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The Building Blocks of the Pitch, Part II: Luke…use the Force…Luke…

June 30th, 2006

Hello, readers –

Yesterday, I broke the unhappy news that each and every one of you who ever plans to pitch to an agent or editor, either at the upcoming PNWA conference or elsewhere, needs to pick a conceptual box into which to load your book. In other words, you need to pick a book category — and only ONE book category — for your book.

Since I know that this suggestion is making some of you cringe, let’s do a little meditation to help you acclimate yourself to this new reality, shall we? Everybody ready? Okay, picture me in your mind as your fairy godmother, wings and all. (I’m a brunette, if that helps with your visualization. In fact, I look like a travel poster for Corfu.)

Got it? Good. Now picture me lifting my spangled wand high and whacking you over the head with it. Poof! You are now no longer capable of being wishy-washy about your book category. Wasn’t that easy? Now you will speak — and even think — of your book as a marketable product, as agents and editors do. You have been magically forever deprived of the unprofessional desire to describe your book as, “sort of a cross between a high-end thriller and a romantic comedy, with Western elements” or “Have you ever seen the TV show HOUSE? Well, it’s sort of like that, except set in a prison in Southeast Asia in the Middle Ages!” This is simply not an industry where vagueness pays off.

While I was at it, I also knocked out of your vocabulary the cringe-inducing phrases “fiction novel,” “a true memoir,” and “…but it is written like literary fiction.” You’re welcome.

Did the last phrase in that list surprise you? If you write anything BUT literary fiction, the kindest thing your fairy godmother could possibly have done for you is prevent you from EVER saying it to an agent, editor, publicist, interviewer, or even the guy next to you on the bus at any point in the next fifty years. Why? Because IF YOU WRITE IN A GENRE, YOU SHOULD BE PROUD OF THE FACT, not apologetic.

And believe me, hedging about the writing in your book WILL come across as apologetic to professional ears. Think about it: is someone who has devoted her life to the promotion of science fiction and fantasy going to THANK you for indirectly casting aspersions on the writing typical of that genre?

It is also a turn-off, professionally speaking, a signal that the writer might not be very well versed in the genre. Why, the average agent will think during such a pitch, doesn’t this author write in the language of his chosen genre? Every genre has its handful of conventions; is this writer saying that he’s simply decided to ignore them? Why write in a genre, if you’re not going to write in the genre’s style? And why am I asking myself this string of rhetorical questions, instead of listening to the pitch this writer is giving?

See the problem?

There is an unfortunately pervasive rumor on the writers’ conference circuit that a genre label automatically translates in professional minds into writing less polished than other fiction. No, no, no: genre distinctions, like book categories, are indicators of where a book will sit in a bookstore; they’re not value judgments. Believe me, an agent who is looking for psychological thrillers is far more likely to ask to see your manuscript if you label it PSYCHOLOGICAL THRILLER than just as FICTION. And an agent interested in psychological thrillers will not even sniff at a book labeled LITERARY FICTION.

Trust me on this one, for your fairy godmother speaks from hard personal experience. I write mainstream fiction and memoir, but I once had the misfortune to be critiqued by an editor who did not handle either. One of those conference assignment snafus I was mentioning the other day. We could not have had less to say to each other if he had been speaking Urdu and I Swedish, but as those of you who have been reading the blog for the last couple of weeks know, I am a great believer in trying to turn these conference matching accidents into learning opportunities. So, gritting my teeth like a nice girl, I listened patiently to what he had to say about the first chapter of my novel.

If only I had been clutching my magic wand at the time. What he had to say, unsurprisingly, was that while he found the writing excellent, he would advise that I change the protagonist from a woman to a man, strip away most of the supporting characters, and begin the novel with a conflict that occurred two-thirds of the way through the book, the fall of the Soviet Union. “Then,” he said, beaming at me with what I’m sure he thought was avuncular encouragement, “you’ll have a thriller we can market, dear. I’d been happy to take another look at it then.”

Perhaps I had overdone the politeness bit; I hate it when total strangers call me dear. I’m not THAT cute, I tell you. But I kept my mien pleasant. “But it’s not a thriller.”

He could not have looked more appalled if I had suddenly pulled a switchblade on him. “Then why are you talking to me?” he huffed, and hied himself to the bar for what I believe was another Scotch.

In retrospect, I can certainly understand his annoyance: if I had been even vaguely interested in writing thrillers, his advice would have been manna from heaven, and I should have been grateful for it. I would have fallen all over myself to thank him for his 20-minute discourse about how people who read thrillers (mostly men) dislike female protagonists, particularly ones who (like my protagonist) are well educated. The lady with the Ph.D. usually does not live beyond the first act of a thriller, he told me, so yours truly is going to keep her pretty little head sporting its doctoral tam in another genre. Dear.

I learned something very important from this exchange, though: specialists in the publishing biz are extremely book-category myopic. To them, books outside their areas of expertise might as well be poorly written; in their minds, no other kinds of books are marketable.

Just in case you think that I’ve just been being governessy in urging you again and again to be as polite as possible to EVERYONE you meet at ANY writers’ conference: that near-sighted editor is now a high mucky-muck at the publishing house that’s currently handling my memoir — which, I can’t resist telling you, covers in part my years teaching in a university. Chalk one up for the educated girls. But isn’t it lucky that I didn’t smack him in his condescending mouth all those years ago?

The baseless rumor that genre carries a stigma has led a lot of good writers to pitch manuscripts that would have stood out magnificently within their proper genres as mainstream or even literary fiction, resulting in queries and pitches aimed at the wrong eyes and ears. By labeling your work correctly, you increase the chances of your pitch’s attracting someone who genuinely likes your kind of book astronomically.

So label your work with absolute clarity, and revel in your category affiliation. Think about it: would Luke Skywalker have been able to use the Force effectively in a mainstream romantic comedy? No: the light sabers shine brightest in the science fiction realm.

Being true to your genre will help you resist the temptation to label the book as an unholy hyphenate (“It’s a chick lit thriller!”) in a misguided attempt to represent it as having a broader potential audience. Trust me on this one: if a subgenre already has a name, there is already a well-documented market out there for it. Don’t be afraid to label your work with a very narrow subgenre label, if it’s appropriate. Yes, it may whittle down the array of agents to whom you can pitch the book, but it will definitely make your querying and pitching more efficient.

That’s just common sense, really. The more accurately a book is labeled, the more likely it is to catch the eye of an agent or editor who honestly wants to snap up that kind of book. Think of it as a professional courtesy: hyper-specific category labels are a shortcut that enables them to weed out pitches outside their areas almost instantly; that. in case you were wondering, is why agents like to be told the category in the first paragraph of the query letter. It saves them scads of time if you tell them instantly whether your book is a hardboiled mystery or a caper mystery: if it isn’t the variety they are looking for today, they can weed it out almost immediately.

Consistently, the writers who have the hardest time categorizing their work are writers who write literate books about female protagonists, aimed at female readers. (If this sounds like a subgenre in and of itself, take a look at the statistics: women buy roughly 80% of the fiction sold in this country, and virtually all of the literary fiction.) Does this automatically mean it’s women’s fiction? Well, no, not necessarily: it really depends how important the relationships are in the book.

This is one of the few instances where I consider it acceptable to equivocate a little about the book category. When in doubt, “mainstream fiction that will appeal especially to women” is about as much as it is safe to waffle in a pitch; if you really want to be Machiavellian, you could always pitch such a book as mainstream to agents who represent mainstream and as women’s fiction to those who represent that. (Hey, I’m on your side, not theirs.)

The other group of writers who have an especially tough time with categorization are those who write on the literary/mainstream fiction cusp. Time and time again, I meet writers at conferences who tell me, “Well, my book walks that thin line between mainstream and literary.” Without reading all of their work – which is really the only way to categorize it properly – it’s impossible to tell whether these writers honestly are experimenting with new directions in style and construction (which is not a bad definition of literary fiction), or if they merely want to convey that they believe their work is well-written.

Just so you know, no one in the publishing industry uses the term “literary fiction” as a secret code for “very nicely written prose.” However, it is the least-defined major category; I have yet to meet an agent or editor who can give me a definition of literary fiction less than a paragraph long. Like the Supreme Court’s famous definition of pornography, they can’t tell us precisely what it is, but they know it when they see it.

Or so they claim. Yet ask any three agents whether THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP, THE SHIPPING NEWS, and THE COLOR PURPLE are mainstream or literary, and you will probably get at least two different answers. But the fact is, none of these crossover books would be well enough known for all of us to have a discussion about them if they hadn’t been mainstream successes. So my instinct would be to label them all as mainstream.

There’s something very sexy in the label literary fiction being applied to one’s own work, though, isn’t there? Let’s be honest about it: most of us like to think our writing has some literary value, and critical opinion about what is High Literature changes with alarming frequency. And it definitely sounds cool when you say at parties, “oh, I write literary fiction.” It says loud and clear that you haven’t sold out your talent; you are more than content to have a small but devoted readership, without sullying your keyboard with all of that sordid commercial appeal. Quite the counter-culture roué, you are, with your goatee and bongos and poetry readings in basements.

Having been raised by parents who actually WERE beatnik artists, I feel eminently qualified to give you a salient little piece of advice: be careful what you wish for your books. The literary fiction market is consistently very, very small, so small that many excellent published writers do not make a living at it. So labeling your work as literary will NOT make it more marketable in the industry’s eyes, but less. Think very carefully about your desired target market before you label your work. If you really think it has broad appeal, label it as mainstream.

I am hammering on this point, because so many aspiring writers believe all really good fiction is literary. That’s just not true: there is excellent writing out there in every category. These are marketing categories, not value judgments, and mislabeling your work will most likely result in its ending up on the wrong desk, and you in the wrong meeting. When in doubt, mainstream fiction is usually safe, because it is the broadest — and most marketable — category.

If you find yourself in a serious quandary over whether your book is sufficiently literary to need to be marketed as literary fiction, apply one of two tests. First, take a good, hard look at your book: under what circumstances can you envision it being assigned in a college English class? If the subject matter or plot is the primary factor, chances are the book is not literary. If you can honestly envision an upper-division undergraduate seminar spending a few hours discussing your symbolism and word choices, it probably is.

The other test — and I swear I am not suggesting this merely to be flippant; industry professionals do this — is to open your manuscript randomly at five different points and count the number of semicolons, colons, and dashes per page. Especially the semicolons. If there are more than a couple per page, chances are your work is geared for the literary market. (Or you should disable the colon/semicolon button on your keyboard.)

Don’t believe me? Spend an hour in any reasonably well-stocked bookstore, wandering from section to section, pulling books off the shelf randomly, and applying the punctuation test. Seeing a lot of semicolons outside the literature section? Mainstream fiction tends to assume a tenth-grade reading level: literary fiction assumes an audience educated enough to use a semicolon correctly, without having to look up the ground rules. If you are writing for most genre audiences (science fiction and fantasy being the major exceptions), most agents and editors prefer to see simpler sentence structure.

Do be careful, however, when applying this second test, because we writers LOVE fancy punctuation, don’t we? Oh, I know this is going to break some tender hearts out there, but if you want to write fiction professionally, you need to come to terms with an ugly fact: no one but writers particularly LIKE semicolons. If you are writing for a mainstream audience, you should consider minimizing their use; if you are writing most genre fiction, you should consider getting rid of them entirely.

Again, I don’t make the rules: I merely pass them along to you.

Hey — I heard that grumbling out there; fairy godmothers come equipped with bionic ears (and an apparently unlimited recall of late 1970s pop culture). Yes, grumble pusses, I DO use a lot of fancy-pants punctuation here in this blog. I am writing for an audience composed entirely of writers, so I can use all of the punctuation I please. Heck, I can even use an emdash if I want to—take that, standard format!

Next time, I shall discuss the another building block to your pitch: identifying your target market. For those of you out there who thought that I was just going to cut to the chase and head right for the pitch proper: keep your shirts on. Or don’t, if you’re trying to get a suntan. But either way, be patient, because following me through all of these interim steps will help you construct a stronger pitch.

May the Force be with you, my friends. And also with your books. Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

P.S.: For those of you who have not yet registered for the upcoming PNWA conference, there are still slots available for agent and editor appointments. If you would like to see a rundown of what they have bought and sold over the last few years, in order to make a better-informed choice, check out my archived blogs for April 26 – May 17 for the agents and May 18 – 26 for the editors.

The Building Blocks of the Pitch, part I: identifying your book

June 29th, 2006

Hello, readers –

As those of you who have been reading my blog for awhile have no doubt already figured out, my take on the publishing industry does not always conform with the prevailing wisdom. GASP! The problem with the prevailing wisdom, as I see it, is that it is so often out of date: what was necessary to land an agent 20 years ago is most emphatically not the same as what is necessary today, or what will be necessary 5 years from now.

If you doubt this, chew on this industry development: when I signed the contract for my memoir, A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK, in March of 2005, it naturally contained the standard contractual provisions about truthfulness; the contract specified that my publisher believed that I believed that I was telling the truth in my book. (Which I am, and I do.) Yet if I signed a standard NF contract for the same book today, it would almost certainly contain some provision requiring me as the author to obtain signed releases from everyone mentioned in the book.

What happened in that intervening 15 months to alter the standard contract, you ask? A MILLION LITTLE PIECES, that’s what.

The very tangible result: industry rumor has it that within the last couple of months, a major publishing house required a writer who spent a significant amount of time living with cloistered nuns to obtained signed releases from each and every one of the wimpled ones, swearing that they would not sue the publisher over the book. Correct me if I am wrong, but don’t nuns generally take vows of poverty? Yet such is the prevailing paranoid that the publishing house was legitimately concerned that suddenly they all would metamorphose into a gaggle of money-hungry, lawyer-blandishing harpies.

Let no one say that the industry’s standards do not change.

That being said, I’m going to be upfront with you: I do not advise walking into your agent meeting and giving the kind of 3-sentence pitch that you will usually see recommended in writers’ publications. Oh, the 3-sentence pitch definitely has its usefulness: it is equally helpful to have one ready for when you buttonhole an agent in a hallway and in preparing your query letter, where you can use it as the paragraph that describes the book.

But think about it: your agent appointment is 15 minutes long, and if you are like most writers, you will probably be very nervous. Do you really want to have only a minute’s worth of material prepared?

(If you have trouble imagining the awkward pause that might conceivably ensue, check out yesterday’s blog. And to get my housekeeping duties out of the way early today, if you have not yet made your selections for agent and editor meetings – I’m told that there area still many slots available – check out my archived posts for April 26 – May 17 for the agents and May 18 – 26 for the editors. Lots of useful information there, even if I do say so myself.)

There’s another reason not to use the same pitch format as everybody else: pitch fatigue. At the end of last Saturday’s pitching class, the fabulously talented Cindy Willis and yours truly spent 4 1/2 hours listening to pitches from class attendees. (I am pleased to report that had I been an agent, there were several that I would have asked to read right away.) Now, Cindy and I are both writers and chronic readers, so our sympathies, I think it is safe to say, are almost always on the writer’s side of the pitching desk. But after 4 1/2 hours – a far shorter shift than most the agents and editors will be putting in at PNWA – neither of us could even begin to imagine ever wanting to pick up a book again. It’s surprisingly tiring to listen to pitches; there’s so much emotion floating in the air, and it’s so vital to pay attention to every last detail.

And we were outside, listening to dozens of pitches with the advantageous backdrop of glorious weather. Agents and editors at conferences, by contrast, are generally expected to listen patiently while sitting under flickering fluorescent lights in uncomfortable chairs, being rapidly dehydrated by punishing convention center air conditioning. You can hardly blame them for zoning out from time to time, under the circumstances.

Gather up all of those factors I have just mentioned into a neat mental picture, please. Pretend you are an agent. Now: what is more likely to snap you out of your stupor, a three-sentence pitch, which forces you to go to the effort of drawing more details about the book out of the pitcher? Or a slightly longer pitch that explains to you not only what the book is about, but who is going to buy it and why? Or, to consider the other common advice about structuring pitches, would you be more likely to pay attention to a pitch that is rife with generalities, glossing lightly over themes that are common to many books? Or a pitch stuffed full of briefly-described scenes, decorated with a few well-chosen significant details?

Exactly.

So if I deviate from the received wisdom about pitching here — and I assure you, I will — please be aware that I am not doing it merely to be an iconoclast (although that’s kind of fun, too). I am making these suggestions because I truly believe that they will make your pitch better.

So here is my first unorthodox suggestion: say right away where your book would be placed on the bookshelves of Barnes & Noble.

Did I just hear the “ding-ding-ding” of alarms going off in the heads of my long-time readers? Yes, my friends, it is time to revisit the dreaded book category. If you are planning to pitch, the best description of your book is NOT “(sigh) well, it’s a novel…mostly, it’s women’s fiction, but it’s also suspense. And the writing is definitely literary.”

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but to an agent or editor, this sounds EXACTLY like that noise that Charlie Brown’s teachers used to make: “Wah wah wah wah waagh…”

To put it bluntly, agents and editors think about books as products, rather than merely as works of art or expressions of the inner workings of the writers’ souls. And as products, agents need to sell books to editors, and editors to editorial committees, and marketing departments to distributors, and distributors to bookstores, and bookstores to readers. And I assure you, a vaguely-defined book is much harder to drag through that process.

So tell them up front what kind of book it is – and don’t just make up a category. Take a gander at the back jacket of most hardcover books: you will find, usually in either the upper left corner or just above the barcode, a one- or two-word category description. In order to make sense to people in the industry, you need to speak their language. Pick one of their recognized categories.

The generally accepted fiction categories are: Fiction (a.k.a. Mainstream Fiction), Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction, Futuristic Fiction (that is not SF. The usual example is THE HANDMAID’S TALE.), Adventure Fiction, Sports Fiction, Contemporary Fiction; Women’s Fiction, Contemporary Women’s Fiction, Chick Lit, Lady Lit, Lad Lit; Romance, Category Romance, Contemporary Romance, Historical Romance (designate period), Paranormal Romance, Romantica, Erotica, Inspirational Romance, Multicultural Romance, Time Travel Romance; Science Fiction, SF Action/Adventure, Speculative SF, Futuristic SF, Alternate History, Cyberpunk; Fantasy, Dark Fantasy, Comic Fantasy, Epic Fantasy; Horror, Paranormal, Vampire Fiction; Thriller, Spy Thriller, Suspense, Romantic Suspense; Mystery, Police Procedural Mystery, Legal Mystery, Professional Mystery, P.I. Mystery, Psychological Mystery, Forensic Mystery, Historical Mystery, Hardboiled Mystery, Cozy Mystery, Cops & Killers Mystery, Serial Killer Mystery, British Mystery, Noir, Caper;
Western; Action/Adventure; Comics; Graphic Novel; Short Stories; Poetry; Young Adult, Picture Book, Children’s, Middle Readers.

Pick one. But whatever you do, NEVER say that you have a “fiction novel” – this is a very, very common pet peeve amongst agents and editors. By definition, a novel IS fiction, always.

For NF, the accepted categories are: Entertaining, Holidays, House & Home, Parenting & Families, How-To, Self-Help, Pop Psychology, Pop Culture, Cookbook, Narrative Cookbook, Food & Wine, Lifestyle, Medical, Alternative Medicine, Health, Fitness, Sports, Psychology, Professional, Engineering, Technical, Computers, Internet, Automotive, Finance, Investing, Business, Careers, Memoir, Autobiography, Biography, Narrative Nonfiction, Historical Nonfiction, True Crime, Law, Philosophy, Religion, Spirituality, Travel, Travel Memoir, Outdoors & Nature, Essays, Writing, Criticism, Arts, Photography, Coffee Table, Gift, Education, Academic, Textbook, Reference, Current Events, Politics/Government, Women’s Studies, Gay & Lesbian (a.k.a. GLBT).

Yes, I’m running through these quickly, but do not despair: the major genre’s writers’ associations tend to provide precise definitions of each subgenre on their websites, and I went through the distinctions at some length in my blogs of February 13 – 16. Check out the archives.

And when in doubt, pick the more general category. Or at any rate, the more marketable one. It increases your chances of your work sounding like something that will sell. (And for you doubters out there: yes, naturally, there are new categories popping up all the time. That doesn’t mean you should make one up.)

Yes, it’s a pain, but stating your category up front will simply make you come across as more professional, because it’s the way that agents and editors talk about books. Agencies do not impose this requirement in order to torment writers, you know; the category you pick will determine to a very great extent whether any given agent or editor will be even remotely interested in your work. Because yes, Virginia, there are professionals who will simply not read a query or listen to a pitch unless it is for a book in one of their pre-chosen categories.

Agents and editors LIKE making snap judgments, you see. It saves them time. Sorry. But to put a more positive spin on the phenomenon, think of it this way: if you tell an agent immediately what kind of book you are pitching, the busy little squirrels in her brain can start those wheels spinning toute suite, so she can instantly start thinking of editors to whom to sell your book.

Tomorrow, I shall delve a bit more into how putting your work into the right box can help you. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Knowing your pitchee

June 28th, 2006

Hello, readers –

I was felled with a migraine yesterday, so I am a day later than planned getting started on my series on pitching. But computer screens and dark rooms do not mix well, alas.

Before I get started, a word or two to the many readers new to this blog who have been writing in (or thinking very, very loudly) suggesting rather forcefully that that the blog’s archives would be easier to use if they were searchable or organized by category, rather than date. Well, yes, that is true — and if anybody out there is willing to donate the many, many hours it would take to make the archives subject-searchable, please write in, and I shall connect you with a very grateful volunteer coordinator.

Yes, it is a little hard to find specific topics in the archives, and I’m sorry if you find it inconvenient. A blog, however, is not a reference book, by definition, but an ongoing document with frequent additions over time. At some point, I probably shall organize all of this into a book, with a chapter on each major topic. But then, you would be paying for my words of wisdom, and would have a clear right to be annoyed if it were hard to find what you wanted, right?

Here, however, I am limited by the constraints of the blog form, and the fact that the PNWA is a volunteer-run organization. Again, if any of you out there have the expertise to make the archives easily searchable, and would like to volunteer your time…And to the guy who was really, really rude about it recently: why would you WANT to take writing advice from a female dog?

I am not merely writing about archive organization in order to blow off steam: my first piece of advice on pitching may well send some of you scurrying to the archives, specifically those for April 26 – May 17 (my write-ups on the agents who will be attending this summer’s PNWA conference) and May 18 – 26 (the editors). For the advice in question is this:

Whenever possible, be familiar with the work of the person to whom you are pitching.

Why? Well, there are several reasons that it is in your best interest to do a bit of research before you pitch. First, it ensures that you are pitching to someone who does in fact handle your type of book. As anyone who has ever endured the agony of a mismatched pitch appointment can tell you, if your book falls outside the agent or editor’s area of preference, it doesn’t matter how good your pitch is: they will stop you as soon as they figure out that your book is categorically not for them. No amount of argument is going to help you at that point, so advance research is a very, very good idea.

And, as it happens, I have already done quite a bit of research for you: in the aforementioned blog posts, I have gone over what the standard professional databases say these agents and editors have sold and bought over the last three years. (And when’s the last time any dog, female or male, did something like THAT for you, Mr. Smarty-Pants?) As my long-time readers already know, the blurb agents and editors write about themselves is not always the most reliable indicator of the type of work they represent. Check first.

However, sometimes agents and editors’ preferences switch rather abruptly: it is not at all uncommon, for instance, for an agent whose sister has just had a baby suddenly to be interested in parenting books. Or for an editor who has just been mugged to stop wanting to read true crime. Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you end up pitching to someone who is categorically disinclined to listen — which more or less guarantees rejection.

What should you do if you end up in an inappropriate meeting?

Yes, you will be disappointed, but I can absolutely guarantee that an hour after the meeting, you will be significantly happier if you didn’t just sit there, being miserable. Remember that you are at the conference not merely to make contacts with people in the industry, but to learn how to market your work better. You have a highly-qualified, well-informed insider sitting in front of you: ask some questions.

What kind of questions, you ask? Well, for starters, how about, “if you were in my shoes, which agent here at the conference would YOU try to buttonhole for an informal pitch?” Or, “Does anyone at your agency handle this kind of work? May I say in my query letter that you suggested I contact this person?” Or, even more broadly: “I understand that this isn’t your area, but who do you think are the top five agents that handle this sort of book?”

Usually, they’re only too happy to help; don’t forget, this is an awkward moment for them, too. Only sadists would LIKE seeing that crushed look in a writer’s eyes. Mentally, I promise you, that agent will be cursing the evil fate that decreed that the two of have to spend fifteen interminable minutes together; he doesn’t want to face recriminations, either from disappointed aspiring writers or from his boss if they come back with work that he is not technically supposed to have picked up. (Editors at major publishing houses, anyone?) So many will become very frosty, in the hope you will walk away and end this awful uncomfortable silence.

So if you can move the both of you on to topics where you’re comfortable, trust me, they’ll appreciate it. Not enough to pick up your book, but still, enough to think of you kindly in future.

So prep a few questions in advance, as insurance. Approaching the disappointment as a learning experience can make the difference between your stalking out of your meeting, biting back the tears, and walking out feeling confident that your next pitch will go better. Agents are often flattered by being asked their opinions, I find. There’s such a thing as human nature: few people are insulted by being admired for their expertise.

Unless you’re rude about it, Mr. Dog-Hater.

If the agent or editor seems approachable, you might even want to ask, after the other questions, “Look, I know it isn’t your area, but you must hear thousands of pitches a year. Would you mind listening to mine and giving me some constructive criticism?”

Remember, though, that in giving you this advice, these people are doing you a FAVOR. Be accordingly polite. As someone who both teaches classes and goes to a lot of writing conferences, I both see and have first-hand experience with the ilk of writer who, having found a knowledgeable person in the industry gracious enough to answer questions, quickly becomes demanding. Literally every agent and editor I have ever met has a horror story about that writer at a conference who just wouldn’t go away.

A word to the wise: remember, in this state, stalking is illegal.

So be polite. Remember, too, that an agent, editor, or writing teacher who was glad to be helpful to you at a conference may well be less pleased if you spend subsequent months peppering her with e-mails. I can’t even count the number of times I have told someone who asked me a question, “Gee, I’m not sure. But I’d be happy to check my files and get back to you with the information” — and then returned home to find a petulant phone message or injured-sounding e-mail, demanding to know why I haven’t yet sent the information. (The usual answer is that I haven’t yet set down my bags after the airplane trip.) And trust me on this one: even if your message is very courteous, and you sent it because you were afraid that the person might not remember you or the request, if you send it before, say, a week after the event, it is going to come across as badgering.

The moral of the story: as long as you are polite, many people in the industry will be glad to share their expertise with you at a conference. When someone in the industry is generous enough to be willing to help you, express gratitude, and try not to be a pest. Free advice is best when given freely — and accepted as a favor.

This is a good rule of thumb for anyone you meet at a conference, by the way. Chances are, you’re going to meet an author who is farther along the path to publication than you are. Writers tend to be very nice people; many of them will be happy to have you solicit their advice on, say, who would be a good agent to query with your type of book, particularly if you write in the same genre. This is a perfectly legitimate question to walk up to a conference presenter and ask. However, this type of friendliness usually doesn’t mean that writer wants to be your lifetime chum — or, as happens more often, your first stop for every industry-related question that occurs to you for the next decade.

If you’re in doubt as to whether you have made a friend or not, limit your follow-up to a single polite thank-you e-mail or card. If you made a true connection, the writer will respond.

All right, back to the reasons to do research on an agent or editor before a meeting. Knowing books they have handled enables you to walk in and make a stellar impression as someone who has done her homework. It is surprisingly rare, and accordingly impressive.

It can also help you calm down before giving your pitch. Instead beginning with a nervous “Hi,” followed by an immediate launch into your pitch, wouldn’t it be great if you could stroll in and break the tension with something along the lines of, “Hello. You represent Lynne Rosetto Casper, don’t you? I just loved her last cookbook.”

Why is this a good idea? Again, human nature: we all like to be recognized for our achievements. Agents and editors tend to be genuinely proud of the books they handle; remember, the vast majority of ANY agent’s workday is taken up with her existing clients, not ones she is thinking about perhaps picking up. Trust me, she will be flattered by meeting someone who has contributed to her retirement fund by buying one of her clients’ books.

One caveat: if you plan to make mention of a particular book, do come prepared to talk about it for a couple of minutes. Don’t praise a book you haven’t read. And don’t lie about liking a book that you hated, of course.

Knowing something about the agent or editor will also enable you to ask intelligent questions about how he handles his clients’ work. For instance, in the past, most fiction was published first in hardcover; until fairly recently, newspapers refused to review softcover fiction. However, increasingly, publishing houses are releasing new fiction in trade paper, a higher-quality printing than standard paperback, so the price to consumers (and the printing costs) may be significantly lower. Why should you care? Well, traditionally, authors receive different percentages of the cover price, based upon printing format. Trade paper pays less.

So if you were speaking with an agent who had a lot of clients who were publishing in trade paper, you might want to ask, “So, I notice that several of your clients published their first novels in trade paper. Is that your general preference? What do you see as the major advantages and disadvantages to going this route?”

Knowing something about the books an agent has sold will also demonstrate that, unlike 99.9% of the aspiring writers he will see this year, you view him as an individual, an interesting person, rather than a career-making machine with legs. This is a serious advantage. Think about it: if the agent signs you, the two of you are going to be having a whole lot of interaction over a number of years. Would you prefer his first impression of you to be that you were a nice, considerate person, or a jerk who happened to be talented?

Pitch specifics follow in the days to come. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Housekeeping

June 26th, 2006

Hello, readers –

Thanks to those of you who attended my Saturday pitching class! It was a great success – but, as I kept warning people beforehand, like Cassandra uttering woe and not being believed, since not everybody who ended up coming pre-registered, the cookies ran out woefully early. You have only yourselves to blame.

At least, I think it was a success — by the time I checked my messages the evening after the class, I had received 40 e-mails from class attendees (out of roughly 65), with thank-yous and follow-up questions. I had not expected the class to have this particular side effect; responding to this slew of individual questions has more than taken up the hours I had budgeted for writing the blog today. So the rest of you will have to pardon me if this is mostly a housekeeping blog.

A reminder to those of you who have been writing in with questions through this website: IF YOU DO NOT INCLUDE YOUR E-MAIL ADDRESS, I CANNOT REPLY. It is literally impossible. The e-mails you send to me are filtered through the PNWA, so I have NO access to your address unless you send it within the body of the message. (An aside to Janis: I cannot send you an answer to your question when your e-mail blocks my address as unknown. Send another e-mail when you have corrected this problem, and I’ll be happy to resend the multiply-bouncing reply.)

While I’m on a spate of requests, for the literally dozens of blog readers who have written in asking either (a) how you can quit your job and have your writing support you (in that order) or (b) how you can get your poetry books published, I’m afraid you are barking up the wrong tree. I have been racking my brains to come up with kind-yet-useful responses to these questions, but for the life of me, I haven’t been able to come up with any. Except to say: if you are seeking to accomplish (a), it is probably not prudent to pursue that goal through (b).

I know, I know, that sounds flippant, but listen: I hate to be the one to break the news, but there are a heck of a lot of published authors out there, and good ones, who have NEVER been able to afford to quit their day jobs. First-time authors, particularly novelists, seldom attract large enough advances for them to write full-time — and you will be much, much happier if you do not walk into a pitch meeting with your dream agent expecting otherwise.

Please do not be crushed by this — yes, there are authors who hit the big time with their first books. But generally, these cases are the proverbial overnight successes who spent a decade or two preparing for it. And even then, it is extremely rare: we’ve all heard stories of the person who put a single dollar into a single slot machine and suddenly found himself a millionaire, too. It’s not impossible, but even a cursory glance at the probabilities involved should lead one to believe that these instances are the flukes, not the rule.

But hey, no one will be more thrilled than I if your book turns out to be the fluke. Knock ‘em dead, tiger!

On to (b). There is plenty of poetry published in magazines around the country, and POETS & WRITERS always lists a dozen or so chapbook competitions in every issue, but other than that…usually, in this country, poets gain notoriety one poem at a time, one contest win at a time, one publication at a time. There may be some shortcuts of which I am not aware, however. Since I am not a poet by trade, I would urge you to seek out poetry-specific websites and direct your questions there.

Another housekeeping issue: I’ve received several requests from readers who could not make the pitching class on Saturday for a written version of it. Um, written version? As opposed to what I post here five times per week? I used to be a professor at a quite prominent local university (which shall remain nameless, but rhymes with Boo Scrub), and I can tell you, neither my colleagues nor I ever wrote our lectures out verbatim beforehand, merely notes. I certainly did not for this class (which I was teaching as a volunteer, incidentally).

Honeys, do not panic: I am very committed to covering as many aspects of pitching here in this forum as I possibly can. Starting tomorrow, and all the way until the first day of the conference. Trust me, we have more than enough time to cover the basics. You’ll just be getting it in smaller installments — which, if you could have seen how tired we all were by the end of the pitch class, you might well consider an advantage!

But I do have a treat in store for each and every one of you who is attending the conference: I have begged, cajoled, and promised fabulous karmic rewards (because there are no tangible ones in this instance) with three wonders PNWA members who have successfully landed agents within the last few years — two of us AT PNWA, in exactly the kind of pitch meeting you will be attending, so we know whereat we speak — and the four of us shall be manning the Pitch Practicing Palace at PNWA. So please plan to stop by our booth before your pitch meeting to try our your spiel on some kind, sympathetic professional writers who can help you polish off the rough edges of your pitch.

Please, don’t drop by RIGHT before your scheduled appointments; try for at least an hour before. If you are particularly nervous, I would urge you to drop by the PPP on Thursday afternoon, on the first half-day of the conference. The actual agent and editor meetings will not start until Friday, so you will have lots of time to incorporate our feedback.

See? I really do want all of you to do well.

The sharper-eyed among you may have noticed that I have mentioned good intentions, volunteerism, and writers who also carry day jobs throughout this post. That was not accidental. As conference time approaches, I know people start to panic a little, but please remember, the PNWA is a volunteer organization, staffed by devoted people who sincerely want to help you succeed as a writer — people who, by and large, are writing books themselves AND hold full-time jobs. Organizing a conference of this magnitude is not a task to enter into lightheartedly, with a martini in one hand and a whiffleball racquet in the other. It is a whole lot of very hard, very extensive work. For your benefit.

Please, do me two favors, those of you who will be attending the conference: first, take advantage of as many learning and pitching opportunities there as you can. (I actually made everyone at my class on Saturday raise their paws and swear to pitch to at least three people with whom they did NOT have scheduled appointments. Don’t make me come after the rest of you, too.) Second, improve your own karma by thanking every conference volunteer you see. Your mother would approve, and so will I.

I bring this up in part because I know many of you entered this year’s PNWA contest. The finalists have all been notified already, and each entrant will receive two written critiques after the conference. Why not before the conference, you ask? First, because it would totally give away who amongst the finalists had an edge, and second — had I mentioned that organizing a conference is a heck of a lot of work?

Believe me, no one wants to keep you in suspense, but we here at the PNWA have to be realistic about turn-around times, in order to make sure that the conference comes together every year. But please rest assured that this most emphatically does NOT mean that you will not receive solid feedback in a timely manner.

As my long-term readers already know, the PNWA’s fine volunteers (translation: working for the good karma alone) thoughtfully read and comment upon hundreds of contest entries every year, bless their warm and furry hearts. You do the math: at least two judges have to read every entry in the first round alone. Not to mention the hours put in by the section chairs, who read the entries AND the extensive commentary by the first-round judges, or the judges of each category, who read the finalists’ entries, the first-round judges’ commentary, and the section chair’s commentary. That’s thousands of reader-hours devoted to your entries, my friends. (In case you didn’t know, in the PNWA contest, the final judges of each category tend to be drawn from the pool of editors and agents attending the conference each year — so the finalists get a thoroughly professional final evaluation.)

I know, it’s frustrating to wait for the feedback. But the turn-around time is a reflection of a serious effort to provide a good service.

To that end, I learned something very exciting recently: due to feedback from past conference attendees, the PNWA has REORGANIZED this year’s editor meetings. Instead of ten or a dozen writers pitching simultaneously, there will be ONLY FIVE WRITERS scheduled for each half-hour meeting with an editor. So each writer will have more time than ever before to make a good impression. Isn’t that great news?

In this spirit of helpfulness, on to a couple of lingering questions from readers. Intrepid and insightful reader Dave wrote in to ask: “On the first page of a chapter, should the chapter number be in Roman, Arabic numerals, or spelled out? Can or how would one include both the chapter name and number on that first line? Could you mention something about the first page of the first chapter? Isn’t it supposed to have info on it akin to what is on the title page?”

Good questions, Dave – and you’re not the only one to wonder about this. Thoughtful and talented reader Julie also wrote in to ask about the title page: “I read in your blog that the text should appear 1/3 of the way down after ‘Chapter #.’ This is the first time I’ve ever heard that. Is it fairly standard format with agents and editors alike? Could you tell me the reasoning behind it?”

Dave and Julie, I have been hearing this kind of question for years, I think largely because many writers’ publications simply assume that aspiring writers already know what standard format is for first pages of chapters. I think this, because I see SO many incorrectly-formatted first pages that there must be an overarching reason for it, rather than merely misinformed individuals, right? Perhaps there’s an evil First Page Fairy. Or maybe I would just like to blame someone for this phenomenon, which makes a LOT of submissions look unprofessional to agents and editors. Bad fairy! No cookie!

First off: no, the first page should NOT have the kind of information that’s on the title page (which I shall recap again within the next few days). The title page contains contact information; the only conceivable reason to include it on the first page of the chapter would be if there were no title page. And, frankly, a submission without a title page might as well have NEW TO THE BIZ stamped in red on it.

The first page of ANY chapter should have “Chapter #” on the first line of the page, centered, with the chapter title, if any, on the line beneath it. Do not put them on the same line.

The chapter should begin on line 14. What is the rationale behind this, Julie asks? I have always been told — and as a freelance editor, I have certainly been grateful for this convention — that the purpose having all that white space at the beginning of each chapter is to make it easier for an editor to flip through the manuscript quickly and find a particular chapter. All that white leaps out the pile visually.

Which is why, to get back to Dave’s question, the first page of the first chapter should not be cluttered up with too much information. It interferes with the desirable white.

As to whether the chapter number should be written out, in Roman numerals, or in Arabic numerals…I have heard many things over the years. I always write out the chapter number in full (Chapter One), simply because the 1, in this case, is a number under 100 appearing in a manuscript. Standard format, you know. I know many published authors who use Arabic numerals (Chapter 1), and they don’t seem to have been eaten by the publishing wolves yet. Roman numerals are less common, so I would avoid them altogether; they bring to mind outlines, not fully-realized prose.

Okay, the house is now relatively clean. Tomorrow, on to some pitching elements. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Standard format — — and the word count bugaboo

June 23rd, 2006

Hello, readers –

Time for a quick jaunt back to synopsis land: sharp-eyed and insightful reader Bill has written in to ask: “Just how sacred is the four-page limit? How big should the margin be, since that can affect the word count?”

Good questions, Bill, and thanks for reminding me that I had not mentioned that the synopsis, like your first 50 pp., should be in standard format: 1-inch margins, double-spaced, in Times, Times New Roman, or Courier typeface. Printed on only one side of the page, of course, and on nice, crisp white paper. (This last might sound like window-dressing, but speaking as a frequent contest judge, I can tell you: it honestly is more pleasant to read a submission printed on nice paper. And don’t you want the agent or editor to ENJOY reading your submission?)
In Times or Times New Roman, a four-page synopsis is roughly 1000 words; no need to count, since 250 words/page in this typeface in standard format is how the industry estimates word count.

Go back and read that last sentence again, please, if you have been using your word processing program’s word counter to produce your word counts. THE INDUSTRY DOES NOT USE EXACT WORD COUNTS; IT RELIES UPON PAGE-BASED ESTIMATES. So you should, too: 250 words/page for Times or Times New Roman, 200 words/page for Courier.

Never mind that these are nowhere near accurate in actual word count: when in Rome, you need to use the same units of measurement as the Romans do; the state-by-state electoral vote count seldom bears much resemblance to the actual popular vote figures, but we still abide by whom the electors pick for president, right? Fighting for accuracy in word count estimation will get you nowhere, and in fact can even hurt your manuscript’s chances of being picked up by an agent: since professional word count estimates always end in a zero (think about it…), an odd-numbered word count on a title page or in a cover letter blatantly announced that the submitting author is new to the business. And, as you may have noticed, this is not a business that is very friendly to those who are not familiar with its rather esoteric ways.

The differential between actual and estimated word count, in case those of you who are veteran conference-goers were wondering, is why everyone on the agent panel goes pale (even under conference-center fluorescent lighting –which is saying something, since those lights make everyone look like a corpse) when some eager soul stands up and says, “I have a manuscript that’s 200,000 words, and…” Now, in actual word count terms, that’s probably in the neighborhood of 550 pages, but in industry estimation, that translates into 800 pages. Quite a difference, eh?

So in answer to your excellent first question, Bill: don’t worry about the actual word count of your synopsis; worry about the number of pages it covers. If it covers 3, 4, or 5, it’s fine.

I am going to revisit standard format again today, to make absolutely certain that every single reader of this blog who is planning to pitch at a conference this summer is aware of it well in advance.

Yes, yes, I know: those of you who are regular readers of this blog now exhibit a conditioned response to the term standard format; Pavlov’s dogs salivated at the bell, and you suddenly sit bolt upright, wondering if there was some unreported technical reason behind your last form rejection letter. You may, in fact, be tired of hearing about it.

However, in a submission to an agent or an editor, violations of standard format are serious business: when you’ve been asked to send chapters after a successful pitch, do you really want your pages to make you look unprofessional?

Here are the rules of standard format – and no, NONE of them are negotiable:

(1) All manuscripts must be typed and double-spaced, with at least one-inch margins on all sides of the page.

No exceptions, unless someone in the industry (or a contest’s rules) SPECIFICALLY ask you to do otherwise.

(2) All manuscripts are printed on ONE side of the page.

Again, unless you are asked to do otherwise – and yes, this IS wasteful of paper. The entire publishing industry is one vast paper-wasting enterprise. Deal with it.

(3) The text should be left justified ONLY.

A lot of writers squirm about this one. They want to believe that a professional manuscript looks exactly like a printed book, but the fact is, it shouldn’t. Yes, books feature text that runs in straight vertical lines along both side margins, and yes, your word processing program will replicate that, if you ask it nicely. But don’t: the straight margin should be the left one.

(4) The typeface should be 12-point Times, Times New Roman, or Courier.

These are plain, not-too-pretty fonts, but they are in fact the standards of the publishing industry; it’s a throwback to the reign of the typewriter, which came in two typefaces, pica (a Courier equivalent) and elite (Times). As I’ve explained before, queries and manuscripts printed in other fonts are simply not taken as seriously.

If you want a specific font for your finished book, you should NOT use it in your manuscript, even if you found a very cool way to make your Elvin characters’ dialogue show up in Runic. The typeface ultimately used in the published book is a matter of discussion between you and your future editor — or, even more frequently, a decision made by the publishing house without the author’s input at all. If you try to illustrate the fabulousness of your desired typeface now, you run the risk of your manuscript being dismissed as unprofessional.

If you write screenplays, you may ONLY use Courier. Most screenplay agents will not read even the first page of a script in another typeface – which means that most contest judges will follow suit.

(5) No matter how cool your desired typeface looks, or how great the title page looks with 14-point type, keep the ENTIRE manuscript in the same font and typeface. Do not use boldface anywhere but on the title page.

Industry standard is 12-point. Again, no exceptions, INCLUDING YOUR TITLE PAGE. You may place your title in boldface, if you like, but that’s it.

There is literally no reason, short of including words in languages that have different scripts, to deviate from this. If you are a writer who likes to have different voices presented in different typefaces, or who chooses boldface for emphasis, this is not a forum where you can express those preferences freely. Sorry.

(6) Words in foreign languages should be italicized.

Including Elvish. You don’t want the agent of your dreamsto think you’ve made a typo, do you?

(7) EVERY page in the manuscript should be numbered.

This one is generally an automatic rejection offense. The standard way to paginate is in the header, so see point #8.

(8) Each page should a standard slug line in the header, listing AUTHOR’S LAST NAME/ABBREVIATED TITLE/PAGE #.

The safest place for this is left-justified, but you can get away with right-justifying it as well. And the header, for those of you who don’t know, is the 1-inch margin at the top of the page.

(9) The first page of a chapter should begin a third of the way down the page.

That’s twelve single-spaced lines, incidentally. The chapter name (or merely “Chapter One”) may appear on the first line of the first page, but then nothing should appear until a third of the way down the page.

(10) The beginning of each paragraph should be indented five spaces.

Yes, I know that published books — particularly mysteries, I notice — often begin chapters and sections without indentation. Trust me, that was the editor’s choice, not the author’s, and copying the style here might get your work knocked out of consideration.

(11) Don’t skip an extra line between paragraphs.

This one is for all of you bloggers out there. The whole darned manuscript should be double-spaced, and paragraphs are all indented, so there is no need to skip a line to indicate a paragraph break. The ONLY exception is that you may skip an extra line to indicate a section break

(12) All numbers under 100 should be written out in full: twenty-five, not 25.

Again, this was for the benefit of the manual typesetters, but I actually think this one makes sense. When numbers are entered as numbers, a single slip of a finger can result in an error, whereas when numbers are written out, the error has to be in the inputer’s mind.

(13) Dashes should be doubled — hyphens are single, as in self-congratulatory.

Yet another signal for ye olde typesetters, archaic but still honored. It was so they could tell when the author intended a dash, and when a hyphen.

Yes, I know that your word processing program will automatically change a doubled dash to a single one. Change it back, because you never know when a real stickler for format is going to end up as your contest judge.

(14) Dashes should have spaces at each end — rather than—like this.

Again, I know: books no longer preserve these spaces, for reasons of printing economy, and many writing teachers tell their students just to go ahead and eliminate them. But standard format is invariable upon this point. It’s a pain, true, but is it really worth annoying an agent over?

(15) The use of ANY brand name should be accompanied by the trademark symbol, as in Kleenex™.

If you catch an agent under the age of 30, or one who doesn’t have a graduate degree, you may get away without including the trademark symbol, but legally, you are not allowed to use a trademarked name without it. Writers — yes, and publishing houses, too — have actually been sued over this within the last couple of years, so be careful about it.

There you have it: literally every page of text (yes, including the synopsis, Bill), should be in standard format. Trust me, your work will be treated better if you follow these rules. A manuscript in standard format looks to the critical eye like a couple dressed in formal wear for a black-tie event: yes, it is possible that the hosts will be too nice to toss them out if they show up in a run-of-the-mill casual suits or jeans, but the properly-attired couple will be admitted happily. By dressing as the hosts wished, the couple is showing respect to the event and the people who asked them to attend.

Dress your work appropriately, and it will be a welcome guest at an agency or publishing house.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Prepping your submission

June 22nd, 2006

Hello, readers –

First and foremost: there’s still time to pre-register for the PNWA Writing Connections class I shall be teaching on Saturday, Prepping a Pitch with Panache. It’s free to PNWA members, and I think I can safely promise that attending with lower your heart rate during any subsequent pitches to agent by at least 10 beats per minute, and reduce your chances of fainting while pitching to virtually zero.

Now that I’ve gone through the basics of a submission synopsis, I’m going to spend a couple of days on the first 50 pages of your book. Why would I want to do a thing like that, you ask? Well, if an agent or editor likes your conference pitch (or elevator speech, of which more next week), generally speaking, she will ask you to send a synopsis of the pitched book, an author bio (if you haven’t already written yours, check out my posts for April 11 – 14), and either the first 50 pages or the first chapter or two of the book. So, by the same logic that dictated that it would make a great deal of sense to snap your synopsis together BEFORE you’re asked for it, wouldn’t it make sense to take a gander at your first 50 pp., to make sure they sell your writing talent well?

Here is an excellent test to see how your submission will play with the pros at an agency. Sit down with your first 50 pp., IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD, or have a writing buddy whose judgment you trust do it for you. Select pages 6 through 50, and set them aside. Then pull out pages 2 through 5, and set them in a separate pile. You should now be holding the first page, and only the first page, in your hand.

Read it. If this were the ONLY page upon which someone were basing his opinion of your writing talent, how impressed would he be? What about if he were basing it solely upon the first five pages?

Truth of the trade: if an agency screener does not like your first page, he will generally not read the rest of your submission. And if he isn’t pretty taken with the book within the first five pages, there is virtually no chance that he will read on.

Picked your jaw up off the floor yet? When an agent or editor asks to see the first 50 pp., he is NOT committing to reading ALL of it. He is committing to reading as much of it as it takes until he is satisfied that he does not want to sign you. So your goal in the first 50 pages is not just to draw a reader into the story or argument, but also to survive a page-by-page reading where any significant mistake could knock your book out of the running.

Draconian, isn’t it? At minimum, it’s not very nice, but it IS an industry truism: you need to grab the reader on page 1, and if you haven’t wowed the reader by page 5, no one will read the rest. Yes, it’s stupid; yes, it’s not the way that the consumers who buy books in Barnes & Noble make their purchasing decisions, and yes, it’s REALLY annoying that novelists and writers of complex arguments are expected to compress 400 pages of subtlety to just a few demonstration paragraphs.

It is, however, the way things work.

If I ran the universe (and the last time I checked, I didn’t, or my publisher would not keep receiving gratuitous legal threats regarding my memoir, A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK), it would not work this way. Agents and their screeners would read AT LEAST the first 50 pages before they accepted or rejected a book. And cows would wander the streets of Manhattan, providing free chocolate milk to all the poor children.

You are marketing your work in the real world, though, so make sure that your first page — nay, your first paragraph — shines with some of your most eye-catching prose. As a general rule, anything you can do to place your best writing within the first few pages of your submission, you should do. And if you can include some very memorable incident or imagery within the first few paragraphs of your chapter, so much the better. Agents’ impressions tend to be formed very fast, and if you can wow ‘em before page 5, you absolutely should.

Actually, just as with work you submit to contest, the first page of your entry is far and away the most important part of your submission packet. Unless there is a strong reason to place your synopsis first, put it at the end of your entry, so your first page can jump out at the screener.

Make sure that something significant HAPPENS on page 1, too — consider starting with a scene in which your protagonist is active, rather than devoting the opening to set-up, as 99% of submitted novels do. Set-up can always come later in the chapter, and (hold onto your jaws now, as this may startle you) it may not be in your best interests to use the Chapter 1 you envision for the actual book as your submission, if it’s not the most action-packed of the book. If it is logically possible, why not move your strongest, best-written scenes to the beginning of your submission?

Authors do that all the time. There’s no law saying that you can’t move them back to their proper places after you sign the contract. It’s called revision, not false advertising. Trust me: after your book is published, neither your agent nor your editor going to come after you and say, “Hey, your book doesn’t start with the scene that began your submission! Bad form!”

Actually, many of the authors who use this trick ultimately decide NOT to move the scene back, on the theory that what grabbed the agent will grab the reader. And now you know why so many literary fiction books (and quite a few others) begin with scenes that pure chronology would dictate should fall much later in the book: the authors wanted to hook that most important of early readers, an agent.

How can you move your best scene up front? Try plopping it down before your current opening, as a prologue. I wouldn’t recommend moving more than one scene: the more you move, the more ‘splaining you will have to do in what follows. But one strong, emotionally-dense, action-packed scene to grab the reader in the first page or two can be very smart marketing indeed.

By contrast, let’s take a look at what you would have to do to pull off a radical change in your book’s running order. A clever novelist who feels her best writing occurs 75 pages into her novel might, for the purposes of submission, place her strongest scene first by starting her book on page 75 (presenting it as page 1, of course). The synopsis would have to be revised, naturally, to make it appear that this is indeed the usual running order of the book, and our heroine would have to edit carefully, to make sure that there is nothing in the skipped-over pages that is vital to understanding what happens in the chapters presented in the submission. The job of the synopsis, then, in the hands of this tricky writer, would be to cover up the fact that the submission starts in the middle of the book. It would be just our little secret.

To put it in a less clever way: you can pull off starting later in the book, if the writing justifies it, but it’s a heck of a lot more work than simply moving one compelling scene. You also will need to make absolutely sure that your synopsis is compelling and lucid enough that it still all makes sense as a story.

”But wait!” I hear some of you out there cry. “What happens when the agent falls in love with my submission, and asks to see the rest of the book? Won’t it be apparent that I’ve misrepresented the running order? Won’t I in fact be placed in the position of having to rewrite the whole book in order to justify the submitted running order?”

Good question – and an excellent argument for moving only a single scene up front. There’s really no need to panic if you find yourself in this situation. Bear in mind that everything in the publishing industry moves either at the speed of light or with glacial slowness. It may well be one to three months between the time you submit your first 50 and when you hear back from the agent or editor (a period in which, incidentally, you SHOULD be querying other agents you met at the conference; a request for pages does NOT automatically imply an exclusive peek at your work, unless the agent or editor has specifically asked that you not submit it to anyone else). That’s quite a lot of revision time, isn’t it?

Even if you hear back more quickly, agents and editors are very used to writers fussing with their work. It’s perfectly acceptable to take a few weeks to revise your work before responding to a request to see the rest of the book. It is also quite acceptable – and quite common – for writers to respond to a rest-of-the-book request by sending the entirety of the book in its original running order, accompanied by a cover letter saying that since they submitted the original 50, they’ve been playing with the running order a little, and this is the result. As long as you say in the cover letter that you are open to changing the running order in accordance with the agent or editor in question’s preferences, there is nothing wrong with going this route.

In other words: established writers rearrange their work all the time for marketing purposes. Agents and editors are used to it, and generally are kind enough to write it off as merely symptomatic of the artistic temperament. We’re sensitive, you see: one day, we prefer a certain running order, then a flock of birds flutters by, and we’re equally convinced that a different running order is absolutely demanded for the book. In a word, they think we’re kind of flaky, as a group, and this is one of the few instances in which our perceived flakiness works in our favor. Milk it.

Above all, though, make sure that YOU absolutely love the pages you are submitting. Your first page should warm your heart, too. Sending your best writing, after all, is simply giving an accurate picture of your talent.

Never submit pages with which you are less than happy to an agent or editor, merely in order to get them out the door quickly. Chances are very, very slim that your submission will be read the instant it arrives, anyway, and often not by the same person to whom you gave your pitch, so you don’t need to worry about getting it there before the agent forgets who you are. You can pretty much rely on the agent’s needing to be reminded. That’s what the cover letter you send with your submission is for, the one that begins: “Thank you for asking to see the first fifty pages of TITLE. I enjoyed our conversation at PNWA, and I hope that you will be intrigued by my work.”

More on submissions tomorrow. In the meantime, for those of you who have not yet you’re your conference meeting choices because you don’t really know who these agents and editors are and what they represent, check out my archived blogs of April 26 – May 17 for the agents and May 18 – 26 for the editors.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

The Synopsis, Part VII: This time, it really is the last installment

June 21st, 2006

Hello, readers –

Okay, I honestly am going to wrap up my synopsis-writing series today, so I can move on to a few words about prepping your manuscripts for the magical moment when the agent or editor of your dreams asks to see it, before launching into a full-on assault upon the subject of pitching your work! That’s a lot of material to cover over the next few weeks, campers, so stay tuned.

Back to yesterday’s list of questions you should ask yourself after you have completed a solid draft of your synopsis:

(4) Does the synopsis read as though I am genuinely excited about this book and eager to market it, or does it read as though I am deeply and justifiably angry that I had to write it at all?

This is a subtlety, a matter of tone rather than of content. Believe me, writerly resentment shows up BEAUTIFULLY against the backdrop of a synopsis, even ones that do not breathe an overt word about marketing. The VAST majority of synopses (particularly for novels) simply scream that their authors regarded the writing of them as tiresome busywork instituted by the industry to satisfy some sick, sadistic whim prevalent amongst agents, a hoop through which they enjoy seeing all of the doggies jump.

Show that you are professional enough to approach the synopsis as a marketing necessity it is. Remember, agents and editors do NOT ask writers for synopses because they are too lazy to read entire books: they ask for synopses because they receive so many submissions that, even with the best of wills, they could never possibly read them all. The synopsis, then, is your chance to make your work jump up and down and scream: “Me! Me! I’m the one out of 10,000 that you actually want to read, the one written by an author who is willing to work with you, instead of sulking over the way the industry runs!”

Mind you, I’m not saying that you SHOULDN’T sulk over the often arbitrary and unfair way the industry runs: actually, it would be merely Pollyannaish NOT to do that from time to time. Vent as often as you please; it’s healthier than keeping it inside. But it simply is not prudent to vent anywhere near an agent or editor whom you want to take on your work, and certainly not in the tone of the synopsis. The synopsis’ tone should match the book’s, and unless you happen to be writing about deeply resentful characters, it’s just not appropriate to sound clipped and disgruntled. Sorry.

(5) Does the first page of the synopsis SAY that it’s a synopsis? Does it also list the title of the book? And does every page of the synopsis contain the slug line AUTHOR’S LAST NAME/TITLE/SYNOPSIS/#?

I am always shocked at how few synopses identify either themselves or the author, due no doubt to a faith in the filing systems of literary agencies that borders on the childlike. Pages get separated; things get lost. Identify each and every page with a slug line, and tell the nice people that they’ve got a synopsis in their hands.

Standard format for a synopsis dictates that the title (either all in caps or bolded) is centered at the top of the first page of the synopsis, with “Synopsis” on the line below it. Then skip one double-spaced line, and begin the text of the synopsis.

(6) Is the synopsis absolutely free of errors of any kind? Not just what my word processing software tells me is an error, but an actual error?

Naturally, you should both spell-check and read the ENTIRETY of your synopsis IN HARD COPY, ALOUD, before you send it anywhere. Period. No excuses. As I mentioned yesterday, my professional editor hat gets all in a twist at the notion of any writer’s proofreading solely on a computer screen. It is well-nigh impossible to do with complete accuracy.

And don’t even get me started on the chronic inadequacies of most word processing programs’ grammar checkers! Mine disapproves of gerunds and semicolons, apparently on general principle, strips accent marks off French words, leaving them obscenely naked, and regularly advises me to use the wrong form of THERE. (If anybody working at Microsoft does not know the ABSOLUTELY IMMUTABLE rules governing when to use THERE, THEIR, AND THEY’RE, I beg you, drop me an e-mail, and I shall make everything clear.) Why, just a couple of days ago, when I wasn’t paying attention — hey, this is a busy month — it incorrectly changed a word in this very blog from “here” to “hear.”

I am fascinated, too, by the fact that its dictionary evidently does not contain any words that relate to the Internet or computer operations. Should I really have had to introduce “blogger” into its vocabulary? And I tremble to think how the grammar checker butchers dialogue. Suffice it to say, most standard word processing spelling and grammar checkers would condemn the entirety of Mark Twain’s opus outright.

My point is, like a therapist who doesn’t listen well enough to give good advice, a poor grammar checker cannot be sufficiently disregarded. Even in the unlikely event that your grammar checker was put together by someone remotely familiar with the English language as she is spoke, you should NEVER rely solely upon what it tells you to do. Read the manuscript for yourself.

If you’re in doubt on a particular point, look it up. In a well-regarded dictionary, not on the internet: contrary to popular opinion, most search engines will list both the proper spelling of a word and the most common misspellings. There is no gigantic cosmic English teacher monitoring proper spelling and grammar on the web. So get up, walk across the room, and pick up a physical dictionary. After so much time spent sitting in front of a monitor, the walk will do you good.

Made it through all of the questions above? After you have tinkered with the synopsis until you are happy with all of your answers, set your synopsis aside. Stop fooling with it. Seriously — there is such a thing as too much editing. Then, after you have gone to the conference and met the agent and/or editor to whom you will be sending it, read it again (IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD, naturally), and ask yourself a final question:

(8) Does my synopsis support the image of the book I want the requesting agent or editor to see? Would it be worth my while to modify it slightly in order to match more closely to what I told this sterling individual my book was about?

”Wait!” I hear some sharp readers out there cry. “Is Anne saying that it’s sometimes a good idea to tailor the synopsis to the particular agent or editor?”

Well caught, those of you who thought that. If an agent or editor expresses a strong personal preference for a particular theme or style in her speech at the agents’ and editors’ forum or in your meeting, isn’t it just common sense to tweak your already-existing synopsis so it will appeal to those specific likes? If your dream agent let slip in your meeting that she was really intrigued by a particular aspect of your story, doesn’t it make sense to play that part up a little in the synopsis?

A word of warning about pursuing this route: do NOT attempt it unless you have already written a general synopsis with which you are pleased and have saved it as a separate document. Save your modified synopsis as its own document, and think very carefully before you send it out to anyone BUT the agent or editor who expressed the opinions in question.

Why? Well, as I have been pointing out for almost a year now in this very forum, agents and editors are not a monolithic entity with a single collective opinion on what is good and what is bad writing. They are individuals, with individual tastes that vary wildly, sometimes even moment to moment, and certainly over the course of a career.

Think about it: was your favorite book when you were 13 also your favorite book when you were 30? Neither was any given agent’s. And isn’t your literary opinion rather different on the day you learned that you were being promoted at work and the day that your cat died? Or even in the moment someone just complimented your shirt (it brings out your eyes, you know, and have you lost a little weight?) and the moment when you spilled half a cup of scalding coffee on it?

Again, what’s true for you is true for any given agent, editor, or screener: a LOT of factors can play into whether they like the pages sitting in front of them — or the pitch they are hearing — right now.

Bear this in mind when you are incorporating feedback into your synopsis — or, indeed, any of your work. Just because one agent has given you feedback to tweak your story this way or that, it doesn’t necessarily mean that tweak will be greeted rapturously by everyone in the industry. Use your judgment: it’s your book, after all. But by all means, if you can modify your synopsis for eyes of the individual who expressed the particular opinion in question, do it with my blessings.

Tomorrow, on to prepping your submission pages. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

P.S.: If you live in the greater Seattle area — or live outside of it and just like long drives – why not attend the class I’m giving this coming Saturday on prepping your pitch for conference use? It’s free to PNWA members, and it will give you hands-on practice with people who have successfully pitched to agents in the past. How great is that? You can just drop in, but if you are fairly sure you would like to come, why not pre-register on the PNWA homepage, so we know how many chairs to set up?

The Synopsis, Part VI: The niceties

June 20th, 2006

Hello, readers –

Welcome to my series on how to prep a synopsis prior to the conference, so you do not end up running around like the proverbial chicken with its head cut off when the agent of your dreams asks you to produce one. As in instantly. I had thought I would be able to wrap up the series today, but as often happens, I found that I had even more wisdom swirling around in my head on the subject than I had previously thought.

Okay, let’s assume that you have completed a solid draft of your synopsis, and are now in the editing phase. Print it out, ensconce yourself in the most comfortable reading chair you can find, and read it over to yourself OUT LOUD.

Why out loud, and why in hard copy? As those of you who have been reading this blog for a long time already know, this is one of my most dearly-held editing rules. It is INFINITELY easier to catch logical leaps in any text when you read it out loud. It is practically the only way to catch the redundancies that the space constraints of a computer screen virtually guarantee will be in the text. Don’t even think of cheating and just reading it out loud from your computer screen, either: the eye reads screen text 75% faster than page text, so screen editing is inherently harder to do well. (And don’t think that publishing professionals are not aware of that: as an editor, I can tell you that a text that has not been read in hard copy by the author usually announces itself with absolute clarity.)

After you have read it through a couple of times, clearing out repeated words and ungraceful phrases, ask yourself the following questions. Be honest with yourself, or there is no point in the exercise; if you find that you are too close to the work to have sufficient perspective, ask someone you trust to read the synopsis, then ask THAT person these questions.

(1) Does my synopsis present actual scenes from the book in glowing detail, or does it merely summarize the plot?

You want the answer to be the former, of course. Long-time readers, chant it with me now: the synopsis is, in fact, a writing sample that you are presenting to an agent or editor, every bit as much as the first 50 pages are. Make sure it demonstrates clearly that you can write – not merely that you had the tenacity to sit down and write a book, because thousands of people do that, but that you have writing talent and sharp, clearly-delineated insights.

It is far, far easier to show off your writing in detailed summaries of actual scenes, rather than in a series of generalities about the plot and the characters. And if your favorite line of the book is not in the synopsis, why not?

(2) Does the story or argument make sense, as it is told in the synopsis? Is more information necessary?

There is another excellent reason to read the synopsis out loud: to make sure it stands alone as a story. Since part of the point of the synopsis is to demonstrate what a good storyteller you are, flow is obviously important. If you have even the tiniest reservations about whether you have achieved this goal, read your synopsis out loud to someone unfamiliar with your project – and then ask your listener to tell the basic story back to you. If there are holes in your account, this method will make them leap out at you. (Insofar as a hole can leap.)

(3) Is it compelling? Does it sound like other books on the market, or does it sound original? Does it make me eager to read the book?

When agencies specialize (and most of the best ones do), you would obviously expect that they would receive submissions within their areas of specialty, right? So it’s reasonable to expect that an agency screener at an agency that represents a lot of mysteries would not be reading synopses of SF books and NF books, and romances and westerns, mixed in with only a few mysteries — no, that screener is probably reading 800 mystery synopses per week.

This may seem self-evident, but think about it: it has practical ramifications. That screener is inundated with plots in the genre…and your synopsis is the 658th he’s read that week…so what is likely to happen if your synopsis makes your book sound too much like the others?

Right: next!

”Wait just a cotton-picking second!” I hear some of you out there cry, the ones who have attended conferences before. “I’ve heard agents and editors jabbering endlessly about how much they want to find books that are like this or that bestseller. They say they WANT books that are like others! So wouldn’t an original book stand LESS of a chance with these people?”

Ooh, good question — I was planning on holding off on this one until I started writing about pitching, but it is relevant here, too. Yes, you are quite right: any number of agents and editors will tell you that they want writers to replicate what is selling well now. Actually, though, this isn’t what they really mean. They really mean that they want you to have anticipated two years ago what would be selling well now, have tracked them down then, and convinced them (somehow) that your book was representative of a trend to come, and thus had your book on the market right now, making them money hand over fist.

Or, to put it in terms of the good joke that was making the rounds of agents a couple of years back: a writer of literary fiction reads THE DA VINCI CODE, doesn’t like it, and calls his agent in a huff. “It’s not very well written,” he complains. “Why, I could write a book that bad in a week.”

”Could you really?” The agent starts to pant with enthusiasm. “How soon could you get the manuscript to me?”

You can cater to this kind of logic if you like, but personally, I don’t think it’s worth your time to get mixed up in someone else’s success fantasy. Given how fast publishing fads fade, the same agent who was yammering at conference crowds last month about producing book X will be equally insistent next months that writers should write nothing but book Y. You simply cannot keep up with people who are purely reactive.

The fact is, carbon copies of successful books tend not to have legs; the reading public has a much greater eye for originality, apparently, than the publishing industry. What DOES sell quite well, and is a kind of description quite meaningful to agents, is the premise or elements of a popular work with original twists added. So you’re better off trying to pitch LITTLE WOMEN MEETS GODZILLA than LITTLE WOMEN itself, really.

And the synopsis is the ideal place to demonstrate how your book differs. Make sure it does not make your book sound generic.

All right, the rest of the questions follow tomorrow (you didn’t think you were going to get away with only three, did you?) If you are planning to attend the class I am giving on prepping your conference pitch, it’s THIS SATURDAY; please do pre-register on the PNWA homepage, so we know how many cookies to buy. And, again, if you are still trying to decide whom to rank first for your agent and editor choices for the conference, check out my archived blogs for April 26 – May 17 for the agents and May 18 – 26 for the editors.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

The Synopsis, Part V: How to know if you’re doing it right

June 19th, 2006

Hello, readers –

Well, it’s a lovely, sunny day in the PNW (and for those of you who are not local: no, that’s not an oxymoron), and a young writer’s thoughts turn naturally to…landing an agent and selling one’s book, right? So for those of you who are planning to pitch a book at this summer’s PNWA conference (or at any other conference), why not hie ye hence to the PNWA’s homepage and sign up for my FREE Writing Connections class on prepping your pitch? It’s this coming Saturday, June 24th, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Also (and I know the repetition is a trifle annoying for my long-term readers, but this honestly is useful information to those visiting for the first time), if you are planning to attend this summer’s PNWA contest, check out my archived blogs for April 26 – May 26, to get the lowdown on the agents and editors who are scheduled to attend. It’s always better to make major decision — like, say, what agent to pick for your pitch session — based upon solid information, rather than guesswork. (If you don’t already know WHY it is better, read on.)

Today’s blog is what I devoutly hope will be the next-to-last last in my series on prepping your synopsis for conference use and/or submission. As I have been insisting for some days now, you will be SUBSTANTIALLY happier if you walk into the conference with your synopsis already polished, all ready to send out to the first agent or editor who asks for it, rather than running around in a fearful dither after the conference, trying to pull your submission packet together. Then, too, giving some serious thought to the overarching themes of your book is an excellent first step in pulling together a pitch.

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

Synopsis-writing is hard; budget adequate time for it.

If the task feels overwhelming — and terror is certainly understandable, faced with the daunting task of summarizing a 400-page book in just a few well-written pages — remind yourself that even though it may feel as though you effectively need to reproduce the entire book in condensed format, you actually don’t. You don’t need to depict every twist and turn of the plot — just strive to give a solid feel of the mood of the book and a basic plot summary. Show where the major conflicts lie, introduce the main characters, interspersed with a few scenes described with a wealth of sensual detail, to make it more readable.

Remember, too, that you should be shooting for 3 – 5 pages: no more, no less. If your draft persists in being less, and you are synopsizing a book-length work, chances are that you are not including the plot or argument in sufficient detail. So go back and reread it: is what you have hear honestly a reader-friendly telling of your story or a convincing presentation of your argument, or is it merely a presentation of the premise of the book and a cursory overview of its major themes? For most too-short synopses, it is the latter.

If you really get stuck about how to make it longer, print up a hard copy of the synopsis, find yourself a highlighting pen, and mark every summary statement about character, every time you have wrapped up a scene or plot twist description with a sentence along the lines of, “and in the process, Sheila learns an important lesson about herself.” Go back through and take a careful look at these highlighted lines: would a briefly-described scene SHOW the conclusion stated there better than just TELLING the reader about it? Is there a telling character detail or an interesting plot nuance that might supplement these general statements, making them more interesting to read?

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

If your synopsis has the opposite problem, and runs over 5 pages, you should also sit down and read it over with a highlighter gripped tightly in your warm little hand. On your first pass through, mark any sentence that does not deal with the primary plot of the book. Then go back through and read the UNMARKED sentences in sequence, ignoring the highlighted ones. Ask yourself honestly: does the shorter version give an accurate impression of the book?

If your synopsis still runs to long, try this trick of the pros: minimize the amount of space you devote to the book’s premise and the actions that occur in Chapter 1. Yes, you will need this information to appear prominently in a synopsis you would send with a cold query letter, but as I mentioned a few days ago, once you have been asked to submit pages, your synopsis has different goals.

Here’s a startling statistic: in the average novel synopsis, over a quarter of the text deals with premise and character introduction. Trim this down to just a few sentences and move on to the rest of the plot. If this seems dangerous to you, think about it: if the agent or editor asked to see Chapter 1 or the first 50 pages, and if you place the chapter BEFORE the synopsis in your submission packet, the reader will already be familiar with both the initial premise AND the basic characters AND what occurs at the beginning in the book. So why be repetitious?

Let me show you how it works (and yes, long-term readers, I have used this example before. But I’m using it slightly differently this time. So there.) Let’s say that you were Jane Austen, and you were pitching SENSE AND SENSIBILITY to an agent at a conference. (You should be so lucky!) The agent is, naturally, charmed by the story (because you were very clever indeed, and did enough solid research before you signed up for your agent appointment to have a pretty fair certainty that this particular agent is habitually charmed by this sort of story. See? Advance research really does pay off), and asks to see a synopsis and the first 50 pages.

At that very moment, you have on your computer your query synopsis. In it, the summary of the first 50 pp. worth of action look something like this:

”ELINOR (19) and MARIANNE DASHWOOD (17) are in a pitiable position: due to the whimsical will of their great-uncle, the family estate passes at the death of their wealthy father into the hands of their greedy half-brother, JOHN DASHWOOD (early 30s). Their affectionate but impractical mother (MRS. DASHWOOD, 40), soon offended at John’s wife’s (FANNY FERRARS DASHWOOD, late 20s) domineering ways and lack of true hospitality, wishes to move her daughters from Norland, the only home they have ever known, but comparative poverty and the fact that Elinor is rapidly falling in love with her sister-in-law’s brother, EDWARD FERRARS (mid-20s), render any decision on where to go beyond the reach of her highly romantic speculations. Yet when John and his wife talk themselves out of providing any financial assistance to the female Dashwoods at all, Mrs. Dashwood accepts the offer of her cousin, SIR JOHN MIDDLETON (middle aged) to move her family to Barton Park, hundreds of miles away. Once settled there, the Dashwoods find themselves rushed into an almost daily intimacy with Sir John and his wife, LADY MIDDLETON (late 20s) at the great house. There, they meet COLONEL BRANDON (early 40s), Sir John’s melancholy friend, who seems struck by Marianne’s musical ability — and beauty. But does his sad face conceal a secret?

”However, Marianne’s heart is soon engaged elsewhere: she literally falls into love. Dashing and romantic WILLOUGHBY (26) happens to be riding by when Marianne tumbles down a hillside, spraining her ankle. Just like the romantic hero of her dreams, he sweeps her up and carries her to safety. Soon, the pair are inseparable, agreeing in every particular: in music, in poetry, in the proper response to life, which is to ignore propriety in favor of expressing unrestrained feeling. When Col. Brandon is abruptly obliged to cancel a party in order to rush off to London to attend to mysterious business, the lovers are perfectly agreed that stuffy old Brandon made up the urgency in order to spoil their pleasure.

”All too quickly, however, it is Willoughby’s turn to be called away by mysterious duties elsewhere, leaving a weeping Marianne courting every memory of their happy days together while Elinor wonders why the pair have not announced their evident engagement.

”Edward comes to visit the Dashwoods, but he is sadly changed, morose and apparently afraid to be left alone with Elinor, despite Marianne’s continual and well-meaning efforts to allow the lovebirds solitude in which to coo. Edward is wearing an unexplained ring, human hair set in metal: he claims it is his sister Fanny’s but the Dashwoods are sure it is Elinor’s.”

Now, all of this does in fact occur in the first 50 pages of SENSE AND SENSIBILITY, at least in my little paperback addition. However, all of the plot shown above would be in the requested first 50, right? So, being a wise Aunt Jane, you would streamline your submission synopsis so it looked a bit more like this:
“At the death of their wealthy father, ELINOR (19) and MARIANNE DASHWOOD (17) and their affectionate but impractical mother (MRS. DASHWOOD, 40) are forced to leave their life-long home and move halfway across England, to live near relatives they have never seen, far away from Elinor’s beloved EDWARD FERRARS (mid-20s). At the home of their cousins SIR JOHN (late 30s) and LADY MIDDLETON (late 20s), melancholy COLONEL BRANDON (early 40s), seems struck by Marianne’s musical ability – and beauty. But does his sad face conceal a secret?

”Dashing WILLOUGHBY (26) happens to be riding by when Marianne tumbles down a hillside, spraining her ankle. Just like the romantic hero of her dreams, he sweeps her up and carries her to safety. Soon, the pair are inseparable, much to Col. Brandon’s chagrin. He rushes off to London to attend to mysterious business. All too quickly, however, Willoughby’s is called away, too. Marianne spends her days courting every tender memory of him, while Elinor wonders why the pair have not announced their evident engagement.

”Elinor’s love life is less successful: when Edward comes to visit, he seems afraid to be left alone with her, despite Marianne’s continual and well-meaning efforts to allow the lovebirds solitude in which to coo. Does his silence mean he no longer loves Elinor?”

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

Tomorrow, if the publishing gods are with us, I shall wrap up the synopsis, so we can move on to other conference-related matters. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Synopsis Wisdom, Part IV: Don’t let resentment hold you back

June 16th, 2006

Hello, readers –

Before I get started on the latest installment in my series on how to write a synopsis for your book (and why it really would behoove you to do so BEFORE the conference is upon us), many thanks to my correspondent (who shall remain nameless) for writing in with the skinny on Flag Day — and a confession that might conceivably raise the eyebrows of the Department of Homeland Security:

”Hello, Anne. Flag Day commemorates the day Betsy Ross (supposedly; many historians are skeptical of the Betsy Ross lore) presented George Washington with the flag he had requested: the first Stars and Stripes. I think it’s a rather lovely design, although I won’t discuss here my opinions of what has/hasn’t been done in its name. And I deny ALL the rumors that Che Guevara is alive and well, lives in my basement, and loves Taco Bell…(Aunt Jean warned me that fish and house guests both start to “turn” after three days…)”

I can believe it all but the part about Taco Bell. But thanks for filling us in.

Back to synopses. For those of you who are still resistant to the idea of writing one before you are specifically asked for it (which, unless you happen to be a masochist who just adores being under time pressure, is an exceedingly bad idea), I have two more inducements to offer you today.

First — and this is a big one — taking the time to work on a synopsis BEFORE you meet with an agent is going to make it easier for you to pitch your book. It helps you think of your baby as a marketable product, as well as a piece of art and physical proof that you have locked yourself away from your kith and kin for endless hours, creating. Even writers desperate to sell their first books tend to forget that it is a product intended for a specific market. Yet any agent who signs you is going to HAVE to summarize the book in order to market it — there is just no way around that.

So by having labored to reduce your marvelously complex story or argument to its basic elements, you will be far less likely to succumb to that bugbear of pitchers, the Pitch that Would Not Die. When you are signed up for a 15-minute pitch meeting, you really do need to be able to summarize your book within just a few minutes — harder than it sounds! — so you have time to talk about other matters, such as whether the agent wants to read the book. Confidentially, anyone who has ever sat down for coffee or a drink with an agent has heard at least one horror story about a pitch that went on for an hour, because the author did not have the vaguest conception what was and was not important to emphasize in his plot summary.

Trust me, you do not want to be remembered for that.

The second inducement: a well-crafted synopsis is something of a rarity, so if you can produce one as a follow-up to a good meeting at a conference, you will look like a star. You would be astonished (at least I hope you would) at how often an otherwise well-written submission is accompanied by a synopsis obviously dashed off at the last minute, as though the writing quality, clarity, and organization of it weren’t to be evaluated at all.

I don’t think that sheer deadline panic accounts for the pervasiveness of the disorganized synopsis; I suspect resentment. I’ve met countless writers who don’t really understand why the synopsis is necessary at all, and thus hate it. Frustrated by what appears to be an arbitrary requirement, many writers just throw together a synopsis in a fatal rush and shove it into an envelope, hoping that no one will pay much attention to it. It’s the first 50 pages that count, right?

Wrong. EVERYTHING you submit to an agent or editor is a writing sample. If you can’t remember that full-time, have it tattooed on the back of your hand.

While frustration is certainly understandable, it’s self-defeating to treat the synopsis as unimportant or (even more common) to toss it out in a last-minute frenzy. Find a more constructive outlet for your annoyance — and make sure that every page you submit is your best writing.

Caught your attention with that constructive outlet quip, didn’t I? In real life, almost nobody is actually brave enough to say to an agent or editor, “No, you can’t have a synopsis, you lazy so-and-so. Read the whole damned book, if you liked my pitch, because, as any fool can tell you, that’s the only way you’re going to find out if I can write is to READ MY WRITING!” ’Fess up — wouldn’t you LOVE to see someone do that at a conference? So that is my mental health assignment for you while working on the synopsis: once an hour, picture the nastiest, most aloof agent in the world, and mentally bellow your frustrations at him at length.

Then get back to work.

I know, it sounds silly, but it will make you feel better to do it, I promise. In fact, I think it would be STERLING preparation for the conference to name your least-favorite sofa cushion The Industry and pound it silly twice a day until it’s time to give your pitch. I’m all in favor of venting hostility on inanimate objects, rather than on human ones. Far better that your neighbors hear you screaming about how hard it all is than that your resentment find its way into your synopsis. Or your query letter. Or even into your verbal pitch.

Yes, I’ve seen all three happen. I’ll spare you the details, but trust me, these were not pretty incidents.

After you have thrown a well-deserved tantrum or two at how difficult it is to catch an agent’s attention, remind yourself that the synopsis DOES serve a purpose within your submission packet: from the requesting agent’s POV, it is the substitute for the rest of the book.

Let me repeat that: in this context, the synopsis is the substitute for the rest of the book.

It bears repeating, because the synopsis an agent or editor asks you to include with your first 50 pp. actually serves a rather different purpose than the synopsis you tuck into the envelope with your query letter. After all, a querying synopsis’ primary purpose is to prompt the agent or editor to ask to see the first 50 pp.; basically, it acts as a proxy pitcher for your book.

But at a conference meeting, YOU are the pitcher, and your goal is to get the agent or editor to ask to see the pages. Now, let’s assume s/he has done so. In the packet of requested materials you send, the synopsis has a new goal: to convince the agent or editor that the rest of the book is every bit as interesting and action-packed as your first 50 pp. It is a marketing tool, intended to get the agent or editor to ask to see the rest of the book.

I hear some of you out there grumbling. “But Anne,” you cry, “isn’t it the job of the first 50 pp. to inspire such interest in the reader that she wants — nay, longs — to read the rest of the book?”

In a word, yes, but not alone. Often, agents (and their screeners; remember, even if an agent asks you to send pages, she is usually not the first person in the building to read them, even if she REALLY liked you) will read the requested chapter(s) first, to see if they like the authorial voice, and then turn to the synopsis. Thus, the synopsis is where you demonstrate to their hyper-critical eyes that you are not merely a writer who can hold them in thrall for a few isolated pages: you have the vision and tenacity to take the compelling characters you have begun to reveal in your first chapter through an interesting story to a satisfying conclusion.

The synopsis, in short, is where you show that you can plot out a BOOK.

For this reason, it is imperative that your synopsis makes it very, very clear how the first 50 pp. you are submitting fits into the overall arc of the book, regardless of whether you are submitting fiction or nonfiction. But don’t forget to make the rest of the book sound interesting, too.

And PLEASE don’t make the very common mistake of not explaining how the plot is resolved. This is not the time to conceal your favorite plot twist, as a delightful surprise for when the agent requests the entire book. Revealing it now will SUBSTANTIALLY increase the probability that the rest of the book will get read, in fact.

Why? Well, agents and editors tend not to be very fond of guessing games (or, as they like to call them, “those damned writer tricks that waste my time.”) So ending your synopsis on a cliffhanger on the theory that they will be DYING to read the rest of the book to find out how it all ends seldom works. Remember, agency screeners are suspicious people: if you don’t show how the plot works itself to a conclusion, they may well conclude that you just haven’t written the ending yet.

Next!

More tips follow on Monday. In the meantime, here comes the tape recording again: for those of you who have not yet done it, there is still time to register for this summer’s PNWA conference. Come along and have a spot of tea with your humble correspondent and talk about your work. If you’re lost about which agents and editors to pick for your appointments, check out my archived blogs for April 26 – May 17 to get the skinny on the agents and May 18 – 26 for the editors.

Hey, while you’re on the website, why not sign up for my Prepping Your Pitch course on June 24th? It’s free to PNWA members, and while it isn’t strictly necessary to pre-register, it would be nice for me and the organizers to know whether to expect 5 people or 500. Makes a difference in how many cookies to buy, after all.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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