The scariest Halloween ever: submitting your first page to a bunch of agents for critique

As some of you know, I attended a couple of literary contests this month, partially as teacher, partially as seeker of continuing education (which all writers, published or not, should do from time to time, to keep those skills fresh and project-ready), and partially as observer for you fine people. Bar none, there was one panel that generated more buzz than all of the other classes at both conferences put together: the infamous Idol panel at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference.

Why infamous? Well, picture this, my friends: brave souls submit (anonymously) the first page of their novels, which are read out loud by a perfectly wonderful reader (the excellent Jack Whyte, who could make the telephone book sound gripping). During the readings, as the uncredited writers quake in their chairs, the three agents on the panel shout out “STOP!” at the point where they would cease reading the submission.

It’s definitely not for the faint of heart.

This event, which actually resembled The Gong Show more than American Idol, went on for a trifle over two hours. Since last year was a real bloodbath, the agents were making an effort to be nicer this year; I have it on the best possible authority that there was some behind-the-scenes squabbling about who would get to be the Paula Abdul equivalent, the one who would find nice things to say. With that mindset, it was probably inevitable that the agents were much, much kinder: this time around, perhaps half a dozen submissions were read all the way to the end of the page.

Brutal, true, but what better way to see just how quickly agents (and their screeners) make up their minds about a submission? Most aspiring writers don’t want to believe that work is rejected on partial readings, but here, there was no doubt about how and why these agents were moving submissions into the reject pile within a paragraph or two. And, lest we forget, since the submissions were being read out loud, none of these rejections could possibly be for reasons of poor formatting, spelling problems, etc. This was purely on storytelling alone.

And this at a conference thrown by the legendarily courteous Canadians.

The shock of realization for most of the attendees, as you might well imagine, was considerable. Not only for the brave souls who had submitted their work — and many kudos to them for such stoic courage — but for everyone else as well, at such tangible proof that getting a submission accepted was every bit as hard as it is rumored to be. You could feel the air in the room change palpably as the writers there got it at last: the quick rejections are not really born of meanness, but the fact that they see so very many manuscripts that are so very similar.

The repetition across manuscripts was, to put it mildly, rather an astonishment to a lot of the writers in the room, but if you’ve been paying attention to my last few days’ worth of posts, it should not come as much of a surprise to you. The fact is, the standard stylistic advice has lead to a handful of pretty standard openings — and after even just a half an hour’s worth, it became very apparent just how stultifying all that similarity can be. Originality leapt out at the numbed crowd like a flame from Godzilla’s mouth, often startling everyone into spontaneous applause.

If that was true for single pages read aloud by a superlative reader, think how much greater both the cumulative effect of boredom and the pleasing electrification of something honestly different would be to an agency screener who reads hundreds of first pages in a day.

And that’s without the addition of the possibility that the screener is having a bad day. As I believe I may have suggested ONCE OR TWICE before, a writer simply can’t assume a charitable reading for a submission. To get a realistic sense of how your work will fare on an agent’s desk, you really do have to look at that opening with the assumption that the agent will be looking for reasons NOT to read the rest of the submission, not reasons to read on.

Naturally, this looking-to-dislike attitude does not continue for the entire reading, of course. If an agent decides to keep reading, eventually, she does start looking for reasons to like it. How far in, you ask? Well, I’m not sure that there is a common breaking point, but the last agent I asked, a very good one who likes writers a lot, said that he is routinely looking for reasons to reject a manuscript up to page 175. After that, he says, he begins reading for reasons to sign the author.

Ouch.

Since the Idol session really was a crash course in reasons submissions get rejected — on the first page! — I decided that the best way to serve my readers during it was to write down every general reason that any of the three agents (Rachel Vater of Lowenstein-Yost, Nadia Cornier of Firebrand Literary, and Daniel Lazar of Writers House) gave for continuing or not continuing with a submission. In the days to come, I shall talk about the specifics in some detail, but for today, I’m simply going to list the reasons. The resulting list is long, but well worth reading.

The first thing I would ask you to note: the length of the This is Why I Would Read Beyond the Page 1 list vs. the This is Why I Would Not Read Farther. The second thing to note, please, is that ALL of these comments were based upon A SINGLE PAGE, and often on the first few lines or first paragraph alone. Their judgments are stunningly quick.

The third thing — and the last for today, because I don’t want to scare you into conniption fits, even if it is Halloween — is that since the agents were hearing these submitted first pages, rather than reading them, that ALL of these are matters of style, rather than matters of presentation.

This is Why I Would Not Read Farther:
1. An opening image that did not work.
2. Opened with rhetorical question(s).
3. The first line is about setting, not about story.
4. The first line’s hook did not work, because it was not tied to the plot or the conflict of the opening scene.
5. The first line’s hook did not work, because it was an image, rather than something that was happening in the scene.
6. Took too long for anything to happen (a critique, incidentally, leveled several times at a submission after only the first paragraph had been read); the story taking time to warm up.
7. Not enough happens on page 1
8. The opening sounded like an ad for the book or a recap of the pitch, rather than getting the reader into the story.
9. The opening contained the phrases, “My name is…” and/or “My age is…”
10. The opening contained the phrase, “This can’t be happening.”
11. The opening contained the phrase or implication, “And then I woke up.”
12. The opening paragraph contained too much jargon.
13. The opening contained one or more clichéd phrases.
14. The opening contained one or more clichéd pieces of material. (The most I counted in a single submission was 5.) Specifically singled out: a character’s long red or blonde hair.
15. The opening had a character do something that characters only do in books, not real life. Specifically singled out: a character who shakes her head to clear an image, “he shook his head to clear the cobwebs.”
16. The opening has the protagonist respond to an unnamed thing (e.g., something dead in a bathtub, something horrible in a closet, someone on the other side of her peephole…) for more than a paragraph without naming it, creating false suspense.
17. The characters talk about something (a photo, a person, the kitchen table) for more than a line without describing it, creating false suspense.
18. The unnamed protagonist cliché: The woman ran through the forest…
19. An unnamed character (usually “she”) is wandering around the opening scene.
20. Non-organic suspense, created by some salient fact being kept from the reader for a long time (and remember, on the first page, a paragraph is a long time).
21. The character spots him/herself in a mirror, in order to provide an excuse for a physical description.
22. The first paragraph was straight narration, rather than action.
23. Too much physical description in the opening paragraph, rather than action or conflict.
24. Opening spent too much time on environment, and not enough on character.
25. The first lines were dialogue. (To be fair, only one of the agents, Daniel Lazar, seemed to have a problem with this.)
26. When the first lines are dialogue, the speaker is not identified.
27. The book opened with a flashback, rather than what was going on now.
28. Too many long asides slowed down the action of an otherwise exciting scene.
29. Descriptive asides pulled the reader out of the conflict of the scene.
30. Overuse of dialogue, in the name of realism.
31. Real life incidents are not always believable.
32. Where’s the conflict?
33. Agent can’t identify with the conflict shown.
34. Confusing.
35. The story is not exciting.
36. The story is boring (yes, they did differentiate between this and the one before it.)
37. The story is corny.
38. Repetition on pg. 1 (!)
39. Too many generalities.
40. The character shown is too average.
41. The stakes are not high enough for the characters.
42. The opening scene is too violent (in the example that generated this response, a baby’s brains were bashed out against a tree).
43. Too gross.
44. There is too much violence to children and/or pets.
45. It is unclear whether the narrator is alive or dead.
46. The story is written in the second person, which is hard to maintain.
47. The story is written in the first person plural, which is almost as hard to maintain.
48. The narrator speaks directly to the reader (“I should warn you…”), making the story hyper-aware of itself qua story.
49. The narration is in a kid’s voice that does not come across as age-appropriate.
50. An adult book that has a teenage protagonist in the opening scene is often assumed to be YA.
51. What I call Hollywood narration – when characters tell one another things they already know. (They don’t call it by my term for it, but they don’t like it, either.)
52. The tag lines are more revealing than the dialogue. (The example used: “She squawked.”)
53. The writing switched tenses for no apparent reason.
54. The action is told out of temporal order.
55. Took too many words to tell us what happened.
56. The writing lacks pizzazz.
57. The writing is dull.
58. The writing is awkward.
59. The writing uses too many exclamation points.
60. The writing falls back on common shorthand descriptions. Specifically singled out: “She did not trust herself to speak,” “She didn’t want to look…”
61. Too many analogies per paragraph.
62. The details included were not telling.
63. The writing includes quotes from song lyrics.
64. Overkill to make a point.
65. “Over the top.”
66. “Makes the reader laugh at it, not with it.”
67. “It’s not visceral.”
68. “It’s not atmospheric.”
69. “It’s melodramatic.”
70. “This is tell-y, not showy.”
71. “Why is this written in the present tense?”
72. “It just didn’t work for me.”
73. “It didn’t do anything for me.”
74. “I like this, but I don’t know what to do with it.”

This is Why I Would Read Beyond Page 1:
1. A non-average character in a situation you wouldn’t expect.
2. An action scene that felt like it was happening in real time.
3. The author made the point, then moved on.
4. The scene was emotionally engaging.
5. The voice is strong and easy to relate to.
6. The suspense seemed inherent to the story, not just how it was told.
7. “Good opening line.”
8. ”There was something going on beyond just the surface action.”

And all this, recall, was just from the first page of all of these submissions. Often the first few lines. Seriously, could I have done anything more effective to give you a good Halloween scare?

Tomorrow, I shall start picking apart the hows and whys of these critiques. In the meantime, hand out lots of candy, and keep up the good work!

How to insert the trademark symbol

Since I posted the standard format refresher a couple of weeks ago, I’ve been getting a lot of technical questions about how to do certain things in word processing programs. The header, for instance, or the page number. Since most of these questions have been coming in via e-mail, rather than posted as comments on the blog — a choice which usually indicates the asker’s desire for privacy — I’m beginning to suspect that people are a trifle embarrassed to admit that that they aren’t completely familiar with their word processing programs.

Please don’t be — it isn’t as though these technical matters are something anyone is born knowing. I want this space to be as helpful to aspiring writers as possible, so please do feel free to post questions like this anonymously, if you prefer.

Please do post them as questions on the blog, however, rather than sending them via e-mail, though, so that everyone can have the benefit of the answer. Chances are that if you have been confused about something, so have dozens of other readers, so go ahead and ask. How do I know about the one-to-dozens ratio, you ask? By checking my inbox. It really is substantially more efficient if I can answer the questions for everyone, rather than on a one-on-one basis. Not to mention the distinct possibility that e-mails might be mistaken for spam by my e-mail program. (It’s been going a little nuts with the deletions lately, what with all of those stock offers bombarding us all in recent weeks. And whoever keeps trying to post links to Italian porn sites here, CUT IT OUT.)

Also, if I can answer the questions here, the solutions will be easily found by future askers by pulling up the FORMATTING MANUSCRIPTS list at right. Clever, eh?

On a totally unrelated matter, some psychic little bird told me that the advice to include the trademark symbol™ after trademarked names in submissions may be presenting some of my readers with a technical problem: short of laboriously changing the type to superscript, to hoist those two letter into the air, how does one insert the symbol into the text?

Since the industry runs, with few exceptions, on Microsoft Word, here are a few ways to insert the trademark symbol in that program. The most straightforward way is to go to the INSERT menu and select SYMBOL… The normal text options includes the TM mark.

On a Mac, you can also just press OPTION and the 2 key simultaneously, but I don’t know if that works on a PC. (Anyone? Anyone?) What I do know works on both is to type ™; the Autoformat will change that to the trademark symbol.

I’ve never tried to insert a trademark in Wordperfect, though, so you’re on your own there. Unless some kind soul out there knows, and is willing to share?

The return of the Point-of-View Nazis, part II: let’s see you try that with Jane Austen, buddy

As a follow-up to my series on differentiating between absolute rules of the trade (e.g., double-spaced, single-sided manuscript submissions) and stylistic advice (e.g., ideally, dialogue should be revealing enough that littering the text with adverb-heavy tag lines should be unnecessary), I was discussing Point-of-View Nazis yesterday. I’m eager to move along to my much-anticipated series on what new wisdom I gleaned at the two conferences I attended this month, but POVNs are such a beautiful example of writing advice-givers who apparently do not make the smallest distinction between Thou Shalt Do This dicta and style tips that I wanted to spend today giving you a concrete look at what a difference taking such advice as absolute can do.

For those of you coming to the discussion late, POVNs are those fine folks who go around telling other writers that there are, in effect, only two possibilities for narrative voice: the first person singular and a tight third person singular, where the narration remains rigidly from the point of view of a single actor in the drama, usually the protagonist. Philosophically, I have to admit, I find the idea that these are the only ways to tell a story 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. (Watch a few randomly-chosen days’ worth of Court TV, if you doubt this.) I think that interpretive disagreement is the norm amongst human beings, not the exception.

And the disagreement amongst writing experts on this point tends to support my argument, doesn’t it?

I also believe that there are very, very few people who appear to be exactly the same from the POV of everyone who knows them. Most people act, speak, and even think rather differently around their children than around their adult friends, just as they often have slightly (or even wildly) different personalities at home and at work. If anyone can find me a real, live person who acts exactly the same in front of his three-year-old daughter, his boss’ boss, the President of the United States, and a stripper at a bachelor party, I would be quite surprised.

I would also suggest that either the person in question has serious social adjustment problems (on the order of Forrest Gump’s), or that perhaps the person who THINKS this guy is always the same in every context is lacking in imagination. Or simply doesn’t know the guy very well. My point is, almost nobody can be completely portrayed from only a single point of view — which is why sometimes narratives that permit the protagonist to be seen from the POV of other characters can be most illuminating.

Admittedly, my own experience trying to get a truthful memoir onto shelves near you has undoubtedly sharpened my sense that points of view vary. As some of you know, my memoir has been in press for the last year and a half, held hostage by a (the last I heard) $2 million lawsuit threat. At no point has anyone concerned suggested I was lying about the events in my book: the threatened lawsuit has been purely about whether I have the right to present the story of my family from my point of view, rather than someone else’s – like, say, the people who want the $2 million.

So I have seriously been forced to spend the last year and a half defending the notion that a rather well-known neurotic might have acted differently around his long-term friends than he did around, say, his own seldom-seen children or interviewers he barely knew. Why, the next thing you know, the POVNs huff, writers like me might start implying that people act differently when they’re on drugs than when they’re sober! Or that perhaps celebrities and their press agents do not always tell the absolute truth when promoting their work!

I can only refer you to your own experience interacting with other human beings for the most probable answers to these troubling questions. I only ask — and it’s a little request; it won’t hurt anybody — that those who believe that there is only a single way of looking at any person, situation, or institution occasionally admit the possibility that the whole complex, wonderful world is not reducible to a single point of view, that they would not try to silence those who do not see the world as merely a reflection of their own minds. Or at least that they would not insist that anyone who sees something from a different perspective should be hounded.

Enough about me and my books, however — let’s get back to how POVNs can affect you and yours.

Regardless of your own POV preferences, it’s important that you know that there are people out there who will want to impose their stylistic preferences upon yours, because they turn up with some fair frequency in agencies, as contest judges, as editors, and as critics. They are statistically more likely to be Baby Boomers than Gen Xers or Gen Yers, however, so they are less likely to be agency screeners than in years past. (Being a manuscript screener is generally someone’s first job in the business, not one kept for decades.) Nevertheless, they do turn up, sometimes in agents’ chairs and behind editorial desks, so it’s best to be prepared for them.

To make it clear what the stakes are, I would guess that roughly 2/3rds of fiction submissions are written in the third person, so obviously, the question of POV choice in third person narrative is thrust upon agents and editors on a practically hourly basis. Of those 2/3rds, a hefty majority will include more than one POV in the narration. So, really, a POVN reader has a significant advantage in rejecting the day’s submissions speedily: if you were willing to stop reading the moment a second character’s impressions show up, you could reject most manuscripts before the middle of page 2.

This is not to say that you should abandon multiple perspectives if you love them, or that you should systematically strip your submissions of any insights but the protagonist’s, out of fear of rejection by a POVN. Again, personally, I don’t believe that a single POV does most characters or situations justice, so I tend toward a broader narrative view, particularly for comedy.

Call me wacky, but if I want to hear a single POV, I reach for a first-person narrative.

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 put it in terms of my posts of the last few days, the POVN wants all of us to regard his preferences as hard-and-fast rules.

When your work is attacked with phrases like, “well, it’s more or less impossible to pull off an omniscient narrator,” resist the temptation to throw the entire Great Books fiction shelf at the speaker. Recognize that you are dealing with a POVN, and take everything he says with a gargantuan grain of salt. You can’t convince a true believer; you’ll only wear yourself out with trying. Cut your losses and move on.

But before you do, consider the possibility that the critique may be useful to apply to your manuscript of the moment.

You’re surprised I said that, aren’t you? But really, POVNs do occasionally have a point: too-frequent POV switches can be perplexing for the reader to follow. One of the more common first-novel megaproblems is POV switching in mid-paragraph, or even mid-sentence — and therein lies the POVN’s primary justification for dismissing all multiple POV narratives as poor writing.

But heck, that’s what the RETURN key is for, to clear up that sort of confusion, isn’t it? When in doubt, give each perspective its own paragraph. It won’t protect you from a POVN’s rage, of course, but it will make your scene easier for your reader to follow.

Let’s take a look at how the POVN works in practice, so you may recognize him in the wild, to decide whether you want to join forces with him or not. Suppose that Jane Austen took the following paragraph from PRIDE AND PREJUDICE to her writing group, which contained a cabal of POVNs:

“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.”

As an editor, I might quibble about Austen’s use of semicolons here, but it’s not too difficult to follow whose perspective is whose, right? Yet, as the POVNs in her group would be the first to point out, there are actually THREE perspectives rolling around promiscuously together 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)

Now, a POVN in our Jane’s writing group would undoubtedly urge her to pick a single perspective (Elizabeth’s would be the logical choice) 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 — or, more commonly, send out an editorial memo saying that he MIGHT consider buying the book, but only if Jane revised it so all of the action is seen from Elizabeth’s perspective only).

Let’s say that Jane was cowed by the vehemence of the POVNs and scuttled home to take their advice. The resultant passage would necessarily be significantly different from her original intention. It would probably ending up reading rather like this:

“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.”

My gut feeling is that Jane would not be particularly satisfied with this revision, both because some characterization has been lost and for plotting reasons. At this rate, the reader is not going to know how Darcy feels until Elizabeth learns it herself, many chapters later. This would, of course, mean that his proposal would be a greater plot twist, coming out of the blue, but the reader would also end up with absolutely no idea how, beginning from initial indifference, Elizabeth charms began to steal over Darcy, over his own objections. Which would mean, really, that the title of the book should be changed to just PREJUDICE.

(I’m assuming for the purposes of my argument here that every single one of you has read PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, which is perhaps not a warranted assumption. However, if you are even vaguely interested in writing humorous scenes in the English language, you really should do yourself a favor and check Aunt Jane’s work out of the library.)

Yet if I may pull up a chair in Jane’s writing group for a moment (oh, like this whole exercise wouldn’t require time travel), allow me to point out 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 once again that you should examine writerly truisms very carefully before you accept them as invariably true in every case. Grab that gift horse and stare into its mouth for a good, long while. 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!

A major milestone, and the return of the Point-of-View Nazis!

I have two reasons to celebrate today: first, my major novel revision is in the mail, on the way to my agent (and they said a year’s worth of revisions couldn’t be done in a month!); second, this is my hundredth post on my new blog site! Hooray!

For those of you new to my ramblings, this might be a touch confusing, seeing the 1600 pages or so (figured in standard format, naturally) of material on this website. Until mid-July, I was the Resident Writer for the Pacific Northwest Writers’ Association, dispensing advice on their website, before I struck out on my own. So while there are obviously more than hundred posts archived here, only the last hundred were written for here.

I’d like to ask two favors to mark the occasion. First, please do tell your writing friends that this blog is here; since it switched locations rather suddenly last summer (and the PNWA’s new Resident Writer would not allow me to post a goodbye message, or even my new URL, for quite some time), some readers got lost in the transition.

Second, if you have been reading for a while but have never posted a comment, please consider chiming in. Start a discussion; join a discussion; ask a question. The more I know about my readers, the better I can tailor the blog to fit their needs. I know a LOT of folks in the industry; if I don’t know the answer to your question, chances are good that I know someone who does.

Back to the day’s business. For the last few posts, I have been tossing around the term “Point-of-View Nazi” in passing, while discussing the differences between what is a hard-and-fast rule in the industry (like, say, 1-inch margins all around) and what is a matter of style (like, for instance, whether to put character thought in italics). As I’ve mentioned over the last few days, not every writing guru makes a sharp distinction between the two. Nor, typically, do agents and editors speaking at conferences make a point of telling listeners which of their rejection criteria are widely-regarded bloopers, and which merely their personal pet peeves.

And that can be very confusing to those on the querying trail, can’t it? We’re all left wondering if that agent’s diatribe about how swiftly she rejects submissions written in the first person plural means that:

(a) every agent in the industry feels the same way,
(b) the agent in question just tends to market to editors who prefer another type of narrative voice,
(c) the agent in question was in an MFA program with some really annoying writer who insisted upon writing in NOTHING but the second person plural, and she never wants to hear it again as long as she lives,
(d) a wandering Greek chorus attacked the agent when she was a child, so first person plural brings back all kinds of bad memories, or
(e) the agent just didn’t like THE VIRGIN SUICIDES much.

Unfortunately for us all, every single one of these options is equally plausible. The moral: choose your dogmas with care.

Which brings me to the garden variety Point-of-View Nazi, a fellow with whom long-time readers of the blog are already familiar. Typically, he’s the most strident voice in any “only an amateur would do THAT” crowd.

No, I did not invent the term: it’s fairly widely-known industry jargon for any self-styled writing expert who will tell you — and anyone else who will listen — that his particular stylistic preferences are the only ones any sane writer could possibly pick. And, contrary to the experience of anyone who has actually spent any time leafing through volumes in the fiction section of a relatively well-stocked bookstore, a Point-of-View Nazis will often, like the disparager of italics, insist that any manuscript that does not follow his dictates has the proverbial snowball in Hades’ chances of being published.

Sound familiar yet?

Allow me to define the term more specifically. 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 (usually his) 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, of course, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this style of narration, inherently: 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. Since no one else’s POV is depicted, it can render the later actions of other characters more surprising to the reader, which can in turn help build suspense and conflict on the page.

It is not, however, the only third-person narrative possibility — a fact that drives your garden-variety POVN mad with rage.

All of us have our own particular favorite narrative styles, naturally, 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.

Just ask one — trust me, he would be more than glad to tell you so. He would like multiple-consciousness narratives to be wiped from the face of the earth with all possible speed. 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, terrible writing. It should be stamped out, by statute, if necessary. Feh.

So much for most of the fiction currently being published in the English-speaking world, I guess. And 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 (and therefore bad) by writing teachers. “Downright Dickensian,” many a POVN has cried, covering her students’ first forays into fiction with gallons of red ink. “How can we possibly follow the story, with so many characters’ perspectives?”

I should stop here and make a distinction between the POVN and a good reader or editor who objects when a narrative that HAS been sticking to a single POV suddenly wanders into another character’s head. That can be genuinely confusing to any reader, regardless of preexisting belief systems. If a book has been looking out of the protagonist’s eyes, so to speak, for 147 pages, it is a little jarring for the reader to be abruptly introduced to another character’s thoughts. The implication is that the protagonist has magically become psychic, and should be benefiting, along with the reader, from hearing the thoughts of others.

A POVN, however, is not merely the kind of well-meaning soul who will point out this type of slip to aspiring writers. No, a POVN will jump upon ANY instance of multiple perspective, castigating it as inherently unacceptable, even unpublishable writing — and will rather smugly inform the author that she has broken an ironclad writing rule by doing it. They believe it, too. 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.

Take that, CATCH-22.

Pop quiz, all of you who have read my posts over the last few days: is the POVN’s view on perspective a matter of format, and thus a rule to be observed religiously, or is this a matter of style, to be weighed over thoughtfully while deciding what narrative voice would tell your story best? (Hint: the POVNs will tell you it is one, and I will tell you it is the other.)

Personally, I think the focus of the narrative voice is a stylistic choice, up to the writer, rather than something that can be imposed like the Code of Hammurabi on every novel wavering on human fingertips, waiting to be written. 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 and isn’t possible.

To be fair, though, as an inveterate reader of literary fiction, 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 on page 1, but the result is, I think, brilliant. (Fortunately, she already had an agent when she wrote it.)

Similarly, 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 (and BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, come to think of it), with great success.

And so on. I love to discover a writer so skilled at her craft that she can afford to bend a rule or two. Heaven forfend that every writer’s voice should start to sound alike — or that writing should all start to sound as though it dropped from a single pen.

Which is precisely what hard-and-fast rules of narrative style tend to produce, across a writing population. One effect of the reign of the POVNs — whose views go through periods of being very popular indeed, then fall into disuse, only to rise anew — has been the production of vast quantities of stories and novels where the protagonist’s POV and the narrator’s are astonishingly similar.

(And, wouldn’t you know it, those POVs are overwhelmingly upper-middle class, college-educated thinkers rather than doers. The kind of people who might, say, have the time and resources to go through a low-residency MFA program. Astonishing coincidence, eh? Couldn’t possibly have anything to do with the fact that the POVN’s teachers were also the ones who kept barking, “Write what you know!” could it?)

The POVNs have also given us a whole slew of books 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.

The result: often, I find myself asking while reading a manuscript, “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 abundantly obvious. The piece in question focused upon a single POV because there is no other way to write a third-person scene.

Tomorrow, I shall, I suspect, take issue with this. Keep up the good work!

Writing standards III: dueling italics, and some information for those of you who attended the Surrey writers’ conference

Before I launch into specifics about italics today, I want to flag down those of you who attended the Surrey International Writers’ Conference last weekend — in particular, those of you who pitched to Cricket Pechstein or Jeffery McGraw, agents from the August Agency. A reader of this blog, experiencing post-conference difficulties in tracking down the agency’s website (www.augustagency.com), had asked me to find out what was going on. I made an inquiry or two, and YES, my friends, they DO want to hear from you. Here’s what Cricket had to say:

“While Jeffery and I were in Surrey at the conference something right out of a technothriller was playing itself out. Our webhost called me to say he was battling cyber pirates who were trying to highjack our server in an attempt to access some of his other clients, banks! He was slamming doors shut as fast he could, so I told him to bolt ours, too. It worked. The cyber pirates were left to search elsewhere for a website to highjack to either raid information or funds, or as part of a convoluted trail around the world to hide their tracks.

“We’re pleased to say our website is back up and running smoothly today, open for business, with only a hint of smoke from shots fired across our bow…

“See everyone again next year at Surrey — the world’s BEST writers conference.

Cricket Pechstein”
The August Agency LLC

So all’s well that ends well, to coin a phrase. Just another piece of evidence, I guess, that online searches alone are not necessarily the best way to check on the credibility of an agency.

Back to the italics issue. Rejoining our story in progress, excellent question-asker Claire had written in to observe: “I’ve heard it preached that… only an amateur would use italics because manuscripts are not formatted like books, and that we still need to pretend we’re indicating to the typesetter that certain words need to be italicized.”

I have to say, I am inherently wary of any advice that begins, “Only an amateur would…” I don’t think it’s supportive of writers just starting out, but hey, that’s my own personal style of advice-giving. To be blunt about it, every writer is an amateur until after the first book contract, right? So that critique could be leveled at everyone who hasn’t worked with an editor.

So there.

I also know many published authors who would be mighty surprised to hear that the italics they have been using in their manuscripts for years were a sure sign of amateurism.

Italics ARE the industry standard for emphasis and foreign words (replacing the underlining that used to be the norm for typewriter-produced material for both these usages), so taken out of context, I cannot tell why anyone would have made such a sweeping statement against them as a species. But I’ve noticed in the last year or so that there are apparently still some sources out there that are telling submitters to underline, instead of italicize, such words.

Considering how tradition-bound standard format is, it seems a little funny to have to say this, but: this advice is outdated. In the old days, authors were asked to underline words that either needed to be checked for foreign-language accuracy or were to be italicized in the manuscript. Why weren’t the words to be italicized on the final printed page italicized in the old typed manuscripts, you ask? Simple: you needed a special typewriter for it. Every typewriter, however, was capable of underlining.

Now, however, NOTHING IN A MANUSCRIPT SHOULD BE UNDERLINED, and for one very good reason: to an editor’s eye, underlined words equal more ink; italicized words do not.

While this might not seem like a big deal in a 300-page manuscript, try multiplying those 300 pages by 3000 copies, and then figure the cost of the extra ink. (Actually, to be technically accurate, multiply those 300 pages by 2/3, because books shrink between manuscript and printed page, then figure out the ink consumption. But you get the general idea, right?) It’s like that story one heard about Northwest Airlines’ cost-cutting efforts in the early 1990s: they removed one olive from each of the salads they served in first class.

Not a big change, right? Net savings in the first year: over $100,000.

Since now italics are within the price range of every computer user, obviously it’s more straightforward for the author just to italicize the words she wants italicized. So go ahead and do it — but do be aware that this is a stylistic choice, not a technical one, and thus a decision that you will need to defend to an agent or editor. (And, just so you know: long italicized sections in printed books are generally there by the editor’s choice, not the author’s.) .

One caveat, however: I do know many agents, editors, and screeners who routinely skip over entire italicized paragraphs at the beginning of submissions, as well as over long, all-italics sections and opening epigraphs. Their assumption, accurate or not, is that such sections are italicized specifically because they are not integral to the plot, and thus may safely be ignored.

I just mention. You might want to stick your long clumps of italicized text after, say, page 15. Or rethink whether those big bits need to be italicized at all.

It IS still expected that writers will italicize foreign words, for the benefit of the line editor and proofreader — who, incidentally, do both still exist in the industry, unlike the vanished typesetter. You’re free not to do it, of course, just as you are free to ignore any of the other rules of standard format, but it will just look to professional eyes as though you misspelled an English word.

Usually, the discussion on the net about italics is NOT about their limited technical use, but about the stylistic choice whether to use them as automatic indicators of character thought OR the popular use of them mentioned above, to offset entire chunks of text. Opinion is sharply divided on this subject — with one side typically using the “only an amateur would do THAT” argument.

Since, as I mentioned yesterday, I blogged about the character thought side of this very issue for three days straight at the end of August, I’m not going to recap the arguments on the various sides here. Suffice it to say, the people who feel strongly anti-italic like to go out to lunch with the Point-of-View Nazis and bitch about the rest of us and our slovenly ways.

I tend to discourage the use of block italicization of entire sections, for the same reason that I frown upon writers whose work is from several points of view using different typefaces, italics, or boldface to indicate a point-of-view switch: to professional eyes, these tactics can look like an admission on the part of the author that she lacks the writing skill to make voice or venue changes clear any other way. Also, long blocks of italics are simply harder to read on a manuscript page than regular print.

So should you do it? It’s up to you. As with all matters of style, there are agents who hate italicized thought and agents who love it. Ditto, as Claire points out, with writing gurus.

The problem, as I pointed out a couple of days ago, is that many of the people out there writing about writing don’t seem to make much of a distinction between legitimate style issues, which are up to the author, and formatting issues, which are not. Since the industry itself does not take the logical step of simply posting lists of standard format requirements, it is hard to find a final authority on matters of format. To complicate matters, the widely-taught AP format is incorrect for manuscripts, so there is a tremendous amount of conflicting information out there.

Which means, I suppose, that you could just surf the net until you found advice you like. Personally, I wouldn’t do this, but that’s because I’ve seen how information tends to travel on the rumor circuit.

Here’s how it typically goes: a single agent on a single conference panel expresses a personal opinion — and the next day, it turns up on a half a dozen writers’ fora as THE ONLY way something can be done. Writers tell other writers about it, and so on, until it becomes well known as a rule. But the fact is, a lot of these so-called rules are actually just personal taste taken out of context.

Which isn’t to say that if your manuscript violated the quasi-rule AND fell under the eyes of that particular agent who lambasted it, it wouldn’t be rejected. But generalizing from a single case to an entire industry is not the best way to obtain accurate results.

Again, I am not setting myself up as the sole authority on the matter — I am only sharing my experience about what does and doesn’t tend to get a manuscript rejected. The formatting rules I have been posting here are pretty much what every major agent in the country has clients use. However, if you’re happier sticking to Courier and eschewing italics altogether, or following whatever over-and-above-standard-format restrictions you’ve heard advised, by all means do it.

For the record, I routinely use italics for emphasis, and I italicize all foreign words. I also add the trademark symbol to every word for which it is appropriate (another one that a lot of authors would like to see go) — and I have NEVER had anyone in the industry suggest that any of these things were even vaguely problematic. Neither have any of my clients, friend… again, you get the picture.

Thanks for raising these issues, Claire, and everybody, keep up the good work!

Writing standards II: the font of wisdom?

Yesterday, I wrote at length in response to reader Claire’s questions about why writing advice on the Internet is so often contradictory. To set your mind at ease, for the record: if I am wrong in what I’m telling you, we’re all going down together. I have walked countless books through the submission process, including a memoir of my own (and a novel that is at an advanced stage of submission to a major house). The rules I show here are the rules that I apply to my own work — and my clients, and the published writers in my critique group, etc.

So I do have pretty good reason to feel that I’m steering you right. However, as I said yesterday, Claire is quite correct to inquire a little more closely into the sources of internet-based information, because there is quite an array out there. Since agents and editors see so many technically perfect manuscripts, a mistake can be costly: a poorly-formatted submission is often not read at all. So it is only prudent to check and double-check one’s understanding of submission guidelines.

Also, kudos to Claire for being brave enough to ask for clarification on specific points; please, everybody, feel free to do that anytime. My blog, like all the others out there, has to be written with a very broad constituency in mind: since we all have both brand-new readers and long-time loyalists reading each of our posts, we net-based writers on writing have to walk a fine line between providing enough basic information that those absolutely unfamiliar with the industry will be able to glean useful information from a post, while at the same time not repeating ourselves so much that returning readers get bored.

In my case, I receive feedback from everyone from someone who started submitting for the first time this month to writers who have been with their agents several years. Heck, I even know a few successfully published writers who read my blog for kicks. Obviously, this is one reason that I make my archives available, so readers can have access to specific topics easily when they need it most. And one of the reasons I welcome readers’ questions – actually, some of the best questions I’ve gotten have come from readers putting query to paper for the first time, because those are precisely the questions that someone farther along in the process would never think to ask. (And that conference- and class-goers tend to be too cool to ask in public. Come on, you know it’s true.)

It’s really, really important that you let me know, though, if I haven’t clarified something enough — or recently enough. For instance, I had written at length on the subject of italicization in my blogs of August 24 – 26, so revisiting it was not high on my list of priorities. Thus, if Claire had just kept quiet, I might not have come back to it for another month or two, and the masses would have been left wondering.

So let’s get to the nuts-and-bolts part of Claire’s missive, the actual technical questions. I want to address them specifically, because it’s been my experience that for every one person who writes in to ask, there are dozens who have heard similar claims. To recap:

“I’ve heard it preached that only Courier will do because it’s not mono-spaced as is Times New Roman, and that only an amateur would use italics because manuscripts are not formatted like books, and that we still need to pretend we’re indicating to the typesetter that certain words need to be italicized.”

As far as I know, only one literary agency in the country demands Courier to the exclusion of all other typefaces. It may not be the only one, but since the one I have in mind also has a reputation for charging prospective clients rather hefty editing fees, I do not consider them a good indicator of the norms of the industry, nor do I wish to promote them by posting the name of their agency here. That’s just my opinion, though. (See? I’d make a bad Point-of-View Nazi.) Suffice it to say that this particular agency’s typeface preference is set out clearly in their guidelines — and, as always, you should read the submission guidelines before you send.

Otherwise, it is my understanding that Times and Times New Roman are actually more widely preferred amongst agents and editors, but either is acceptable. BOTH the Times family AND the Courier family are ostensibly replicas of typewriter fonts — Times echoes Elite (12 characters per inch) and Courier replicated Pica (10 characters per inch) — so both are regarded as “normal” by the tradition-loving industry. Basically, by accepting them both, they are making a rather sweet, if anachronistic, attempt not to discriminate against those darling Luddites who still write on typewriters.

Not that the industry doesn’t feel perfectly dandy about discriminating against folks who prefer writing in longhand. But I digress.

All of the standard screenplay software programs will automatically convert your work to Courier, since that is the industry standard. I have heard from many, many script agents that they simply will not read anything in another typeface. Why? Well, their assumption is that if a writer does not know which typeface to use, he’s probably unfamiliar with the other formatting restrictions of this very format-heavy medium.

For book submissions, I recommend Times or Courier because, in my experience, manuscripts just look more professional to industry eyes. Most of the agents in the country will tell their clients to use only these two fonts for materials that they intend to submit to editors. (And in response to the implicit question: yes, I have had a conversation with an agent within the last week where he uttered the sentence, ”Well, obviously, I’m going to have the writer change the typeface before I send it out,” because the manuscript wasn’t in either Times or Courier. He did pick up the client, though, so it wasn’t an absolute deal-breaker.)

I submit all of my work in Times New Roman, which has raised nary a murmur. So does every published writer I know. NEVER has anyone in the industry suggested that this was an inappropriate font, to me — or anyone of my acquaintance. Or, as far as I know, to anyone at the quite prominent agency that represents me.

Seriously, to those of you who had just dropped a submission in Times in the mail, you’re going to be fine. Take a deep breath; the universe isn’t out to get you.

So why, in the face of two quite widely-accepted fonts, would an online writer on writing insist that only one would do. My guess would be that the writer’s agent has a personal preference for one over the other, or represents a lot of screenplays. Or – and this is usually the way that such information is disseminated within the larger writing community, alas – the writer may have heard a preference for Courier expressed by some agent or editor at a conference. Or knows a successful writer who swears by it.

Any of these things could have resulted in a Courier-only pronouncement including the fateful words, “Only an amateur would…” And that’s not even scratching the surface of the many psychological reasons a writer might champion that particular typeface: since it’s one of the two standard fonts, recommending it is not going to hurt anyone, and being able to make a categorical pronouncement is a dandy way to make sense of an often arbitrary industry.

No matter how we net writers like to kid ourselves, though, VERY few agents, editors, or executives in the industry ever read blogs or writers’ fora. Even those who write their own blogs, for precisely the same reason that I don’t spend the days it would require to surf around to other sites and argue with people who give different advice than I do — they’re all really, really busy with the business of publishing books. So no matter how much all of us complain about, say, the irksome double dash or typeface norms, the industry standards are not likely to change as a result of it.

But the fact is, either Times, Times New Roman, Courier, or Courier New looks right to agency screeners. And that’s the important thing, isn’t it?

On to the italics issue tomorrow. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Conflicting opinions on writing standards: what’s a girl to do?

Reader Claire wrote in the other day with an interesting observation, one that I thought merited its own post. Quoth she:

“I tend to read your blog as if it were the Bible, but as I’ve seen conflicting formatting advice on the use of italics and font all over the Internet from equally wonderful writers, I find myself having a crisis of faith. I’ve heard it preached that only Courier will do because it’s not mono-spaced as is Times New Roman, and that only an amateur would use italics because manuscripts are not formatted like books, and that we still need to pretend we’re indicating to the typesetter that certain words need to be italicized. I guess I need reassurance that your advice is what belongs in the canon. As for the life changing news that query letters should be in correspondence format, I am truly grateful. Thanks for opening the doors of the temple to the uninitiated.”

Well, for starters, Claire, I’m not sure anyone should be treating what I say — or what anybody says, for that matter — as Gospel, and on matters of style, there simply isn’t a canonical source that will answer all conceivable questions for every kind of book. (Sorry, but it’s true.) On matters of formatting, it’s been my experience that the folks who take such matters as italicizing foreign words seriously take it VERY seriously, so I can certainly understand why an aspiring writer would want there to be a firm canonical text that states beyond the shadow of a doubt what needs to happen in a manuscript.

So while admittedly, my first impulse was to disclaim the idea of a canon at all — the substance of my original answer: if you don’t like my advice on any given point, for heaven’s sake, don’t take it! — I’m going to talk explicitly today about a subject I generally avoid like the plague, out of professional courtesy to other writers on writing. I’m going to talk about why we writing advice-givers so often advise diametrically opposed things.

To set everyone’s nervous pulses at ease right off the bat, most of the conflicting advice I have seen deals with matters of style, with industry trends in what is liked and disliked, rather than with matters that will get your submission rejected unread after three lines. (Next week, I am planning a fairly hefty series on what industry professionals said at the two conferences I attended this month about why they stop reading a submission — and I think it may surprise you how many of those reasons are matters of personal preference.) The industry assumption is, alas, that only properly-formatted submissions deserve serious consideration, so you are quite right, Claire, to be concerned with whether you are getting the real story on how to present your work.

I try to maintain a fairly strong distinction between what a writer MUST do in a submission (i.e., adhere to standard format) and what it might help a writer to do in it (e.g., matters of style). And I have to say, my version of the must-do advice has never steered anyone wrong, as far as I know.

There’s a good reason for that. In the must-do posts, all I am presenting is a discussion of what has worked successfully for my own work and that of my editing clients, and what I have seen used by career writers throughout my life. I know from long experience that no manuscript adhering to the standard format guidelines I have given here will be rejected for technical reasons — but I have seen many, many manuscripts that do not adhere to them rejected.

Beyond that, I talk about matters of style, and those discussions are, too, based upon my observations of the industry as a writer, editor, contest judge, and interviewer of agents, screeners, etc. As with all advice, I would hope that my readers recognize that what I am presenting is my opinion, and thus not to be regarded as the revealed word of God, any more than any other fallible mortal’s. Seriously, it’s not really possible to comment credibly upon one’s own credibility, and I suppose if I were worried about it, I would go on about my doctorate, publishing successes, my status as a fine human being, my kindness to stray kittens, etc. I don’t make any secret of my background — my bio is posted on this site for all to see, after all — but I would prefer to think that my advice speaks for itself.

As I routinely tell my editing clients, if a particular piece of stylistic advice doesn’t make sense to you, don’t follow it. Yes, it’s important that your work be professionally packaged, but it’s equally important that you sound like you.

I have to say, though, I think the tone of my blog is one of the least order-barking of any writer’s on the net, yet every time I post a list of standard format restrictions, I am barraged with questions each time I set foot outside my door for the next month. As if MY changing my mind on a particular point would make a particle of difference to whether it is necessary to adhere to industry standards. But as I believe I have pointed out several times before, I run neither the publishing industry nor the universe: I don’t invent the rules; I just report ’em to you. Sorry about that.

Believe me, my life would be FAR easier if I just stopped being honest with my readers about the doubled dash vs. the emdash, or about underlining vs. italics. Yet about a fourth of the people who ask me about them seem to be wanting me to say, “Oh, I was just kidding about THAT part of standard format,” or to be trying to draw me into a dispute with another online writing advice-giver, as if we could settle differing opinions on stylistic issues by arm-wrestling once and for all.

Trust me, neither is going to happen; I have neither the time, the inclination, nor the arm strength. I have manuscripts to get out the door, people, mine and others: believe me, devoting a couple of hours a day to misleading you about how title pages should look would NOT be an efficient use of my time.

Although it’s not a bad premise for a comic novel, come to think of it.

That being said, Claire’s crisis of faith is quite understandable, because there are a LOT of people on the net claiming to be experts on what does and doesn’t work in a submission. And, frankly, a lot of them seem to be speaking in tones of great authority. The burning bush sounds like a timorous stutterer compared to some of the Point-of-View Nazis out there, and there is certainly no shortage of prophets of doom who will tell you that their advice alone holds the hidden key to publication.

Being emphatic doesn’t mean they’re correct, though — or that their opinions are either reflective of or influential in the industry as a whole. I — and most of the good writing bloggers out there, I think — try to be honest with you about the fact that, as nearly as I can tell, the only magic key to success is writing talent; I merely try to let you in on the not-quite-secret handshakes, such as submitting in standard format, that will enable you to get your talent under the right eyes for long enough that it can be discovered.

And the first step to that, in my experience, is submitting in standard format. The second is avoiding the most common manuscript mistakes, and the third is polishing one’s style. The first two, I think, tend to be fairly cut-and-dried; the last is much more personal to the writer. But, again, my goal here is to try to help speed up my readers’ progress through those steps by showing what I have seen does and doesn’t work, not to give dicta for the ages.

I’m not convinced that any writer about writing, however well qualified, is entitled to be regarded as an authority beyond that. It’s not as though the online advice-givers make the rules of the industry — and as much as some of our readers might like to see us step into the ring and duke it out, I, for one, don’t think that it would be appropriate for any of us to dictate matters of style as unwavering rules. Personally, as a fiction writer, I do tend to take far more seriously the insights of writing gurus who have actually written a novel or two themselves (which surprisingly few have), but again, that’s my individual choice.

Yet when writers farther along in the publication process give advice to the aspiring, practically everything we say can sound like a prescription for literary greatness, can’t it? It’s a fine line between being honestly self-revealing and saying, “Hey, I think you should work precisely the way I do.” And, as anyone who has ever spent much time at writers’ conferences can tell you, a lot of writers who teach writing stray across that line with some frequency.

In my experience, what works for one writer will not necessarily work for another — and really, the vast majority of us writing about writing are not writing about immutable rules most of the time. We’re writing about practice; we’re writing about style; we’re writing about our experience of what does and doesn’t work in the industry. We’re writing about our writing habits, and while I do definitely think listening to the more experienced is a great way to learn, sometimes our quirks are not transferable.

To make the distinction clear, I would NEVER even consider sending out a submission that did not have the foreign words italicized, any more than I would send out one that did not include a slug line on every page; because I know that to be the norm of the industry, I would encourage you never to do it, either. I’m completely comfortable presenting that as a hard-and-fast rule, one that I am equally likely to preach to you as to the fairly well-known foreign-born author of 5 published novels and 2 nonfiction books in my writers’ group, who is not always consistent about it (at least before I get my grubby paws on her chapters). I’m known for harping upon standard format in a variety of contexts.

However, I always put my longish hair up in a French roll while I am revising my own work, and for a very good reason. For years, the left side of my nose always broke out when I was revising. I thought it was just due to stress, but during a revision of my memoir last year, I noticed that my nose looked better after hot days of revising than after cold ones. That seemed counterintuitive, so I started paying attention to what I was doing while I was staring at the screen re-reading my work for the 521rst time — and lo and behold, it turns out that some little imp in my id springs to life at that particular moment, grabs a few strands of my hair, and idly rubs it against my nose while I’m thinking. I must have been doing this for years, but I had never noticed the cause, only the effect. Thus my skin’s being happier on hotter days: those were the days I wore my hair up. So now, whenever I revise, I twist my hair into a French roll, to keep it away from my face.

Now, this is my own personal pre-revision ritual, right? Flipping up my hair, just like always starting a writing session playing the same piece of music, alerts my body to the fact that it’s revision time, helping me to sink into the task faster. It works for me.

I am not, however, under the illusion that wearing a French roll would help anyone else get published. See the difference?

But perhaps that is straying a bit far afield from Claire’s questions, which were after all about my credibility on the hard-and-fast rule front. Why does my advice on format sometimes clash with that of others with equally good credentials? Well, there are a quite a few of us, and while I can understand why readers might like it if we all gave the same advice all the time, the fact is, we’re all individuals, with different levels of experience in the industry. I honestly don’t think it’s too astonishing that we don’t always agree.

Some of what is said out there does astonish me, admittedly, but that’s just my opinion and my experience talking. Since I grew up in a family whose members have been getting published since the early 1930s, I probably have a stronger sense of tradition than most, as well as a longer list of anecdotes about what happens to submitters who do not adhere to standard format. I was told scary bedtime stories about such people, after all. But I was also one of the few 10-year-olds in the country who knew what all of the major fiction-printing magazines paid per word for short stories, and probably the only junior high schooler on the planet entrusted with the delicate task of proofing galleys. I’ve had my mitts on a LOT of manuscripts in my day, and obviously, that is the perspective I bring here.

I think it’s completely legitimate for all of us to present our various arguments and let the reader decide, though. Yes, even on matters of formatting. You’re smart people. (And, if you’ll pardon my saying so, I believe this strongly enough that I prefer not to expend my scant writing time here in arguing over what somebody else has advised, especially without knowing the context or the rationale he used in advising it.) Presumably, if you are reading several different writing blogs on a regular basis, they are all giving you something. If they have given you advice that makes sense to you, who am I to say that you should not take it? Or to decree that your work would benefit from getting your hair off your face while you’re working, for that matter?

So I guess my answer, Claire, is that I don’t think you should take any of my ilk’s pronouncements as canonical, especially when it’s a matter of style, not hard-and-fast rules — which, incidentally, is what most discussions of italicization choices are (but of that, more tomorrow). A good writer or editor can certainly give you stylistic advice, but honestly, style is personal: it’s really not something about which you should be taking anyone’s word, no matter how authoritative-sounding, as unquestionable Gospel. The ultimate choice, always, is yours.

But then, I am the author who spent a significant part of her memoir urging readers not to be too credulous about anything any author says in any memoir. I’m just not all that into authority. The writer at the next blog over may well feel differently.

Oh, my — just look at the time. I’ll deal with the specifics of fonts and italicization tomorrow. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Writing the real, part V: Characterization

Before I launch into today’s installment, I am delighted to have some good news to report about a member of the Author! Author! community. Remember last month, when I announced that long-time reader Janet Oakley was a finalist in the Surrey Writer’s Conference Literary Contest, for her essay, DRYWALL (from a larger work entitled TIME OF GRIEF)? Well, she WON! Everyone, please join me in a great big round of applause!

As I mentioned before, Janet is no stranger to contest recognition: her novels THE TREE SOLDIER and THE JOSSING AFFAIR were both past PNWA contest finalists. Primarily a writer of historical fiction, she has published articles and essays on a broad array of subjects, in everything from Rugby Magazine to Historylink.

Congratulations, Janet, and may this be a stepping-stone to many more victories for you! And everybody, please keep sending in your success stories – I love to be able to report good news about my readers.

Okay, back to the topic at hand. Throughout this series, I have been using an anecdote about a conference to show the dangers of incorporating real-life stories into your fiction submissions. Quite apart from the fact that such stories can sometimes feel very peripheral to the plot (come on, most of us have shoehorned a scene we liked into a book at least once), they often, perversely, lack the ring of truth when reproduced in a fictional context.

In this series, I have been trying to show you how and why. Let me try telling the anecdote again.

I was at a small conference in Montana, sitting by a plate glass window the size of a woolly mammoth, gazing out over a well-trimmed golf course toward the nearby blue mountains of Glacier National Park. I had given a class on manuscript submission dos and don’ts – necessary, but hardly thrilling – which, I am grateful to say, attracted many conference attendees to share their book ideas with me, looking for advice on how to impress agents with them.

However, even the most well-meaning of helpers needs a break from time to time, so I was sitting with one of the other presenters, enjoying a cup of the local stand-a-spoon-up-in-it coffee, the old West kind that keeps even latte-hardened Seattleites like me up for days on end. Suddenly, a dear little old lady plopped herself down in the middle of our conversation, introduced herself hurriedly as Ellen, and started telling us both about her book.

At length. As in the age of the woolly mammoth might have come and gone in the course of the telling.

I wasn’t altogether surprised. Ellen was, after all, the person who had brought the screenwriting class to a screeching halt the day before: when asked to give her three-line pitch, she spoke for the following twelve minutes nonstop. Four of those twelve minutes were unrelated anecdotes about her early life, begun in response to the screenwriting teacher’s polite but increasingly strained attempts to get her to narrow down her story to, well, three lines. I had to give her points for personal style.

By the end of the fortieth minute of monologue over coffee, however, her charm had begun to fade a little for me, I must admit. My initial conversational companion needed to catch a shuttle to the airport soon, so we had both begun to drop miniscule, subtle hints to Ellen that it might be time for us to stop listening and move on to pastures greener, or at any rate more airborne. Yet miraculously, each polite attempt to excuse a move toward the doorway seemed to remind Ellen of yet another anecdote marginally related to her book.

Not that it wasn’t entertaining stuff. Most of her stories concerned her grandmother’s ongoing plots with her father to humiliate her mother, who evidently was not the brightest crayon in the box, if you get my drift. Grandma was cultured, refined, the kind of lady who brushed off bores by rising imperiously and declaring, “If you will excuse me, I have some correspondence to which I simply must attend immediately.” Unfortunately, Grandma did not suffer fools gladly: her pet name for Mama was evidently “you ninny.” In fact, I gathered from the collected anecdotes, the only thing that drab little Mama had ever done in her life to please Grandma had been to marry Papa, thus providing an apparently endless stream of opportunities for the old girl and Papa to trick Mama into embarrassing situations.

Hilarity, naturally, ensued.

Amused as I was, I have to say, the more Ellen talked, the more I disliked Grandma qua character; I was starting to side with poor abused Mama, catering to that harpy for fifty years, married to that cad, AND doing all of the cooking and cleaning. Yet in each and every (and I do mean EVERY) story, Ellen presented Grandma as an admirable person, a gem forced to live in a henhouse, wreaking her well-justified revenge upon the people who supported her for their stupidity. (Oh, yes: Grandma used to target the townsfolk, too. I’ll spare you what he did to the Lutheran pastor; suffice it to say that he moved on to another parish toute suite.)

To compound the problem, Ellen’s anecdotal style was a bit diffuse, so as listeners, we were forced to be active, clarifying minor details such as, “What year was this?” “Why was it necessary to euthanize the dog?” and “What exactly did the King of Sweden have to do with this situation?” But mostly, being nice, well brought-up women, we said, “Oh, how hard that must have been for you,” and “My, how fascinating,” and glanced furtively at our watches.

As shuttle time ticked closer, our hints grew somewhat broader. We asked for the check; we paid the bill; we gathered our things, all the while murmuring whenever Ellen drew breath, “Mmm,” or, “How interesting,” or, “Look at the time — I’m going to miss my plane!” as the opportunity warranted. By the time Ellen launched into what I devoutly hoped was going to be her last anecdote, my friend and I were both standing, clutching the backs of our chairs, saying how nice it had been to meet her.

Ellen settled back into her seat, clearly all ready for hours of storytelling. Her next story concerned Grandma, of course. Seems she and Papa had worked out a system to prevent Mama from talking about herself (apparently, ever), a nefarious scheme for total domination so effective that Lex Luthor would have ground his teeth with envy. Whenever Mama began speaking on topics that did not interest the other two (all the examples Ellen gave were occasions when Mama wanted to express a personal opinion, I noticed), Grandma would interrupt her to ask Papa to fetch her something from the other room. Papa would beat a hasty retreat, with the understanding that by the time he returned, Grandma would have changed the subject to something of interest to civilized people, like the weather or Canasta.

One day (Ellen told us), Mama finally caught on. “You know,” she said, “I sometimes think that he does that just to get away from me.”

Ellen was laughing so hard that she could barely tell us Grandma’s characteristic reply: “I wondered how long it would take you to figure that out, you ninny.”

Ellen seemed quite astonished that we did not join in her laugh. This story must have been knocking ‘em dead at Lutheran potlucks for decades. “I have to say,” I observed, backing toward the door, “in your mother’s place, I would have poisoned the old woman’s pancakes the next day.”

“Just LOOK at the time,” my companion said. “I have to catch my plane.”

These seem to have been the first two sentences either of us had breathed that made an impact on Ellen. She fixed me with a fiery eye, the kind that Grandma had probably leveled at the ninny on an hourly basis. “Not everyone appreciates comedy,” she said, and, turning very pointedly to my companion, began another anecdote.

The end.

Now that story was significantly funnier in the pages-long version than it had been in the rather cursory earlier versions I told you, wasn’t it? It’s not the only way to tell it, of course, but here, I set the scene, gave you enough detail about Ellen and myself so you could follow our brief relationship, included relevant background detail, and made the narrative voice comment on what could have been a rather dull account. See the difference?

My main point this time around, though, is not about how I told the story of something that had happened to me, but how Ellen did. Ellen (naturally, not her real name) made the single most common mistake of the writer of real-life stories: she assumed that not only was every nuance of her family’s life inherently and instantaneously fascinating to people who had never met them (always a dangerous supposition, even in memoir), but also that HER point of view on who was the heroine of the stories she told was the only possible one. Yet actually, the pure facts of the tales said to my companion and me that poor ninny Mama was a more sympathetic heroine.

In other words, her dramatic emphasis boomeranged, not only negating the effect she wished her stories to have upon hearers, but causing us to switch our sympathies to the character she had cast as the villain. Ultimately, on in a manuscript, this would have turned us against the narrator for being so biased against our emotional favorite.

I can’t even begin to tell you how often I’ve seen this happen on paper. Take it as a rule of thumb: no matter how hard people at cocktail parties laugh at anecdotes, thumbnail sketches with a strong slant in favor of a single character almost never work when translated directly to the page. These stories need more telling, more fleshing out, and the author needs to pay attention to their impact upon the reader. And above all, the hero of the piece needs sufficient character development that the reader can empathize with his response to the villain.

In glaring at me, Ellen exhibited the classic real-story writer’s “But it really happened that way!” attitude. The problem was not in how the story was told, this attitude implies, but in the listener’s or reader’s RESPONSE to it. If a joke falls flat, it must be because the listener is a ninny; if the scene doesn’t work, it must be because the agent isn’t really interested in good writing.

And this attitude, unfortunately, often means that at revision time, the real-life scenes remain untouched, while the fictional scenes are revised into unrecognizability. As an editor, I can tell you: the opposite is usually what is warranted. Take a long, hard look at those real-life scenes first.

There endeth the parable. Import reality into your fiction with care, boys and girls, and as always, keep up the good work!

Writing the real, part IV: Filling in the background shading

I know that some of you have been waiting with bated breath for me to do my promised write-ups on sterling insights from these last two conferences — do not despair. As many of you know, I’m up against a tight revision deadline between now and the end of the month, so honestly, if I didn’t write it traveling to and fro recent conferences (hooray for long layovers), it’s probably not going to be posted before Halloween. It is all coming, however.

On Friday, I deliberately told a real-life anecdote in the way that most fiction writers include such stories in novels: in bare-bones form, assuming that my reader would automatically feel the way I did about the incident when it happened to me. I told it, as most aspiring writers do in their submissions to agents and editors, exactly the way I would have told friends over coffee — which is to say, I told it rather than showed it, and my telling, insofar as I got through the story at all, was light on such scene mood-setters as characterization, locale, etc.

I told it, in short, in a way that was not likely to prompt an agent to ask for the rest of the book.

Let’s return to my story, and see if I can tell it better this time. I was at a small conference in Montana, sitting by a plate glass window the size of a woolly mammoth, gazing out over a well-trimmed golf course toward the nearby blue mountains of Glacier National Park. (Better already, isn’t it?) I had given a class on manuscript submission dos and don’ts, which, I am grateful to say, attracted many conference attendees to share their book ideas with me, looking for advice on how to impress agents with them.

However, even the most well-meaning of helpers needs a break from time to time, so I was sitting with one of the other presenters, enjoying a cup of the local stand-a-spoon-up-in-it coffee, the old West kind that keeps even latte-hardened Seattleites like me up for days. Suddenly, a dear little old lady plopped herself down in the middle of our conversation and started telling us both about her novel. At length. As in the age of the woolly mammoth might have come and gone in the course of the telling.

I’m going to interrupt myself here to ask: isn’t this a more compelling telling of the story than Friday’s, which told the reader nothing about the setting or my mindset at the time the little old lady appeared? In this version, the scene is set enough that the arrival of the antagonist is palpably disruptive of a well-established mood. See why professional readers get annoyed by writers skipping that kind of background?

So we’re definitely better off than we were in the first telling, but this anecdote is still not up to submission standard. In fact, I’ve deliberately made another couple of common mistakes in this second telling, to see if you will catch it, too. Anyone? Anyone?

Points, of course, if you pointed out that I’m still telling about this little old lady, not showing. Also, I have tossed her into the story without giving her a name right off the bat – dooming my reader to endless future repetitions of the phrase “the little old lady.” (But she was small in real life, I tell you! And she was elderly, and female! It really happened! See how ineffectual reality is as an excuse for under-description?)

A great big gold star to those of you who caught that I’ve made the extremely common twin mistakes of assuming that the fact the story’s antagonist annoyed me is the most important thing about the scene — which, from my point of view, naturally it was — and that what annoys me will inevitably annoy everyone else in North America. (Extra credit to those of you who speculated that the pace of my going through this anecdote, and thus the length of this series, may have more to do with the fact that I wrote large parts of it while sitting in an airport in Kalispell, Montana, rather than home at my desk.)

The annoyance assumption is not limited to real-life scenes that are underwritten, of course. Many writers assume (wrongly) that if someone is annoying in real life, and they reproduce the lady down to the last shoelace, she will be annoying on the page as well, but that is frequently not true.

Exposing the schmucks around you for the scum they are is, of course, one of the great unsung compensations for being a writer. As my beloved old mentor, the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, was fond of saying, “Never screw over a living writer. They can always get back at you on the page.”

Just be aware that it doesn’t always work. If a reader has to know you, or the other person, or any other pertinent background not in the book (or not essential to the plot), think very carefully about whether you want to keep the scene. Be aware, too, that often in such tellings, the writer’s dislike of the real-life person so spills into the account that the villain starts to appear maligned. If his presentation is too obviously biased, the reader may start to identify with her, and in the worst cases, actually take the villain’s side against the hero.

You really don’t want that kind of ill feeling to boomerang back onto your protagonist or narrator, do you?

A really, really good test about whether it should stay: hand the relevant pages to someone who does not know you very well, WITHOUT saying “This happened in real life, you know,” and have her read it. Then (again without saying the magic phrase of justification) ask this helpful soul to tell the anecdote back to you. Does the emphasis fall where you expected in the retelling?

If it doesn’t, rework the scene or cut it. Give some serious consideration to changing a few of the facts to make it a better story on paper. (Not if it’s a memoir, of course, for A Million Little Reasons. In a memoir, real-life scenes that don’t work should just be cut.) After all, if you don’t go around trumpeting this particular scene in your novel is based upon a real event, how is the reader going to know?

Users of real-life material, please write this tip down and post it somewhere you can see it when you are sitting in your writing space: storytelling is supposed to resonate with truth AND be entertaining at the same time. Just because it happened a particular way doesn’t mean you have to TELL it that way. Because you are a fiction writer, not a reporter: dramatically, your story needs to work for your reader.

Have you noticed that I have not actually made it to the amusing part of the anecdote yet? I’m reserving that for tomorrow. In the meantime, keep up the good work?

PS: Mark your calendars, folks up north: the PNWA is hosting one of its excellent Writing Connections events at the senior center in Mount Vernon on this coming Saturday, October 28th, from noon to 4 pm. Admission is free. Here’s your chance to meet published authors and a screenwriter and pepper them with questions!

Hanging with the cool kids

Yes, yes, I took a couple of days off, and I am interrupting my series on the rigors of lifting scenes from real life, but I assure you, it’s all in the name of a good cause: I ventured north with a couple of fabulous writer friends to the Surrey Writers’ Conference this last weekend. A big hello to the dozen or so of you I met there! I always love meeting my readers, especially when they are being brave and virtuous enough to get out there and pitch their work. (Even when you corner me to ask if I REALLY meant it about changing all of the emdashes in your manuscripts to doubled dashes. The agent with whom I was enjoying a drink at the time thought that was pretty funny. I gathered; I will now forever have the reputation of being the Pacific Northwest’s Resident Grammar Harpy.)

So I have been schmoozing internationally, partially for professional development, partially for fun, and partially in the hope of spreading last summer’s amazingly successful Pitch Practicing Palace to maple leaf flagged pastures in future. To be precise, my friends and I did what writers who have passed the Rubicon of representation are supposed to do at conferences: we hung out in the bar, chatting with agents, editors, and the other presenters.

Had I mentioned before that if you are serious about making connections, the best place to make connections at almost ANY writers’ conference is the bar? Ditto with the space outside where the smokers lurk. Why? Well, let’s be charitable and say the reason is that writers tend to work in scattered isolation, and leap at the chance to socialize with their own species.

The more important reason is that these are also the places where the agents and editors are relatively safe from hallway pitchers — and as someone who routinely yammers at you to take your courage in your hands and buttonhole agents to pitch to them, I should probably speak to that. As those of you who are long-time readers of this blog already know, if you are at a conference to find an agent, I think it’s a trifle silly to limit yourself to only your assigned pitch appointment. If your dream agent is walking by, I see no reason that you should not approach her for a polite pitch; I know many, many good writers who have found their agents this way.

An even more polite way to do it is to walk up after the agent has taught a seminar at a conference, heap the preceding class with praise, and ask if you may have a minute of his time to pitch. I know a wonderful writer who landed his agent by routinely presenting himself at one end of the dias at agents fora and pitching his way from right to left all the way down the stage. Most agents are sweet, writer-loving people, contrary to their reputations as book-rejecting machines: they will usually agree to give a minute of their lives to a writer courteous to ask them nicely for it.

The catch: you should use ONLY a minute of their time. Also, don’t follow the agent of your dreams into the bathroom to pitch; it’s considered gauche. (And believe me, it does happen. All the time.) Stalking is also considered beyond the pale, but I’m sure that all of MY readers are far too charming to, say, insist upon pitching a jet-lagged agent the moment he pops out of his hotel room in the morning or as he is staggering back into it, his head reeling with pitches, late at night. (Again, a story I’ve heard more than once in a conference bar.)

Remember, too, that agents are individuals, not walking representatives of an entire industry – if they say they aren’t interested, or they don’t represent your type of work (do a spot of research first, okay?), THIS DOES NOT MEAN THAT THE PUBLISHING INDUSTRY AS A WHOLE IS REJECTING YOU. If your hallway pitchee (or any pitchee, for that matter) says, “Gee, I don’t think that’s for me,” don’t argue. Just thank the agent for her time, melt away, and move on to your next pitch.

Which brings me back to the conference bar. Because there are — hooray, hooray — so many aspiring writers who are brave enough to make hallway pitches, and there are, alas, stalkers and other rude people, already-agented writers like me are rather restful company for agents and editors. (As the agent who bought us breakfast yesterday morning — not for nefarious reasons, mind you; one of my friends is her client — said when we tried to reach for the bill, “Hey, none of you want to pitch me. I love you.”) We’re neither giving them the hard sell nor hanging on their every word as a hint to future success.

We treat them like — gasp! — people.

And that, for those of you who have wondered about the bar phenomenon at conferences, is why the agents and editors are so often to be found there, talking with people like me. Which makes it an excellent place to schmooze, even — and this surprises a lot of conference neophytes — in the middle of the day. It’s sort of like the safe spot in a game of tag; they can stop running when they’re there.

Not that you should just pull up a chair — need I even say that this happens, too? — and plop yourself in the middle of a group of influential strangers. Make friends the way you would at any other party. Observe the social graces, for heaven’s sake; get someone like me to introduce you.

Yes, it’s true: writers like me are in fact the social lubricant of the conference bar. Cultivate us; buy us breakfast: most of us are nice people, too, who enjoy helping talented people make good connections. Remember, a smart agent-seeking writer does not go to conferences merely to pitch: she also goes to meet other writers — especially ones who routinely hang out in bars at conferences, schmoozing.

After all, an agented writer often has spent a significant portion of her life at literary conferences — we tend to know a LOT of other writers, editors, and yes, agents. And I’ve literally never heard an established writer say at a conference, “How the hell should I know what agent to recommend you query?” Being human beings, many of us just love being approached as beacons of wisdom. Seriously, it’s kind of fun, after years of struggling for recognition — and the newly-agented often have very extensive lists of who represents what still lingering in their brainpans. Go ahead, make a few friends by asking for advice.

This is not to say that everyone you meet in a conference bar will be bowled over at the opportunity to help you, or that you should treat every casual conversation as an opportunity to pitch your work. They won’t, and you shouldn’t — and not only because it’s not very polite to yammer endlessly about yourself to a brand-new acquaintance. While I would dearly love to be able to report that every single person you’re going to meet at a writers’ conference is a sterling human being eager to help your career, since we are talking about hanging around in a liquor-serving establishment here, I’m going to add a few prudent caveats to my recommendation that you try to make new friends in this environment.

If you’re new to the game, hit the bar with a friend or two, to be on the safe side, and if you’re underage, do your schmoozing at lunch, when most hotel bars also serve food. Also, if you missed my height-of-conference-season post on why it should NEVER be necessary to visit the hotel room of someone to whom you’re pitching, please see my series on conference lore (category at right) before you go traipsing off with anyone. No matter how long an author’s work has graced the NYT bestseller list, or how many millions of copies an agent’s clients have sold, your chances of making a good professional connection are far better if everyone’s clothes stay on.

I’m not just being a fuddy-duddy; I have nothing against a little light nymphomania from time to time, but we’re talking about your future career here. Writers’ conferences are hardly notorious for being hotbeds of sin (well, okay, Maui), but I don’t want to see any of you getting hurt. Your grandmother was right: petting won’t make you popular, and it definitely won’t help you get your book sold.

Remember, too, that just because you’re in a bar doesn’t mean you have to be drinking. If you’re drinking a tonic-and-lime (my personal favorite) or a soft drink, no one is going to sneer at you, as long as you tip your server appropriately. I’m very serious about this last part. You may well be there for hours, so think of it as table rent; your server has to eat, too, and for all you know, the agent or editor with whom you’re hobnobbing put herself through an MFA program by cocktail waitressing. Besides, buying a round or two at a conference is a legitimate business expense for a writer — if you’re going to be asking for a receipt, tip accordingly.

Most importantly, though, keep your head about you. It’s never a good idea to drink too much around people you are trying to impress — yes, even if they are drinking a great deal themselves. At the risk of sounding like one of those 1950s social guidance films for school kids: drinking a great deal will NOT make you more likable.

It will, however, make you hung-over at your pitch the following morning. Trust me, I used to teach frat boys at major football school; I know a LOT about the after-effects of alcohol on the human intellect. Know your limits, and stick to them.

And, if you want to be welcome at the conference bar the next time around, please observe the great rule of mixing business with pleasure: never, never, NEVER pitch in a social situation unless the agent or editor sitting next to you ASKS, “So, what do you write?” In the bar, these people are off-duty; please respect that, no matter how much you want to use it as a business occasion. Even if the circle of drinkers is talking about NOTHING but the industry, it will break the mood if you act as though you’ve walked into a pitch meeting.

Often, agents will ask, if they like you, and then it is perfectly appropriate to pitch, of course. It is also perfectly appropriate to walk up to the person with whom you were enjoying tonic-and-lime the night before and say, “Hi, X, I didn’t want to bug you last night when you were relaxing, but may I pitch to you now?” Polite people generally get brownie points. And, of course, you can always send a post-conference query beginning, “I so enjoyed chatting with you at the recent Surrey conference. I hope you will be interested in my book…”

But please, let these poor souls have a little down time. As someone who routinely listens to pitches for hours at a time, let me tell you, pitch fatigue can hit a well-meaning listener hard, especially one who has flown or driven a few hours to get to your fair city. (Or one who did not stick to tonic-and-lime the night before, for that matter.)

Being a good listener takes quite a bit of energy, after all. By the end of a conference day, agents are often tired, brain-befuzzed and, depending upon the stalker-to-polite-person ratio at that particular conference, feeling hunted. Believe me, you’ll make a better impression in the long run if you do not interrupt them in mid-hamburger to pitch.

Okay, I’ve spent enough time being the Good Manners Fairy for today; I need to get back to my revision now. Tomorrow, back to the real-life scenes — and, as always, keep up the good work!