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Self-plagiarization

January 31st, 2006

Hello, readers –

Today, I would like to talk about the Frankenstein manuscript’s prettier and more socially-acceptable cousin, self-plagiarized repetition. Where the Frankenstein manuscript varies substantially as pages pass, the self-plagiarized text becomes redundant: scenery described the same way, for instance, or a clever line of dialogue repeated in Chapters 2, 5, and 16.

I chose to bring this up on the day of the State of the Union address self-consciously, because nowhere is the practice of self-plagiarization more prevalent than in the garden-variety political speech. Tell me – do you think people would remember that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream if he had said it only ONCE in his famous March on Washington speech?

There’s a good reason: the repetition of an idea makes it memorable. The ideas – and usually even the actual phrases – of the beginning of a political speech invariably recur throughout. And, as anyone who has listened to two consecutive State of the Union addresses can tell you, political speeches often sound the same from year to year. No matter how fiercely THE WEST WING has tried to promote the notion of presidential speechwriters as ultra-creative writers, if you look at speeches given by the same politician over time, self-plagiarization is rife.

On paper, phrase repetition is problematic, but in and of itself, it is not necessarily self-plagiarization. On paper, phrase repetition can be used for emphasis (as I have just done here). A lot of good writers choose to repeat phrases within a single paragraph for rhythmic reasons, which can bring a passage an invocative feel. Take the
St. Crispin’s Day speech from HENRY V, for instance: “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers…”

Now THAT’s a political speech.

Unfortunately, a lot of poor writers favor this device, too, so it tends to be a rather risky trick to try to pull off in a short piece, such as a synopsis, or even in the first few pages of a manuscript submitted for a contest or as part of a query packet. To professional eyes, trained to search for the repetition of a single verb within a paragraph as evidence of boring writing, “we few, we happy few” will not necessarily jump off the page for its rhythm. In an ultra-quick reading (as virtually all professional readings are), it may be mistaken for an incomplete edit: you meant to change “we few” to “we happy few,” but you forgot to delete the words you did not want.

Self-plagiarization tends to raise red flags with professional readers, too. The writer may not realize that she has reused a particularly spectacular image from Ch. 1 in Ch. 3, but believe me, if there is repetition, professional readers will catch it. Editors are notorious for remembering entire pages verbatim. I am no exception: when I was teaching at the University of Washington, I was known for noticing when term papers resubmitted in subsequent quarters, even though I read literally hundreds of papers per term. I would even remember who wrote the original.

Although it may earn you an ill-humored rebuke from a professional reader, such repetition usually will not knock you out of consideration if the self-plagiarized bits occur far apart, such as at the beginning and end of a book. However, in a shorter piece, or in those first 50 pages of your novel that nice agent asked you to send for consideration, it can cost you. Repetition sticks in the professional reader’s craw, nagging at her psyche like a pebble in a shoe, so it is best to do it as little as possible.

“Now wait a minute,” I hear some of you out there grumbling. “Oscar Wilde repeated the same quips in one play after another. It became his trademark, in fact. So why should I be punished for using a single particularly sterling line 150 pages apart in my novel?”

Quite true. And Aaron Sorkin reused not only lines and speeches from SPORTS NIGHTin THE WEST WING (my pet repetition of the evening, apparently), but entire plot lines and basic characters. Tell you what – after you make it big, I give you permission to establish a trademark phrase and use it as often as you like. Until you do – as I sincerely hope you will – all I can do is tell you what tends to annoy agents, editors, and contest judges.

All writers of book-length works have repeated themselves at one time or another; if a simile struck us as the height of cleverness last week, chances are good that we will like it next week as well. Each time we use it, it may seem fresh to us. These little forays into self-indulgence are so common, in fact, that literary critics have a name for them: tropes.

F. Scott Fitzgerald was a notorious troper in his short stories. If memory serves, a thwarted heroine’s sobbing out (usually with her face hidden by her hair), “I’m so beautiful – why can’t I be happy?” immediately before she does something self-immolatingly stupid to remove herself from the possibility of marrying the story’s protagonist occurs at least four times throughout his collected works. Why our Scott found that line so very attractive remains a mystery eternal – it’s hard to believe he ever actually heard a human female utter it – but he did, and now it’s stuck to his name for all eternity.

Usually, though, self-plagiarization is more subtle. Spread out over an entire text — or as it often appears in the case of successful writers of series, once per book – self-plagiarization may be both innocuous and unintentional on the part of the writer. For example, E.F. Benson, author of two delightful series, the Lucia books and the Dodo books, was evidently extraordinarily fond of using Artic analogies for one person suddenly grown cold to another. As in: “It was as if an iceberg had spoken,” “It was as if the North Pole had spoken,” and “icebergs passing in the North Sea” must speak to one another so.

Now, it’s not a bad analogy, if not a startlingly original one. The problem is, as a Benson enthusiast, I was able to come up with three of them without even pulling his books off the shelf. These repetitions, deliberate or not, stick with the reader, just as surely as repeated phrases stick with the audience of a political speech.

Here, yet again, is an awfully good reason to read your entire book (or requested chapters, or contest submission) out loud before you submit it. Believe it or not, just as dialogue that seemed fine on the page can suddenly seem stilted when spoken aloud, phrases, sentences, and images that your eye might not catch as repetitious are often quite obvious to the ear. (Another good reason to read aloud: to make sure that each of your major characters speaks in a different cadence. Much more readable that way. As are lines of dialogue that can actually be said in a single breath without passing out.)

Oh, and now I see that I got so carried away with my topic, I’ve missed the first half-hour of the State of the Union speech, and shall have to catch the rebroadcast. Oh, I’m so beautiful – why can’t I be happy?

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

The Frankenstein Manuscript, Part III: My Book Was a Teenage Werewolf

January 30th, 2006

Hello, readers –

Well, I did get sidetracked there, didn’t I? I got you all excited about the Frankenstein manuscript phenomenon, promised to tell you how to work through it — and then wrote about other things for a couple of days. Sorry about that; I’m back in the saddle today.

For those of you just tuning in, a Frankenstein manuscript is a work that — usually inadvertently — is written in so many different voices, styles, structures, and even quality of writing that it reads as though it had been written by a committee. Since I have literally never heard a single speaker at a writing conference address this very common problem — but have so often heard agents, editors, contest judges, writing teachers, and freelance editors complain about it in private — I wanted to alert my readers to it, lest the monster return again.

In a way, a Frankenstein manuscript is a gift for a busy agent, editor, or judge, because it’s so very easy to reject. Clearly, if the author herself did not catch the Frankensteinish inconsistency of the text, the book needs to go through at least one more major edit. In order to reject the manuscript, all the reader needs to say is, “While it’s an interesting premise,” (or voice, or style, etc.) “the author needs to work on craft, structure, and consistency.” Or, even more often, it can be rejected with a form letter: “Thank you for your submission, but your manuscript does not meet our needs at this time.”

In other words: NEXT!

While I am generally very much in favor of writers doing everything they can, short of laundry or house-painting, to make their agents’ and editors’ lives easier, trust me, you do not want to be on the donating end of such a gift.

If you are working on your first novel – or any other writing project – over the course of years, do yourself a favor and check it for stylistic consistency before you submit it to ANY agent, editor, or contest. Most of us don’t find our specific voices right away; allow for the possibility that yours developed while you were writing the book. And when you find the voice, the style, the structure you like best, make sure that every sentence in the book reflects it.

And you simply cannot do this by reading your work in screen-sized chunks. In order to make absolutely sure that your book hangs together cohesively, YOU MUST READ IT IN HARD COPY. In its entirety. Preferably in a few long sessions, and, if you change narrative voice very often, out loud, to ascertain that your various voices remain absolutely distinct throughout.

I hear some of you grumbling out there. I know, I know – you’ve been working on this book forever, and you’ve revised it so often that you could recite huge chunks of it from memory. And I’m telling YOU to reread the whole thing – aloud, yet?

Yes – because, alas, the more you revise a novel — or any book — the more likely it is to turn into a Frankenstein manuscript. It is an unintended downside of being conscientious about honing your craft.

Allow me to repeat that: the MORE you work on a novel, the MORE likely you are to end up with a Frankenstein manuscript. Think about it: over time, you move passages around; you insert new scenes; you add or subtract subplots, characters, dialogue. All of these inevitably affect other parts of the book.

Can you really be sure that you remembered to take out your protagonist’s sociopathic sister in EVERY place she has ever appeared, even as a shadow on a wall? And no, merely doing a search-and-replace on the sister’s name is not sufficient, because if a novel is complex and rich, the spirit of individual characters lingers, even when they do not appear on the page. Necessarily, you would need to write the consciousness of the sociopathic sister out of the psyches of every other character in the family.

And that’s just the problem with a single, major change. The vast majority of revision is minor — which does not mean that any given change might not carry resonance throughout the book. See now why I have been harping for months on the necessity of sitting down and reading your manuscript in its entirety, in hard copy, AND getting unbiased readers to look it over before you submit it to an agent, editor, or contest? Yes, it’s the best way to catch grammatical, spelling, and continuity errors – but it is also really the only way to notice where a deleted character or plot point still affects the rest of the book.

It is also far from uncommon for fledgling writers to incorporate the style, vocabulary, and/or worldview of whatever author they happen to be reading at the moment into their work. It’s like catching an accent when you’re staying in another country.

I’ll admit it: this is my personal Frankenstein tendency. When I was writing the novel my agent is currently marketing, I was reading a whole lot of Noël Coward. An extremely witty writer; I enjoy his work very much. However, he wrote almost exclusively about (a) pre-WWII British people and (b) people who inhabited now-transformed British colonial possessions. My novel is about the adult lives of children who grew up on an Oregon commune, so obviously, my characters should not talk like Coward’s. (Although it would have been amusing: “My dear, your hot tub attire is simply too killing!” “Reginald, I must implore you to desist from taunting the yoga instructor!” “May one assume that this tabbouleh is indeed vegan? The most frightful consequences may ensue otherwise.”)

I made a deliberate effort not to incorporate educated British cadences into my dialogue, and in self-editing, deleted any lines of thought that smacked even vaguely of 1920s urbanity. However, being a very experienced editor, I knew that I would probably miss a few, so not only did I read the entirety of my novel out loud (much to the astonishment of my cats and neighbors), but I also passed it under the eyes of first readers I trust, with the instruction to keep an eye out for Britishisms.

And you know what? I had missed three in my on-screen revisions.

My point here — other than providing fascinating footnote material for some graduate student fifty years from now who wants to write her thesis on Noël Coward’s influence upon American novelists — is that no matter how good you get at self-editing on a page-by-page basis, in order to avoid sending out a Frankenstein manuscript, you simply must take additional steps in screening your work. You never outgrow the need.

Partially, it is a focus problem. In the throes of the revision process – especially on a computer screen, which encourages reading in a piecemeal, episodic fashion not conducive to catching overarching patterns — it is terribly easy to lose sight of your book AS A BOOK.

This is where a writers’ group, a good writing teacher, a freelance editor, or even someone you’ve met at a writers’ conference with whom you can exchange work can be most helpful to you: helping you identify what in the finished book jars with the integrity of the whole. (These sources are also great for pointing out continuity errors, such as when the sociopath is named Janet for three chapters in the middle of the book, and Marie-France for the rest.) Not only will dependable outside eyes weed out Frankenstein tendencies, but the mere fact of having to defend your authorial choices to them will force you to make all of your deviations from standard narrative conscious, rather than accidental.

Such discussions are also terrific practice for wrangling with your future agent and editors, by the way.

If you’re going at it alone, my advice is this. Once you have read through the whole manuscript, go back and read it again, projecting onto it the style and/or voice you like best. Does it work? If not, pick another style or voice from the text, and project it through the entire manuscript. When you find one you like, save the original manuscript as a separate file (so you have the option of changing your mind later), and work through a separate copy, establishing the new style. Then, after you have finished, read the entire thing out loud again, for consistency.

But, really, it will take you far, far less time, in both the diagnosis and repair stages, if you take your Frankenstein manuscript on a field trip to other readers before you submit it to an agent or editor. If a writing group or class seems too time-consuming, consider hiring an editor; if a freelance editor seems too expensive, join a writing group. When you are making these calculations, though, do not forget to weigh the value of your time into the equation. If joining a group or paying an editor saves you a year’s worth of solo work, it might well be worth it.

Which brings me to the great question that loyal reader Pam submitted last week: how does one FIND a freelance editor like me? Well, Pam, I am a member of the Northwest Independent Editors’ Guild, which maintains a very user-friendly website. For each editor, there’s a small blurb and contact information. You can search by geographic region, the type of book you want edited, even preferred style manual, or you can post your job for editors to see.

I advise going through an organization to find an editor, because emotionally, handing your book over to a total stranger for criticism is a difficult thing; you will want to make sure in advance that you can trust the editor. NWIEG verifies that each member has significant editorial experience — and believe it or not, we actually do argue about punctuation on our members’ forum — so you can feel relatively secure that any editor listed will have the skills and background s/he claims s/he does.

Do take the time to have a conversation or e-mail exchange with any freelance editor before you make a commitment, however. A good personality fit is very important, and it is perfectly legitimate to ask a potential editor whether s/he has ever edited your type of book before.

If you are thinking about asking a freelance editor to work on a tight deadline — say, between now and when entries are due for the PNWA contest — please do not wait until the deadline is imminent. Good freelance editors are often booked up months in advance, and if you want a careful, thoughtful, professional read, you need to allow time for the editor to do her job.

Thanks for the good question, Pam — and keep up the good work, everybody!

– Anne Mini

Time is not on our side

January 28th, 2006

Hello, readers –

I’m posting a little bit late today; I’ve been spending the afternoon wrestling with a doozy of an editing problem. Seems one of my clients’ publishers has moved up her revision deadline by a few months. Not weeks, months. As in it’s practically now.

She was informed of it blithely, in the context of an e-mail about something else entirely, as though the news weren’t of completely-rearrange-several-people’s-foreseeable-futures importance. And, like so many writers, the author thought that the fact that she and I were going to have to drop everything and work like demented fiends for the next few weeks changing the book from front to back was HER fault. HER plans were disrupted, and she apologized to ME.

As I’ve said before, writers tend to be very sweet people.

But isn’t it lucky that the publication date on MY book has been pushed back to May? If everything had gone as planned with my memoir, A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK, I would have started a book tour in February. (It most emphatically did NOT go as planned: the acquiring editor was laid off at the end of August; my publisher and I spent months living under threat of a groundless lawsuit – long story, but the short version is that it’s perfectly legal to tell the truth – and the release of the movie version of Philip’s wonderful novel A SCANNER DARKLY was pushed back from winter to summer, throwing off marketing schedules entirely.) The mind boggles at how I would have managed to be promoting one book and crash-editing another simultaneously.

But that’s the reality of the publishing world. The writer is left to wait in nail-gnawing suspense for weeks or months at a time, while decisions are made behind closed doors that are usually, from the point of view of those of us writers who call the PNW home, 3000 miles away. Then, BANG! All of a sudden, the writer is presented with a short deadline, and panic reigns supreme until the need of the moment is met. Then that eerie silence returns, until a few days before the next deadline.

I wish I were making this up. I also wish that more aspiring writers knew just how different the sense of time is in Manhattan-based publishing houses and agencies than it is, well, here. Agents and editors’ attitudes and beliefs necessarily affect writers’ lives profoundly; when a fledgling writer doesn’t know what is common practice in her new-found profession and what is not, it is all too easy for her to blame herself, her book, the market, anything but an alternative sense of time for the fact that she’s either ignored or badgered, with little in between.

The Manhattanites themselves would be the last to explain it to you. It just wouldn’t occur to them. Constant rush, being too busy to attend to anything but the most pressing matters on their desks, and living in constant danger of falling behind schedule are all normal; what calls for elucidation?

So if the hapless West Coast writer asks why, for instance, a revision assignment could not have been given a reasonable amount of time in advance, rather than a week before the book goes to press (yes, it happens; I once had a client whose work was actually yanked out of the print queue at the last moment for because her editor decided that the running order needed to be changed, a snap decision that ended up delaying the release of the book by six full months), agents and editors will just repeat the question, puzzled. “Why don’t we plan things in advance?” they echo. “We don’t have time for that.”

Now, this is frankly foreign to most of us PNW-based writers, isn’t it? 150 years ago, Seattle did not even exist; the pioneer spirit still lingers in the air enough for us to appreciate starting a project from scratch and staying with it for the long haul. After all, you don’t chop down a huge tree with a single stroke of an axe (don’t worry; I’m picturing a farmed one, not old-growth), any more than you write a whole book in a single week. We have long, languid, misty winters: for half the year, staying inside to revise makes a lot of sense. What’s the rush?

Try to explain this to your NYC-based agent or editor, and she’ll instantly picture you laden with love beads, dancing around with a tambourine to some old Cat Stevens tune at a love-in. Or possibly on a beach, playing hackysack or tossing a Frisbee to a golden retriever with a blue bandana tied rakishly around his neck while your friends sing “Sunshine On My Shoulders” from atop their surfboards.

It’s not going to be pretty, that image, and it’s not going to make you look like a professional – which is to say, like a New Yorker.

But we’re adaptable people, we Pacific Northwesterners – another legacy of the pioneer days – and when in Rome, we keep time as the Romans do. So most of us try very hard to adapt ourselves to NYC-based agents and editors’ hyped-up senses of time. Presented with their expressions of urgency, we overnight manuscripts – then wait, perplexed, while they gather dust in agency mailrooms. We will lose sleep for days on end in order to complete the chapters that editor at a conference asked to see – and then convince ourselves, when the editor doesn’t respond for months, that something about the chapters caused the delay. We will use up all of our sick leave at our day jobs to revise our novels radically in accordance with our new agents’ requests – and then, the following season, talk ourselves out of calling the agency to ask why the revised version has not been submitted to any editors yet. We don’t want to seem pushy.

All of these are real examples, by the way, the actual experiences of good writers I know. And all occurred within the last six months.

I think there’s a translation problem here, frankly. In our neck of the woods, when someone says he needs something now, he generally means NOW. It’s considered a little rude to demand instant responses when there’s no imminent threat. Perhaps this is another pioneer holdover: when confronted by a hungry coyote, for instance, or a surly mountain lion snarling in one’s back forty, one’s sense of urgency in requesting assistance tends to be genuine. Vigilante “justice” tended to be rather prompt, and “Timber!” implied the hope that the hearer would, as the expression went, hightail it out of the path of that tree. Otherwise, our forebears, like us, preferred to take their time.

From the POV of those who inhabit the NYC publishing industry, however, such attitudes imply a certain lack of vim. Laid-back tends to translate, in their eyes, to “I really don’t care about what’s going on.” Because on their own turf, expressions of temporal urgency tend to be indicative of either eagerness or general stress levels, rather than actual imminence of disaster.

In short, “Timber!” there means that a tree might fall eventually.

So that agent who asked you at last year’s conference to overnight your entire manuscript (at a cost that, if it did not make you mortgage your home, at least made you reconsider your children’s college prospects), she actually meant it as a COMPLIMENT. “I am excited about your work,” this request said, “and because I, like my compatriots, believe that anything worth having is the object of fierce competition, I need to impress you with the intensity of my enthusiasm. Thus, while I do not plan to clear my schedule tomorrow – nor, indeed, any time soon – in order to read the work I am asking you to overnight to me, I am conveying that I am serious about wanting to see it.”

This is why I – and my clients, when they listen to me – never, ever overnight anything to NYC agents or editors unless THEY pay for it. There have literally never been any negative ramifications for this stand. Priority Mail always works just fine, at a fraction of the cost. Plus, USPS’ standard small boxes – which the post office will give you for free! – provide lovely protection for tender manuscript pages.

This is not to say that I ignore last-minute editorial deadlines, or advise others to do so – I don’t, and you shouldn’t. I am in fact a regular user of my publishing house’s FedEx account. But I do try to negotiate, to make the deadlines a trifle more reasonable – and whenever I have an opportunity to set my own deadlines, as does happen occasionally, I automatically add anywhere from two days to two weeks to my estimate, just to ward off last-minute nagging while I’m polishing off the piece. (Trust me, no one ever objects to receiving work BEFORE a deadline.)

And I do keep in mind that the sense of urgency I am hearing over the phone or reading via e-mail may or may not have ANYTHING to do with the project at hand. Instead, I try to remember that the “I need it NOW!” being barked at me may well be a function of the stress levels of an underpaid assistant’s being yelled at by an overcommitted boss working in a building of similarly rushed people in an environment where a state of constant deadline panic is considered normal. In a town where being ultra-busy is considered an indicator of success, I tell myself, the people demanding that I drop everything are just paying me the compliment of assuming I have a life successful enough to disrupt.

So I take a deep breath, look out the window, and remind myself that from my studio, I can see more trees than there are in the entirety of Central Park. I center myself, think what a privilege it is to be asked to share my thoughts (or, as today, to midwife my clients’) for publication, and feel grateful that I had the foresight to invest in a good ergonomic set-up.

Then I punch a sofa pillow viciously seventeen times, clear my schedule, and meet the damned deadline.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

A major milestone!

January 27th, 2006

Hello, readers –

Guess what? This is my hundredth posting as the PNWA’s resident writer on writing! Honestly, the landmark snuck up on me. To celebrate, I am going to delay my planned discussion on how to fix a Frankenstein manuscript and devote my post to a good, old-fashioned stream-of-consciousness blog on keeping sane while marketing one’s writing.

I also added a byline today, just to see how it looks – and to reiterate my personal commitment to passing along to you as many hints, shortcuts, and for-heaven’s-sake-don’t-go-theres as I can to help PNWA members and other aspiring writers on their long, hard climb to publication.

One hundred posts — who knew I had so much advice to give? In case you’re interested, that’s 454 pages of writing in standard format, 12-point Times New Roman. (Those of you who have been paying attention for the last month should be able to make the word count calculation easily: 113,500 words, about three times the length of my master’s thesis.) Thanks to all of you whose excellent questions, concerns, and attention have made this space what it is today: bulky, crammed to the gills with information on how to navigate the difficult waters of the current writers’ market — as well as stories designed to help readers appreciate the publishing world’s delightful absurdities.

While you’re trying to break into the business, it is often difficult to see the industry as anything but a Manhattan-sized rejection machine, a cold, heartless behemoth that eats writers’ egos whole. After years of trying to please the people who run it, agents and editors may begin to seem like vengeful spiders, determined to pounce upon any promising market prospect and drag it into their webs. Form rejection letters start to read like personal insults, and those agents you meet at conferences remind you of that snooty popular kid in high school, the one you had a heart-stopping secret crush upon who never asked you to dance.

Come on, admit it: when an agent or an editor at a conference agrees to listen to your three-minute pitch, don’t you get that same little stomach flutter you got when your 7th-grade crush smiled at you in class?

When you show the fruit of your labors and the work of your soul to someone who can whisk it away to publication, naturally it is going to stir up raw, primal emotions – and honestly, I don’t think that most of the experts giving advice to aspiring writers acknowledge that enough. While we’re trying to find an agent and get our first book sold, almost all writers feel like the wallflower at the junior high school dance. We stand there in our dressed-up best, waiting to be noticed, and it seems like everybody else is dancing. We want to ask someone to dance with us, but the fear of rejection can be crippling. So we introduce ourselves unobtrusively and hope for the best.

When I was in junior high school, our dances featured a sadistic phenomenon known as the snowball. In other, less scrupulously venomous environments, I’m told, a snowball is where a single couple begins the dance by dancing together, then each partner picks someone else, forming two couples, then those couples break up and pick new partners, and so on until everyone in the room is dancing. How nice that sounds; how inclusive.

Not so at the Robert Louis Stevenson Intermediate School. (No, I’m not making that up. Stevenson once spent a year guzzling wine in my Napa Valley home town, rendering him an ideal role model, the town elders decided, for impressionable youngsters.) At R.L.S., the snowball placed partnering decisions in the hands of third parties – all you had to do to force two people to dance a slow dance together was write both of their names on a piece of paper and drop it into a box. Anonymously. At snowball time, the pairs were read out, and the selected couples would be herded into the center of the cafeterium (an unappealing architectural attempt to combine the functions of eating room, assembly room, and gym into a single structure) to cling together in public view for the duration of an interminable song.

The kindness of junior high schoolers to one another being legendary, you can probably guess what happened: almost invariably, couples were constructed for purely comic value. Girls who got their growth spurts early were partnered up with boys who hadn’t grown since the second grade; couples who had broken up amid screaming fights three weeks earlier were summarily brought back together; arch rivals for class president were made to hug to music. But every now and again, some well-meaning soul placed in the box the names of two people who honestly had crushes on each other, but were too shy to act upon them.

And that, for those of you who have not yet gone through it, is what the moments leading up to a conference-assigned 10-minute pitch session with an agent or editor you’ve never met before feel like. (Thought I’d just gone off on a tangent of reminiscence there, didn’t you? I really was illustrating a point.) If you have been paired up thoughtfully and well, there is the potential for a real professional romance to blossom in those intense few minutes. But if you find yourself sitting across from someone who does not handle your genre (despite having listed in the conference guide that she is eager to represent all kinds of fiction), you are sort of stuck there for the duration of the dance. Neither of you wants to be in the situation, but politeness dictates that you will both just live through the slow minutes as they tick by.

I know, I know: it makes you feel hopeless, but actually, as I have been trying to show over the course of my hundred blogs, there are things you can do to empower yourself. For instance, you can research the agents and editors who will be at a conference over and above the brief blurb in the conference brochure, to find someone who actually does have a strong track record of representing your kind of writing. You could do research on the web, or in a bookstore, to find out who and what the agents represent, or go to events like the seminar the PNWA is offering at its February 15th meeting, where you can hear about the strengths and preferences of the attending agents, and make your choices accordingly.

Once you get to the conference, you can listen attentively to the agents and editors at the podium, to try to get a sense whether you actually like the person to whom you have been assigned. (Having spent two years with an agent I did not like and who did not like me before I signed with my current agent – who is a doll and a peach and represents me with the fierceness of a tigress defending her cub – I cannot recommend enough signing with someone with whom you feel a sympathetic resonance.) If not – or if the agent announces she’s no longer looking for your kind of book – find out if you can switch appointments. If not formally, then informally – ask other conference attendees whom they are seeing, in case they are willing to trade with you.

The wonderful people who run the agent/editor desk at the PNWA conference will probably not appreciate my asking this, but why on earth should you limit yourself to only your assigned appointments? If there is an agent or an editor you desperately want to see, hang out near the check-in desk in case there are cancellations. Buttonhole your dream agent in the hallway and ask if you can give a pitch – or if he will squeeze in an appointment for you. They’re there to find undiscovered talent; assume that they want to hear about your project, if it’s in their line.

And if you find yourself in a conversation with an agent or editor who you realize would never be a good fit, don’t be afraid to stop the conversation, thank him for his time, and walk away. Trust me, in a conference situation, where pitches fly at agents and editors constantly, they will appreciate your candor. Alternatively, you could use the time to ask, “So, what other agents/editors here at the conference do you think will appreciate my work? What about other people at your agency?”

I have, in the throes of appointments that were a bad idea in the first place, been known to start pitching the work of people in my writing group, if they seem like better fits than I. Why not? The agent and I are both there, we already have the time booked – and honestly, isn’t it’s something you would like your friends to do for you? The agents and editors are always surprised, but invariably gracious, and on a couple of occasions have eventually signed the writers to whom I’ve introduced them. (On one particularly memorable occasion, I dragged a friend of mine up to his dream agent during a conference banquet, introduced them over the pasta bar, and jokingly told them that neither could eat until she let him go through his pitch. They complied. He hadn’t been able to get an appointment with her.)

My point is, you need not be passive in the face of the highly competitive, often intimidating process of trying to get your work published. If you are having trouble getting positive responses to your queries, find out why from someone who has been successful at it; if your manuscript keeps being sent back to you with form rejections, see if there’s anything you can do to improve your presentation. Ask questions of those who’ve been there; writers tend to be awfully nice people, glad to help one another out. And once you have achieved some success, don’t hesitate to pass your knowledge along to others. All of this will genuinely help you keep your chin up throughout the long, hard process of bringing your work to publication.

You can also, as I have been trying to help my readers do over the course of the last six months, learn to appreciate the absurdities of the business, for they are abundant, and in laughter there is power. For instance:

Like many publishing professionals, I read Publishers Lunch, the online daily (or nearly) update about what’s going on in the world of books. Yesterday, I found the world’s best job listing there:

Inside Metaphysical Sales Associate [Full Time]

Llewellyn Worldwide (Woodbury, MN)

Raises a great many perplexing philosophical questions, doesn’t it? Does the company also employ an Outside Metaphysical Sales Associate, who deals only in cold, hard facts? (For those of you who don’t know, Llewellyn is an alternative spirituality publisher; if you’ve ever picked up a book on shamanism, skrying, or channeling, chances are good that they published it.) Is Inside Metaphysical the name of a series of books, or does it refer to a sales methodology? What is it about inside metaphysical selling that makes it impossible to do effectively on a part-time basis? And to what specific locale does inside refer? People’s heads? Their souls? The Llewellyn building?

Not only does having a laugh about the industry render it less intimidating, but it also provides an important reminder that agencies and publishing houses are not monolithic entities: they are staffed by people, and those people have individual preferences and foibles. Whether you are querying an agent, soliciting a publisher, or trying to impress the Inside Metaphysical Sales Associate with your great interior beauty, there is a human being opening that envelope.

Your task when querying is not to wow an entire industry, but to charm a person.

Realizing that can only help you market your work. Aspiring writers seldom seem to think about this, but take some time to wonder: if I had to sell this book to an editor who gets 500 hundred submissions for every one he accepts, or if I had to sell this book to competing departments within a publishing house, each with its own pet project, how would I do it? What would I say about this book, if I could only get two sentences heard at an editorial meeting? How is this book important enough, or fresh enough, or brilliant enough that it is different from everything else on the market?

Now, once you have come up with tentative answers to those questions: are all of these selling points in your query letter? Does your synopsis demonstrate them abundantly?

And so forth. The more you can place yourself in the Manolos of a senior editor at a major publishing house, the better your chances of figuring out, not how to write a book from scratch that will sweep her off those size 10 feet, but how to pitch the work you already feel strongly about to her. And the more you can learn about how the publishing industry works, the better you can picture what will appeal to its denizens.

I’m still learning, myself. But what I know so far, I am happy to keep passing along to you.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

The Frankenstein Manuscript, Part II: The monster always returns

January 26th, 2006

Hello, readers –

Yesterday, I introduced you to the Frankenstein manuscript, the frightening entity that is presented as a book written by a single author, but reads as though it had been written by several, so different are the voices, perspectives, and even word choices throughout. Such meandering manuscripts are common enough that professional readers – e.g., agents, editors, contest judges – tend to become profoundly suspicious of any manuscript that changes style or voice abruptly. With the super-quick readings that manuscripts generally get in the pre-acquisition stage (and always get in the first round of contest judging), the Frankenstein manuscript and the manuscript genuinely setting out to do interesting things with perspective are easily confused.

There are many fine examples of good books where writers have adopted a Frankenstein format self-consciously, in order to make a point. If you are even vaguely interested in experiments in narrative voice, you should rush out and read Margaret Atwood’s ALIAS GRACE.

Atwood tells the story of a murder, alternating between a tight first-person POV, straightforward third-person narrative, contemporary poems about the case, letters from the parties involved, newspaper clippings and even direct quotes from the murderess’ confession. It is an enjoyable read, but for writers, it is also a rich resource on how to mix battling narrative styles and structures well; as one might expect from a stylist as gifted as she; Atwood constructs her patchwork narrative so skillfully that the reader never has to wonder for more than an instant why (or how) the perspective has just changed.

I admire Margaret Atwood tremendously as novelist, poet, and essayist; I have spent years crossing my fingers as she hovered around the short list for the Nobel Prize. However, I suspect that even she would have had terribly difficult time marketing ALIAS GRACE if it were her first novel, at least in the current market, due to its Frankenstein structure.

Ditto for the inimitable Mario Vargas Llosa’s AUNT JULIA AND THE SCRIPTWRITER, one of my favorite novels of all time, and also a must-read for any writer considering playing funny tricks with narrative voice. Vargas Llosa is something of a structural prankster, folding, spindling, and mutilating the ordinary rules of storytelling in order to keep the reader off-balance. I admire his dash; when he was running for president of Peru (yes, really), he published an erotic novel, IN PRAISE OF THE STEPMOTHER, about…well, you can probably guess. (He lost, incidentally.) He, too, has been on the short list for the Nobel Prize for an awfully long time.

The moral here is this: once you’ve gained international acclaim as a prose stylist, you have a lot more leeway to mess with the conventional rules of writing. (Heck, Alice Walker made up entirely new punctuation rules for THE COLOR PURPLE, and that won the Pulitzer Prize.) But in your first book, in the current market, you probably cannot get away with breaking more than one or two of the rules – and even those need to be IMMISTAKEABLY marked, so agents, editors, and contest judges know that you broke them for a reason, rather than out of ignorance. (Trust me, no one on the Pulitzer committee thought that Alice Walker did not know how to use a semicolon properly.)

“Wait a gosh-darned minute,” I hear some of you exclaiming. “I take some liberties with narrative style, but it becomes clear over the course of the book why I’m doing it. Do you mean to say that if it is not clear in the first 50 pages, or whatever short excerpt the agent, editor, or contest has asked to see, my innovative experiment in English prose might just get thrown into the reject pile because it will be mistaken for bad writing?”

In a word, yes.

Before you fret and fume too much about how the intense pre-screening of the current agency system prevents genuinely bold experiments in writing from reaching the desks of publishers at the major houses, think about the Frankenstein manuscript from the point of view of the agent, editor, or judge who finds it on her desk one busy morning.

When I receive a Frankenstein manuscript as a freelance editing project, I have the option of sitting down with the author, having a major discussion about what she wants the book be, and helping guide the work toward more internal stylistic consistency. Basically, the process entails gathering together all of the battling styles, making the author come up with a justification for using each, and having the justifications duke it out until one (or, rarely, two) is declared the winner by the author. It takes time, but it’s generally worth the effort.

However, when a first reader at an agency or an editor at a publishing house receives a Frankenstein manuscript – and yes, some manuscripts are so internally scattered that the problem becomes apparent in even just the first chapter or first 50 pages – she is unlikely to have the time to figure out which voice and/or style is going to end up dominating the book. Even if she absolutely loves one of the styles or voices, her hectic schedule does not allow time for equivocation. She must that she select one of two options, and quickly: either she commits to nursing the author through precisely the kind of boxing match I described above, or she can simply reject the work and move on to the next submission, in the hope of finding a writer whose book will not need as much tender loving care.

With literally hundreds of new submissions coming in each week, which option do you think she’ll select more often?

When a contest judge receives a Frankenstein manuscript, the choice is even quicker and more draconian. The judge knows that there’s no question of being able to work with the author to smooth out the presentation; in the vast majority of literary contests, the judge won’t even know who the author is. Plop! There it goes, into the no-prize-this-year file. Better luck – and first readers – next year.

If you are attempting to play with unconventional notions of structure or style, make sure that it is pellucidly clear in the manuscript exactly what you are doing. Don’t leave it to the reader to guess, because, as I’ve shown above, professional readers just don’t have the time to figure it out.

And consider making your deviations from standard structure and narrative rules bold, rather than slipping them in here and there. Experimenting with several styles within a short number of pages is decidedly risky – and perversely, the less daringly experimental you are, the riskier it is, because tentative attempts look to professional eyes like unfinished work.

To borrow E.F. Benson’s wonderful example, let’s say you were planning to paint a picture of a house down the street. The house has a crooked chimney. The novice painter would paint it exactly as is, unskillfully, and viewers of the finished painting would wonder forever after if the chimney had really looked like that, or if the novice just couldn’t paint straight lines. An intermediate painter would paint the chimney as straight, to rule out that conclusion. But an expert painter would add 10 degrees to the angle of the chimney, so there would be no doubt in the observer’s mind that he had painted it that way intentionally.

The more deliciously complex and groundbreaking your chosen style is, the more clearly you should announce it. Unless, of course, you want to wait until you’re on the short list for the Nobel Prize before you start getting wacky.

Tomorrow, I shall talk about practical measures to keep your manuscript from falling accidentally into the Frankenstein realm.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

The Frankenstein manuscript

January 24th, 2006

Hello, readers –

I’m in a terrific mood today – first, the 2005 Food Blog Awards have just come out, and my good friend and PNWA member Shauna James’ wonderful blog has just been named the best theme-oriented food blog in the world. As in: on the entire globe, in any language spoken by human beings.

So three cheers and a hat in the air for Shauna – and for all of you out there who have the guts, persistence, and determination to keep putting your writing out there for all the world to see. Whether you can eat gluten or not, if you are even vaguely interested in food or food writing, you owe it to yourself to trot on over to her site. Really luscious stuff, with some of the finest food photography you’re likely to see anywhere.

As if that weren’t enough to make me happy on this miraculously azure-skied PNW winter day, an editing client of mine has just made a major breakthrough with her book. Few writers, no matter how talented, find their voices the first time around, and we’ve been working together for months, trying to pin down how exactly to tell her story. And, as happens sometimes, it just suddenly congealed into something sharp and analytical and true.

On an artistic level, I’m thrilled that she’s found her voice, but as an editor, I know that in the short term, it means a lot more work for me. Because, you see, now we have to go back through the rest of the book with a fine-toothed comb, to make the voice that now has emerged sound consistent throughout the entire story.

Which brings me, rather neatly, to today’s topic: the Frankenstein manuscript, a book that meanders in voice, tone, perspective, structure, and/or style so much that it sounds as though it had been written by a committee, instead of an individual writer. All of these are cobbled together, like the body parts of Dr. Frankenstein’s creature, to create the illusion of a whole entity, but it lacks the spark, the true-to-life continuity of a story told from beginning to end by a sure authorial voice.

This is my personal nickname for such a book, but I assure you, every single agent and editor knows what it is, and dreads it – because they know, as I do, that its appearance heralds months and months of fine-combing to come.

The sad thing is, the Frankenstein tendency is almost always accidental, and generally goes entirely unnoticed by the writer. Writing a book takes a long time: as with my editing client, authorial voices, preferences, and even underlying philosophy can change radically over the course of a writing project. As revision is layered on top of revision, many writers become too absorbed in the details of the book to sit down and read it straight through AS A BOOK – which, unfortunately, is the only way to recognize a Frankenstein manuscript.

Even more unfortunately, for writers of Frankenstein pieces, reading a manuscript straight through, at least the first part of it, is how agents and editors determine whether they want to work with an author. If you have a Frankenstein manuscript, you are far, far better off recognizing the problem yourself before you submit it, because from the diagnosis of professionals, there is no appeal.

Sometimes, the pieced-together nature of a book is intentional, and its similarity to the standard Frankenstein tome will render it very, very easy for agents and editors to dismiss. If you are given to experimenting with multiple POV, changes in voice, or structural changes in mid-story, you need to be very, very aware that professional readers may well be mistaking your conscious choices for symptoms of a Frankenstein game plan.

I met a promising writer at a writers’ conference once, many years ago. He described his novel beautifully: a coming-of-age story about a boy so engrossed in the messages of the TV shows and movies he saw in the late 1950s that he incorporated these styles into how he viewed his life. The result, the author told me, was intended to be a picaresque account growing up from the kid’s perspective, real-life stories told as cowboys and Indians, spy thriller, spaceman adventure, etc.

Well, to be frank, I am not the best audience for works about prepubescent boys. As someone who spent her formative years sitting through sensitive European films where an earthy older woman’s charms gently coax some suspiciously attractive and precocious young boy toward manhood, I become leery every time a young protagonist goes anywhere within five miles of the town prostitute’s lair, his best friend’s older sister’s window, or anybody’s mother but his own. But that’s just me.

As an aside, I think such stories are a hard sell to experienced readers, unless they are AWFULLY well told. There are countless films about 8-to-12 year-old boys learning important life lessons the hard way; if the age is so darned important, why aren’t there as many films from the perspectives of girls in that age group? (An important exception to this:Kasi Lemmons’ excellent film EVE’S BAYOUtells such a story from a young girl’s perspective amazingly well.) I think that if you choose to tackle such a well-documented age group in a work intended for adult readers – particularly if you want to stick to the well-worn ground of white, middle- or upper-middle class boys in suburbia or in small towns with swimming holes, you really have to come up with something startling to rise above the sheer volume of competition.

But in this case, the author seemed like an interesting guy, so we exchanged work, despite my trepidations. And lo and behold, long before 50 pages had past, his intrepid wee protagonist had grabbed his fishing pole and skipped his way toward the edge of town, where the local voodoo priestess/cajoler of young boys into manhood lived.

Yet the fact that I’d seen the plot, conservatively speaking, 2700 times before was not what put me off the book. No, the problem was the fact that each stylistic switch came as a complete and utter surprise – even to me, who knew the premise of the book. Each episode was indeed presented in the style of some well-worn visual media style. Quite well, as a matter of fact. However, since the writing style changed radically every ten pages or so, pretty much any reader was guaranteed to fall into one she disliked occasionally. And since there was no overarching framework to make this junior Walter Mitty’s account of himself hang together, it read like a collection of short stories, unrelated articles of clothing hanging side-by-side on a clothesline, rather than as a cohesive book.

It read, in short, like a Frankenstein manuscript.

Because I liked the author and thought he was a pretty good writer, I wanted to help him out, so I worked up nerve to make a bold suggestion. “What if you set up very plainly in the first chapter that your protagonist sees life through a directorial lens?” (Sort of like Fellini’s 8 1/2, I added to myself.) “That way, the reader would be in on the conceit right from the beginning, and could enjoy each switch as play, rather than leaving the reader to guess after the style has changed 6 or 7 times that you have a larger purpose here.”

He, to put it mildly, did not like this advice; it sounded, he said, just like the feedback he had gotten from the agents and editors at the conference, or indeed, every agent he had queried. We all obviously, he said huffily, just didn’t like the fact that he was experimenting with narrative structure, doing something new and exciting and fresh. We were, in his considered opinion, sticks in the proverbial mud.

Well, we may have been, but we also evidently all knew a Frankenstein manuscript when we saw one, because we’ve seen so very, very many. He continued to have trouble placing his book, because, to professional eyes, such a manuscript means only one thing: the investment of a tremendous amount of editorial time and energy to make the work publishable.

My friend with ambitions to rewrite HUCK FINN had constructed his creature self-consciously, but far more often, as I said, writers are not even aware that the style shifts are visible. Particularly in first novels, the stylistic changes are often the inevitable result of the writer’s craft having improved over the years spent writing the book, or simple inexperience in carrying a late-added theme all the way through a story. In the most extreme cases, the shifts are so pronounced that the Frankenstein book can actually read as a sort of unintentional anthology.

I’m not talking about multiple-perspective pieces — although it is very easy for a book relying upon several storytelling voices to end up as a Frankenstein work, without a cohesive narrative thread tying it all together. No, in a good multiple-perspective novel, each voice and/or POV is sharp, distinct, differentiated to the extent that a reader familiar with each could open the book at any page and know within a paragraph who is speaking. THE POISONWOOD BIBLE, for instance, juggles multiple perspectives and voices beautifully, so that although the reader is treated to the overarching story in bits and pieces, the whole blends into seemingly organic coherence.

In a Frankenstein manuscript, no such organic coherence exists, even if the overall plot makes linear sense. The reader is jerked from writing style to writing style, as if the same story were being told on all available networks, but an indecisive child held the remote control, so the style of telling leaps from soap opera to broad comedy to PBS documentary. It’s tiring to read, and often, hard to follow. It also says pretty clearly to anyone who reads manuscripts for a living that the author has not yet performed a thorough, beginning-to-end edit on the book.

And this is a serious problem for the editor, as it is her job to strengthen the dominant style and muffle the rest, so the whole can stand as a unified piece of prose. It is also a serious problem for the author, since it’s hard to sell a piece that meanders stylistically.

Before I meander into my years of experience fixing Frankenstein manuscripts, I am going to stop for today. Tomorrow, I shall go into what happens to a Frankenstein manuscript when it reaches an agency or a publishing house – as well as methods you can use to catch and mend the problem before it passes under professional eyes.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

The promise of the first 50 pages – and an answer to that pesky poetry question

January 23rd, 2006

Hello, readers –

I have a lot to talk about today. First, allow me to respond to a terrific question submitted by sharp-eyed reader, inquiring mind, and poetry aficionado Colleen, who wrote in:

What’s the industry standard format for poetry? I know it’s single-spaced, double-spaced between stanzas, but I’m not sure about the margins. And should it be centered or justified at the left margin? Thanks for all the helpful advice! –Colleen

Well, I did know the answer to this one, but as I have only twice since I graduated from high school written poems that deserved to outlive the day they were written, I thought it would be a good idea to double-check with some of the award-winning poets I know. Perhaps they would have some insight for my readers that I, as a non-poet, would not.

Rising to the challenge was the fabulous Paula Neves, poetess extraordinaire, master of word craft, and web mistress of that wonderful literary site, Itinerant Muse, which features cutting-edge poetry, prose, and news from the world of words. Paula’s rich, lyrical style and delightfully offbeat worldview have led her to one poetry triumph after another, both in print and in performance. Here’s what she had to say to Colleen on the poetry formatting issue:

Mostly everyone that I’m aware of does single-spaced lines, double-spaces between stanzas, left justification, and 1″ margins. When submitting myself, I’ve always just done this or relied on the publication’s particular standards. I’m not aware of a “format guide” for poetry, but I will do a little digging ‘cause I’m curious.

I’m curious, too, Paula, because every published poet I approached with this question appeared puzzled by it. They, too, had merely been adhering to the standards set by the individual publication or contest – but all really liked the idea of a formatting guide for poets. (Several, too, expressed concern that there WERE unspoken standards out there, and that perhaps they had been violating them for years.) So I think it’s high time that some poet just bit the bullet and codified the standards. But that’s a project for another day, and another writer.

Today, I want to talk about an issue dear to the heart of every writer who has honed her skills and burnished her natural talent enough to be receiving “Yes, do send us the first 50 pages/ first three chapters” answers to her queries. For most writers who eventually publish, this is a distinct stage of professional development: first there is the invariable rejection stage (which I hope in your case is/was very short), then the we-might-be-interested-but stage, then the gratifying stage where most of your queries receive some interest. As I have been arguing for months on end now, the difference between stages is very often not the quality of the writing, but its presentation – although most writers do improve their craft as they revise their way through the stages.

The first time a writer receives a request to see part of her manuscript, it is a red-letter day, isn’t it? Finally, after years of struggling, here at last is recognition. And it is indeed recognition: of the fact that the writer has learned the ropes of the industry well enough to write a professional-quality query letter, put together a solid synopsis, and follow the submission directions to a T. This is nothing to sneeze at: the vast majority of submitters have not been able to achieve so much. So be proud of yourself.

So you give one last read-through to those precious pages (and yes, Virginia, if the agent has asked for 50 pages, send ONLY 50 pages, even if that means cutting the reader off in mid-sentence. You want to be asked for more, don’t you?), and send them off with fear and trembling. Or, rather, if you are a regular reader of this column, you will:

*Read the whole thing through IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD, to catch any last-minute problems

*Make sure that it is in standard format (if you do not know what this is, go back and read my blog of December 28), with all pages numbered and a standard slug line.

*Print it up on bright white paper of high quality (20 lb. or higher) that is a pleasure to handle and won’t tear in transit.

*Included a professional-but-pleasant cover letter that thanks the agent for her interest.

*Included a SASE, and

*Written “REQUESTED MATERIALS” in gigantic letters on the outside of the package.

Because if you do not, you know, I shall be cross – and, more importantly, so will the agent be. Proper presentation renders a fair reading of your work infinitely more likely.

If the agent loves the work, the writer will receive a letter or (more often) a phone call, asking for the rest. So then you repeat all of the steps above, the agent falls in love with the rest of the book, and you move on to the NEXT next stage of your growth as a professional writer. I sincerely hope that this is the way it works out for you.

Except most of the time, this is not what happens.

All too often, good writers’ books are rejected between the “Yes, we like the first 50 pages – send more immediately!” step and the “Yes, I want to sign you!” step. And this is puzzling, because, frankly, if the writer in question hadn’t cleared up most of the normal formatting problems, written a great query letter, and shown quite a lot of talent in those first 50 to boot, she wouldn’t have gotten this far. Is this, the rejected writer wonders, a sign that I’m just not talented enough? Or is this yet another aspect of the publishing world that lies outside my control?

Actually, it’s neither. It’s a phenomenon known in the industry as the book’s “not living up to the promise of the first 50.” And, as nearly as I can tell, it is a problem created almost entirely by the fact that writers spend years toiling their way through the progression I mentioned above.

Let’s face it, a writer could get away for an awfully long time in the query process – or the contest-entering process, for that matter — without having polished much more than the first 50 pp., couldn’t he? True, the expectation is that you will not query an agent, solicit a small publisher, or enter a contest for a finished book without having in fact completed it (for fiction, at least; for NF, you are expected to have a proposal in hand), but in practice, if you had 50 pages and/or three chapters of beautifully polished prose, you could go a long way with it before anyone in the industry would actually ask to see the rest of your book.

Even if you are not quite so strategic, the mere fact that professionals ask to see the first pages (particularly the first chapter) means that you yourself probably end up reading and revising them more than the rest of the book. We have all been told – and with great justification – that if you want to get your work past the initial screeners at an agency, publishing house, or contest, those first pages need to shine. So admonished, most of us polish those early pages to a high gloss. If you ever enter contests, this is almost certainly the case. Which means that the rest of the book may not be buffed quite so well.

Think about the implications of this from an agent’s or editor’s perspective. You have read a glorious first 50 pages and loved them. Consequently, your expectations about the author of them are very high. Since, due to writers’ tendency to want to play with their work a bit more before it is sent, a few weeks may pass before you see the next installment – and a few more may pass, while you are trying to find time to read it (many agents and most editors do their reading at home, rather than at the office), you may have built the book up even higher in your mind in the interim. So if when you finally tackle the rest, it seems like a rougher draft than the earlier work, you are bound to be disappointed, aren’t you?

Disappointed agents and editors, I am sorry to report, seldom sign authors or acquire books. If this sounds as though writers get punished for doing too good a job of self-editing their first few chapters…well, if I ran the universe, it wouldn’t work that way. But sadly, I do not.

This reminds of when I was a graduate student. In my department, doctoral exams were the subject of much puzzled debate, because the results were often the exact opposite of what the professors expected: time and again, the best students would merely pass, whereas the borderline and downright mediocre students would pass with honors. Many possible reasons were advanced; perhaps the hotshot students were given longer or more difficult reading lists to study, or the poor students studied more, so they felt insecure.
But year after year, professors were disappointed by their best students’ performances and charmed by their worst.

When it came time for me to take my doctoral exams, I was determined to break the trend. I prepared as if my life depended upon the outcome. I was a very good student, and like most of the top students before me, I did exceptionally well on the written part of the exam. By the time I reached the final, oral segment, I was dead tired. I had written 160 pages of difficult theoretical analysis over the course of just under two weeks, and the professors on my committee had been fighting one another the whole time. But still, I did not miss a single question throughout my grueling 3-hour oral exam. I was pretty darned proud of myself.

When my committee brought me back into the room to tell me my grade, however, I was shocked to learn that I had not passed with honors. Merely passed. “But I had the longest reading list anyone in the department has ever had,” I protested. “I answered every question, and you said that my writtens were close to perfect.”

The professors glanced at one another, clearly embarrassed. “Well, you did so well on your written exams,” my chair admitted, after a pause, “we expected something really stellar on your orals. We wanted you to impress us more.”

”Also,” another professor added, “you seemed tired.”

If I had enough strength left to lift my arms, I believe I might have thrown my pen at him, but as it was, all I had energy to do was tell them that I had solved the departmental mystery. The poor students were doing badly on their written exams, I explained, so the professors’ expectations of their performances in their orals were very low. Thus, the better you did on the first part, the less likely you were to impress them on the second; an impressive written performance, then, more or less disqualified you from receiving honors.

They were very impressed by my reasoning. They still didn’t give me honors, but at least they were impressed.

I don’t mean to suggest that you should write poorly for your first 50 pp – absolutely not, because then you will not be asked to send more. But do give some serious thought and revision time to the rest of the book, particularly the SECOND 50 pages. Because the better a writer you are, the harder an act you will have to follow.

And in the eyes of the publishing industry, this does not seem as unreasonable as it does from the point of view of a writer. An agent will not pick you up because you can write a good introductory chapter; she will sign you because she believes that you are so talented that you produce great sentences, wonderful paragraphs, stellar pages all the time — and that you will continue to do so for the rest of your life.

THAT’S how much faith an agent who asks to read the rest of the book has in you.

Flattering, really. But it sets an awfully high bar. Make sure that your book is ready to clear it, when the great day comes.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

When good perspectives go bad

January 18th, 2006

Hi, readers –

The PNWA website is about to undergo a major overhaul! Even as I write this, dedicated volunteers are scurrying like mad to make it even more fabulous, user-friendly, and stuffed to the brim with useful info for all of you than it already is. Really, I think you’re going to like the results.

So don’t panic if you don’t hear from me for a few days – the blog will be in limbo during the reconstruction period, but it will emerge from its cocoon soon. My section will now be called GUEST WRITER, which makes me feel sort of like The Man Who Came to Dinner, but I promise you, even under the new aegis, I shall keep up my patented barrage of friendly advice, inside insights, and unsolicited gratuitous opinions. If you have writing- or publishing-related questions you would like to see me tackle, send ‘em in; if I don’t know the answer, I’ll find someone who does.

So to prepare you for the Grand Silence, I’m writing you an extra-long installment today.

Yesterday, I wrote about what a good idea it is to avoid incorporating stereotypes into your submissions, lest you offend someone on the reading end of your query. (Hint: not everyone in New York is straight, for instance.) In glancing over the post, I realized that I left a rather important piece out of the argument: even amongst agents, editors, and judges who are not easily affronted, stereotypes tend not to engender positive reactions.

Why? Well, in a new writer, what they’re really looking to see is originality of worldview and strength of voice, in addition to serious writing talent. When you speak in stereotypes, it’s extremely difficult to see where your authorial voice differs markedly from, say, the average episodic TV writer’s. It’s just not all that impressive.

Occasionally, though, marked personal prejudices may actually lend verve to a voice – which, incidentally, is nowhere more true than in the world of blogs. We bloggers are SUPPOSED to be absolutely open about our pet peeves and quirky interpretations of the world around us: the whole point is to be as subjective and stream-of-consciousness as possible. Think about it: wouldn’t Andrew Sullivan’s blog about politics (well worth reading, if you haven’t) be far less interesting if he didn’t make his personal views so VERY apparent? Or, for that matter, wouldn’t this very blog be rather uninteresting without my pronounced (albeit charming, I hope) personal slant? That’s why the mainstream news’ attempts at establishing themselves as legitimate blog voices tend to fall so flat: they are the products of PR research; the individual bizarreness has been utterly ironed out.

Minor vitriol, however, or personal anger masked as fiction, usually does not work so well in print. I cannot even begin to count the number of novels I have edited that contained scenes where the reader is clearly supposed to be incensed at one of the characters, yet it is not at all apparent from the action of the scene why.

Invariably, when I have asked the authors about these scenes, they turn out to be lifted directly from real life. The author is always quite astonished that his own take on the real-life scene did not translate into instantaneous sympathy in every conceivable reader. (These scenes are pretty easy for professionals to spot, because the protagonist is ALWAYS presented as in the right for every instant of the scene, a state of grace quite unusual in real life. It doesn’t ring true.) Ultimately, this is a point-of-view problem — the author is just too close to the material to be able to tell that the scene doesn’t read the way he anticipated.

Many writers assume (wrongly) that if someone is annoying in real life, and they reproduce the guy down to the last whisker follicle, he will be annoying on the page as well, but that is not necessarily true. Often, the author’s anger so spills into the account that the villain starts to appear maligned. If his presentation is too obviously biased, the reader may start to identify with him, and in the worst cases, actually take the villain’s side against the hero. I have read scenes where the case against the villain is so marked that most readers will decide that the hero is the impossible one, not the villain.

This revenge has clearly not gone as planned.

Yes, I called it revenge, because revenge it usually is. Most writers are very aware of the retributive powers of their work. As my beloved old mentor, the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, was fond of saying, “Never screw over a living writer. They can always get back at you on the page.”

Oh, stop blushing. You didn’t honestly think that when you included that horrible co-worker in three scenes of your novel that you were doing her a FAVOR, did you?

My most vivid personal experience of this species of writerly vitriol was not as the author, thank goodness, but as the intended victim. And at the risk of having this story backfire on me, I’m going to tell you about it as nonfiction. Call it a memoir excerpt.

A few years ago, I was in residence at an artists’ colony. Now, artistic retreats vary a great deal; mine have ranged from a fragrant month-long stay in a cedar cabin in far-northern Minnesota, where all of the writers were asked to remain silent until 4 p.m. each day (ah, the recently departed Norcroft! I shall always think of you fondly, my dear – which is saying something, as I had a close personal encounter with an absolutely mammoth wolf there, and a poet-in-residence rode her bicycle straight into a sleepy brown bear. And both of us would still return in an instant.) to a let’s-revisit-the-early-1970s meat market, complete with hot tub, in the Sierra foothills. They’re sort of a crap shoot.

This particular colony had more or less taken over a small, rural New England town, so almost everyone I saw for a month was a painter, a sculptor, or a writer. The writers were a tiny minority; you could see the resentment flash in their eyes when they visited the painters’ massive, light-drenched studios, and compared them to the dark caves to which they themselves had been assigned. I elected to write in my room, in order to catch some occasional sunlight, and for the first couple of weeks, was most happy and productive there.

When I go on a writing retreat, I like to leave the trappings of my quotidian life behind, but not everyone feels that way. In fact, several artists had brought their significant others to the colony, or, to be more accurate, these pairs had applied together: writer and photographer, painter and writer, etc. One of these pairs was a very talented young couple, she a writer brimming with potential, he a sculptor of great promise.

Although every fiber of my being strains to use their real names, I shall not. Let’s call them Hansel and Gretel, to remove all temptation.

Hansel was an extremely friendly guy, always eager to have a spirited conversation on topics artistic or social. No one in the dining hall was really surprised that he often brought the conversation around to sex; honestly, once you’d sat through his slide show of breast, leg, pudenda, buttocks, breast, you’d have to be kind of dense not to notice where his mind liked to wander. He and I talked in a friendly manner whenever we happened to sit at the same table. I loaned him a book or two. We had coffee a couple of times. Never occurred to me to think anything of it.

Until Gretel started fuming at me like a dragon.

Now, I don’t know anything about the internal workings of their marriage; perhaps they liked jealousy scenes. I don’t, but there’s just no polite way of saying, “HIM? Please; I DO have standards” to an angry lover, is there? So I started sitting at a different table in the dining hall. A little junior high schoolish, true, but better that than Gretel’s being miserable.

The fellowship that each writer received included a requirement that each of us do a public reading while we were in residence. Being a “Hey – I’ve got a barn, and you’ve got costumes!” sort of person, I organized other, informal readings as well, so we writers could benefit from feedback and hearing one another’s work. I invited Gretel to each of these shindigs; she never came. Eventually, my only contact with her was being on the receiving end of homicidal stares in the dining hall, as if I’d poisoned her cat or something.

It was almost enough to make me wish that I HAD flirted with her mostly unattractive husband.

But I was writing twelve hours a day (yes, Virginia, there IS a good reason to go on a retreat!), so I didn’t think about it much. I had made friends at the colony, my work was going well, and if Gretel didn’t like me, well, we wouldn’t do our laundry at the same time. My friends teased me a little about being such a femme fatale that I didn’t even need to do anything but eat a sandwich near the couple to spark a fight, but that was it.

At the end of the third week of our residency, it was Gretel’s turn to give her formal reading to the entire population of the colony, a few local residents who wandered in because there was nothing else to do in town, and the very important, repeated National Book Award nominee who had dropped by (in exchange for an honorarium) to shed the effulgence of her decades of success upon the resident writers. Since it was such a critical audience, most of the writers elected to read highly polished work, short stories they had already published, excerpts from novels long on the shelves. Unlike my more congenial, small reading groups, it wasn’t an atmosphere conducive to experimentation.

Two writers read: beautifully varnished work, safe stuff. Then Gretel stood up and announced that she was going to read two short pieces she had written here at the colony. She glanced over at me, and my guts told me there was going to be trouble.

The first piece was a lengthy interior monologue, describing Hansel and Gretel having sex in vivid detail. Just sex, without any emotional content to the scene, a straightforward account of a mechanical act which included – I kid you not – a literal countdown to the final climax. It was so like a late-1960’s journalistic account of a rocket launching that I kept expecting her to say, “Houston, we’ve got a problem.” I have no objection to writers who turn their diaries into works for public consumption, but this was graphic without being either arousing or instructive. Also, I’d read some of Gretel’s work before: she was a better writer than this.

However, the painters in the back row hooted and hollered, so maybe I just wasn’t the right audience for her piece. Still, looking around the auditorium, I didn’t seem to be the only auditor relieved when it ended. (“Three…two…one.) Call me judgmental, but I tend to think that when half the participants are pleased the act is over, it’s not the best sex imaginable.

Gretel’s second piece took place at a wedding reception. Again in the first person, again with herself and her husband identified by name, again an interior monologue, this had some legitimately comic moments in the course of the first page. As I said, Gretel could write.

Somewhere in the middle of page 2, a new character entered the scene, sat down at a table, picked up a sandwich – and suddenly, the interior monologue shifted, from a gently amused description of a social event to a jealously-inflamed tirade that included the immortal lines, “Keep away from my husband, bitch!” and “Are those real?”

She read it extremely well; her voice, her entire demeanor altered, like a hissing cat, arching her back in preparation for a fight. Fury looked great on her. And to her credit, the character that everyone in the room knew perfectly well was me – her physical description would have enabled any police department in North America to pick me up right away – never actually said or did anything seductive at all; her mere presence was enough to spark almost incoherent rage in the narrator. And Hansel sat there, purple-faced, avoiding the eyes of his sculptor friends, until she finished.

There was no ending to the story. She just stopped, worn out from passion.

I was very nice to her; what else could I do? I laughed at her in-text jokes whenever it was remotely possible, congratulated her warmly on her vibrant dialogue in front of the National Book Award nominee, and made a point of passing along a book of Dorothy Parker short stories to her the next day.

Others were not so kind, either to her or to Hansel. The more considerate ones merely laughed at them behind their backs. Others depicted her in cartoon form, or acted out her performance; someone even wrote a parody of her piece and passed it around. True, I did have to live for the next week with the nickname Mata Hari, but compared to being known as the writer whose act of fictional revenge had so badly failed, I wouldn’t have cared if everyone had called me Lizzie Borden. And, of course, it became quite apparent that every time I was nice to Gretel after that, every time I smiled at her in a hallway when others wouldn’t, it was only pouring salt on her wounded ego.

Is there anything more stinging than someone you hate feeling sorry for you?

So do think twice about what you’re putting on the page, particularly for work you are submitting to contests, agencies, or small presses – or, heaven forbid, reading to a group of people you want to like you, or at any rate your narrator. Revenge fantasies tend to announce themselves screamingly from the page. If you’re still angry, maybe it’s not the right time to write about it for publication. Your journal, fine. But until you have gained some perspective – at least enough to perform some legitimate character development for that person you hate – give it a rest. Otherwise, your readers’ sympathies may ricochet, and move in directions that you may not like.

It’s always a good idea to get objective feedback on anything you write before you loose it on the world, but if you incorporate painful real-life scenes into your fiction, sharing before promotion becomes ABSOLUTELY IMPERATIVE. If you work out your aggressions at your computer – and, let’s face it, a lot of us do – please, please join a writing group. Find good readers you can trust to save you from looking like a junior high schooler on a rampage.

And Gretel, honey, in the unlikely event that you ever read this, you might want to remember: revenge is a dish best served cold. Or, as Philip used to say, never screw over a living writer. You never know who might end up writing a blog.

Hey, I’m only human.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Starting afresh

January 17th, 2006

Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, everybody! I know it’s common to reduce all of the Reverend Dr.’s accomplishments to the March on Washington and the “I Have a Dream” speech (leaving out, say, the fact that he held the world’s record as most prolific registrar of voters for at least two decades), but if you are interested in good rhetorical writing, do yourself a favor and find a compilation of his other writings. He was, among other things, an extremely talented writer, and I don’t think he gets enough credit for it.

I have been working on the early chapters of my next novel (an involved comedy set at Harvard, my undergraduate alma mater), and it has made me think about the question of being a single book author rather than a career writer. It’s not much of an issue while you’re writing your first book: then, the book IS your writing career.

But once you’ve completed the first to your own satisfaction, you need to confront some uncomfortable questions: okay, how does this book fit into my long-term writing plans? Is it representative of the kind of writer I want to be, or is it really a stepping-stone to the kind of book I’d actually prefer to write? And, always: what do I do for my next trick?

It is a common prejudice to regard authors who have not published yet as something other than “real” writers, an attitude that makes me apoplectic. “Real” writers, it is argued, are those who have books physically present in bookstores, who not only get paid for their writing, but actually make a living at it. “Real” writers, in short, are the ones on the bestseller lists, not the ones writing their hearts out in the solitude of their lonely rooms.

In other words, the people who use this term this way know absolutely nothing about the current writers’ market.

As anyone who has tried to market a book is very well aware, it can take YEARS to move successfully from the writing stage of a project to the point where the book is available for sale. Every writer, regardless of talent, has to move through the stages of writing the book, revising the book, finding an agent (unless you decide to go with a small publisher, or self-publish), selling the book to a publisher, rewriting the book to the publisher’s satisfaction, guiding the book through the IMMENSELY intricate byways of the average publishing house, promoting the book, and finally, building a fan base.

This is not a world, whatever the advocates of “real” writers say, where talent is instantly recognized, and a project is still warm from the author’s printer when she’s signing autographs at Barnes and Noble. In fact, as you may already be aware, finding an agent who is a good match with the work is a step that has taken many, many good writers two, five, ten, fifteen years – writers whose work has subsequently climbed the bestseller lists, won important awards, and charmed countless readers’ hearts.

I mention this, because I thought some of you could use a pep talk right about now. Since the NYC publishing world simply shuts down between Thanksgiving and the New Year, and agencies are swamped with New Year’s resolution queries and tax paperwork for last year’s sales for most of January, I would imagine that a lot of you are on pins and needles, awaiting replies. What you are doing is a necessary and laudable step of the process; it takes real courage to submit your work to total strangers with the power of life and death over it, and still more to keep submitting it after it has been rejected.

Don’t let anyone tell you that you’re not a real writer while you’re going through this process. Going through this process is precisely what real writers do, and the only genuine criterion for evaluating a writer is the quality of the writing. Period.

That being said, I return to the issue of the writing career. The vast majority of writers simply stop writing while they are marketing their first books, and no wonder. It takes a heck of a lot of energy to keep churning out queries personalized to each agency, crafting pithy synopses, and perfecting those first fifty pages that will wow the first agent who asks to see them. There are days when it takes almost too much energy to open the mailbox, to check for an acceptance or rejection. Be nice to yourself – this is emotionally difficult stuff.

However, if you truly do want a writing career, rather than a single success, it is vital that you not become so focused on the book you’re marketing that you neglect the next one. It’s always a good idea to have one in the pipeline.

And the more successful your first book is, the more crucial your next work will be. If you write genre fiction, you should plan on having another book completed within six or nine months of signing the contract on your first, as to be considered a successful genre writer, you will be expected to produce a new book every year and a half or so. If you write mainstream or literary, your name recognition will start to fade after a couple of years, so you will want to follow up as soon as you can. And if you write nonfiction, I can tell you from experience that your agent and editor will be asking you about your next project before you finish your first.

Funny, isn’t it? Before you sign with an agent or sell a book, it’s hard to get anyone in the industry to spend a few minutes reading your work, but after you’ve exhausted yourself pushing that work over the finish line, you’re expected to bounce to your feet and begin writing again instantly.

If you already have your next book partially finished or even completed, your life will be much, much easier later on, particularly in the year or two after you sign your first publication contract. (Remember, the months after you sign will be taken up with revision, so you may not have time to work on the next project then.) I know it’s tiring even to contemplate, but if you can be working on your next book while you are marketing the first, you will be doing precisely what successful writers do: keeping your career moving.

I hear some of you saying: wait a gosh-darned minute. I’ve been moving heaven and earth to scrape out the time to write my first book while working full-time (or, even more difficult, while raising kids full-time). Even if I didn’t take a well-deserved rest after finishing my book, I had planned to use my advance to support me while I wrote my next. If I already have notes on my next book, will that be good enough?

True, most books are not published until at least a year after the contract is signed – which means, in practical terms, that the final installment of your advance will be quite some time away. (Advances are typically paid in three installments: a third when the contract is signed, a third when the publisher accepts the book – i.e., after you have made all of the revisions your editor has asked you to make – and a third upon publication.) Unless your advance is very, very large indeed (as first-time authors’ advances seldom are), it is unlikely that a fraction of your advance will be large enough to support you for very long.

And I hate to be the one to tell you this, but even after your royalties exceed your advance amount, and you start receive straightforward royalty payments, it may be awhile before you get them. Some publishing houses are notoriously slow at passing along royalties – usually, contracts specify that they need pay them either when they exceed a certain set amount, or every six months, whichever comes first.

In other words, I wouldn’t count on your first book sale being able to take over your mortgage payments right away.

I know, I know, this isn’t the happy story we writers so often hear about overnight successes, but the fact is, most of the stories we hear are quite old, back in the heady pre-1990s days when editors would fall in love with a first novel, sign the author to a three-book contract, and hand over enough money that the author could devote himself (or, more rarely, herself) to her muse. You remember those days: it was the time when you would get all excited about a first novel, gleefully snatch up the author’s next as soon as it could be rushed into print – and never hear of that author again.

The reason for this was simple: authors used to struggle for years, perfecting that first book, and then their publishers would rush them into the second to try to maintain the momentum of the first. That’s why those second books so often seemed hastily-written; if the authors had not been writing all through the (back then, usually much shorter) agent-finding stage, the need to get the next book out the door sent them into a panic.

For this reason, publishing houses seldom give multi-book deals to first-time novelists anymore, but generally, the first book contract will contain a right of first refusal clause on the author’s next book. This means that even if your first book does not do well, the publisher reserves the right to see it before anyone else does, to have the option to buy it without running the risk of a bidding war. Which means, in turn, that if your first book enjoys the market success we all hope it will, you will be under considerable pressure to produce the next, pronto.

Use your querying stage wisely, and get started on book #2 as soon as you can.

As for me, with a memoir coming out this year, a novel just about to make the rounds of editors, and a small business to run, I don’t have time to stand around chatting. I need to get back to work on my next novel.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

The stigma of stereotyping

January 17th, 2006

Ah, January: the time when agents are running around in circles, scooting to provide necessary tax documentation for their authors’ royalties by the end of the month, writers are feverishly sending out their New Year’s resolution queries and unsolicited manuscripts, and contest judges are steeling themselves for the next batch of entries. Actually, it’s such a busy time of year in the publishing industry that I always tell my editing clients: just stay home for now. Give the queries a rest for a few weeks because, honestly, this is far and away the hardest time of year to get picked up by an agent. With everyone under the sun querying at once, competition is at its most fierce.

You can always start querying again next month.

The timing is good, too, for PNWA members, because contest entries are due at the end of February. Now’s a fabulous time to be polishing up the work you plan to submit; for those of you new to the blog, check out the posts from the three weeks around the holidays for a ton of advice about how to improve your entries in the eyes of judges. (And lest this sound like a sales pitch for the organization that sponsors my passing all of this advice on to you, consider: winning the 2004 Zola award for my memoir propelled me directly into the path of my wonderful agent, who sold the book to a fine NYC publisher within 8 months of my night of pride at PNWA. I’m just saying.)

Even if you don’t, for some reason beyond my ken, want to enter the contest – hey, I know that you all have lives — it’s still a great time to be working on your submissions, rather than submitting them. Which is why today I chose a topic that will help you no matter whether you are entering a contest or querying an agent: avoiding stereotypes in your work.

Television and movies have rather hardened us to stereotypes, haven’t they? In visual media, stereotypes are accepted as a means of shorthand, a way to convey intended meaning without adding length to the plot or character development for minor characters. In this shorthand, we are all expected to accept that “regular guys” on screens large and small will invariably be commitment-shy, inarticulate about their emotions, and into meaningless sex; pretty women will be shallow, especially if they’re busty; anyone whose name ends in a vowel will be Mafia-connected; every Southerner will be bigoted, and every politician will be corrupt, unless played by the romantic lead.

In other words: the moment that Oliver Stone decided to show us Jim Morrison having a metaphysical experience, didn’t we all already know that he was going to stick a Native American somewhere in the frame as a spiritual merit badge?

Personally, I find this kind of predictability utterly boring. Honestly, as soon as any man in a horror movie is mentioned as having had “a hard childhood,” don’t we all know by now that he’s going to turn out to be the serial killer? Don’t we all know instantly that if the female lead faints or mentions putting on weight, she must be pregnant? And oh, lordy, as soon as we see Jackie Chan standing next to a ladder, don’t we all instinctively brace for a fight to break out?

Don’t get me wrong – I adore Jackie Chan; he’s a wonderful comedy writer. But after seeing dozens of ladder-related incidents in countless movies throughout his career, I suspect that he could garner laughs at this point by walking up to any given ladder, turning to the camera, and inviting the audience to join him in counting until a gang of ruffians appears to beat him up.

If I find such predictable elements boring, imagine how their appearance must make the fine people who read thousands and thousands of agency submissions for a living want to tear their own hair out, strand by painful strand. Because, alas, this sort of stereotyping is not limited to screenwriting alone. It has found its way – oh, how abundantly – into novels.

The sad thing is, it’s often unconscious on the part of the writer. Most of us imbibe truisms from our television sets, so it seems natural to us that every professor should be absentminded, every redhead should have a fiery temper, every high school cheerleader be a bimbette who cares only for boys with expensive cars. And, for what it’s worth, there are many, many readers out there who won’t lift an eyebrow if you reproduce these stereotypes in your work.

However, in ANY querying situation, just as in any contest or in submitting to any small publishing house on the planet, a writer can have literally NO idea who is going to read her submission. What that crucial reader – crucial because that person will make the decision whether your work is worth promoting or not – believes or does not believe about the patterns of human interaction is a big mystery. You cannot assume that this person is going to, say, laugh at the same jokes as everyone at your office.

And this can be counterintuitive, because as anyone who follows standup comedy can already tell you, there are a lot of people out there who will laugh at sexist, racist, homophobic, and other humor not particularly insightful about the nuances of the human condition. (Anyone want to hear about the differences between New York and LA? Anyone? Anyone?)

Many years ago, when e-mail was just starting to become widely used, an old high school classmate of mine looked me up. For awhile, we exchanged messages (okay, I’ll admit it, while we were both at work; it’s how Americans have gotten their revenge for losing coffee breaks and paid overtime) about what was going on in our daily lives, but like many people, Mark’s idea of keeping in touch with far-flung friends was to forward jokes that he’d found on the internet. Jokes he would not necessarily tell face-to-face.

Some of those jokes were awfully darned offensive, but my gentle twitting in response did not make him stop sending them. My bouncing them back to him did not work, either. So, on a day when he had sent me three jokes that were sexist (and two of them racist as well), I sent him a reply wherein I detailed exactly WHY the jokes were not funny to me; because I am a funny person, I rewrote one of them so it was funny without being offensive, to show him the difference. I thought he’d get a kick out of it, and he would stop forwarding such jokes to me.

You can see this coming, right?

When I went to work the next day, my inbox was crammed to the gills with nasty responses from people I had never heard of, much less intended to e-mail. (Seems I had accidentally chosen REPLY ALL.) About the nicest thing any of them called me was a snob; many suggested that my hobby was doing unpleasant things to men for which dominatrixes are very well paid indeed, and most seemed to think I was of the canine persuasion. In short, it was a bloodbath.

It took me several hours to figure out what had happened: apparently, Mark had been routinely forwarding these same jokes to everyone in his office. How did I figure it out? Two clues: a sharp rebuke from Mark, beginning with, “Are you trying to get me fired?” and five e-mails from female coworkers of his, thanking me for asking him publicly to stop. According to them, since the boss routinely forwarded (and told) this type of joke himself, they were all afraid that they would get fired if they said anything about it. I suspect they were right – the boss sent me one of the nastiest of the flame-mails.

Now, the content of the jokes is actually not my point here: other people might well have read them without finding them offensive; it’s entirely possible that I was simply the wrong audience for them. The important thing to note is that both Mark and I made, in one sense, the same mistake: we each sent something out assuming that the recipients thought the same way we did. And that is always a mistake.

In this case, our respective assumptions merely ended a friendship – which, given that we’d known each other since junior high and this incident occurred when I was in graduate school, was not an insignificant loss. But consider this: was what either of us did really so unlike what writers who include stereotyping in their work do every day when they submit to agents and editors?

Trust me, because I have learned this from long experience: when you send in a submission, you have even less idea about the interpersonal politics and personalities at any given agency or publishing house than I did all those years ago about the corporate culture of Mark’s company. You may not intend to hurt anyone’s feelings or raise anyone’s hackles, but honestly, you have no way of knowing that the agent’s assistant WASN’T a cheerleader in high school – and class valedictorian to boot. Maybe your use of an ostensibly harmless bimbo character will be one use too many for her – because maybe, just maybe, that reader is the kind of really nice person who worked at Mark’s company, who has been shrugging off offense after offense for years, because that’s how you get along at a job.

You never can tell. But just once, it would be nice to see a Native American character actually WALK into or out of a room, rather than appearing mysteriously and/or melting away into the darkness, wouldn’t it?

I’m not saying that you should strip your sociopolitical views from what you write. Definitely not. But do be aware that, like the law professor I mentioned a couple of weeks ago who struck up a conversation with an unknown colleague without realizing that the unknown’s wife was a Supreme Court justice, your reputation can only be improved by utilizing every ounce of tact at your disposal. Every time you use a stereotype, even one you’ve seen a million times on TV, you run the risk of offending someone’s sensibilities on the receiving end.

That’s just a fact.

Besides, you’re more talented than that. I know you’re more than capable of making your characters your own, without taking the easy way out of invoking stereotypes as a substitute for character development.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

P.S.: Oh, and so you know, the PNWA website will be on hold for a few days later this week, so it may reemerge in its new and fabulous form!

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