Synopsis-writing 101, part VI: la la la la TO ME

All right, I’ll admit it: this isn’t actually a picture of me at a former birthday. Unlike so many dark-eyed adult brunettes, I never was a blonde-haired, blue-eyed mite with pigtails. Also, like other children with autumn birthdays growing up in wine country, my family was usually harvesting a few tons of something on or about my birthday, so my cake tended to be consumed at school, as cupcakes. Oh, and I have always looked terrible in pastels; even as a very small child, I wouldn’t be caught dead in ‘em.

Otherwise, I assure you, this picture is an uncannily accurate reproduction of an annual event in my past.

Yesterday (known to literature-lovers everywhere as Pre-Anne Eve, natch), I gave a few genteel indications of how a 5-page synopsis — still, whatever some writing-advice websites claim, the most common requested length for a novel synopsis — might conceivably differ from a 1-page synopsis.

To be specific, I alleged that the extended synopsis should give a solid feel of the mood of the book and a basic plot summary. Rather than attempting to cram an in-depth summary of every twist and turn of the book into just a few pages, I suggested that a savvy writer might content herself with showing who the major characters are, what the major conflicts between them are, and illustrating how they played out by describing a few scenes with a wealth of sensual detail.

Or, to cast it in step-by-step terms:

(1) introduce the major characters and premise,

(2) demonstrate the primary conflict(s),

(3) show what’s at stake for the protagonist, and

(4) ideally, give some indication of the tone and voice of the book.

(5) show the primary story arc through BRIEF descriptions of the most important scenes. (For NF that isn’t story-based, present the planks of the overarching argument in logical order, along with some indication of how you intend to prove each point), and

(6) show how the plot’s primary conflict is resolved or what the result of adopting the book’s argument would be.

Let’s talk for a moment about #4, writing the synopsis in roughly the same voice and in the same tone as the novel it summarizes. As I’ve mentioned, a comic novel’s synopsis should contain a few chuckles; an ultra-serious one shouldn’t. A steamy romance’s synopsis should be at least a little bit sexy, a thriller’s a trifle scary, and so forth.

No need to get obsessed with making sure the tone is identical, of course — in the same ballpark will do. You just want to show that you are familiar with the type of writing expected in the type of novel you’ve written and can produce it consistently, even in a relatively dry document.

Why might an agent or editor want you to demonstrate the latter skill? Well, increasingly, authors are expected to promote their own books; it’s not at all uncommon these days for a publishing house to ask the author of a soon-to-be-released book to write a magazine or online article in the book’s voice, for promotional purposes, for instance.

Yes, I know; you want to concentrate on your writing, not its promotion. The muses love you for that impulse. But would you rather that I lied to you about the realities of being a working author?

I thought not.

What you should also not do — but, alas, all too many aspiring writers do — is attempt to replicate the voice of the book by lifting actual sentences from the novel itself. I know that you want to show off your best writing, but trust me, you’re going to want to make up some new verbiage here.

Why, you ask? Hint: people who go into the manuscript-reading business tend to have pretty good memories.

They recall what they’ve read.

See the problem, especially if — as not infrequently happens, especially with contest entries — the chapters containing the lifted verbiage and the synopsis are read back-to-back? A good 30% of contest synopses make this mistake, reproducing entire sentences or even entire paragraphs from the chapters included in the entry, invariably costing the entry originality points.

Do I see some raised hands from those of you who habitually recall what you’ve read? “But Anne,” I hear some of you pointing out, and who could blame you? “Didn’t you tell us just a couple of days ago that it was a grave error to assume that Millicent (the agency screener), Maury (her cousin who works as an editorial assistant), and/or Mehitabel (their aunt, the contest judge) will necessarily read both our synopses and the rest of our submissions?”

Excellent point, sharp-eyed readers. While it’s never safe to assume that EVERYONE who reads your synopsis will also read your opening chapter, it’s also not a very good idea to assume that NO ONE will. Shooting for a happy medium — including enough overlap that someone who read only one of them could follow the plot without indulging in phrase redundancy — tends to work best here.

Should you be tempted to repeat yourself, I implore you to ask this question with all possible speed: “Is there a vibrantly interesting detail that I could insert here instead?”

To over-writers (like, I must admit, myself), it may seem a trifle odd to suggest adding detail to a piece of writing as short as 5 pages, but actually, most synopses suffer from overgrowths of generalization and an insufficiency of specifics.

So once you have a solid draft, read it over and ask yourself: is what I have here honestly a reader-friendly telling of my story or a convincing presentation of my argument (don’t worry, NF writers: I’ll deal with your concerns at length next time), or is it merely a presentation of the premise of the book and a cursory overview of its major themes?

For most synopses, it is the latter.

Do I hear some questions over and above the wailing and gnashing of teeth out there? “But Anne,” a couple of voices crying from the wilderness, “How can I tell the difference between a necessary summary statement and a generalization?”

Again, excellent question. The short answer: it’s hard.

Here’s a useful trick: print up a hard copy of the synopsis, find yourself a highlighting pen, and mark every summary statement about character, every time you have wrapped up a scene or plot twist description with a sentence along the lines of and in the process, Sheila learns an important lesson about herself.

Go back through and take a careful look at these highlighted lines. Then ask yourself for each: would a briefly-described scene SHOW the conclusion stated there better than just TELLING the reader about it? Is there a telling character detail or an interesting plot nuance that might supplement these general statements, making them more interesting to read?

I heard that gasp of recognition out there — yes, campers, the all-pervasive directive to SHOW, DON’T TELL should be applied to synopses as well. Generally speaking, the fewer generalities you can use in a fiction synopsis, the better.

I’ll let those of you into brevity for brevity’s sake in on a little secret: given a choice, specifics are almost always more interesting to a reader than vague generalities. Think about it from an agency screener’s POV, someone who reads 800 synopses per week: wouldn’t general statements about lessons learned and hearts broken start to sound rather similar after awhile?

But a genuinely quirky detail in a particular synopsis — wouldn’t that stand out in your mind? And if that unique grabber appeared on page 1 of the synopsis, or even in the first couple of paragraphs, wouldn’t you pay more attention to the rest of the summary?


It’s very easy to forget in the heat of pulling together a synopsis that agency screeners are readers, too, not just decision-makers. They like to be entertained, so the more entertaining you can make your synopsis, the more likely Millicent is to be wowed by it. So are Maury and Mehitabel.

Isn’t it fortunate that you’re a writer with the skills to pull that off?

If your synopsis has the opposite problem and runs long, you should also sit down and read it over with a highlighter gripped tightly in your warm little hand. On your first pass through, mark any sentence that does not deal with the primary plot or argument of the book.

Then go back through and read the UNMARKED sentences in sequence, ignoring the highlighted ones. Ask yourself honestly: does the shorter version give an accurate impression of the book?

If so — take a deep breath here, please; some writers will find the rest of this paragraph upsetting — do the marked sentences really need to be there at all?

If your synopsis still runs too long, try this trick of the pros: minimize the amount of space you devote to the book’s premise and the actions that occur in Chapter 1; the vast majority of synopses spend to long on it. Here’s a startling statistic: in the average novel synopsis, over a quarter of the text deals with premise and character introduction.

Try trimming this down to just a few sentences and moving on to the rest of the plot.

If this seems to you like a dangerous strategy to embrace in what is, after all, a marketing document, think about it: if the agent or editor asked to see Chapter 1 or the first 50 pages, and if you place the chapter BEFORE the synopsis in your submission packet, the reader will already be familiar with both the initial premise AND the basic characters AND what occurs at the beginning in the book.

So why be repetitious?

Let me show you how this might play out in practice. Let’s continue this series’ tradition of pretending that you are Jane Austen, pitching SENSE AND SENSIBILITY to an agent at a conference. (Which I suspect would be a pretty tough sell in the current market, actually.)

Let’s further assume that you gave a solid, professional pitch, and the agent is charmed by the story. (Because, no doubt, you were very clever indeed, and did enough solid research before you signed up for your agent appointment to have a pretty fair certainty that this particular agent is habitually charmed by this sort of story.) The agent asks to see a synopsis and the first 50 pages.

See? Advance research really does pay off.

Naturally, you dance home in a terrible rush to get those pages in the mail. As luck would have it, you already have a partially-written synopsis on your computer. In it, the first 50 pages’ worth of action look something like this:

Now, all of this does in fact occur in the first 50 pages of SENSE AND SENSIBILITY, at least in my well-worn little paperback addition. However, all of the plot shown above would be in the materials the agent requested, right? Do you really need to spend 2 of your allotted 5 pages on this small a section of the plot, even if it is the set-up for what happens later on?

Of course not. Being a wise Aunt Jane, you would streamline this portion of your submission synopsis so it looked a bit more like this:

And then go on with the rest of the story, of course.

See what space-saving wonders may be wrought by cutting down on the premise-establishing facts? The second synopsis is less than half the length of the first, yet still shows enough detail to show the agent how the submitted 50 pp. feeds into the rest of the book. Well done, Jane!

While all of you novelists are hard at work, trying to perform a similar miracle upon your synopses, next time, I shall be tackling the specialized problems of the nonfiction synopsis. Yes, that’s right: we’re going to have our cake and eat it, too.

Oh, you didn’t honestly believe you’d make it through my birthday without being subjected to another bad cake pun, did you? Keep up the good work!

Synopsis-writing 101, part V: stretching your limbs…well, a little

So far in this series, I’ve been going over prepping a synopsis for tucking inside a query envelope, adding to the partial an agent has requested that you send, plopping into a contest entry, or having at the ready in anticipation for such a request at a pitch meeting. For the last few posts, I’ve been concentrating upon that bane of writers everywhere, the 1-page synopsis, which is essentially a written-down verbal pitch.

The summary part of a pitch, anyway. A 1-page synopsis needs to be a quick, pithy introduction to the premise, the protagonist, and the central conflict of the book.

Piece o’ proverbial cake to do all that within a single page in standard format, right?

By contrast, the 5-page novel synopsis — which, until fairly recently, was far and away the most common requested length, as it still is for those already signed with agents and/or working with editors at publishing houses — should tell the STORY of your book (or state its argument) in as much vivid, eye-catching detail as you may reasonably cram into so few pages.

Why? To make the agent, editor, or contest judge reading it exclaim spontaneously, “Wow — this sounds like one terrific book; this writer is a magnificent storyteller.”

Again, piece of cake, right?

Don’t shrug, please, if you are not yet at the querying stage — as with the author bio, I strongly recommend getting your synopsis ready WELL before you anticipate needing it. Especially if you are intending to query or pitch at a conference anytime soon. As I MAY have mentioned before, you will be SUBSTANTIALLY happier if you walk into any marketing situation with your synopsis already polished, all ready to send out to the first agent or editor who asks for it, rather than running around in a fearful dither after the request, trying to pull your submission packet together.

(Wait — I have nagged you some time in the recent past about prepping an author bio, haven’t I? Off to check the archives…oh, dear; it’s been quite some time. Perhaps, after I polish off this series and take that long-anticipated plunge back into craft for at least a few weeks, I shall take another run at it.)

Even if you think that both of the reasons I have just given are, to put it politely, intended to help lesser mortals not anywhere near as talented than your good self, whatever you do, try not to save writing your synopsis for the very last moments before you stuff a submission or entry into an envelope. That route virtually guarantees uncaught mistakes, even for the most gifted of writers and savviest of self-promoters.

If you take nothing else away from this series, please remember this: writing a synopsis well is hard, even for the most seasoned of pros; be sure to budget adequate time for it.

If the task feels overwhelming — which would certainly be understandable, faced with the daunting task of summarizing a 400-page book in just a few well-written pages — remind yourself that even though it may feel as though you effectively need to reproduce the entire book in condensed format, you actually don’t.

Yes, you read that correctly: even a comparatively long synopsis shouldn’t depict every twist and turn of the plot — just strive to give a solid feel of the mood of the book and a basic plot summary. Show where the major conflicts lie, introduce the main characters, interspersed with a few scenes described with a wealth of sensual detail, to make it more readable.

Or, to return to our list of goals from a few days back:

(1) introduce the major characters and premise,

(2) demonstrate the primary conflict(s),

(3) show what’s at stake for the protagonist, and

(4) ideally, give some indication of the tone and voice of the book.

(5) show the primary story arc through BRIEF descriptions of the most important scenes. (For NF that isn’t story-based, present the planks of the overarching argument in logical order, along with some indication of how you intend to prove each point), and

(6) show how the plot’s primary conflict is resolved or what the result of adopting the book’s argument would be.

I sense some squirming from the summary-resistant out there. “But Anne,” I hear some of you protest, “what you’re suggesting sounds a heck of a lot like sitting down and summarizing the book!”

Not really — not if you winnow the story down to its most essential elements, rather than trying to list everything that happens. If you’re having trouble doing that — and at the risk of sounding like your last English literature teacher — set the actual happenings of the novel aside for a moment and think about its themes.

Oh, stop rolling your eyes; most authors are delighted to analyze their own books. Pretend that your book has just been assigned in a college English class — what would you expect the students to be able to say about it on the final?

I’m quite serious about this. Asking yourself the scant handful of questions that would turn up on an exam will help you identify the essentials. A few quiz questions, to get you started:

(a) Who is the protagonist, and why is s/he interesting? (You’d be astonished at how few novel synopses give any clear indication of the latter.) To put it another way, what about this character in this situation is fresh?

(b) What does s/he want more than anything else? What or who is standing in the way of getting it?

(c) Why is getting it so important to her/him? What will happen if s/he doesn’t get it?

(d) How does the protagonist grow and change throughout pursuing this goal? What are the most important turning points in her/his development?

(e) How does the protagonist achieve this goal?

See? Piece of proverbial…wait just a minute! Why, those questions sound a mite familiar, don’t they?

They should: they’re the underlying issues of goals 1-3 and 5-6, above. If you answer them in roughly the same voice as the book, you will have met goal #4, as well — and, almost without noticing it, you will have the basic material for a dandy synopsis.

Piece o’ cake, right?

Don’t, I implore you, make the extremely common mistake of leaving out point #6 — the one that specifies that you should include the ending. Too many aspiring writers do this in a misguided endeavor to goad Millicent the agency screener and her ilk into a frenzy of wonder about what is going to happen next.

“But I want to make them want to read the book!” such strategists invariably claim. “I don’t want to give away the ending. Leaving the synopsis on a cliffhanger will make them ask to see it right away.”

To professional eyes, this is a rookie mistake, at least in a synopsis longer than a page or two.

Why? Well, from their point of view, part of the goal of an extended synopsis, after all, is to demonstrate to someone who presumably hasn’t sat down and read your entire book that you can in fact plot out an entire novel plausibly. Agents and editors regard it as the writer’s job to demonstrate this in an extended synopsis, not theirs to guess how the plot might conceivably come to a halt.

I hate to be the one to break it to you (at least before I’ve helped you all to a slice of cake), but a talented sentence-writer’s possessing the skills, finesse, and tenacity to follow a story to its logical conclusions is not a foregone conclusion. In fact, in practice, the assumption tends to run in the opposite direction: if the synopsis leaves out the how the plot resolves, Millicent and her cousin Maury (the editorial assistant at a major publishing house) will tend to leap to one of four conclusions, none of which are good for a submitter. Either, they surmise:

a) the synopsis’ author isn’t aware of the purpose of an extended synopsis, and thus is a fish that should be thrown back into the sea until it grows up a little. In other words, next!

b) the synopsis’ author is a tireless self-promoter and/or inveterate tease, determined not to cough up the goods until there is actual money on the table. Since this is not how the publishing industry works, the fish analogy above may reasonably be applied. Next!

c) the synopsis’ author is probably one of the many, many writers exceptionally talented at coming up with stupendous premises, but less adept at fleshing them out. S/he evidently hopes to conceal this weakness from Millicent and Maury until after they have already fallen in love with the beauty of her/his prose and plotting in the early part of the book, in an attempt to cajole their respective bosses into editing the heck out of the novel before it could possibly be ready to market. The wily fiend!

d) or, less charitably, the synopsis’ author hasn’t yet written the ending, and thus is wasting their respective boss’ time by submitting an incomplete novel. Again, next!

Include some indication of how the plot resolves. Millicent, Maury, and their Aunt Mehitabel (the veteran contest judge) will thank you for it.

They might even give you a piece of that delicious cake I keep mentioning.

And yes, I do seem to have cake on my mind today, but for very good reason: tomorrow is my birthday. (And Truman Capote’s, as it happens.) I’m going to sign off for now, so I have time to pen a little treat for you all to have tomorrow while I am blowing out my candles.

How many? That’s for my memoir’s publishers to know, and you to find out if the legal issues around it are ever resolved. Keep up the good work!

Synopsis-writing 101, part IV: the technicalities, or, what, you think I’m MADE of mushrooms?

Okay, so the joke in the title would have been funnier if I had in fact been posting on consecutive days, as I had originally planned. But as the illustrious comic Stephen Wright is fond of pointing out — you can’t have everything; where would you put it?

For the last couple of posts, I’ve been showing you examples of good and not-so-good 1-page synopses, so we could talk about (read: so I could conduct a monologue about) the overarching strategies that rendered them more or less effective. Since I haven’t exactly been overwhelmed with howls of protest on the subject — really? The prospect of constructing a 1-page synopsis for a 400-page novel of a complexity that would make Tolstoy weep annoys nobody? — I’m going to assume that we’re all pretty comfortable with the strategic part.

Before I move on to the ins and outs of writing the longer synopsis, I feel I should respond to some of the whimpers of confusion from the more structurally-minded of my readers. “But Anne,” I have heard some of you pointing out, “you’ve shown us a couple of visual examples of properly-formatted synopses — a sort of SYNOPSES ILLUSTRATED, if you will. Any chance that you might go over the various rather odd-looking formatting choices you’ve used in them before, say, we need to send out our own?”

Oh, certainly. Let’s take another example at the good 1-page synopsis for PRIDE AND PREJUDICE:

For veterans of any of my extended forays into the joys and terrors of standard format for manuscripts, nothing here should be too surprising. By and large, standard format for a synopsis is the same as for a page of manuscript: double-spaced, 1-inch margins all around, indented paragraphs, Times, Times New Roman, or Courier, the works. (If you’re unfamiliar with the rules of standard format, you will find them conveniently summarized in the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT and STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED categories on the list at right.

Please notice that, as with the first page of a manuscript, the author’s contact information does not appear on the first page of the synopsis. Unlike the first page of a manuscript, however, the title of the book should appear on the first page of a synopsis, along with the information that it IS a synopsis.

Why the latter? Because the synopsis and the manuscript it accompanies — to say nothing of the synopsis and query that often arrive in the same envelope — often become separated during the reading and evaluation process. It never pays to assume, then, that the reader of one will automatically know things about the other.

The title, for instance.

A second (or third, or fifth; extrapolate) page should also look very similar to any other page of standard-formatted manuscript, with one vital exception: the slug line for a synopsis should, as I mentioned in the previous sentence, SAY that the page it decorates is from a synopsis, not a manuscript, in addition to displaying the author’s last name, the title of the book, and the page number. (If you don’t know what a slug line is, why anyone would use it, or, indeed, why anyone would name something on a pretty page of text after a slimy creature, please see the SLUG LINE category on the list at right.)

Why include a slug line here? Because pages do occasionally go astray, and because synopses, like manuscripts, should never be bound in any way — unless a contest’s rules specifically state otherwise, of course.

Do I hear some nervous shifting in chairs out there? “But Anne,” I hear some of you cry out, “aren’t you ignoring the elephant in the room — or, in this case, on the page? You seem to have given some of the character names in all capital letters. Why?”

I’m glad you asked. It’s not absolutely necessary, technically speaking, but most professional fiction synopses CAPITALIZE THE ENTIRE NAME of each major character the first time it appears. Not every time, mind you; just the first.

Why only the first? To alert a skimming agent or editor to the fact that — wait for it — a new character has just walked into the story.

Because Millicent might, you know, miss ‘em otherwise.

It is also considered pretty darned nifty (and word-count thrifty) to include the character’s age in parentheses immediately after the first time the name appears, resulting in synopses that look something like this:

ST. THERESA OF AVILA (26) has a problem. Ever since she started dating multi-millionaire GEORGE ARMSTRONG CUSTER (82), all of her friends have unaccountably decided that she is mercenary and hates Native Americans. Apart from JEANNE D’ARC (30), her wacky landlady-cum-bowling-partner, who uses every opportunity to pump Theresa for man-landing tips, none of the residents of Theresa’s swanky Upper East Side co-op are even speaking to her — at least until they start desperately vying for invitations to her exclusive wedding extravaganza, a lavish event to be held onstage at the Oscars, with THE REVEREND DOCTOR OWEN WILSON (44 if he’s a day, I would guess; Author! Author! hopes he feels better soon) officiating. How will Theresa find a maid of honor — and if she does, what will her jealous old boyfriend GOD (∞) do?

Should any of you out there think you’re up to rounding out the plot above into some measure of coherence and submitting it, please, be my guest. Really. I’d love to read it.

For the rest of you, please note what I have done here: in preparing a synopsis for a comedy, I have produced a — wait for it! — humorous treatment of the material.

And if I were creating a synopsis for a steamy romance novel with the same premise (although I tremble to think what a sex romp with that particular cast of characters would entail), you can bet your last wooden nickel [that] I would take some writerly steps to make my reader’s mouth go dry and his breath become short while perusing it.

Would I do this because I’m wacky? No, because — those of you who have been following this series, chant it with me now — the synopsis, like the first 50 pages, is a writing sample.

Oh, had I mentioned that before? Well, it cannot be said too often, in my opinion. The sensible writer’s primary goal in producing it is to demonstrate not only that it is a good (or at least marketable) story, an attention-grabbing yarn peopled with fascinating characters, but that the writer is a terrific storyteller.

Don’t worry — in the days to come, I shall be talking about ways in which you can tweak your synopsis in order to convey that lovely impression.

For the nonce, let’s take a quick field trip back to yesterday’s examples of a not-so-hot 1-page synopsis. Do you notice any formatting problems here?

If you immediately leapt to your feet, screaming, “It doesn’t have a slug line! It doesn’t have a slug line!” give yourself a gold star for the day. Further points if you bellowed that it doesn’t say anywhere on the page that it is a synopsis.

Extra credit if you noticed that the pages are not numbered — a major no-no in any submission, ever, yet one of the more common ones. And yes, you should number it, even for a one-page synopsis — and no, you should not number it consecutively with the manuscript, unless a contest rule’s SPECIFICALLY tell you to do so. The first page of a synopsis is always page 1.

Top yourself with a halo if you also discovered that Aunt Jane made the rookie mistake of adding her name to the synopsis anywhere but in the slug line. For book-length works, the first page of text — regardless of whether it is in the manuscript, the synopsis, or any other requested materials — is not a title page.

Don’t treat it as if it were one; it looks unprofessional to the pros.

Everyone happy with his or her score on that quiz? Let’s take on the other negative example:

Where do we even begin? Millicent the screener would almost certainly not even read this one — in fact, she might burst into laughter from several paces away.

Let’s go over why. It stars too far down on the page, for one thing, falling into the same title-page error as the previous example. It’s the over-the-top typeface, though, and the fact that the page uses more than one of them, that would set Millicent giggling and showing it to her coworkers.

Oh, and it doesn’t contain a slug line or numbering. But I doubt Millicent would even notice that over her guffaws.

It makes one other error for a fiction synopsis, a subtler one — any guesses what?

This one may surprise some of you: it mentions the title of the book IN the text of the synopsis. Why is this a problem? Well, it’s considered stylistically weak, a sign that the synopsis is talking ABOUT the book instead of getting the reader involved in the story. Or, to put it another way, and a bit more bluntly: a fiction synopsis is supposed to tell the story of the book; one that pulls the reader out of the story by talking about it at a distance tends not to do that well.

And anyway, the title is already both at the top of the page (and SHOULD be in the slug line): why, Millicent wonders impatiently, cradling her too-hot latte until it cools — she’s learning, she’s learning — would the writer WANT to waste the space and her time by repeating the information?

“Wait just a minute, Anne,” I hear some of my former questioners call from the rear of the auditorium. “You’re talking about the cosmetic aspects of the synopsis as though it were going to be judged as pitilessly as the manuscript I submit. Surely, that’s not the case? The synopsis is just a technical requirement, right?”

Um, no — as I said, it’s considered a WRITING SAMPLE. So yes, it does tend to be judged — and dismissed — just as readily as problematic text anywhere else in the submission packet.

Sorry to be the one to break that to you. But isn’t it better that you hear it from me than surmise it from a form-letter rejection? Or, as is more often the case, NOT surmise if from a form-letter rejection and keep submitting problematic synopses?

Something worth mulling over, I think.

Next time, we’ll leave technicalities behind and delve into the wonderful world of storytelling on the fly. Keep up the good work!

Synopsis-writing 101, part II: the dreaded single-page synopsis, or, what to do when you can’t allow those mushrooms to multiply

We begin today on a note of triumph: long-time reader and fab lady Auburn McCanta has had a political essay selected (amid some SERIOUS competition, I’m guessing, at this point in the election cycle) for publication on the Huffington Post. Congratulations, Auburn!

Please, everyone, keep sending in word of your writerly triumphs, large and small. One of the great benefits of community is being able to share good news!

Good news comes in many forms for writers — as does, lest we forget ECQLC (Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy). Many aspiring writers become so focused on imagining a single track to literary success — which typically runs thus: write book, land agent, sell book to Random House, book signings, Oprah, wash, rinse, and repeat — that they forget that other writerly achievements can look awfully good in a query letter and in an author bio. Publications — paid or not, in print or on the Internet — definitely count, as do degree programs, certificate programs, contest placing, and so forth.

So please join me, everyone, in applauding Auburn for doing some smart long-term career promotion — and set aside some time in your no doubt busy schedule to brainstorm what ECQLC you might add to your query letter candy bowl to render it more attractive to Millicent.

Who, for those of you joining us late, is Author! Author!’s pet agency screener, the one who is so very efficient at zipping through stacks and stacks of query letters with a latte in one hand and a pile of form-letter rejections in the other. She’s also often the gal who weeds out submissions before they reach the desk of the agent of one’s dreams — who, if s/he happens to work at one of the larger agencies, might even have two or three Millicents pre-reading submissions.

We here at A! A! try not to annoy Millicent. It’s not good marketing strategy.

In further pursuit of that laudable goal, I launched yesterday into a discussion one of the more frustration-generating tasks a writer faces on a routine basis: compressing a deliciously complex, breathtakingly nuanced 400-book into a 5- (or 1)-page summary in standard format.

Or whatever length the agent of your dreams or contest of your desires has seen fit to request.

It’s well worth double-checking who is requesting what these days, especially if you’re planning on including a synopsis with your query letters. This information that’s usually easily available in the agency’s listing in one of the standard agency guides, on its website (if it has one; a surprisingly hefty percentage still don’t), or even, in the case of a REQUESTED synopsis to be included with a submission, in the communication containing the request for materials.

Yes, I AM saying what you think I’m saying: you wouldn’t believe how often queriers seem to forget to consult either of the former (or both, since sometimes they contain different information) or, in the heat of post-request excitement, simply disregard the instructions about what they’re supposed to send.

A good trick to help avoid the first mistake: do your homework; if the agency has made the information publicly available, Millicent will expect any querier or submitter to be familiar with it.

A couple of good tricks to avoid the second: when you receive a request for materials, immediately sit down and make a checklist of what should be in the submission packet. Then have a non-writer go over the request for materials, the agency in question’s guidelines, AND its website, making a separate list of all the agency’s requirements and requests. (Why a non-writer, you ask? S/he’s less likely to get swept up in the excitement of the moment.) Afterward, compare and consolidate the two lists.

Before you seal the submission packet, dig out the final version of that to-do list and triple-check that you did everything on it.

Pay extra-close attention to length restrictions for synopses — Millicents are known for rejecting a too-long or too-short synopsis on sight. Why? Well, one that is much shorter will make you look as if your story is unable to sustain a longer exposition; if it is much longer, you will look as though you aren’t aware of the standard.

Either way, the results can be fatal to your submission.

So what DOES work in a synopsis? It’s not going to sound sexy, I’m afraid, but here is the secret:

For fiction, stick to the plot of the novel, including enough vivid detail to make the synopsis interesting to read. Oh, and make sure the writing is impeccable.

For nonfiction, begin with a single paragraph about (a) why there is a solid market already available for this book and (b) why your background/research/approach renders you the perfect person to fill that market niche. Then present the book’s argument in a straightforward manner, showing how each chapter will build upon the one before to prove your case as a whole. Give some indication of what evidence you will use to back up your points.

For either, make sure to allot sufficient time to craft a competent, professional synopsis — as well as sufficient buffing time to render it gorgeous. Let’s face it, unlike some of the more — let’s see, how shall I describe them? — fulfilling parts of writing and promoting a book (see above; wash, rinse, repeat), a synopsis is unlikely to spring into your head fully-formed, like Athene; most writers have to flog the muses quite a bit to produce a synopsis they like.

To quote the late, great Billie Holiday: the difficult/I’ll do right now./ The impossible/will take a little while.

Too few aspiring writers do, apparently preferring instead to toss together something at the last minute before sending out a submission or contest entry. (Especially a contest entry. I’ve been a judge; I know.)

I have my own theories about why otherwise sane and reasonable people might tumble into this particular strategic error. Not being aware that a synopsis would be required seems to be a common reason, as does resentment at having to produce it at all. Or just not being familiar with the rigors of writing oe.

Regardless, it’s just basic common sense to recognize that synopses are marketing materials, and should be taken as seriously as anything else you write.

Yes, no matter how good your book may happen to be. Miss America may be beautiful au naturale, for all any of us know, but you can bet your last pair of socks that at even the earliest stage of going for the title, she takes the time to put on her makeup with care.

On the bright side, since almost everyone just throws a synopsis together, impressing an agent with one actually isn’t as hard as it seems at first blush. Being able to include a couple of stunning visceral details, for instance, is going to make you look like a better writer — almost everyone just summarizes vaguely.

My readers, of course, are far, far too savvy to make that mistake, right?

Even if you are not planning to send out queries or submissions anytime soon (much to those sore-backed muses’ relief), I STRONGLY recommend investing the time in generating and polishing a synopsis BEFORE you are at all likely to need to use it. That way, you will never you find yourself in a position of saying in a pitch meeting, “A 5-page synopsis? Tomorrow? Um, absolutely.”

Hey, there was a reason that I introduced you to that Billie Holiday song; it’s the mantra of the working writer. Or so my agent tells me.

Actually, if you can bear it — you might want to make sure your heart medication is handy before you finish this sentence –it’s a great idea to pull together a couple of different lengths of synopsis to have on hand, so you are prepared when you reach the querying and submission stages to provide whatever the agent in question likes to see.

What lengths might you want to have in stock? Well, a 5-page, certainly, as that is the most common request, and perhaps a 3 as well, if you are planning on entering any literary contests anytime soon. As I mentioned yesterday, it’s getting more common for agents to request a 1-page synopsis, so you might want to hammer out one of those as well.

I can tell from here that you’ve just tensed up. Take a deep breath. No, I mean a really deep one. This is not as overwhelming a set of tasks as it sounds.

In fact, if you have been reading this blog all summer or have worked through some of the exercised in the archives, you probably already have a 1-page synopsis floating around in your mind.

You may know it by its other name: the 2-minute pitch. (For tips on how to construct one of these babies, please see the aptly-named 2-MINUTE PITCH category at right.)

Don’t believe me, oh ye of little faith? Okay, here’s a pitch I used as an example just a couple of months back:

19th-century 19-year-old Elizabeth Bennet has a whole host of problems: a socially inattentive father, an endlessly chattering mother, a sister who spouts aphorisms as she pounds deafeningly on the piano, two other sisters who swoon whenever an Army officer walks into the room, and her own quick tongue, any one of which might deprive Elizabeth or her lovely older sister Jane of the rich husband necessary to save them from being thrown out of their house when their father dies. When wealthy humanity-lover Mr. Bingley and disdainful Mr. Darcy rent a nearby manor house, Elizabeth’s mother goes crazy with matchmaking fever, jeopardizing Jane’s romance with Bingley and insisting that Elizabeth marry the first man who proposes to her, her unctuous cousin Mr. Collins, a clergyman who has known her for less than a week. After the family’s reputation is ruined by her youngest sister’s seduction by a dashing army officer, can Elizabeth make her way in the adult world, holding true to her principles and marrying the man she passionately loves, or will her family’s prejudices doom her and Jane to an impecunious and regretful spinsterhood?

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, right? As I vaguely recall having mentioned at the time, this would be a trifle long as an elevator speech — which, by definition, needs to be coughed out in a hurry — but it would work fine in, say, a ten-minute meeting with an agent or editor.

It also, when formatted correctly, works beautifully as a one-page synopsis with only a few minor additions. Lookee:

Okay, so if I were Jane (Austen, that is, not Bennet), I MIGHT want to break up some of the sentences a little, particularly that last one that’s a paragraph long, but see how simple that was? The trick to the 1-page synopsis lies in realizing that it’s not intended to summarize the entire plot, merely to introduce the characters and the premise.

Yes, seriously. Like the descriptive paragraph in a query letter or the summary in a verbal pitch, no sane person seriously expects to see the entire plot of a book summarized in a single page. It’s a teaser, and should be treated as such.

Doesn’t that make more sense than driving yourself insane, trying to cram your entire storyline or argument into 22 lines? Or trying to shrink that 5-page synopsis you have already written down to 1?

Bears pondering, doesn’t it?

Yes, yes, I know: even with reduced expectations, it’s still a tall order. That’s why you’re going to want to set aside some serious time to write it — and don’t forget that the synopsis is every bit as much an indication of your writing skill as the actual chapters that you are submitting. (Where have I heard that before?) Because, really, don’t you want YOURS to be the one that justified Millicent’s heavily-tried faith that SOMEBODY out there can tell a good story in 3 – 5 pages?

Or — gulp! — 1?

Don’t worry; you can do this. There are more rabbits in that hat, and the muses are used to working overtime on good writers’ behalves. Keep up the good work!

At long last, the synopsis!

Our yard seems to have broken out in mushrooms over the weekend — the result of both the Pacific Northwest’s abrupt conversion from summer to winter weather and the landscape fairies (great big men, really, but as those of you who have been following my renovation saga have probably gathered over the last six months, a tad unpredictable in the timing of their visits) having spread around a great deal of mulch of forest origin. The beauty above is about twice the width of my foot.

Back to business. Does it seem as though I’ve been procrastinating about going over how to construct a synopsis this time around? I’m perfectly willing to admit it: I have; I dislike writing them, too. As those of you who have been hanging around Author! Author! for a while MAY have noticed, brevity isn’t really my strong point.

People become novelists for a lot of reasons — now you know mine.

The fact is, though, synopsis-writing is a task that dogs a professional writer at pretty much every step of her career. An aspiring writer almost always has to produce one in order to land an agent; a NF writer penning a proposal needs to synopsize the book she’s trying to sell; an agented writer will be asked to produce a synopsis for her agent to hand to an editor. Even in the happy event that an author has a successful book or two under her belt, she’s still going to need to summarize her next project for her agent and editor.

I know: it’s depressing, from a writerly point of view.

How do I know that? Because you can’t throw a piece of bread at any good-sized writers’ conference in the English-speaking world without hitting at least one writer complaining vociferously about it. I don’t think I’ve ever met a writer at any stage of the game who actually LIKES to write them, but those of us farther along tend to regard them as a necessary evil, a professional obligation to be met quickly and with a minimum of fuss, to get it out of the way.

Judging by conference talk (and, if I’m honest, by the reaction of some of my students when I teach synopsis-writing classes), aspiring writers are more likely to respond with frustration, often to the point of feeling downright insulted by the necessity of synopses for their books at all.

Most often, the complaints center on the synopsis’ torturous brevity. Why, your garden-variety querier wonders, need it be so cruelly short? What on earth could be the practical difference between reading a 5-page synopsis and a 6-page one, if not to make a higher hurdle for those trying to break into a notoriously hard-to-break-into business?

As we’ve seen with so many aspects of the querying and submission process, confusion about what is required and why often adds considerably to synopsis-writers’ stress. While the tiny teasers required for pitches and query letters are short for practical, easily-understood reasons — time and the necessity for the letter’s being a single page, which also boils down to a time issue, since the single-page restriction exists to speed up Millicent the agency screener’s progress — it’s less clear why, say, an agent would ask to see a synopsis of a manuscript he is ostensibly planning to read.

I sympathize with the confusion, but I must say, I always cringe a little when I hear writers express such resentments, because I want to take them aside and say, “Honey, you really need to be careful that attitude doesn’t show up on the page — because, honestly, that happens more than you’d think, and it’s never helpful to the writer.”

Not to say that these feelings is are not completely legitimate in and of themselves, or even a healthy, natural response to a task perceived to be enormous. Let’s face it, the first time most of us sit down to do it, it feels as though we’ve been asked to rewrite our entire books from scratch, but in miniature. From a writerly point of view, if a story takes an entire book-length manuscript to tell well, boiling it down to 5 or 3 or even — sacre bleu!1 page seems completely unreasonable, if not actually impossible.

Which it would be, if that were what a synopsis was universally expected to achieve. However, as I’m going to illustrate over the next week or so, an aspiring writer’s impression of what a synopsis is supposed to be is often quite different from what the pros have become resigned to producing, just as producing a master’s thesis seems like a much, much larger task to those who haven’t written one than those of us who have.

And don’t even get me started on dissertations.

My point is, once a writer comes to understand the actual purpose and uses of the synopsis — some of which are far from self-evident — s/he usually finds it considerably easier to write. So, explanation maven that I am, I’m going to devote this series to clarifying just what it is you are and aren’t being asked to do in a synopsis, why, and how to avoid the most common pitfalls.

Relax; you can do this. Since I haven’t talked about synopses in depth for a good, long while, let’s start with the absolute basics.

For those of you new to the term, a synopsis is a brief overview IN THE PRESENT TENSE of the entire plot of a novel or the whole argument of a book. Unlike an outline, which presents a story arc in a series of bullet points (essentially), a synopsis is fully fleshed-out prose. Ideally, it should be written in a similar voice and tone to the book it summarizes, but even for a first-person novel, it should be written in the third person.

The lone exception: a memoir’s synopsis can be written in both the past tense and should be written in the first person. Go figure. (Don’t worry — I’ll be showing you concrete examples of both in the days to come.)

Typically, professional synopses are typically 5 pages in standard manuscript format (and thus double-spaced, with 1-inch margins, in Times, Times New Roman, or Courier typefaces; see my parenthetical comment about the examples to come), depending upon the requirements of the requesting agent, editor, or contest. Increasingly, however, agents are beginning to request shorter synopses, which can be as little as a single page. (Don’t worry; we will be discussing how to write both types.) Sometimes, an agent will ask for 3, or a contest for 2. It varies.

Yes, Virginia, you read that correctly: not everyone wants the same length synopsis; there isn’t an absolute industry standard length for a querying, submission, or contest synopsis. The requested variations multiply like, well, mushrooms.

That resentment I mentioned earlier is starting to rise like steam, isn’t it? Yes, in response to that great unspoken shout that just rose from my readership, it would indeed be INFINITELY easier on aspiring writers everywhere if we could simply produce a single submission packet that would fly at any agency in the land.

Feel free to find that maddening — it’s far, far healthier not to deny the emotion. While you’re grumbling, however, let’s take a look at why an agency or contest might want a shorter synopsis.

Like so much else in the industry, time is the decisive factor: synopses are shorthand reference guides that enable overworked agency staffs (yes, Millicent really is overworked — and often not paid very much, to boot) to sort through submissions quickly. And obviously, a 1-page synopsis takes less time to read than a 5-page one.

Ah, Virginia has her hand raised. “I understand that, Anne,” she says, clearly piqued to be everyone’s constant exemplar of naïveté for so many years. “I also understand the time-saving imperative; you’ve certainly hammered on it often enough. What I don’t understand is, if the goal is to save time in screening submissions, why would anyone ever ask for a synopsis that was longer than a page? Why not just go off the descriptive paragraph in the query letter or pitch?”

Fabulous question, Virginia. You’ve come a long way since that question about the existence of Santa Claus.

It’s not as though the average agency or small publishing house reads the query letter and submission side-by-side: they’re often read by different people, under different circumstances. Synopses are often read by people (the marketing department in a publishing house, for instance) who have direct access to neither the initial query nor the manuscript. Frequently, if an agent has asked to see the first 50 pages of a manuscript and likes it, she’ll scan the synopsis to see what happens in the rest of the book. Ditto with contest judges, who have only the synopsis and a few pages of a book in front of them.

And, of course, some agents will use a synopsis promotionally, to cajole an agent into reading a manuscript — but 5-page synopses are usual for this purpose. As nearly as I can tell, the shorter synopses that have recently become so popular typically aren’t used for marketing outside the agency at all.

Why not? Well, realistically, a 1-page synopsis is just a written pitch, not a genuine plot summary, and thus not all that useful for an agent to have on hand if an editor starts asking pesky follow-up questions like, “Okay, so what happens next?” (If you’ve never pitched your work verbally to an agent, and want to learn how to do it, please check out the PITCHING category at right. No matter how good a book is, learning to describe it in terms the entire industry will understand is a learned skill. Trust me on this one.)

Do I hear some confused murmuring out there? “Wait,” I hear some of you saying, “this makes it sound as though my novel synopsis is never going to see the light of day outside the agency. If I have to spend all of this time and effort perfecting a synopsis, why don’t all agents just forward it to editors who might be interested, rather than the entire manuscript of my novel?”

Ah, that would be logical, wouldn’t it? But as with so many other flawed human institutions, logic does not necessarily dictate why things are done the way they are within the industry; much of the time, tradition does.

Thus, the argument against trying to sell a first novel on synopsis alone: fiction is just not sold that way, my dear. Publishing houses buy on the manuscript itself, not the summary. Nonfiction, by contrast, is seldom sold on a finished manuscript.

So for a novel, the synopsis is primarily a marketing tool for landing an agent, rather than something that sticks with the book throughout the marketing process. (This is not true of nonfiction, where the synopsis is part of the book proposal.)

I’m not quite sure why agents aren’t more upfront at conferences about the synopsis being primarily an in-house document when they request it. Ditto with pretty much any other non-manuscript materials they request from a novelist — indications of target market, author bio, etc. (For nonfiction, of course, all of these would be included within the book proposal.)

Requiring this kind of information used to be purely the province of the non-fiction agent, who needed it to put together a book proposal. Increasingly over the last decade or so, however, fiction writers are being asked to provide this kind of information to save agents — you guessed it — time. Since the tendency in recent years has been to transfer as much of the agents’ work to potential clients as possible, it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if agents started asking for the full NF packet from novelists within the next few years.

But let’s not worry about that dread day until it happens, shall we? For now, let’s stick to the current requirements.

Why is the 5-page synopsis more popular than, say, 3 pages? Well, 5 pages in standard format is roughly 1250 words, enough space to give some fairly intense detail. By contrast, a jacket blurb is usually between 100 and 250 words, only enough to give a general impression or set up a premise.

I point this out, because far too many writers new to the biz submit jacket blurbs to agents, editors, and contests, rather than synopses: marketing puff pieces, rather than plot descriptions or argument outlines. This is a mistake. Publishing houses have marketing departments for producing advertising copy. In a synopsis from a heretofore-unpublished writer, what industry professionals want to see is not self-praise, or a claim that every left-handed teenage boy in North America will be drawn to this book (even it it’s true), but a summary of what the book is ABOUT.

In other words, like the query, the synopsis is a poor place to boast. Since the jacket blurb synopsis is so common, many agencies use it as — wait for it — an easy excuse to reject a submission unread.

Yes, it’s unfair to those new to the biz, but the industry logic runs thus: a writer who doesn’t know the difference between a blurb and a synopsis is probably also unfamiliar with other industry norms, such as standard format and turn-around times. Thus (they reason), it’s more efficient to throw that fish back, to wait until it grows, before they invest serious amounts of time in frying it.

With such good bait, they really don’t stay up nights worrying about the fish that got away.

“In heaven’s name,” Virginia cries, “WHY? They must let a huge number of really talented writers who don’t happen to know the ropes slip through their nets!”

To answer that trenchant little question, let us turn once again to the wit and wisdom of the late, great Fats Waller. If you happen to have access to some old 78s (or the soundtrack for Ain’t Misbehavin’), it’s worth giving the entire lyrics of Find Out What They Like a close listen: I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone as straightforward romantic advice, of course, but it’s not a bad explanation of the underlying logic of easy dismissal.

On the off chance that one or two of you don’t have Mssr. Waller’s opus at your fingertips at the moment, here is a representative excerpt from the song. To clarify its applicability, substitute agent’s interest for man, agent for daddy, and aspiring writer for gal:

I used to wonder right along why I couldn’t hold a man.
Every love affair went wrong, until I changed my plan.
I’m having no more trouble now, my daddy’s nice as he can be
Ladies, I will tell you how — that’s if you’ll take a tip from me.

Find out what they like and how they like it, and let ‘em have it just that way.
Give ‘em what they want and when they want it, without a single word to say.

You’ve got to cater to a man and if you don’t,
He’ll find some other gal to do the things you won’t.

Crude, undeniably, and admittedly, awfully darned sexist as love advice (if you’re too young to see why at first glance, ask your mother. On second thought, don’t), but it does get right to the heart of the usual writerly objections to having to write a synopsis at all.

For instance: why reject a blurb-like synopsis on sight? Quoth the late Mssr. Waller:

Just use more sugar if he says your jam ain’t sweet
Or he will sneak for his dessert across the street.

To put it slightly less colorfully, there are a whole lot of fish in the submission sea; as I MAY have pointed out once or twice before in this forum, agencies (and contests) typically receive so many well-written submissions that their screeners are actively looking for reasons to reject them, not to accept them. An unprofessional synopsis is an easy excuse to thin the ranks of the contenders.

As always, I’m pointing out the intensity of the competition not to depress or intimidate you, but to help you understand just how often good writers get rejected for, well, reasons other than the one we all tend to assume. That fact alone strikes me as excellent incentive to learn what an agency, contest, or small publisher wants to see in a synopsis — and let them have it just that way.

Thank you, Fats.

To take another of the common questions, why does it need to be so brief? Every agent will probably give you a slightly different answer to that one, but the hard fact is, they receive so many queries in any given week that they can afford to be as selective as they like about synopses — and ask for any length they want.

You CAN say no, of course, and send them the same 1-, 3-, or 5-page you have constructed to send But, to refer again to our text du jour:

Now you will lose him if you give him lollipops
When you know he’s crazy just to have some chops.

Every agent, just like every editor and contest judge, is an individual, not an identical cog in a mammoth machine. An aspiring writer CAN choose ignore their personal preferences and give them all the same thing — submitting a 5-page synopsis to one but do you really want to begin the relationship by demonstrating an inability to follow directions?

I know: it’s awful to think of one’s own work being treated that way, or indeed, that of any dedicated writer. If I ran the universe, synopses would not be treated this way. Instead, each agency would present soon-to-query writers with a clear, concise how-to for its preferred synopsis style — and if a writer submitted a back jacket blurb, Millicent the agency screener would chuckle indulgently, hand-write a nice little note advising the writer to revise and resubmit, then tuck it into an envelope along with that clear, concise list.

Or, better yet, every agency in the biz would send a representative to a vast agenting conference, a sort of UN of author representation, where delegates would hammer out a set of universal standards for judging synopses, to take the guesswork out of it once and for all. Once codified, bands of laughing nymphs would distribute these helpful standards to every writer currently producing English prose, and bands of freelance editors would set up stalls in the foyers of libraries across the world, to assist aspiring writers in conforming to the new standards.

Unfortunately, as you may perhaps have noticed, I do not run the universe, so we writers have to deal with the prevailing lack of clear norms. However much speakers at conferences, writing gurus, and agents themselves speak of the publishing industry as monolithic, it isn’t: individual agents, and thus individual agencies, like different things.

The result is — and I do hate to be the one to break this to you, Virginia — no single synopsis you write is going to please everybody in the industry.

Sounds a bit familiar?

It should — the same principle applies to query letters. As convenient as it would be for aspiring writers everywhere if you could just write the darned things once and make copies as needed, it’s seldom in your interest to do so. Literally the only pressure for standardization comes from writers, who pretty uniformly wish that there were a single formula for the darned thing, so they could write it once and never think about it again.

You could make the argument that there should be an industry standard until you’re blue in the face, but the fact remains that, in the long run, you will be far, far better off if you give each what s/he asks to see. Just that way.

Well, so much for synopses. Tomorrow…

Just kidding; the synopsis is a tall order, and I’m going to walk you through both its construction and past its most common pitfalls. In a couple of weeks, you’ll be teaching other writers how to do it — and you’ll have yet another formidable tool in your marketing kit.

In the meantime, keep up the good work!

What happens AFTER you grant an exclusive, and other problems that most aspiring writers would really, really like to have

All right, I’m resigned to it: there is evidently a vast cosmic conspiracy to delay, if not actually prevent, my tackling the thorny issue of how to write a synopsis to accompany a query or submission. This time, as often happens, I got sidetracked by a really good question from a reader. Quoth obviously great query-writer Susan:

My question today, though not directly related to referrals, does have to do with industry etiquette. I’ve read your posts about exclusives, but can’t quite ferret out the answer to my current situation.

Last week, I granted a 3-week exclusive for a partial to Agent A, and yesterday I got an e-mail from Agent B requesting a (nonexclusive) full and another one from Agent C requesting a (nonexclusive) partial.

What’s the polite thing to do? Sit tight until the three weeks is up before responding to Agents B and C? Tell Agents B and C I’ll be happy to send these when the period of exclusivity with Agent A has expired?

Although truth compels me to say that I actually have written one general and two specific posts this year on this very subject (here is one on juggling exclusive and non-exclusive requests simultaneously, and here is one on dealing with mutually exclusive requests), I am glad that Susan asked (I’m even happier to hear that she set a time limit on Agent A’s exclusive, but that’s something I’ll explain later in this post.)

Why am I so pleased to deal with the topic again? Well. since writer friends ask me this very question — what should a writer who already has submissions out to agents do if a newly-responding agent asks for an exclusive? — privately a dozen or so times per year, in addition to the many, many times I am asked in the comments here, I’m inclined to believe that when aspiring writers agree to an exclusive, they don’t necessarily understand what it actually entails.

An exclusive, for those of you new to the concept, is when a writer agrees to allow an agent a specific amount of time to consider representing a particular manuscript, during which no other agent will be reviewing it. In practice, both the agent and the writer agree to abide by certain rules during the specified period:

– ONLY that agent will have an opportunity to read the materials;
– no other agent is already looking at it;
– the writer will not submit it anywhere else;
– in return for this significant advantage (which, after all, pulls the manuscript out of competition with other agents), the agent will make a legitimate effort to read and decide whether or not to offer representation within the specified time period.

Doesn’t seem all that complicated an arrangement, does it? Yet hardly a month goes by when I some well-meaning but confused exclusive granter doesn’t tap me on the shoulder (physically or electronically) to ask, “Um, Anne, do you remember that request for an exclusive I was so excited about a week and a half ago?” (Or a month and a half, or six months.) “I’ve heard from another agent. What should I do?”

If the writer specified a time limit on the exclusive, the answer is very simple: if less than that amount of time has passed, don’t send the manuscript to anyone else until it has; if more time has passed, what’s stopping you? When the writer HASN’T set such a limit, the ethics are more nebulous.

See why I was so pleased to hear that Susan had specified that Agent A had an exclusive for only three weeks?

To figure out where exclusive-granting writers run into ethical dilemmas, let’s look at the phenomenon from the other side of the agreement. Generally speaking, agents will request exclusives for one of three reasons: either they fear that there will be significant competition over who will represent the project, they don’t like to be rushed while reading, or it is simply the agency’s policy not to compete with outside agencies, ever.

Do I feel some of you out there getting tense, doing the math on just how many years (if not decades) it could take to make it through your list of dream agents if you had to submit to them one at a time? Relax, campers: requests for exclusives are actually fairly rare.

Why rare? Well, the first kind of exclusive request, the one Agent D (to continue through Susan’s alphabet of competitive agents) might use to prevent Agents E-R from poaching your talents before D has had a chance to read your manuscript (hey, D’s desk is already chin-deep in paper), tends to be reserved for writers with more than just a good book to offer. Celebrity, for instance, or a major contest win.

Basically, the agent is hoping to snap up the hot new writer before anybody else does. Or before the HNW realizes that s/he might prefer to be able to choose amongst several offers of representation. Since pretty much every respectable agency offers the same service, such choices are often made on the basis of connections, how well-established the agency is, or even how well the writer and the agent happen to hit it off.

If you suddenly find yourself the winner of a well-respected literary contest or on the cover of People, remember this: just because an agent asks for an exclusive does not mean you are under any obligation to grant it.

Oh, pick your chin up off the floor. If your work is in demand, it’s not necessarily in your best interest to sign with the first agent who makes an offer — you will want the one with the best track record of selling books like yours, right?

Chant it with me now, long-time readers: you do not want to land just any agent; you want the best agent for YOUR work.

As exciting as a request for an exclusive may be, it does tie the writer’s hands, for precisely the reason Susan mentions: throughout the duration of the exclusive, the writer agrees not to show the manuscript to any other agent. If, as in Susan’s case, other agents are also interested, this can mean a substantial delay in getting the manuscript onto their desks — and if Agent A offers to represent it, B and C may not see it at all.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, amn’t I? For the moment, what I would like for you to take from this situation as discussed so far are two things — no, make that three:

1) As flattering as a request for an exclusive is to an aspiring writer, granting it is optional;

2) Since by definition, a writer cannot submit to other agents during the exclusive period — yes, even if the writer queried the others first — it’s ALWAYS a good idea to set a time limit;

3) Since granting it limits the writer’s options, it’s best reserved for situations where one’s top-choice agents are interested in the book.

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

It’s a win/win, in other words.

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

My point is, if you are asked for an exclusive because your work is sought-after, it is up to you whether you would prefer to go steady right off the bat or date around a little. Got it? (If not, I can keep coming up with parallel cases all day, I assure you. Don’t make me start sending you to past posts.)

That doesn’t mean you should necessarily say no to this type of exclusivity request, but if you say yes, set a reasonable time limit on it, so you don’t keep your book off the dating market too long. This prudent step will save you from the unfortunately common dilemma of the writer who granted an exclusive six months ago and still hasn’t heard back.

Yes, in response to that gigantic collective gasp I just heard out there: one does hear rumors of agents who ask for exclusives, then hold onto the manuscript for months on end. Within the past couple of years, such rumors have escalated astronomically.

Set a time limit.

Susan’s choice of three weeks was a perfectly legitimate length. No need to turn the time limit into an experiment in negotiation: simply include a sentence in your submission’s cover letter along the lines of I am delighted to give you an exclusive look at my manuscript, as you requested, for the next three weeks. Simple, direct — and trust me, if the agent has a problem with the time you’ve specified, s/he’ll contact you to ask for more.

Negotiation is not possible with the other type of exclusive request, the kind that emerges from an agency that only reviews manuscripts that no one else is; the writer is not offered a choice in the matter. Consequently, a request for an exclusive from these folks is not so much a compliment to one’s work (over and above the sheer desire to read some of it, that is) as a way of doing business.

In essence, these agencies are saying to writers, “Look, since you chose to query us, you must have already done your homework about what we represent — and believe us, we would not ask to see your manuscript if we didn’t represent that kind of writing. So we expect you to say yes right away if we make you an offer.”

Why might such a stance be advantageous for an agency to embrace? Well, it prevents them from ever having to experience the fear associated with the first type of exclusive request: if you send them pages, they may safely assume that you won’t be calling them in a week to say, “Um, Agent Q has just made me an offer, slowpoke. I still would like to consider your agency, so could you hurry up and finish reading my manuscript so you can give me an answer? As in by the end of the week?”

Okay, so you wouldn’t really be that rude. (PLEASE tell me you wouldn’t be that rude.) But let’s face it, agents who don’t require exclusive submissions do receive these types of calls a fair amount. And nobody, but nobody, reads faster than an agent who has just heard that the author of the manuscript that’s been propping up his wobbly coffee table is fielding multiple offers.

Agencies who demand exclusivity are, by definition, unlikely to find themselves in a similar Oh, my God, I have to read this 400-page novel by tomorrow! situation. You have to admit, after even the third or fourth panicked all-nighter, exclusives might start to look like a pretty good policy.

What does the writer get in return for agreeing not to submit to others for the time being? Well, not a heck of a lot, unless the agency in question is in fact the best place for his work. But if one wants to submit to such an agency, one needs to follow its rules.

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

(Yes, Virginia, positive responses are often form-letters, too, even when they arrive in e-mail form. I sympathize with your shock.)

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

Do I feel some of you tensing up again? Relax — agencies with this requirement are not very common.

Why? Well, because they require their potential clients to bring their often protracted agent search to a screeching halt while the submission is under consideration, such agencies are, in the long run, more time-consuming for a writer to deal with than others. As a result, many ambitious aspiring writers, cautious about committing their time, will avoid querying agencies with this policy.

Which, again, is a matter of personal choice. Or it is if you happened to notice before you queried that the agency in question had this policy.

Hey, check their T-shirts — and even with such agencies, be up front about how long you will be willing to wait.

So where does this leave Susan and the many other writers out there who have granted exclusives to the first agent who asks, only to find themselves chafing under the agreement down the line, when other agents asked to see the manuscript?

Well, it depends upon two factors: why the agent asked for the exclusive in the first place, and how long it has been since the writer granted it.

If the agent asked for it because her agency will only consider exclusive submissions, then the writer is indeed obligated to hold off on further submissions. If the agreed-upon period has elapsed, you can always contact the agent and ask point-blank if s/he needs more time.

What the writer should NOT do when dealing with an exclusives-only agency is contact the agent, explain that others want to read the work, and ask if it’s okay to submit simultaneously — which, incidentally, is very frequently the writer’s first impulse, if those who contact me on the sly to ask my advice are any indication. Bless their optimistic little hearts, they seem to believe that of only the agent in question understood how eagerly they want to find representation, the agent’s heart would melt.

“Of course, you may indulge in multiple submissions,” s/he would say, tossing candy to the world’s children from Santa’s sleigh. “We were just kidding about that whole exclusives-only thing.”

Not going to happen.

This desire to throw oneself upon the agent’s mercy seems even stronger, if that’s possible, in writers who already have submissions out with other agents, and THEN receive a request for an exclusive from an agent. For many such submitters (who, let’s face it, have a problem most aspiring writers would LOVE to have), the fact of previous submission seems to obviate the agent’s request, or even an exclusives-only agency’s policy.

They couldn’t really mean it in MY case, these writers think.

I hate to burst your bubble, Sparky, but I can assure you that they could — and do. Trying to negotiate one’s way out of this situation only tends to change the representation question from whether the agent likes the writer to whether he really wants to deal with someone who has difficulty following directions.

Don’t believe me? Okay, let’s take a gander at the probable e-mail exchange between agent Clinton and Mehitabel, a writer who already has a submission out to another agent:

Dear Mehitabel:
Thank you for querying me with your novel, TERMINAL INDECISIVENESS. Please send the first fifty pages.

As you may already know, our agency will accept only exclusive submissions. Please enclose a SASE.

Clinton McPicky

Dear Clint:
Thank you for your interest in my novel. I would be happy to give you an exclusive, but the fact is, two other agents already have partial manuscripts, and I don’t know when I shall be hearing back from them. I’m really impressed with your agency, though, and I certainly don’t want to knock it out of consideration.

Since it would obviously be impossible for me to give you an exclusive on material that’s already elsewhere, is it okay if I just go ahead and send you what I’ve sent the others?

Dear Mehitabel:
As I mentioned, my agency only accepts submissions on an exclusive basis.

Notice what happened here? Mehitabel tried to shift responsibility for solving her dilemma onto Clinton’s shoulders. (Also, she addressed him by a familiar nickname, rather than the name with which he signed his letter; a small thing, but rather rude.) From her point of view, this made perfect sense: his request had caused a problem, so she asked him to modify his request.

From Clinton’s POV, however, she was asking him to change agency policy for the sake of a single writer who, for all he knows, simply did not bother to check what those policies were before querying. What possible incentive could he have for saying yes?

Got the impulse to quibble out of your system, Mehitabel? Good. Next time, abide by your agreement: allow Clinton an exclusive until the agreed-upon time has elapsed, then inform him that unless he would like an extension upon his exclusive (which you are under no obligation to grant, Hitty), you will be submitting it to the other agents who have requested it.

What’s that you say, Mehitabel? Isn’t Clinton likely to say no at that point? Perhaps, but not necessarily — and you will have done your level best to conduct your submission process honorably.

Everyone out there comfortable with all this? Okay, let’s return to Susan’s situation.

In a case like Susan’s (if I am reading her question correctly), where the writer has an agreed-upon time limit with an agent whose agency does NOT insist upon solo submissions, the resolution again depends upon how much time has elapsed. If the exclusive period is still ongoing, the writer cannot in good conscience send out requested materials to any other agent regardless of whether others requested exclusives in the meantime.

Don’t even consider it. Otherwise, the exclusive would be meaningless, no?

For some reason, the writers who creep into my atelier in the dead of night to ask my advice on the subject almost always seem surprised, or even hurt, by this response. But the situation honestly is pretty straightforward, ethically speaking: the writer agreed to the exclusive, so pretty much everyone in the industry would expect her abide by it.

And as we saw above, contacting everyone concerned to explain the dilemma will not eliminate it; all that will do is tell all of the agents involved that the writer is trying to change the rules. Either trying to renegotiate with A at this point or telling the others they will need to wait, will not win the writer points with anybody; it will merely look as though you didn’t understand what an exclusive was.

Here’s how I would advise handling Susan’s dilemma: if she hears back from Agent A within the three weeks and he wants to represent you, she has only two options — saying yes without sending out further submissions or saying no and sending out to the others.

If A does make an offer she wishes to accept, she should send a polite note to the other two, saying precisely what happened: another agent made an offer before she could send out the materials they requested. They’ll understand; this happens all the time.

If A doesn’t make an offer within those three weeks, on day 22 (three weeks + 1 day), she should send the requested materials to Agents B and C, along with cover letters explaining that others are looking at it simultaneously. No need to specify who is doing the looking, just that they are.

To deal courteously with A at this point, she should send a letter — paper or e-mail, depending upon how Susan previously had contact with him/her — saying that while A is still her first choice (the implication of an exclusive, always), since the exclusive has now expired, she is now sending out requested materials to other agents.

Again, this happens all the time. If Susan were really nervous about alienating A, she could contact him first, offering to extend the exclusive BEFORE sending out the others, but it’s imperative that A is aware before he makes a timing decision that others are indeed interested.

As long as a writer does what she said she was going to do, she’s unlikely to run into much trouble with an exclusive — but remember, this is an industry where reputations count; in the long run, it’s in your interest every bit as much as the agent’s that you honor the exclusivity agreement, if you grant it.

Frankly, I think most submitters in this situation overreact to the prospect of a comparatively short wait. Because, really, holding off for a few days or weeks is not going to harm the writer’s chances with the other requesting agents. Chances are that they’re reasonable people; after all, it’s not as though they requested the materials, then cleared their schedules for the foreseeable future in order to hold their respective breaths until the submission arrived.

Or, to couch it in today’s example: if Susan hadn’t had the good sense to ask for a time limit, an extended delay might have required explanation, but realistically, agents B and C almost wouldn’t have dropped everything to read the submission before A’s exclusive expired, anyway. She can afford to sit tight.

All this being said, a writer is under no obligation whatsoever to stop submitting or querying other agents while one is reading requested materials. Unless an agent ASKS for an exclusive — and believe me, if an agency requires exclusivity, the member agent interested in your work will tell you so directly — it is NOT expected. In fact, now that the agent-finding market is so fierce, the vast majority of agents simply assume that good writers are querying and submitting widely.

While not continuing to pursue other leads while an agent is perusing your work may seem like a well-deserved break, a reward for successful querying, it’s effectively like applying to only one college per year: you might get in eventually, but it’s a far more efficient use of your time to apply to many simultaneously.

Unless, of course, the school you’re absolutely sure that you want to attend offers you early admission.

So submit widely — and keep those queries and submissions circulating until you land an agent. Just make sure that when you have requested materials out to more than one agent, you tell each that others are looking at it.

Trust me, they’ll want to know, even if they aren’t exclusive-minded. Gives ‘em just a touch of incentive to read faster.

Glancing over the length of this, I am tempted to conclude that while it was an interesting experiment to try to tackle such a huge question in a single post — the easier for readers to find it in the archive, my dears — I probably shan’t do it again. The double-take I just did at the clock informs me not only that it is time to end for today, but that I should probably take tomorrow off to rest my wrists.

Next time, whenever that shall be and universal interference permitting, we’ll move on to synopses, but I make no promises. Blog life has just been too unpredictable of late. Keep up the good work!

Referral-seeking, part IV: asking for pull without pushing

My, but everyone’s been quiet while I’ve been going over the dos and don’ts of approaching authors for referrals to their agents — an unusual state that I choose to attribute to the fact that all of my readers are gentle, polite, super-talented souls who would never dream of imposing unduly upon new acquaintance in order to advance their careers.

Deliberately, anyway. One of the reasons that I like to post from time to time on industry etiquette is that I’m convinced that most of this species of writerly faux pas are more the result of being unfamiliar with the rules of the game than any inherent tendency toward overreaching.

Truth compels me to say, however, that as a group, aspiring writers do have a reputation for being immensely pushy when interacting with agents and editors — if you doubt this, just drop by that bar that’s never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference in North America and listen to the pros complain to one another. Everyone seems to cherish a personal horror story or two.

Since at every conference I have ever attended — and they have been legion — the vast majority of attending writers have tripped over backwards in their eagerness NOT to offend the visiting agents and editors, I have always suspected that the pushy label is the result of the actions of a relatively small percentage of writers. Hey, any large group of people is going to contain an array of personalities, right?

Today’s post is specifically aimed at the more aggressive end of the spectrum.

Which is a nice way of saying: I have been trying to keep this series on approaching the established and the industry insider for recommendations upbeat, I feel it would be remiss not to address some of the faux pas that are less inadvertent. Before I conclude this series, I want to spend a day dealing with…

Well, one hates to use a term as ugly as dishonesty. Let’s just say that these examples are frowned upon in the industry, and leave it at that.

For those of you joining us late, for that past few days, we’ve been discussing the possibility of using an introduction from an established client as a stepping-stone to getting an agent’s attention. Generally speaking, there are two ways in which established writers make such an introduction without excessive trouble to themselves: either they can grant you permission to use their names in your query letter (as in the sterling beginning, Your client Rufus Rudyard recommended that I contact you about my book…), or they can forward your work to their agents themselves, with suitable commentary about how terrific you are.

Either way, the results are potentially very good for you. Such a recommendation usually means that the agent will actually see the query letter, rather than just a screener. At minimum, the query will be taken more seriously; there is considerable anecdotal evidence to indicate that referred manuscripts tend to be read with a slightly kinder eye.

As Dr. Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull informed us in the brilliant and hilarious sociological classic, THE PETER PRINCIPLE — which, if I ruled the universe, would be issued gratis to every new employee in every bureaucracy on her first day of work — it is always better to pull than to push.

Nice work if you can get it, in other words — but what such referral typically does NOT mean, as we have seen over the last couple of days, is that the recommender will effectively become the book’s unpaid agent and cheerleader.

Authors tend to have reservations about forwarding other writers’ work themselves, for very good reasons: it’s a lot of responsibility, assuring an agent that the forwarded writer is the next great find; if the agent is slow or hostile in response, the referring author feels he’s let the writer down; if the writer turns out to be hard to work with, unprofessional, or just not very talented, the author’s credibility with his agent may be compromised. Oh, and by introducing his agent to another writer, the author is bringing into the agency someone with whom he will have to compete for the agent’s usually already stretched-thin time.

Given all of those disincentives, it’s not a great surprise that most authors are more than a little reluctant to go this route, is it?

The other, infinitely more common approach is to say, “Sure — this is my agent’s name; go ahead and say that that I recommended you to him.” While this may not at first blush seem like much of a favor, bear in mind that all of the disincentives above still apply – this route is merely less work for the author – so it is still a piece of assistance well worth your gratitude.

Because such recommendations are so valuable, over-eager aspiring writers occasionally fudge just a little in their use, implying more of a recommendation than the author in question was actually offering. The most famous form of this, of course, is the query that begins, “Saul Bellow said my work is the best thing he’s read for the last ten years.”

A recommendation that would be considerably more impressive if Mssr. Bellow had been alive for more of those ten years than he actually was, no?

Sometimes, though, recommendation blurring of reality is unintentional — the aspiring writer merely misunderstood how much of a leg up the author was actually offering:

Referral-farming scenario 10: at a book signing, Rachel meets Rapunzel, a writer she has admired for years. Rachel, being a polite writer, approaches Rapunzel with respect: she arrives at the reading well-versed in Rapunzel’s work, including her latest novel, LIFE AFTER HAIR; she asks intelligent questions during the reading; she brings a book to have Rapunzel sign, and buys another for her mother, and she gushes at Rapunzel long enough after the signing that the author spontaneously asks her what she writes.

So far, so good, right?

In fact, they hit it off so well that Rapunzel gives Rachel her e-mail address. After a reasonable exchange of not-very-time-consuming questions and answers, the author tells Rachel that she may use the valuable Rapunzel name as a reference in approaching her agent, Rafaela.

Rachel is thrilled — and promptly sends her entire manuscript off to Rafaela, saying that Rapunzel had told her to send it. She is astonished to see her manuscript returned within a week with a form- letter rejection.

This may seem like an odd question, under the circumstances, but what did Rachel do wrong?

She misunderstood, quite innocently, what Rapunzel was offering her: the opportunity to use her as a reference in a query letter, period. If she had pursued this less aggressive route, Rafaela probably would have asked to see the manuscript. By sending her manuscript before Rafaela asked for it, however, Rachel just sent an unsolicited submission. As such, Rafaela may not even have read any of it.

Yes, even with a valid recommendation from her favorite client, Rapunzel.

Here again, we see that asking follow-up questions could have saved the writer a lot of grief. But to be fair, it’s hard to hold Rachel very responsible for the outcome: she simply did not know enough about how agencies worked to realize how much unsolicited submissions are despised.

Not all referral mistakes are this innocent, however.

Referral-farming scenario 11: Samuel met agented writer Samantha at a writers’ conference a few years ago. They have been cordial ever since whenever they met, and occasionally e-mail about their respective publishing progress. Having heard so much about Samantha’s agent, Sydney, Samuel feels as though he knows her.

One rainy Monday morning, Samantha is startled to see an e-mail from Sydney in her in-box. (At work: since she has only sold a couple of mid-list books, Samantha still can’t afford to quit her secretarial job; starting to notice a pattern here?)

“Can you tell me something about this writer you recommended?” Sydney writes. “I’ve been thinking about getting into representing this kind of book, but his bio was really sketchy. Can you fill me in about why you thought he might be a good fit for my list?”

Huh? Samantha thinks.

A few days later, Samuel receives his manuscript and a form-letter rejection with an angry scrawl in the margins. “Our client didn’t recommend you,” it reads, “and we do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.”

What did Samuel do wrong? Without seeing his query, it’s a trifle hard to tell, precisely, but we can certainly make some educated guesses.

At best, Samuel seems to have fudged his initial query, turning an acquaintance into a recommendation. Perhaps, if asked, he would respond that since Samantha had spoken so often and so glowingly of Sydney, he thought she was making a recommendation.

But regardless of why he did it, or if he intended to misleading, he’s blown his chance with Sydney — and his friendship with Samantha — forever: evidently, it didn’t occur to him that the agent might check.

Word to the wise: they do. Habitually.

If you harbor even the slightest doubt about whether an agented author is offering a recommendation — and you should, unless the author has actually produced the words, “Tell my agent I sent you” — for heaven’s sake, ASK.

Rather than wasting our energies upon trying to figure out what Samuel could have been thinking, let’s look at another version of the misused recommendation. This one is hard to read as anything but manipulative, but at least the exemplar in this instance is clever enough to be cautious about the possibility of the agent’s checking up on her:

Referral-farming scenario 12: Tanya met agented author Tremaine through networking; he’s the friend of a friend. Because she seemed to be a pleasant, well-read person and was complimentary about his work, Tremaine was happy to answer a few of Tanya’s questions via e-mail. Lately, however, he’s been deliberately slowing his responses.

Why? Well, she’s started to e-mail him every day.

Clearly, he thinks, Tanya is thinking of this as a friendship, rather than what it actually is, an author being nice to a reader. So instead of answering right away, he waits three days, then a week, mentioning in each response just how busy he is. When she still doesn’t take the hint, he begins responding to only every third or fourth message — and then only very tersely.

One sunny Tuesday, Tremaine sees yet another e-mail from Tanya in his inbox. Sighing, he leaves it to answer another day.

On Friday, he opens it, and is startled to find a cheerful missive from Tanya, informing him she has already sent a query to his agent, Trevor — using Tremaine’s name as a reference. Would Tremaine mind following up with Trevor, to confirm the recommendation and try to speed up the process? Thanks so much!

Tanya’s put Tremaine in a tough situation here, hasn’t she? On one level, she has used his name without his permission, and he would be well within his rights to pick up the phone and tell Trevor that she used his name without his permission, killing her submission’s chances.

On the other hand, doing so would make him look bad in the eyes of his agent: if he confesses to having been used, the next time Tremaine actually does want to recommend an aspiring writer, he will have to pass the manuscript along to Trevor personally, to avoid the possibility of another misappropriation of his name.

Which, as we have seen, will be a whole lot of work for him.

Of course, it was Tanya’s responsibility to ASK Tremaine for permission to use his name, not merely to impose upon his good nature and tell him about it afterward. And while it is possible that she DID ask, but Tremaine overlooked her question because of the sheer volume of her e-mails, it is never legitimate to assume that silence equals consent.

A good rule of thumb in any context, actually.

What happened to Tremaine happens to famous writers ALL the time: unfortunately, there are plenty of aspiring writers out there who have mistaken professional kindness to a fan for the beginning of a lifetime friendship. And friends help one another, right?

Before you use a recommender’s name, make ABSOLUTELY sure that you have the recommender’s permission to do so; you may make an honest mistake, but because some unscrupulous folks have used this leg-up technique on purpose, the knee-jerk assumption on the agent’s end is almost certainly going to be that there was no misunderstanding at all. Just misappropriation.

It’s not worth the risk.

A graceful way to confirm: if you are meeting in person, ask the recommender to write the agent’s name on a handy piece of paper for you. Then ask, “And it’s really okay for me to say that you sent me?” If said in a pleased, wondering tone, this will be perceived as a compliment — Wow, YOU’re willing to recommend little old me? — rather than doubting the author’s word.

Via e-mail, it’s even easier: if the language of the offer has been at all ambiguous, e-mail the recommender, saying that you are going to contact the agent. But make sure, unlike Tanya, you do it BEFORE you contact the agent in question.

The overarching moral of all of the examples across the last few days: it is ALWAYS better to ask a follow-up question or two than to assume that someone intends to help you more than his words have stated specifically. If the recommender is indeed offering to help, the question is merely considerate; if not, it’s far better you know about it before you act, right?

And regardless of the outcome: remember to express gratitude for the help you did get. As well as, of course, keeping up the good work!

Referral-seeking, part III: avoiding the wrath of the feathered serpent, or, how to win friends and influence people

My, but yesterday’s little homily was unsettling, wasn’t it? For those of you tuning in late, I was waxing poetic over the weekend about how appallingly easy it is for a perfectly innocent writer, unburdened with much knowledge of industry norms of conduct, to alienate a pro who was previously all ready to help him.

Not to mention the person who hasn’t yet said no, or whom one has yet to meet. Because, let’s face it, the publishing industry is a world where writers do need people they barely know — or don’t know at all yet — to do them favors.

In case anyone out there is confused on the subject: anytime an aspiring writer asks someone affiliated with the industry to assist him or her in skipping or speeding up the standard steps involved in querying, pitching, finding an agent, and/or getting published, s/he is asking a favor. While it is indeed agents’ and editors’ jobs to discover new talent, it’s not typically their only job, and helping out the aspiring isn’t even mentioned in a published author’s job description.

So if someone is willing to extend a helping hand, it’s generally because they’re nice. This is not a business where being pushy, or even being a good salesman, is necessarily going to work.

That’s why I refer to the finesse that allows savvy writers to avoid such faux pas as industry etiquette: like the old tried-and-true Emily Post guidelines, following these rules may not allow you to relax much around agents, editors, and published authors, but at least you know you won’t come across as a (fill in the clumsiness metaphor of your choice here).

As the British used to tell their children, manners cost nothing — but, as we saw in poor Pablo’s case yesterday, sometimes not having manners can be very costly indeed.

Yesterday, I ran through some of the common permutations Pablo’s ilk of misapprehension tends to take, but I assure you, there are others: topping the hit parade, for instance, are handing a manuscript to an agented friend and just assuming he will pass it along to his agent, but so is bot giving any sort of writing sample to an agented writer at all, but asking her to recommend you to her agent anyway and e-mailing an unrequested manuscript to an agented writer with a request that it be passed along.

Really, these are all fruit of the same tree – the initial assumption that someone else is going to do the writer’s legwork for him.

Everyone clear on that? Good. Now that you all know not to sling your manuscript in the general direction of anyone who might conceivably be able to introduce you to an agent, I’m going to concentrate today and tomorrow on more creative ways to mess up a relationship with a potential helper.

While you’re reading through, keep asking yourself this question: what single, simple thing could each of these exemplars has done to prevent falling into the proverbial soup?

Referral-farming scenario 9: Quincy and Quetzalcoatl (hey, there aren’t a whole lot of Q names) have known each other for years, having met at a writer’s conference a long time ago. Although they live on different sides of the country, thanks to e-mail, they have kept in touch as well as they would have had they lived in the same major metropolitan area.

Perhaps more so: writers, as we all know, make far and away the best e-mail correspondents.

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but when ordinary citizens e-mail one another, they exchange only a couple of lines. Gospel. Some — oh, I tremble to tell you this — don’t even put that much of themselves into correspondence with their friends, but instead merely forward jokes written by other people and photographs of their infants drooling!

I know; shocking.

So, being writers, Quincy and Quetzalcoatl have shared the highs and the lows of their quest for publication in great, multi-page detail. Last year, Quetzalcoatl successfully self-published a slim volume on how to use commas to maximum effect, and has been going around to conferences ever since, speaking and promoting his book. Sensibly, he made a point of chatting with all of the agents at these conferences, with an eye to ending up on one of their representation lists.

After one such conference, Quetzalcoatl e-mails Quincy, all excited. “You’re not going to believe it,” our serpent king writes, “but agent Quibble jabbered for ten minutes about the kind of book he’s looking to represent, and it sounded just like yours!”

Quincy is astounded and grateful, of course — he has been shopping his epic, QUO VADIS, around since the last millennium, raking in stacks and stacks of rave rejections, but no offers.

So he immediately e-mails Quetzalcoatl back: “Tell Quibble about me!” To make it easier for his friend, he attaches a complete e-mail version of QUO VADIS for Quetzalcoatl to forward to Quibble.

Quetzalcoatl is nonplused: yes, he met Quibble at the conference, but they certainly don’t know each other well enough to be exchanging unsolicited manuscripts. Uncomfortable with the position into which Quincy has placed him, he suggests gently that his friend should approach Quibble in the standard manner, via a query, perhaps mentioning that Quetzalcoatl had recommended him as a potential good fit.

“It would have a better chance,” Quincy writes back immediately, “coming from you.”

Although Quincy waits for months to hear that his big break has arrived, he never hears from Quibble at all. Suspecting that Quetzalcoatl never bothered to follow through, Quincy stops returning his e-mails, and the friendship fades.

Finish wiping your eyes over this sad tale of loss and betrayal, put away your handkerchiefs, and consider: what did Quincy do wrong, other than jump to unwarranted conclusions about his long-term friend? (Fie! Fie!)

At one level, Quincy made Pablo’s mistake: he assumed that because he was being offered help, the helper would be doing all the requisite legwork from here on out. However, his follow-up misconception was a subtler oneL he thought, mistakenly, that he was being offered a personal introduction to Quibble, and before he took advantage of it, he wanted to make sure that Quetzalcoatl had already pitched his book in glowing terms.

Essentially, he wasn’t willing to put effort into pursuing the opportunity Quetzalcoatl had turned up for him until he was already assured a warm reception.

But he did not tell his friend that, so Quetzalcoatl in his turn assumed, naturally enough, that a querier as experienced as Quincy would automatically have leapt upon the tip and run with it. He would have been flatly astonished to learn that Quincy did not follow up on it, but since Quincy was too busy fuming to say anything at all, Quetzalcoatl has never heard one way or the other. All he knows is that for some unexplained reason, Quincy has disappeared.

Could be a lof of reasons for that, right?

It’s vital to remember that it’s not the helper’s job to second-guess what the helpee thinks is going on; it’s precisely the other way around. In point of fact, Quetzalcoatl was offering something quite different than Quincy assumed: a lead to an agent who had stated publicly that he was already interested in Quincy’s kind of work.

As those of us who have been through the querying mill a few dozen times know, such a tip is not to be sneezed at, upon, or even near. It’s valuable information, and Quetzalcoatl had every reason to expect Quincy to be at least a little bit grateful for it.

So what should Quincy have done instead? Sent out a query to Quibble that very day, of course, including in the first paragraph the sentiment, “Since you announced at Conference X that you were interested in Roman epics, I hope you will be open to reading my novel, QUO VADIS…” Basically, he should have taken the precious information Quetzalcoatl had given him, run with it, and blessed his friend eternally for providing it.

Instead, he just waited for the person who had just helped him to help him still more — essentially expecting Quetzalcoatl to act as his agent (as if he didn’t have his hands full fighting off Cortez, the conquistadors, and smallpox AND marketing his own book). Then, still less excusably, instead of talking to his old buddy Q about what should happen next, he kept quiet until he began to resent that Quetzalcoatl hadn’t done MORE for him.

Pretty meagre payback for Quetzalcoatl’s having done his friend a favor, isn’t it?

In essence, Quincy let a long-term friendship deteriorate because it did not occur to him that his own conception of what he was being offered was inaccurate. From an outside perspective, this seems rather silly, because a few simple questions would have elicited the fact that Quetzalcoatl was not in fact in a position to offer Quincy anything more than a little inside information.

Truth be known, Quetzalcoatl is not on terms of close personal friendship with Quibble: in reality, they sat at the same table for lunch on one day of a three-day conference, chatting about their favorite science fiction books. While waiting for his own lecture to start, Quetzalcoatl sat in on a class Quibble taught — and that was where he learned of Quibble’s love for QUO VADIS-like literature.

Now, this information could not help him personally – Quetzalcoatl’s next book is a NF tome on the historical importance of the ampersand. Yet, like the sterling member of the aspiring writer community that he is, he immediately bethought himself of his friend’s book, and passed the info along.

Thus was a good deed punished. And, should Quetzalcoatl ever find out why Quincy stopped speaking to him, how likely is he ever to do a similar favor for another aspiring writer again?

The moral of this story is not, as a cynic might tell you, never to stick your neck out for a friend. No, I think we can all agree that the world — or at any rate our little corner of it — would be a far, far better place if more of us acted like Quetzalcoatl. No, not by being friendly to the plague-carrying conquistadores; by using what we learn at conferences, classes, online, etc., to help our writing friends whenever and wherever we can.

The actual moral is that it’s ALWAYS a good idea to ask follow-up questions of people offering to help you get ahead in the industry. Make sure you know precisely what kind of assistance is on the table — and what you will need to do to take advantage of it without stepping on anyone’s toes.

Oh – and remember to thank your benefactors, for heaven’s sake, regardless of the ultimate outcome of their assistance. Regardless of his original misapprehension, it wouldn’t have killed Quincy to scrawl “Thanks for the tip” in a holiday card. By doing so, he might have saved the friendship – and restored Quetzalcoatl’s faith in humanity.

A scant handful more examples, and then I’m through. Visualize synopses beginning Wednesday. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Referral-seeking, part II: et tu, Brute? You want me to recommend you to my agent, too? But I referred Cassius last week!

Yes, yes, I know: I had implied — okay, said that I was going to start running through the rigors of constructing a professional-reading synopsis this weekend. Honestly, I have been thinking about it endlessly, trying to rack my already-taxed brain to come up with something new, scintillating, and enlightening to say on what is arguably most writers’, established and aspiring both, least favorite task ever.

How have I been coming along, you ask? Well, does the fact that I’m running a second post on the dos and don’ts of seeking out referrals from authors to their agents give you a clue?

Actually, I have been wanting to revisit the pitfalls associated with approaching established writers to ask for their assistance in landing an agent for quite some time now, because as the literary market tightens, such referrals skyrocket in value. Not because, as many writers seeking such a recommendation apparently believe, it is an automatic entrée into representation — as the agents themselves like to say, it all depends up on the writing – but because being able to say so-and-so sent me is necessary to get your submission read at all at some agencies.

Basically, garnering recommendations from authors can open some doors that are otherwise hermetically sealed to the average querier — and even at agencies where the doors are relatively easy to open, a good word from an established client can often increase the probability of the agent’s requesting pages.

Obviously, this would be beneficial at any time, but the harder it is for agents to sell books to editors at any given moment — as, for instance, when the big publishers are worried about a recession — the more selective your garden-variety agent will probably be in taking on new clients.

Translation: some doors that usually swing pretty freely have been known to stick a bit of late. Thus, introductions are more in demand.

And trust me, aspiring writers have been demanding them, both directly and indirectly. The results tend to look a little something like this.

Referral-farming scenario 3: after years of polishing her craft, seeking out the Larry, the right agent for her work, and producing several books for Larry to market, Laurentina has just signed a publication contract for her first novel. Thrilled, she lets everyone on her Christmas card list know about her success. Before Valentine’s Day, she’s received half a dozen requests from writer friends to be connected with Larry, since HE’s been so successful.

“If you want to read my manuscript first,” the seventh of these requesters generously offers, “I’d be happy to give you a copy.”

Staring at the six manuscripts already piled on her desk, Laurentina is seriously tempted just to say, “Sure — just say in the first line of your query letter that I sent you.” A second later, she reconsiders: obviously, she’s not going to jeopardize Larry’s good opinion of her by sending him a potential client without finding out first whether that person can write. But in the face of the mountain of revisions her new editor has requested, how is she ever going to find time to read a seventh novel?

“I feel like Millicent,” she grumbles, trying to figure out how to tell #7 that if he wants her help, he’s going to need to wait six months to a year. “Who died and made me Larry’s manuscript screener?”

In a way, Laurentina is lucky: at least the referral-seekers who approached her were already her friends. It’s not at all uncommon for a published (or even just agented) writer to receive similar requests from people she’s never even met. A couple of common examples:

Referral-farming scenario 4: Dario’s second novel has just come out; by dint of tireless travel to every bookstore within driving distance and working word of mouth, he managed to sell almost 4.000 copies his first, a sensitive literary fiction depiction of the relationship between a coal miner’s daughter and the crow who loves her. His publisher hopes that the second, a sensitive literary fiction depiction of the relationship between a salmon fisherman’s daughter and the seagull who loves her, will do at least as well.

Suffice it to say that Dario is pretty eager to charm potential book-buyers.

So when he receives a comment on his blog, THE GIRL-FISH ROMANTIC, asking him for a recommendation to his agent, Darlene, Dario doesn’t hesitate to fire back a long e-mail in her praise.

Within an hour, he hears from the requester again: “No, stupid,” it reads. “I wasn’t asking you to recommend Darlene to ME; I was asking you to recommend ME to HER.”

Don’t like that one much? Understandable. Here’s an even more pervasive one:

Referral-farming scenario 5: established writer Tammy has earned the right to some free time: after years of struggle to find an agent and find a publisher for her hyper-realistic novel, YEARS OF STRUGGLE FINDING AN AGENT, and the subsequent success of her follow-up titles, WHEN ALL ELSE FAILS, WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW, and WHAT DO YOU MEAN, I HAVE A THREE-BOOK CONTRACT?, she is now finally making enough in royalties that by teaching half-time, she can quit her day job. Well done, Tammy!

One day, taking a break from working on her fourth novel, MY AGENT SAYS I HAVE IT IN ME, Tammy opens her e-mail and finds a message from Tina, the girlfriend of a former coworker. “Tom said you wouldn’t mind,” the e-mail gushes. “I’ve written a mystery novel, and I want to know how to get it published. Can you help me?”

Tammy glances at the shelf full of books, articles, conference brochures, and weekend workshops she had to plow through in order to figure out how to break into the business. Where, she wonders, could she even start to answer Tina’s overly-broad question? How can she even inquire how much homework Tina has already done on the subject? And what on earth does Tom think that she writes, to have sent her a mystery novelist.

I’ll get you for this, Tom, she thinks, searching her schedule for a day when she can have lunch with Tina.

Yet when she tries to explain the process over lunch, Tina looks at her with the eyes of the proverbial deer caught in the headlights. “Oh, that sounds like a whole lot of work,” she cries, dismayed. “Isn’t there another way? Maybe you could just ask your agent about it?”

What would I say? Tina thinks, reaching for the check. Hey, Teresa, here’s someone who thinks being a professional writer isn’t hard work?

Didn’t like that one any better? Okay, try this on for size:

Referral-farming scenario 6: Editor Pablo’s old college friend Pierre doesn’t keep in touch very much, but when he does, Pablo always enjoys chatting with him. After all, Pierre’s a funny guy: on an ordinary day, Pablo likes to save his e-mails for last, as a treat; on a bad day, he reads them first, as a boost.

Today, however, Pierre’s message proves to be neither: “Hey, Pablo — I’ve just met this guy, Peter, who wants to be a writer. I think he’s been working on a memoir. He wants to find an agent — can you help him?”

Naturally, this places Pablo in a quandary: he spends the next half an hour trying to come up with a funny way to say that he cannot possibly assess his ability to assist someone about whose talent he knows nothing in placing a book about which he knows nothing.

In the end, he gives up. “Gee, I’d love to help out,” he writes hurriedly, “but I’m afraid I’m just swamped.”

Have you flung your hands over your eyes in horror yet? No? Okay, let me reward you for your bravery by showing you an example of how someone who HAS done his homework about the biz might unwittingly push the boundaries of request-reasonableness:

Referral-farming scenario 7: Barry has been querying his memoir, 47 THINGS I DID TO HERONS, for a couple of years now. He’s gotten a couple of nibbles from agents who have asked to see his book proposal (and, in one case, the first 50 pages), but for some reason, the quotidian plight of a boy raised by waterfowl doesn’t seem to strike any of them as particularly marketable.

Worried that he lacks the necessary perspective to revise his work for the 151rst time, Barry joins an already-established writers’ group, one where the participants take the responsibilities of critique very seriously indeed. A few sessions in, a fellow memoir-writer, Barbara, mentions something her agent had said about building the dramatic arc in a memoir. “Just because it actually happened,” she quotes, “doesn’t mean it will necessarily work on the page. Cull, cull, cull.”

Barry feels as though he has been hit by the proverbial stroke of lightning: could he have been providing too many details in his memoir? He’s reluctant to believe that his story could be told in under 1,015 pages, but hey, if that’s what the pros want, it’s worth a try.

Two months and 600 pages of cuts later, Barry appears at critique group, beaming. “I took your agent’s advice,” he announces to a startled Barbara. “When can you get him my manuscript?”

See the problem here? Barbara never actually offered to put Barry in touch with her agent; because his request is so abrupt, he has placed her in the awkward position of having to decide on the spot (a) whether she likes Barry’s writing enough to recommend him, (b) whether she thinks Barry will handle himself professionally enough after such a recommendation not to embarrass her, (c) whether, based upon what she knows of her agent’s tastes, he’s at all likely to be interested in Barry’s work, (d) whether Barry is going to hold her responsible if he doesn’t, and thus (e) whether doing this favor may result in her having to find another writers’ group.

Do I hear some huffing out there from those who identify with Barry more than Barbara? “Oh, come on, Anne,” some of you point out, “isn’t Barbara being a little paranoid here? All Barry is asking her to do is put in a good word for him with her agent — after all, it’s up to the agent whether to accept or reject Barry. She may have qualms, but she’s just being a dog in the manger if she says no.”

Actually, Barry gave Barbara a pretty good reason to hesitate: instead of asking for a referral, he assumed that not only would she be willing to help him, but that she would be happy to take on the responsibility of conveying the manuscript as well.

Essentially, he’s making the case that because she was kind enough to give him advice before — actually, in this case, to pass along second-hand advice from her agent — that she should continue to help him. Like many a referral-seeker before him, Barry hasn’t paused to consider the gravity of the favor he’s asking; apparently, he’s only thought about Barbara’s assistance in terms of what it could mean to HIM.

Does this assumption strike you as a wee bit familiar? It should: all of today’s examplars have suffered from it.

This is an oversight to which frustrated agent-seekers are especially prone: the notion that people in the publishing industry OWE assistance to up-and-coming writers — or, if not to all of them equally, at least to oneself.

It’s an understandable feeling, of course. When marketing one’s first book to agents and editors, it is all too easy to forget that EVERY writer with whom they have contact loves his or her book, too, longing for its success with all of the fierce passion that each of us devotes to ours.

In the face of literally millions of similarly passionate hopers, it is perhaps not altogether surprising that agents and editors tend to get a bit jaded by the sight of writerly excitement.

This is why, to pull out one of my favorite broken records again, the tactic of querying or pitching by saying, “This is the best book you’ll ever read!” literally never works. This kind of hyperbolic praise rings in the industry’s ears as hollow, as if they had just asked a group of doting parents watching their third-graders in an aesthetically God-awful elementary school production of THE WIZARD OF OZ which kid currently mangling the choreography is destined for stardom.

The invariable answer: “Why, my child, of course.”

The problem of the overenthusiastic writer who assumes that everyone who stands between himself and publication can (and what’s more, should) drop whatever they’re doing in order to help him (and, one assumes, only him) is not discussed much on the conference circuit — or rather, it’s not discussed much in front of contest attendees. It IS discussed by agents, editors, and authors backstage at conferences all the time, I assure you, and in outraged tones.

Why? Because while the majority of aspiring writers are polite in their approaches, a predictably large minority, bless their warm and impetuous hearts, overstep the bounds of common courtesy pretty regularly. Ss I can tell you from direct personal experience, it’s not easy being the first personal contact a writer has with the industry: one tends to be treated less as a person than as a door or a ladder.

And no one, however famous or powerful, likes that. Case in point — and this time, I warn you, there is going to be a quiz at the end, so do pay attention:

Referral-farming scenario 8: at a writers’ conference, Karl meets Krishnan, a writer who has recently acquired an agent. The two men genuinely have a great deal in common: they live in the same greater metropolitan area, write for the same target market, and they share a love of the plays of Edward Albee. (Don’t ask me why; they just do.) So after hanging out together in the bar that is never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference venue, it seems perfectly natural for Karl to e-mail Krishnan and ask him to have coffee the following week.

When Krishnan arrives at the coffee shop, however, he is dismayed when Karl pulls a hefty manuscript box out of his backpack. “Here,” Karl says. “I want to know what you think before I send it to the agents who requested it at the conference. And after you read it, you can send it on to your agent.”

Krishnan just sits there, open-mouthed. As soon as his cell phone rings, he feigns a forgotten appointment and flees.

Okay, what did Karl do wrong here?

Partially, he succumbed a more advanced case of the plague of galloping assumption that afflicted our friends above: he just assumed that by merely being friendly, Krishnan was volunteering to help him land an agent.

However, there are a LOT of reasons that industry professionals are nice to aspiring writers at conferences, including the following, listed in descending order of probability:

*Krishnan might have just been being polite — which will no doubt thrill his mother.

*Krishnan might have regarded Karl as a potential buyer of his books, and as such, did not want to alienate a future fan — which will no doubt thrill his future editor.

*Krishnan might have been teaching a class at the conference, or hoping to do so in future, and wanted to make a good impression — which will no doubt thrill…well, probably nobody, but it was intended to thrill Karl.

*Krishnan is lonely — writing is a lonely craft, by definition, right? — and is looking for other writers with whom to commune, which could potentially cause them to thrill one another.

*Krishnan is looking for local writers with whom to form a critique group — which, again, might cause them to thrill one another, but probably will be less than thrilling to everyone concerned’s SOs.

*Krishnan’s agent might have asked him to be on the lookout for new writers at the conference (rare, but it does happen occasionally), which would have been precisely the thrill Karl was seeking, had he played his cards right.

Of these possibilities, only the last two would dictate ANY willingness on Krishnan’s part to read Karl’s work — and the next to last one definitely implies that reading would be exchanged, not one-way. However, if either of the last two had been Krishnan’s intent, it would have been polite for Karl to wait to be ASKED.

Ditto with Karl’s request that Krishnan pass the manuscript on to his agent. Even with a super-open agent, an agented author cannot recommend others indiscriminately. If Krishnan recommends Karl, and Karl turns out to be a bad writer, a constant nuisance, or just plain nuts, that recommendation will seriously compromise his ability to recommend writers in future.

Unpleasant but true: writers like Karl, while usually well-meaning in and of themselves, collectively make it harder for everyone else to get this kind of recommendation.

There’s another reason Krishnan would be inclined to run from such an approach: underlying resentment. Not of Karl’s rather inconsiderate assumptions that he would automatically be willing to help someone he’s just met, but of Karl’s attempt to cut into a line in which Krishnan stood for quite some time.

Just as it is relatively safe to presume that the more recently a writer landed an agent, the more difficult and time-consuming the agent-finding process was — because, by everyone’s admission, in this market, it’s harder than it was ten or even five years ago to wow an agent — it is a fair bet that an agent who has been signed but has not yet sold a book will be lugging around quite a bit of residual resentment about the process, or even about his agent.

If an agented writer’s hauling a monumental chip on his shoulder about his agent seems a little strange to you, I can only conclude that your experience listening to those whose first or second books are currently being marketed by their agents is not vast. Almost universally, a writer’s life gets harder, not easier, in the initial months after being signed: as exemplar Laurentina would be happy to tell you, practically any agent on earth will ask for manuscript revisions of even a manuscript she loves, in order to make it more marketable, and no one, but no one, on the writer’s end of the game is ever happy about the speed of submission.

Even if Krishnan’s agent is a saint and habitually works at a speed that would make John Henry gasp, Karl was unwise to assume that Krishnan would be eager to speed up the agent-finding process for anyone else. For all Karl knows, Krishnan struggled for YEARS to land his agent — and, unhappily, human nature does not always wish to shorten the road for those who come after.

Just ask anyone who has been through a medical residency. Or a Ph.D. program.

Note, please, that all of the above applies EVEN IF Krishnan actually has time to read the manuscript in question. Which, as the vast majority of agented-but-not-published writers hold full-time jobs and have to struggle to carve out writing time — as do many of the published writers I know; not a lot of people make a living solely from writing novels — is NOT a foregone conclusion.

The best rule of thumb: establish an honest-to-goodness friendship before you ask for favors.

It may well have turned out that Karl had a skill — computer repair, eagle-eyed proofreading, compassionate dog-walking — that Krishnan would be pleased to receive in exchange for feedback on Karl’s book. Krishnan might even have asked Karl to join his critique group, where such feedback would have been routine. But Karl will never know, because he jumped the gun, assuming that because Krishnan had an agent, the normal rules of favor-asking did not apply to him.

The same rule applies, by the way, to any acquaintance whose professional acumen you would like to tap unofficially. If I want to get medical information from my doctor about a condition that is plaguing a character in my novel, I expect to pay for her time.

Nor, outside of a formal conference context, would I expect a professional editor to read my work, an agent to give me feedback on my pitch, or an editor to explain the current behind-the-scenes at Random House to me unless we either already had a close friendship or I was paying for their time, either monetarily or by exchange.

Be very aware that you are asking a favor, and a big one, when you ask an author to help you reach his agent. Not only are you asking the author to invest time and energy in helping a relative stranger – you are also expecting him or her to put credibility on the line. And that, dear readers, is something that most authors – and most human beings – do not do very often for relative strangers.

No, not even if Tom or Pierre ask it on someone else’s behalf. Go figure.

Tread lightly — and keep up the good work!

“Tell me again — who sent you?”

Autumn’s in the air, which means two things in my line of work: the release this year’s crop of literary fiction likely to be nominated for major awards and Millicent the agency screener, her boss, and the editors to whom the latter likes to pitch getting back to work, digging their respective ways through the piles upon piles of submissions lingering after the annual summer hiatus, not to mention the new, post-conference submissions..

It is, in short, a great time to be querying and submitting.

Since I know that many of you are spending your weekends/spare time/whenever your boss isn’t looking over your shoulder at work pulling together lists of agents to query, this seemed like an especially good moment to answer a question sharp-eyed reader Jake asked a few months back:

Just to be sure, if an agency does say it only accepts clients through recommendations, am I to assume they’re listing off these guidelines, but expecting to see the recommendation in the query? (I don’t actually know anyone who can refer me, but I’m wondering if querying these agents anyway is worth the hassle or a waste of time and money)

Before I answer Jake’s question, let’s define our terms, shall we? In some agency guides, agencies will list themselves as accepting clients by referral . In plain English, this means that a querier who has not either been invited by one of their agents to submit or had the way smoothed by a third party might as well not query at all.

Don’t call us, in other words; we’ll — well, actually, we won’t call you.

A more common notation is accepts clients mostly through recommendations — and here, the unconnected writer need not despair as thoroughly. It’s a simple statement of fact, information a would-be querier needs to know: this agency is more likely to pick up a new client through a referral than via a cold query.

So to whom do such agencies look for these recommendations, referrals, and general good word of mouth — and how does an aspiring writer go about procuring same?

Most of the time, agents receive referrals from their already-signed clients — and not necessarily those who already have books out, by the way — editors who have met writers at conferences, journalists, their college roommates…in short, from the people they know.

Which is why, in case those of you living outside the greater New York City metropolitan area have been wondering, you’re far more likely to hear authors from that part of the country say at book readings, “How did I meet my agent? Oh, networking,” than those domiciled anywhere else.

That is not to say that writers residing elsewhere need write off this means of entrée into an agency. It’s merely a little more work.

Okay, so it’s a lot more work, but often worth it: even at an agency that obtains new clients mostly through querying and conference-trolling, a recommendation from a standing client, particularly one they like, does tend to increase the likelihood of being asked to send pages.

Why? Well, good writers who have been kicking around in the field for a while tend to know other good writers — or, at any rate, know ones who have done their homework about what being a professional writer means, over and above being talented: presenting a manuscript in standard format, the desirability of meeting deadlines without undue whining, and the learned skill of taking intensive feedback without regarding it as a personal attack, to name but three desirata.

How might a professional writer spot these traits in others? By being in a critique group with them, for one thing, or by exchanging manuscripts. A perceptive observer can learn a lot about a writer by how s/he responds to feedback.

Kind of changes how you might think of joining a writers’ group, doesn’t it, or staying in one? One of those people might well hit the big time someday and be in a position to say either, “Clarice? Oh, she’s a great writer, really even-tempered,” or “Well, Clarice is talented enough, but if you suggest changing so much as a comma in her work, she bursts into noisy tears and accuses you of trying to poison her.”

If that last comment seemed like an exaggeration to you, you either haven’t been in many critique groups or have been fortunate enough to be in really good ones.

Most of the time, though, aspiring writers pick up referrals to agents in the most straightforward manner imaginable: by walking up to an established writer IN THEIR BOOK CATEGORY (important; an author in another genre may reasonably be expected to be able to provide a referral to an agent with a track record of selling books in his own book category, but not necessarily in others) at a book reading, conference, or other literary occasion, striking up a conversation, and eventually, asking for a referral to the author’s agent.

It’s the eventually part that tends to be problematic. Too many aspiring writers just blurt out the request right away, with little or no preamble.

To understand why this might land the requester in hot water, let’s take the case of Isabelle.

Referral-farming scenario 1: Isabelle notices in her local paper that Ignatz, a writer whose work is similar to hers and is aimed at the same target market will be giving a reading at a local bookstore. She makes a point of attending the reading, and during question time, asks who represents him – and asks permission to use him as a query reference.

Ignatz laughs uncomfortably, tells an agent-related anecdote, and when she presses for a name, tells her to see him afterward.

Isabelle waits patiently until all those who have bought books have presented them to Ignatz for signing, then repeats her question. “I haven’t read your book,” she tells him, “but from the reviews, our work has a lot in common.”

Ignatz, professional to the toes of his well-polished boots, casts only a fleeting glance at her empty hands before replying. “I’m sorry,” he says, “my agent has asked me not to refer any new writers to him.”

What did Isabelle do wrong? (And, for extra credit, what about Ignatz’s response marks it as a brush-off?)

Isabelle committed two cardinal sins of author approach. First, she did not evince ANY interest in Ignatz’s work before asking him for a favor — and a fairly hefty favor, at that. She did not even bother to buy his book, which is, after all, how Ignatz pays his rent. But since he is quite aware, as any successful writer must be, that being rude to potential readers may mean lost business down the line, he can hardly tell her so directly.

So he did the next best thing: he lied about his agent’s openness to referrals.

How do I know he lied? Experience, my dears, experience: had his agent actually not been accepting new clients, his easiest way out would have been simply to say so, but he did not. And, realistically, most agents rather like it when their clients recommend new writers; it saves the agent trouble, to use the client as a screener.

Hey, who doesn’t like to have someone to blame if a blind date goes horribly, horribly wrong?

So, generally speaking, if an agented writer says, “Oh, my agent doesn’t like me to recommend,” he really means, “I don’t like being placed in this position, and I wish you would go away.”

How has Isabelle placed Ignatz in a tough position? Because she has committed another approach faux pas: she asked for a reference from someone who has never read her work.

From Ignatz’s point of view, this is a no-win situation. He has absolutely no idea if Isabelle can write – and to ask to see her work would be to donate his time gratis to someone who has just been quite rude to him. Yet if he says yes without reading her work, and Isabelle turns out to be a terrible writer (or a terrible pest), his agent is going to be annoyed with him. And if he just says, “No, I don’t read the work of every yahoo who accosts me at a reading,” he will alienate a potential book buyer.

So lying about his agent’s availability is Ignatz’s least self-destructive way out. Who can blame him for taking it?

Let’s hope and pray that Isabelle has learned something from this encounter. Manuscript in hand, let’s send her to another reading.

Referral-farming scenario 2: Isabelle spots another reading announcement in her local newspaper. This time, it’s an author whose work she’s read, Juanita; wisely, she digs up her dog-eared copy of Juanita’s first novel and brings it along to be signed, to demonstrate her ongoing willingness to support Juanita’s career.

She also, less promisingly, brings along a copy of her own manuscript.

After the reading, Isabelle stands in line to have her book signed. While Juanita is graciously chatting with her about the inscription, Isabelle slaps her 500-page manuscript onto the signing table. “Would you read this?” she asks. “And then recommend me to your agent?”

Juanita casts a panicked glance around the room, clearly seeking an escape route. “I’m afraid I don’t have time to read anything new right now,” she says, shrinking away from the pile of papers. “Oh, my phone is vibrating — will you excuse me, please?”

This, believe it or not, happens even more that the first scenario – and with even greater frequency at writers’ conferences. Just as some writers have a hard time remembering that agents have ongoing projects, lives, other clients, etc. whose interests may preclude dropping everything to pay attention to a new writer, so too do established writers – many, if not most, of whom teach writing classes and give lectures in order to supplement their incomes.

So basically, Isabelle has just asked a professional author to give a private critique of her manuscript for free. Not the best means of winning friends and influencing people, generally speaking.

Yes, the process of finding an agent is frustrating, but do try to bear in mind what you are asking when you request help from another writer. Just as querying and pitching necessarily cuts into your precious writing time, so do requests of this nature cut into established writers’ writing time. Other than your admiration and gratitude, tell me, what does the author who helps you get out of it?

This not to say that some established writers aren’t willing to offer this kind of help; many do, and some of them like it. (Others charge a pretty penny for it, but that’s another story.) But even the most generous person tends to be nonplused when total strangers demand immense favors.

Establishing some sort of a relationship first – even if that relationship consists of nothing more than the five-minute conversation about the author’s work that precedes the question, “So, what do you write?” – is considered a polite first step.

In other words: whatever happened to foreplay, baby?

Don’t jump the gun, my friends. Remember, established writers are climbing up the publishing ladder, too, and respect their time accordingly. Make the effort to read, or at least buy, an author’s work before you approach her – and producing a little well-phrased, well-informed flattery never hurts, either.

I want to run through a few other examples illustrating the dos and don’ts of approaching an author for a recommendation, but that’s a project for another day. Right now, for the sake of confining the answer to Jake’s question to a single post (the easier to find it in the archives, my dear), let’s address the question of how an aspiring writer lucky enough to garner such a recommendation should USE it.

Jake’s assumption is correct: whatever else an agency says in its listing or on its website still applies when you have a referral. A referred writer should not, for instance, send an unsolicited manuscript or telephone and say, “Your client, Penny Scribbler, told me to contact you.”

A much, much better — not to say more courteous — approach would be to send a query letter beginning, “Your client, Penny Scribbler, suggested that I contact you about my thriller, BODY PARTS…” and proceeding like any other query letter targeting that particular agent.

That way, the agent or her Millicent knows from line 1 precisely why you are contacting her — and that she might want to pay a bit more attention to this query.

Naturally, you should ONLY open a query in this manner if Penny Scribbler actually did refer you — and if Penny’s agency makes it clear in its agency guide listings or on its website that it’s not very open to queries unaccompanied by a referral, think very carefully about whether it is worth your while to approach her agent without one. I have known a couple of writers who have landed agents by cold-querying agents who list themselves as requiring referrals, but it’s extremely rare that someone gets picked up that way, for all of the obvious reasons.

Personally, I would hold off.

However, if an agent that’s listed in a guide as only accepting referred queries seems like a particularly good fit for your book, it’s worth checking its website to see if that policy is still in effect, if every agent within the agency operates that way, etc. Sometimes, guide listings are out of date; unless there’s been a big personnel shift, many agencies will simply use the same listing for years. A new agent at such an agency may well be looking for new clients.

But, generally speaking, when agents set the referral limitation, they mean it.

Another reason to check out their websites, latest listings, etc., is to find out who their clients are and see if THEY have websites, give readings, etc. Many a writer who has written a fan letter has ended up with a recommendation to the author’s agent down the line.

Which brings us right back to Isabelle’s situation, doesn’t it? As I said, that’s a topic for another day. Next time, I shall run through a few more of the common gaffes eager referral-seekers tend to commit — because, after all, it’s far, far better that my fictional exemplars stumble into those gopher holes than my readers, right?

Keep up the good work!