a new author, they like to hedge their bets, putting as little money on the line as possible.

Often, too, the big numbers we hear for fiction are for multi-book deals, which throws the aspiring writers’ sense of realistic expectations off still further. But they do undoubtedly happen from time to time, so please, do not give up hope.

At the same time, you will probably be better off in the long run if you are not expecting so much money that your life will change radically overnight when your first book sells. It’s not a bad idea to do some research. For those of you who are taking Jordan’s advice and tracking down the 411 on a favorite author, try to find out how much that writer got for her first book. And if your favorite writer is not someone whose big break came within the last decade or so, you might want to do some research on someone who writes in your genre who did. Not to stomp on your hopes, of course — just to inoculate yourself against elevated expectations of the industry.

Trust me, the more you understand how publishing works, the juicier you can make your dreams about succeeding in it. It honestly does make more sense to think in terms of making your entire writing career a success, rather than just dreaming big about one book — and not working on the next while you are marketing the first.

If you really want to get a clear mental image of what could happen if everything goes right with your first book, and if you have an extra $20 lying around that you are willing to invest in it, you could do worse than to subscribe to Publishers Marketplace’s daily e-mail updates: they give a ballpark estimate of how much books sold each day commanded. After a couple of weeks of following the sales, it becomes pretty apparent that the vast majority of first sales are on the low end. “A nice deal,” as PM likes to call it.

Study the exceptions: what can you do to make your book seem that appealing on a marketing level? Not to make it more shallow, mind you — one of the surprising things you will learn from following the trends is that some deep books are very sought-after — but to see what the fad-hungry industry thinks is hyper-marketable right now. Is there a way to spin your book concept so it sounds more like the sought-after ones?

This is a useful exercise, because it helps ground your understanding of the ever-changing industry in the present, not the past. And this is a distinct advantage, since so much of the information writers get about this industry is still geared to the way it was 20 or 30 years ago — which, come to think of it, is often when the wild success stories we hear on the writers’ conference circuit are set, isn’t it?

This can be a trifle misleading to writers trying to break into the biz now, because back then, new authors were routinely offered three-book contracts by major publishing houses. Thus the big advances. It wasn’t because people in the industry felt more affection for writers as a group back then; it was a simple matter of economics. Given that the publishing house hoped that the newly-signed author’s second and third books would be even bigger than the first, as the author’s name recognition grew amongst readers, it only made practical sense to give writers of promise enough money that they don’t need to be working 40+ hours per week in order to pay the rent. When you are banking on someone’s future books, it’s definitely in your best interest for him to be writing full-time.

Those were the days, eh?

But by the end of the 1980s, too many second and third books did not justify the promise of their authors’ first — and pop quiz: why was this a problem?

Good for you, those of you whose hands shot in the air immediately: it IS because once a publisher pays an advance to an author, they cannot get it back, even if the book did not sell enough to justify the advance.

The publishers lost money, and multi-book deals for new authors became comparatively rare. And since publishing houses are investing less in their new authors — both in terms of advance money and in terms of expectations for profiting of these authors’ future books — they have also fallen into the habit of promoting new authors’ books less assertively.

No, you didn’t just fall into Never-never Land there for a moment: it really is a Catch-22. Books that are not well promoted by their publishing houses are far less likely to sell well than those that are — which means that they do not establish as strong a track record for their authors. Which means, in turn, a smaller advance next time, typically.

Yet, basically, when a publishing house takes on a new author, it is looking for that author to establish a track record with the first book, the kind of sales success that used to be the result of massive publicity campaigns by the publishing house. Then, if that sells well, they will be eager for the second. And yes, that generally means the process is less lucrative up front for writers.

Unless, of course, there is competition over which publishing house will buy a book. Then, the sky’s the limit. That’s prime NYC publishing logic for you: something that other people want is viewed as inherently more valuable than something only one person wants, or even knows about.

I can’t resist bringing in my favorite example of this kind of thinking. Years ago, when I was writing for the LET’S GO travel guides, my companion and I found this marvelous beach in southern Washington, 21 miles of unbroken sand, so much beach that people were allowed to drive along it, scanning for sand dollars. It was early on a weekday, so we were the only people as far as the eye could see. So, naturally, being good West Coasters, we settled down to enjoy all of that natural solitude.

After we had been there about 15 minutes, another car came driving slowly along the beach. It drove past us, disappeared for a few minutes, then returned to park perhaps 20 feet away from us. A bunch of cooped-up, fractious kids jumped out, whooping, and their presumptive parents began setting up a fairly elaborate campfire set to roast hotdogs inches from our outraged noses.

Understandably, my companion and I were fairly miffed. Surely, with 21 miles of beach to choose from, their party and ours could have shared the scenery without being on top of each other’s lunches. It seemed like such bizarre behavior that I felt compelled to ask the mother of the screaming children why they had picked that particular place.

She looked at me as if I were speaking Urdu. “Well, that’s where the people were. It must be the best place.” Need I even say that their car had New York plates?

And that, my friends, is the basic logic behind competitive bidding, or indeed, any industry buzz that makes a book seem more valuable. Not everyone who gets into the bidding, or who is doing the buzzing, has actually read any of the book in question, so it usually isn’t a matter of the writing, or even necessarily of the story: it’s all about wanting to grab that elusive object of desire before the next guy does.

There are a couple of ways that a book can become the object of competitive bidding. First, if there is enough initial interest from publishers (again, often a matter of name recognition and industry buzz), the agent could elect to put it up for auction, as was the case with THE CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR, which the industry had decided would be a major bestseller long before it hit print.

More commonly, though, an agent will send out a book to several editors at once, and if more than one editor wants it, the publishing houses start bidding against each other for the book. The one who offers the higher advance, of course, gets to publish the book.

And that, as you may well imagine, is a great situation for any writer, first-time or experienced.

It’s also a pretty good reason to ask any agent who offers to represent you, “So, how do you plan to market my book?” before you sign an agency contract. There are plenty of agents out there who do not favor mass submissions, where editors at several publishing houses are all reading the book simultaneously. Instead, they prefer to target one editor at a time, tailoring the submission to wow that person in particular.

Both methods have their pros and cons, of course – but that is a matter for another day. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

What if I want one-on-one assistance?

First Reader Editing
I offer one-on-one developmental editing services for manuscripts and book proposals. As fit between an editor an a project is monumentally important, however, I am very selective about taking on projects. If you would like to explore the possibility of whether I would be a good fit for yours, please e-mail a 1-paragraph description of your project, as well as brief indications of the book category, your target market, submission history, and any deadlines that might be hanging over the project to me at anne@annemini (dot) com.

Please do not send me your query letter, synopsis, or any portion of your manuscript or book proposal unless I specifically request it. If you have general questions about writing, querying, submission, etc., that you would like for me to answer on a one-on-one basis, rather than addressing as questions on my blog, please e-mail me to book online or telephone consultation time (see below).

Please allow lead time for scheduling: I am generally booked up months in advance for book-length projects. I do maintain a waiting list for unexpected openings; they sometimes turn up with very little advance notice, so it’s always worth asking.

If I am not the right editor for your project, I might be able to steer you toward a good fit elsewhere. If you are interested in a recommendation, please provide me with — wait for it — the book category, intended target market, and a one-paragraph summary of your project.

Mini Consults
Sometimes, it’s just helpful to talk about your book with someone who reads manuscripts for a living. Since so many Author! Author! readers asked for it, I also now answer writing questions and give professional feedback on marketing materials, such as queries, synopses, and book proposals in pre-scheduled telephone appointments. While this is not a substitute for full-scale editing, many of my clients have found Mini Consults effective in tackling seemingly intractable literary problems.

If you would be interested in learning more about this service, please e-mail a 1-paragraph description of your project, the book category, your target market, submission history (if any), and deadline requirements to me at anne@annemini (dot) com.

All other questions
Part of my purpose in setting up this website is to provide as much information about the writing life and publication process as possible to aspiring writers, as well as providing a forum for creating community amongst writers at all levels. To that end, I am always happy to answer questions posted by readers, provided that the questions are general enough to be of interest to all.

Please post these questions as comments on the blog, rather than sending them to the e-mail address above. If I answer a question via e-mail, it helps one person; if I answer it on the blog, it’s available for everyone. Also, it’s substantially more time-consuming for me to respond one at a time to similar questions.

Please be aware, however, that due to heavy demand, I can no longer answer readers’ requests for free manuscript-specific advice or personal writing career guidance that are sent to me through this forum. If I answered all of the questions I receive individually, answering my e-mail alone would be a full-time job!

Also, I’ve covered a great deal of material on this blog over the years, so if you check the category list at right or run a search in the box in the upper-right corner, you may find the answer you are seeking more quickly than asking me directly. The archives remain posted for a reason, and that reason is to help writers!

Guest Blogger Jordan strikes again

Hello, my friends! It’s been awhile, eh? Apologies for not popping back in sooner, but perhaps this is good timing, as I hear that you’ve been receiving the skinny from Mini on the brutal, humiliating and absurd trade known as publishing.

Let me tell you a story. Once upon a time I interviewed authors—famous ones like TC Boyle and emerging ones like Gayle Brandesi—for my literary radio program Word by Word. I hosted this show for three years (a volunteer labor of love that still got us a $10K NEA grant) and I got some of the best (and worst) advice from writers possible. One of my favorite bits came from the contemporary surrealist writer Aimee Bender. We were discussing her story, “Fruit and Words” (which, if you haven’t read it, you must. It can be found in her collection, Willful Creatures). She said (and I am paraphrasing from memory): “Writing is the only art where you must use the medium itself to describe the act of making it. You don’t paint a picture to describe one, or dance a dance,” she said.

I thought a lot about this, how we writers take the tool of everyday communication and mold it for both artistic and practical purposes. We are always using our medium. When you think about that, you who are no strangers to the pen, the muse or even the writing conference, you will realize that you have a powerful tool at your disposal to help focus you on a daily, even hourly, basis.

Focus being the key word here. That’s what all this happy feeling stuff is about—getting you to focus your feelings and thoughts—which are linked, by the way—on positive outcomes and good feelings. Why? So we can sing Kumbaya and bliss out on our own inner beauty? No! (Well, okay, if you must). The reason is that positive thinking attracts more of itself and it has a tendency to lead to hope and motivation—two things you need in spades in this industry.

The problem is, positive thinking doesn’t come terribly naturally to many of us. It’s been beaten, shamed and encouraged out of us. Which is why I’m here to remind you that beneath all the terrible odds and the ridiculous standards, there’s a reason why you write in the first place that probably is closer to making you feel joy than it is to getting rich quick. But it’s easy to get lost in the getting rich and famous end of it.

Yes, you want to make a living at your trade but I doubt you’re in this for the money. You’ve got important ideas and good stories and you must write or die, and you seek a reputable, time-tested platform to put them out there. When you lean toward the positive, have faith and generally believe good things might happen, you are more likely to follow up on leads you’d otherwise be too depressed, ignorant or overwhelmed to pursue. You are more likely to say “yes” to things, to accept tips, to learn, grow, and find your way smack into the center of success.

So here’s a tip: Whatever your writing goal, try to think about it when you’re ALREADY feeling good—don’t send negative thought or feelings to the thing you want most when you’re about ready to throw down the pen forever and apply to Burger King.

Save thinking about Being a Published Novelist for times when you’ve paused from laborious data entry/real estate selling/banal Ad-copywriting and have stepped out onto the corporate patio to soak in some sunshine. Reach for your writing desires as a kind of mood enhancer, so that you come to link positive moments with the acquisition of your Number One Desire. You have to train yourself here as rigorously as Pavlov did his dogs.

Yes, this is kind of like meditation. When the downer thought—remember those “I suck” examples I gave before—comes floating through, chase it off like a nasty, smelly little dog that is trying to soil your yard, and either court or wait for a better moment to think, “But some people make it as writers, and so will I.”

You have the tool—writing—so use it to get what you want. Don’t wait for things to happen to you. Don’t wait for agents and publishers and adoring audiences to validate you. You have to start behaving as if you ALREADY HAVE that which you desire.

I know you just said, “But how can I act as if I have what I don’t have, Jordan? That’s crazy talk!”

Is it? You’re writers. You have a rich fantasy life, I know you do. You’ve spent unreasonable amounts of time dreaming about things and people you wanted. You’ve allowed yourself to wander off into bubbles of fantasy. But someone or something probably made you “snap out of it” and tell yourself, “Stop dreaming, babe. Don’t kid yourself.”

Well I’m instructing you to get back to dreaming. Choose to spend lots of time imagining in full color and detail what it is you want. Because when you do, you activate all kinds of powerful little sensors and feelings inside yourself. They lead to excitement, hope, action, more writing.

Then WRITE DOWN your fantasies for the perfect literary career in precise detail as if it is already happening. Because the more you take your writing career as something that already exists, the more you make room for things to happen instead of languishing in the statistics and deciding it isn’t worth trying.

Here’s an example from my journal from September of last year:

“Today it occurred to me that if I want to be a published novelist, nothing stands in my way. The way will be shown to me. I have finished my novel revision and I’m agent-shopping again, but with such confidence and power that it happens so fast and the agent sells my book fast too. It’s was all just a simple matter of readying myself, shifting my energy.”

Funny thing is, while THAT novel I am describing above did not succeed in getting me an agent, I wrote a whole OTHER novel that in fact garnered me an agent in one week’s time when I sent out queries. I’m not making this up. The novel mentioned above was something I needed to clear out of myself, and it made room for the one I really wanted to write. I was so SURE, so EXCITED, that I wasn’t the slightest bit surprised when I got an agent.

And the fact is, I didn’t wait for external validation to believe that. Yes, I have done my homework, but my other novel is perfectly lovely too. Nothing wrong with it. Except that it deals with family issues and I felt very scared that if it were published, my family would hate me. I channeled lots of fear towards it. Et Voilà, it went nowhere.

I hope that for every strike of reality that hits you about why it’s hard to make it as a writer, you’ll remember that so long as you don’t jump on that particular bandwagon, and make room to write what you want and feel good about it ONCE A DAY, you’ll be shocked and amazed at how much opens up for you.

If you’d like to formally get involved in this work, it’s not too late to sign up for the Creating Space online class (link), session one, which begins on September 8th, for 4 weeks.

My new professional website is going up in about a week too, so please visit me there. In the meantime, you can always find me at my blog.

Jordan E. Rosenfeld

Anne here:

Thanks, Jordan, for all those words of wisdom! We really appreciate your stopping by.

And everybody, if you’ve been finding Jordan’s advice helpful, please, write in and let us know. Also, if I can blandish Jordan into coming back and visiting us here again (as I hope I shall), are there any points she’s made you’d like her to expand upon?

I also want to toot my horn on her behalf before I sign off. Jordan’s book, “Make a Scene: Crafting a Powerful Story One Scene at a Time” will be published by Writer’s Digest Books in Fall, 2007 and her book with Rebecca Lawton, “Creating Space: The Law of Attraction for Writers & Other Inspired Souls,” will be published in Summer, 2007 by Wavegirl Ink. She is a book reviewer for NPR affilliate KQED’s news-magazine the California Report and a freelance contributer to Writer’s Digest Magazine, The Writer, The St. Petersburg Times, AlterNet, The Pacific Sun and more. Her novel, THE NIGHT ORACLE, is represented by the Levine-Greenberg literary agency.

The great advance mystery, Part II

When I left off last night, I was initiating you into the mysteries of how advances work, working up to an answer to Jude’s excellent question, ““How much does a first book usually garner in way of an advance?” Today, I want to talk about how the general rules governing advances might apply to you, and how you can prepare yourself for your first publishing contract.

An advance, as I told you yesterday, is essentially an unrepayable loan against the author’s future royalties for a particular book. (Unrepayable in the sense that if your book sales are slow, and your royalty percentage does not reach the amount of the advance, you are not obligated to return the difference to the publishing house.) The more copies the publishing house expects to sell, the higher the advance — with certain exceptions, of course, because this is the publishing industry, and there are exceptions to most rules.

Royalty rates vary, based upon what your agent negotiates into the publication contract, but generally speaking, first-time authors get a lower percentage of the cover price than better-established ones. Also, the author typically gets a significantly higher percentage of hardback sales than trade paper, and trade paper endows a higher percentage than paperback. So the anticipated format of release — which is utterly beyond the author’s control — will have a significant impact upon the amount of the advance a publisher offers.

Everyone with me so far? Okay, let’s get down to dollars and cents.

I could sugar-coat this, but I’m not going to lie to you; if you’re serious about your writing, you deserve to know the truth. The plain fact is, these days, it is EXTREMELY rare for a first book by a non-celebrity to attract a large enough advance to allow its author to quit her day job (yesterday’s first blog to the contrary). Buy a car, maybe — but for fiction, it might not always be a NEW car, if you catch my drift.

Why so low? Because the advance will be a reflection of how the publishing house thinks the book will sell, and a first-time author is usually not walking into the deal with an already-established readership. This is why, for those of you who read Publisher’s Weekly , bloggers tend to command higher advances for their books than other first-time authors, even when those books are simply the blogs repackaged into book form: there is an already identified, preexisting audience for such books (who have, presumably, already read everything the book except for the introduction and Library of Congress number). Unfortunately, while there are quite a few fiction blogs out there, they tend not to command immense readerships, so this route to self-improvement is not available to all writers.

Also, for a first book, the planned print run is generally small. For the purposes of illustration, let’s assume that you’ve written a beautiful, lyrical literary fiction book that the publisher anticipates will sell 3,000 copies. You do the math. If it comes out in hardback (and, increasingly, first novels are being released in trade paper, which automatically means a lower royalty percentage for the author), it might retail for around $24. Let’s assume you got a good contract, and you’re entitled to 10% of the cover price. That’s $2.40 per book, less your agent’s 15%, so $2.04 per book is yours. If every single copy of the initial printing sells, your share would be $6,120.

And at most publishing houses, they would assume that the first print run of LF would not sell out; they’d be banking on readers of your second and third books coming back and buying it after you are better established. So your advance might be in the neighborhood of $2,000 — less, of course, your agent’s 15%.

I heard that gigantic collective gulp out there. Well might you gulp. If only one publisher is interested in a book, there is little incentive for the advance to be larger.

A small advance can be quite a shock to those new to the game, especially if the acquiring editor makes a ton of manuscript revisions a condition of the sale — which is far from uncommon — or with a nonfiction book, where the book is sold not on the finished manuscript, but upon a proposal and the first chapter. Ideally, if you write NF, your agent will fight to try to raise the advance to a point where you could be writing full-time in order to finish the book, but it does not (and I hate to tell you this, but it’s my job) always work out that way.

There is a huge difference, from the writer’s point of view, between being paid a month’s salary to make major revisions and being expected to take an unpaid vacation or use up all of your accrued sick leave to do it. Or, still worse, NOT having benefits and needing to take the time off anyway, or not being able to take any time off at all. How to pay for revision time can be an issue even if the advance is relatively large: even if the sum offered is princely, it’s not as though the author gets the entire amount in a single chunk when the ink is still fresh on the publishing contract.

Was that primal scream I just heard the sound of 500 of you crying, “Wha-?!?”

That’s right: the advance is paid in installments, either in two (one upon contract signing, the second upon the publisher’s acceptance of the manuscript) or three (one upon signing, the second upon acceptance, the third upon publication). To burst even more bubbles, some publishers are notoriously slow in coming up with the dosh; yet another excellent reason to affiliate yourself with an agent, so you have someone fighting hard to extract your money from sometimes recalcitrant publishers’ pockets.

Which continues to be true down the line, incidentally. Royalties are not typically paid to the author as soon as they come in: most publishing contracts specify that they will be paid every six months. So even if your book is selling extremely well, you might not see your share for quite some time.

Have I depressed you into a stupor? Or motivated you to get started on that second book?

The latter, I hope, because the good news is, this is a business where your efforts may be slow to pay off initially, but when they do, they can pay off for decades. Most writers who make a living at it are receiving royalties on multiple past works, not living from advance to advance. So if you’re in it for the long haul, remember, your first book is the Open Sesame to the publishing world, not to the room with the heaps of gold in it.

The Open Sesame is the first necessary step, however, and by being aware that a big advance may not mark the occasion of your first book’s sale, you can concentrate on the achievement itself, rather than the up-front monetary award. I know too many authors who were so intent upon the advance that they were disappointed — disappointed! — at their first publishing offers.

As I’ve said before and shall no doubt say again, if you’re planning a lifetime of writing, it is VITAL to recognize your achievements along the way. Yes, there are overnight successes in this business, but usually, those overnight successes have been toiling for years in obscurity first, either having trouble finding an agent or publisher, or writing books that sold only a few thousand copies each. (Again, you do the math.)

But those small books were successes, too, as was finishing each manuscript, landing an agent, and yes, signing with a publisher for a tiny advance. All should be celebrated, and heartily — because, frankly, are any of us in this ONLY for the money?

That being said, I hope all of us make a lot of money at it.

Tomorrow, I shall wrap up this topic, talking about ways you can find out what first books in your genre are attracting these days and how to talk to a prospective agent about it without sounding greedy and/or unrealistic. Also, I will discuss how agents’ submission strategies can affect the probability of your book’s being the object of competitive bidding, which is the best means to a larger advance.

Keep up the good work!

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you

I don’t normally get all Biblical on you fine people, but on this particular Sunday, I’ve just had some rather startling news: a writer friend of mine, someone whom I have helped until I was blue in the face, has just landed a rather large publishing deal. With a big enough advance that she can take months off her day job to finish the book — since it’s a NF book, she only has a chapter and the proposal written.

She has, in fact, just achieved the writer’s dream. So why am I not dancing and singing and inviting all of us to celebrate her success?

Normally, I would. You know me — usually, I am the first to jump up and down when someone hits a home run in the publishing game. Especially a friend. And even more especially someone I have helped along the way — not only did I spend a month and a half going over her book proposal with her, but I more or less bullied my wonderful agent into first talking with her (when’s the last time a powerful NYC agent gave you twenty minutes of phone time mid-project?) and then into reading her proposal toute suite.

Nor was that all. 100% of my friend’s information about how to write a book proposal came from this very blog and my in-person assistance. Heck, I once edited one of her proposal drafts when I had a fever of 102 — as her friend, not as her hired editor — because she was in a panic about a deadline.

I seriously believed in this writer, in short.

I don’t like to toot my own horn, but considering that my friend had NEVER queried before, these boosts probably took at least 3-5 years off her road to publication, conservatively speaking. I am not exaggerating — she knew so little about how the industry works that she didn’t even know that I had hooked her up with one of the best agents in the world for her type of book until AFTER she had signed — and then only because other writers in her area gasped when she told them who her agent was.

Yes, you read that right: my friend was so new to the process that she hadn’t even bothered to do ANY research about an agent before signing with her. That should make those of you who have been conscientious in your querying faint.

But hey, I try to be as supportive of other writers as I can; I’ve been working hard to be happy for her, even though, strictly speaking, she hasn’t paid her dues. She’s a good writer, and a lot of people forget in the early stages of the process that kind authors like me who are willing to help those earlier on are not simply public utilities provided by the universe for their assistance, but human beings who might conceivably like to be thanked every once in awhile.

Okay, so maybe it was a little overly-trusting of me to teach someone I had known less than a year to make Mediterranean recipes that have been in my family for generations (had I mentioned she was writing a food memoir?). Perhaps it was overly-tolerant to let someone who really didn’t want to get published any more than any of the other writers I knew hijack what was supposed to be my Christmas vacation to teach her how to do a book proposal. But honestly, there was really no graceful way I could whack her over the head and say, “Um, would you mind learning enough about the business to be grateful for what you HAVEN’T had to go through?”

So I held my tongue, even when she started speaking about parts of the book that had been my suggestions as her own unaided ideas. Even when she implied to her blog readers (she’s a fairly successful blogger) that she had gotten her agent through a magical process of networking set up by the universe, apparently without any individual human being having made any exceptional effort on her behalf. (It made me feel like a telephone operator, not a friend.) Okay, I put my foot down when she started stealing my recipes (and my godmother’s, while she was at it) for her book, but other than that, I just was supportive and waited for more experience in the business to teach her that it’s a bad idea not to give credit where credit is due.

Then her book garnered offers from two major publishing houses — and she didn’t even bother to pick up the phone or drop me an e-mail to let me know.

I had served my purpose, I guess. The only reason I found out that she had sold the book at all was that I had sent her an e-mail about something else. Yes, dear readers, I honestly did find out about her first book sale as an, “oh, by the way.” After she had informed other friends, evidently. As nearly as I can tell, I was pretty much the last in her circle of acquaintance to know — after I had given her such a boost in her career that from the beginning of the proposal-writing process to book deal was 10 months.

Yes, you read that correctly.

I don’t know how much the publisher is giving her. I am not going to ask. I would rather not know to the penny how much my friendship is worth.

I am writing about this not just to vent (although that’s feeling pretty good, too, of course), but as a double-sided cautionary tale — no, make that triple-sided. First, since publishing is a business that thrives on personal connections and writers believing in one another, it is — as I expect I have pointed out before — an environment where we’re all better off if we are eager to help other writers.

If I did not believe that we all have an ethical obligation to help and a need to be helped, I certainly would not devote so much time to this blog. I genuinely hope that the advice I give here will help you succeed, and that as success builds upon success, you will help others in your turn.

Unfortunately, there are people who don’t understand that generosity should be reciprocal; writers like my former friend, who will grasp at any connection they can to clamber more quickly up the proverbial ladder to success, are not all that rare, alas. Do bear this in mind the next time you meet an established writer and ask for advice or a recommendation: that hesitation you see will be a direct result of having been used before.

The unappreciative make it harder for everyone else.

Second, it is very, very common for those of us with good agents to be asked by writers we barely know to show material to our agents, to lobby for representation. This is a more substantial favor than most aspiring writers realize: most of us will NEVER ask such a large favor of our agents without reading the manuscript in question first, at least in part, so the request generally entails investing a fair amount of our time. And since a well-known writer might get four or five of these requests at any given writers’ conference, that’s a substantial charitable donation to the arts.

Why must we read it first? Well, if the requesting writer turns out NOT to be very talented, it will make it significantly harder for us to make similar referrals in future. If the requester is talented but turns out to be hard to work with or just a jerk, that will necessarily reflect badly upon us, too.

Which is why it is considered very, very rude within the industry to walk up to someone you’ve never met before and hand him a manuscript. No matter who he is. If you want to enjoy a good reputation, NEVER force a ream of paper upon someone who hasn’t asked for it.

Pitch as often as you like, but don’t penalize busy people for being too polite to say no. (Oh, yes, sometimes they will take the manuscript — but the ones that do are usually authors new to the game who are afraid that they’ll get a reputation for being mean if they do not say yes to all comers. It’s really not fair to take advantage of that fear: if your first book had just come out, and you were promoting it while still working your day job, wouldn’t you resent being handed 500 pages by a total stranger?)

Third, don’t leave all of your gratitude to grace the acknowledgments of your first published book. If people are kind enough to help you now, express gratitude now — and no, just saying, “Gee, thanks” is not always sufficient for a major favor. For heaven’s sake, send flowers every once in awhile.

And remember, no one in this business (or any other, for that matter, outside the clergy) is under any obligation to do favors for people they don’t know. Bear in mind that you ARE in fact asking a personal favor if you ask for advice or assistance, a time-consuming, genuine drain upon a generous person’s limited time. Please don’t treat any author, agent, editor, or writing teacher’s having been nice to you once as an invitation for further imposition.

Trust me, you don’t want to be the person about whom someone in the industry says, “Wow, I should have said no three favors ago.”

Above all, try to place yourself in the shoes of the person you want to help you. Treat them as you would like to be treated — because, in the long term, being considerate can only help you in this business. Not only does this make abundant ethical sense, but this is a business where people have long, long memories: it is certainly not unheard-of for an act of over-eager imposition to catch up with its author years later.

As for my friend, well, bless her for landing the book contract. I’m glad she’s making money for our mutual agent, and I hope her book is very, very successful; as I said, she’s a good writer. I even sincerely hope that she becomes a major writing star. And I wish for her the best gift of all: that she will come to realize that in this industry, as in life, other people don’t just exist to bring her benefits. In a generous universe, we all need to help one another.

There endeth today’s lesson. Keep up the good work, and be kind to one another.

The great advance mystery

Okay, I didn’t want to leave bad feelings hanging in the air, so I’m posting for a second time today. I hate not feeling upbeat about the publication process, even for a few hours. Onward and upward, as I always like to say.

Thank goodness, then, that intrepid reader Jude wrote in this weekend to ask the burning question on everyone’s mind: “How much does a first book usually garner in way of an advance?” I was shocked — SHOCKED, I tell you — to realize I had NEVER done a post on the subject. So thank you, Jude, for reminding me to do it.

We’ve all heard the stories, haven’t we, of the struggling author plucked from obscurity by the sale of that first book? How Stephen King misheard how many digits were in the advance for CARRIE when his agent called to tell him about it — and then dropped the phone when he finally understood how much money was involved? How Jean Auel’s THE CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR, garnered what was at the time the highest amount ever commanded by a first novel at auction? How occasionally literary novels wow ‘em so much at Farrar, Strauss that the advances run into six figures?

And on a more modest level, how, referring to my last blog, authors get large enough advances to take extended leaves of absence from their day jobs in order to write and revise?

Before I launch into a description of how the average book’s experience is different from these, let me ask a few questions to those of you new to dealing with the publishing industry: are you sitting down? With a cool drink in your hand, and perhaps a teddy bear to clutch? Have you taken any necessary medication to ward off heart attack or stroke?

If the answer to all of these questions is yes, let’s back up a little and define our terms, so we can discuss the first-time author’s advance productively.

For those of you new to the biz, it’s called an advance because it is an up-front payment of the author’s future royalties, a percentage of the cover price of the book. Essentially, the amount of the advance is the publishing house’s very conservative estimate of how many copies they expect to move. Why conservative? Because if your book does not sell as well as they think, you don’t have to pay back the difference.

Sort of like THE PRODUCERS, isn’t it? An author could conceivably make more money on a heavily-hyped failure — defined by the industry as a book that was expected to sell 100,000 copies but only sold 10,000 — than on a sleeper that was originally expected to sell 3,000 but actually sold 10,000. What a world!

Actually, that doesn’t happen all that often, since (a) a large advance usually means that the publisher will invest more resources in promoting the book ,and (b) the advance calculations are ALWAYS intended to fall on the short side, so the publisher will not be out of pocket much.

How do they calculate it, you ask? Well, it’s sort of as if your parents sat you down a year before your wedding and said, “Here’s what we expect the cash value of your wedding presents to be. If you will sign the rights to any future presents over to us, we will pay for the wedding — gown, invitations, food, everything — and pay you, say, 7% of the cash value of the first 50 gifts, 10% of the second 50 gifts, and 12% for gifts #101 on. We will give you now, at this very moment, a check for 2% of what we think the ultimate cash value of all of your gifts will be, in return for signing our contract. We’ll pay you the rest of your percentage after the gifts have rolled in. Of course, if you would prefer to pay for the wedding all by yourself, you don’t have to agree to this, but we can afford to throw you a much, much bigger wedding than you can possibly throw for yourself — with invitations sent out to thousands of people on your behalf — which may ultimately translate into many more presents.”

Welcome to the world of publishing. A heck of a lot happens before the author gets to toss that bouquet around.

Tomorrow, I shall go into why it actually is good for you to be aware of the norms of the industry, and how you can go about making yourself a savvier hoper. The more you know, the better you can work the system, and the more of a joy you will be to the agent of your dreams!

Onward and upward, everybody. And keep up the good work.

Characters who think, part III

For the last couple of days, I have been addressing the issue of how to integrate your characters’ thoughts into the narrative. As usual when there’s not a hard-and-fast rule, I found I had a lot to say on the subject. Yesterday, I discussed several different common methods of indicating thought, means both more and less graceful than just saying that a character is thinking:

I want to go to the prom more than I want to live to be twenty-five, Janie thought.

Today, I want to talk about playing with these methods to reflect both your personal writing rhythms and your writing goals in particular instances. How you choose to present thought in a given scene should be reflective of the action and tone of the scene, as well as your personal writing preferences. Sometimes, the extra beat allowed by saying “he thought” works better in the scene than a more direct method; some methods allow you to show different sorts of characterization than others.

To help you decide, let me show you the same scenelet done several ways. (Please bear in mind that I haven’t figured out how to make the blog show italics, so italicized phrases are indicated by asterisks at the *beginning and end* of the phrase.) First, let’s look at a fairly traditional way to handle thoughts in a group scene in a third person narrative, maintaining narrative perspective while choosing one person’s thoughts to highlight:

Dr. Butler tucked his stethoscope into his Tattersall vest. “I’m afraid there will be no prom for you tonight, Gertie.”

Gertrude was furious. Chicken pox, smicken pox, she thought, seething. It was perfectly obvious to her that her sly little sister had been at her while she slept with a permanent red marking pen. *Little vixen. I’ll boil your guts for soup.* “But I’m feeling fine!”

Wilma pushed her back down on the bed with a firm motherly hand. “Now, sweetie, don’t jump around while you’re feverish. I’ll dig your old mittens out of the attic, so you can’t scratch yourself into a bloody mess.”

This works fine with a variety of styles, doesn’t it? Not even the most virulent of point-of-view Nazis would have a problem with this. But what about in a tighter third-person narrative, one where the narrative voice is more closely aligned with the protagonist? Let’s look at this scene again, with the perspective tightened onto Gertrude:

Boring old Dr. Butler tucked his stethoscope into that stupid Tattersall vest his wife never seemed to be able to pry off his decrepit corpse. What, were those stripes painted onto his torso? “I’m afraid there will be no prom for you tonight, Gertie.”

Chicken pox, smicken pox. That little beast Janie must have been at me with a permanent red marking pen while I napped. Yeah, right, Mom: I needed that extra fifteen minutes of beauty sleep. “But I’m feeling fine!”

Wilma shoved her back down on the bed with a hand that must have been soaking in an ice bucket for an hour. Predictably, she came down on the side of caution. Big surprise. “Now, sweetie, don’t jump around while you’re feverish. I’ll dig your old mittens out of the attic, so you can’t scratch yourself into a bloody mess.”

Allows for a bit more character development, doesn’t it? If you have a very opinionated protagonist, this method can give you a lot of freedom to bring out character richness through perceptual details, without the tedium of identifying the protagonist as the instigator of these ideas each and every time.

Do be aware, though, that this method can get a bit confusing if you have chosen to write a scene from an omniscient narrator’s perspective, showing the reader several different characters’ thoughts within the same scene. In that case, you will need to label who is thinking what, for clarity:

Oh, no, Dr. Butler thought, time to bring on another spoiled pretty girl tantrum. “I’m afraid there will be no prom for you tonight, Gertie.”

Get your hands off me, you filthy old trout, Gertrude seethed. Chicken pox, smicken pox. “But I’m feeling fine!”

Wilma pushed her back down onto the bed: Mother of God, the girl’s flesh was burning up. “Now, sweetie, don’t jump around while you’re feverish.” She frowned the livid scratch welts on Gertrude’s arms. *I would have killed for skin as smooth as hers at that age, and all she can think to do is hack at it?* I’ll dig your old mittens out of the attic, so you can’t scratch yourself into a bloody mess.”

Janie clutched Gertrude’s taffeta dress against her body, watching herself surreptitiously in the full-length mirror on her sister’s closet door. How like Mom not to notice the hot water bottle under Gertie’s pillow. How like Gertie not to notice that her wake-up coffee had been loaded with ipecac. It was amazing, how little grown-ups paid attention. “Seems a shame to waste such a beautiful dress. Shall I go downstairs and tell Tad you’re not going?”

As you may see, a number of different methods of identifying character thought can be made to work well. Here, without overuse of the verb to think, the reader can enjoy the humor inherent in the unspoken battle of perspectives. However, it requires constant vigilance on the part of the writer to make sure that we always know who is thinking what. Even a single thought left floating in the air can throw off the rhythm of the whole scene.

That’s a long answer to your question, Cathryn, but I hope it helps. It’s less a issue of finding a rule to apply in every instance, I think, than figuring out what will serve your character and scene — as well your narrative — best in the moment.

Thanks for the thought-provoking question. And everybody, please: when you are puzzled by a technical issue, or curious about the business side of the industry, or anything in between, feel free to post a comment or question about it, and I’ll take a swing at addressing it. Chances are, you’re not the only reader who wants to know.

Keep up the good work!

Characters who think, part II

Yesterday, I was talking about the spirited debate amongst givers of writing advice regarding how to designate characters’ thoughts — other than simply saying,

Is this what monkey brain casserole is supposed to taste like? Sharon wondered.

Today, as promised, I shall give you an overview of the different schools of thought on the subject. To set the ground rules firmly in advance: for the purposes of this discussion, I am assuming that we are talking about a third-person narrative with a strongly defined protagonist. Why? Well, in other flavors of narrative choice, the strictures of the narrative point of view tend to dictate how and when the reader is shown a character’s thoughts.

Too technical? Allow me to clarify. In a first-person narrative, the only thoughts we could possibly be hearing are the protagonist’s, right? So there is no reason to present them in any special way: they are simply a part of the narrative point of view.

Ditto with a multiple first-person perspective, or a multiple protagonist tight third person. In these cases, there are structural signposts for the reader about whose perspective is whose — the most popular, of course, being the simple act of devoting one chapter to each perspective à la THE POISONWOOD BIBLE — so again, the form dictates whose thoughts will appear when. The thoughts are presented in exactly the same way as the rest of the facts retailed by the narrative.

However, most fiction is written in the third person, so let’s concentrate on that. When the narrative voice is distinct from that of the protagonist’s mind, it is necessary to differentiate on the page between what the character is thinking and what is the author’s commentary on the situation at hand. Often, the problem is that the writer wants to keep the thoughts in the first person, to be literal about them, but it’s not the only option the writer has. Here are a few ways it can be done.

First, there is the italicization method. With this stylistic choice, all of the protagonist’s thoughts are italicized, to differentiate them from speech. The thoughts, of course, are all in the first person and present tense. In practice, Method #1 will look something like this — or, wait a minute, I can’t do italics in blog format. So you’re going to have to use your imagination: the bits within asterisks are italicized.

*I shouldn’t be doing this.* With shaking hands, Brenda reached for the glass in front of her. *What would my mother say? Or Aunt Grizelda?*

Basically, these italicized thoughts operate as asides to the overall narrative. Sometimes, these asides are thrown into the middle of narrative sentences — *Oh, God, are my readers going to like this format?* — to heighten dramatic tension.

The primary advantage of this method is obvious: there is never any question about what is thought and what is speech. (In case you were not aware of it, placing a reader’s thoughts within quotation marks is fairly universally frowned upon. Just because Jane Austen does it doesn’t mean you should.) This can be a big plus, if your protagonist is given to thoughts that are diametrically opposed to what she is saying:

*That muumuu’s pattern is giving me a migraine.* “I love your dress,” Tanya said.

However, as I mentioned yesterday, there is a sizable contingent of the editorial community — that’s the fine folks working at publishing houses, in addition to freelancers like me — that believes this is sort of a cheap writing trick. This view is especially common amongst editors who frown on typeface tricks in general. They like the text, only the text, and all of the text, please.

A second popular method is to reserve the italics for the especially vehement thoughts, simply stating that the other, more pedestrian things floating around your protagonist’s head are indeed thoughts:

What a lucky break, Janie thought dreamily as Tad drove them down the boulevard in his red Astin-Martin roadster. Who’d have thought that her sister’s getting chicken pox would mean that Janie would get to go to the prom as a freshman? Here she was, sitting next to the most popular boy in school, a spray of green gladioli firmly pinned to where the strap would have been on a less formal dress, and — *watch out for that horse in the road!*

Now, I was a little tricky here, because this example contains Methods #3 and #4 as well. In the first sentence, I have used Method #3, taking the very direct route of just telling the what Janie is thinking and that she is thinking it. This is useful when the actual phraseology of the thought deserves emphasis. However, a lot of professional readers consider it a bit clumsy if used too often, just as using a tag line (he said, she cried out) every time a character utters a sound is considered a bit ham-handed by the pros. Method #3 is best used sparingly, for this reason.

In Method #4, later in the paragraph, I have moved the content of Janie’s thoughts into third-person narration, providing a little analytical distance from her daydreaming mood. (Because, really, who would be able to describe her own situation accurately while being driven to the prom by a dreambarge like Tad?) This can be very effective when the narrative voice is very distinct from the character’s; it’s a great choice for displaying irony to its utmost advantage, for instance.

Method #5 is my personal favorite, because it allows such tight pacing: in an ultra-tight third-person narrative, where the narration is letting the reader in on the protagonist’s thoughts, bodily sensations, and perceptions as the primary lens through which the story is told, the protagonist’s thoughts are integrated seamlessly into the text. In this method, whenever it is apparent whose perspective the reader is seeing, there is no need to identify the thoughts as such:

There’s no such thing as a ghost. Repeat it a hundred times, and it might start to feel true. Stacey’s skin rippled slightly over the back of her neck: a passing breeze from that window behind her that was definitely closed the last time she checked, certainly. It would be stupid to turn around and double-check it. Yes, the window must just be in sore need of refreshed weatherstripping. There is no such thing as a ghost, silly. There’s no such thing as a ghost.

Perfectly clear that Stacey is thinking, isn’t it? Yet not once does the narrative either say so or have to use typeface or punctuation tricks to show it.

Tomorrow, I shall discuss the various ways that each of these methods can help you establish the mood and point of view of a scene. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Characters who think

Excellent and insightful reader Cathryn wrote in last week to ask: “For any manuscript submission, can you give us the rule for indicating character thought? I have found ‘italicize only foreign words’ and ‘ underline anything that needs italicizing.’ Help!”

Cathryn, a lot of readers struggle with this — and I wish that the standard style manuals would just come on out and say that standard format for manuscripts is NOT identical to standard format for print, and that rules that governed the printed word during the days when the typewriter was the dominant medium are not all still true. I think not saying these things confuses aspiring writers needlessly.

To deal with the more straightforward issues first: in standard manuscript format — which, lest we forget, is NOT the same format as ends up on the published page — words you want italicized should be, well, italicized. Underlining them to indicate that you want them italicized was what you did when you were working with a typewriter: in most models, italics were not available. Like the double dash to indicate that the author really MEANT a dash and not a hyphen, these old rules were originally signals to the typesetter for how to set up the final print run.

For all of the insiders’ talk about being cutting-edge, this is sometimes a pretty archaic business.

A similar logic governs the italicization of foreign words — that would be words that are not proper nouns, incidentally. Names, as my high school French teacher liked to remind us between salty reminiscences of her college exchange year in Paris, do not translate. Foreign words are italicized to alert the typesetter (and now, the agent and editor) that those odd spellings are not typos, but legitimate words ze foreen tungzze.

However, not everything in writing is governed by a rule. I’m not surprised you had difficulty tracking down a hard-and-fast rule governing characters’ thoughts, Cathryn: there isn’t one. How you choose to handle it is a matter of personal style.

Now, there are PLENTY of writing teachers out there who will disagree with me, upstanding souls who will insist that there is one, and only one, right way to do ANYTHING in a text. Like the dreaded Point-of-View Nazis, these critics will jump all over innocent manuscript pages, ripping them to shreds because the writer has not elected to use the critics’ favorite method.

The simple fact is, though, for every soi-disant expert who will insist that characters’ thoughts must MUST be italicized every time without fail, there are two who will aver with equal vehemence that italicizing a character’s thoughts is a rookie’s trick, only used by writers who do not have sufficient skills to integrate their characters’ ruminations more naturally into the text.

To render the issue even more confusing, both schools of thought have their advocates amongst agents and editors. Both will tell you with absolute confidence, you will be delighted to hear, that the other side is absurd, amateurish, and wrong.

“In all matters of opinion,” Mark Twain teaches us, “our adversaries are insane.”

But the vitriol with which rule-mongers push their own stylistic choices makes them SOUND so right, doesn’t it? At times, it can be very similar to the way people speak in the fitness industry. As anyone who has paid attention to diet and exercise trends over a couple of decades can tell you, what the so-called experts claim will work changes radically and often. The same doctors who were insisting that high fat, low carbs were the answer to every dieter’s prayer were claiming five years before that complex carbs were the way of the gods. Something that looked suspiciously like Atkins was very popular in the early 1970s. There was a period when heavy exercisers were told not to drink much water while they were perspiring, and another where dehydration spelled doom.

Yet, amazingly enough, no matter content of the advice, or whether the advisor had been telling you the exact opposite the day before, the experts always use exactly the same tone, don’t they? You know the tone I mean, surely — that “any fool should know THAT” tone so favored by doctors with scant bedside manners. It is not a tone that invites disagreement, or even rational discussion — its intent is to impress the hearer with the speaker’s authority.

Why? Because they say so.

Since there are so many different schools of thought on the thought issue, I am a trifle reluctant to state my own opinions on the subject, lest they be taken as prescriptions. Instead, I am going to go through the most popular methods of showing character thought, and talk about the pros and cons of each.

But that is a task for tomorrow. In the meantime, keep up the good work!