Author! Author! :: Anne Mini's Blog

Author! Author!

Query letter troubleshooting, or, no, Virginia, you don’t want to make the same mistakes as everyone else

August 31st, 2008

Happy Labor Day weekend, everybody! This is one of my favorite three-day holidays because, of course, most U.S. workers wouldn’t have weekends at all were it not for organized labor spending decades pushing for a 5-day work week. Seems appropriate, somehow, that so many folks get a day off to commemorate that achievement — and to celebrate child labor laws, OSHA, and other Really Good Ideas that have made workplaces across the country safer for all. (Not to mention less Dickensian.)

I’m sorry to have skipped a couple of days of posting, because I know that, appropriately enough, many, many aspiring writers stateside use this particular long weekend to prepare their next barrages of query letters and submissions. I like to be checking in often during query-heavy periods, to answer readers’ last-minute questions. However, since Millicent and her cronies will be dragging into the office two days hence, only to be greeted by (in some cases) a month’s worth of queries and submissions, it’s probably not the world’s worst idea to hold off for a week or so before you mail yours off, if only to wait until Millie’s in a better mood.

Ask a writer to justify anything, and you’re likely to get a well-stuffed paragraph of response, eh?

Seriously, though, I’m glad to devote the week to come to diagnosing and treating some of the ailments from which query letters and SASEs commonly suffer. (Yes, believe it or not, queriers often misunderstand the proper function of the SASE or leave it out altogether.) I’d much, much rather spend an extra week on the topic than to have any of you kicking yourselves a month from now, wishing you’d queried differently.

Do I see some hands being thrown skyward out there? “But Anne,” I hear those of you with query letters on the point of being stuffed into already-addressed envelopes, “isn’t this a trifle redundant? After all, you’ve been talking for the last few posts about big problems to which query letters are prone, so aren’t you preaching to the choir here?”

You’ve got a point there, hand-flingers: I, too, would dearly like to believe that all of my bright, brilliant, talented, and undoubtedly gorgeous and civic-minded readers already know to avoid the major pitfalls. In fact, over the course of the last three years (can you believe I’ve been posting for that long?), all of us here at Author! Author! have worked pretty hard to produce that outcome.

Go, Team Literate!

I must confess, though, that I worry about the reader who found this blog only a week ago, my friends, as well as the one who started reading faithfully, say, last April. These fine folks have not yet lived through one of my troubleshooting series — and, hard as it may be to imagine, not everyone has the hours — or, at this point, days — to spare to troll my archives. (Helpful hint to those in a hurry: the HOW TO categories on the list at right contain the briefest sets of explanations of a number of basic writerly skills, like query-generating; lengthier, more detailed accounts lurk under other category headings.)

I’m not going over this material again only for the sake of new or archive-shy readers, however. Even if a writer’s been at it a while, it can be pretty hard to see the flaws in one’s own query letters — and for some reason I have never been able to fathom, even aspiring writers savvy enough to be routinely soliciting feedback on their manuscripts often guard their queries jealously from any human eyes other than Millicent the agency screener’s.

Whose peepers, as those of you who have been visiting this blog for a good long time are already aware, are not generally charitably-oriented. So please, even if you are a querying veteran, at least cast your eye over this list of common query turn-offs.

Why? Well, for most aspiring writers, it takes quite a bit of rejection to open their eyes to the possibility that their missives themselves might be problematic. Okay, out comes the broken record, because I honestly do think the misconceptions around rejection are harmful to good writers: unfortunately, writers all too often automatically assume that it’s the idea of the book being rejected, rather than a style-hampered querying letter or a limp synopsis.

But how is this possible, without a level of mental telepathy on the agency screener’s part that would positively stun the Amazing Kreskin?

Are the rejecting agents seeing past the initial packet to the book itself, decreeing from afar that the writing is not worth reading — and thus that the writer should not be writing? Do they have some sort of direct cosmic connection to the Muses that allows them to glance at the first three lines of a query and say, “Nope, this one was last in line when the talent was handed out. Sorry,” before they toss it into the rejection pile?

No, of course not. Only editors have that kind of direct telephone connection to the demi-gods.

Yet this particular fear leaps like a lion onto many fledgling writers, dragging them off the path to future efforts: it is the first cousin that dangerous, self-hating myth that afflicts too many writers, leading to despair, the notion that if one is REALLY talented, the first draft, the first query, and the first book will automatically traject one to stardom.

It never – well, almost never — turns out like that: writing is work, and what gets the vast majority of queries rejected is a lack of adherence to professional standards. Which can, my friends, be learned, as we’ve seen over the last few posts.

But what if you already have a query letter that meets all the technical criteria, and it’s still not getting the responses you want? Pull up your chairs close, boys and girls: it’s time for the master class on querying.

Today, we’re going to begin to learn the fine art of diagnosis.

Word to the wise: even if you have already run your query through the wringer of my last set of diagnostic posts, you might want to cast your eye over these as well. Because the querying market is tighter than it was the last time I visited this issue — read: it’s as competitive now as it has been in my lifetime, and I’m not nearly so young as I look — I have beefed up the questions this time around. If you have already gone over your letter with an eye to my earlier advice, you should be able to sail through most of these questions; if not, you may have a few surprises in store.

Before you begin to feel for your submission’s pulse, read over everything in your query packet IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD: your query letter, synopsis, and, if you’ve been submitting it, first chapter. Better still, read them over AND have someone you trust read it over as well, checking for logical holes and grammatical problems. The best choice for this is another writer, ideally one who has successfully traversed the perils of the agent-finding ravine.

Let’s slap another broken record on the turntable: as much as you may love your mother, your spouse, and your best friend, they are, generally speaking not the best judges of your writing. Look to them for support and encouragement, not for technical feedback. Find someone whose opinion you trust – such as, say, a great writer you met at a conference, or the person in your writing group who keeps being asked to send sample chapters – and blandish her into giving your query letter and synopsis a solid reading.

(Lest you think I am casting unwarranted aspersions upon your mother, your spouse, or your best friend, let me add that my own fabulous mother spent her twenties editing the work of Philip K. Dick and others; fifty years later, she is one of the best line editors I have ever seen, in my professional opinion, but as she is my mother, I would never dream of using her as my only, or indeed even my primary feedback source. Naturally, that doesn’t stop her from line editing while she reads my work, as I do for hers — years of professional editing causes a particular type of myopia that prevents one from ever reading again without brandishing a vicious pen that attacks margins with the intensity a charging rhinoceros — but I respect my work enough to want first reader feedback from someone who was NOT there when I took my first toddling steps.)

Make sure that you read all of the constituent parts of your submissions in hard copy, not just on a computer screen. Proofreading is far easier – and more likely to be accurate — in hard copy. And I’m quite serious about treating this a final flight-check: don’t leave rooting out the proofreading and logic problems until the last minute, because it’s too easy to skip them when you’re in a hurry..

Once you have cleared out any grammatical or spelling problems and made sure your submission pieces say what you thought they were saying (you’d be surprised how many don’t), sit down with yourself and/or that trusted first reader and ask yourself the following questions.
Ready, campers? Let’s proceed.

(1) Is my query letter longer than a single page in standard correspondence format?
I covered this earlier in this series, but it bears repeating: even e-mailed queries longer than a page are seldom read in their entirety. I know it’s hard to cram everything you want to say to promote your work into a single page, but it’s just not worth it to go longer.

And please, for your own sake, don’t take the common escape route of shrinking the margins or the typeface; trust me, any screener, agent, editor, or contest judge with even a few weeks’ worth of experience can tell. (For a quick, visually-aid-assited run-down on why their being able to tell is bad news for the querier who does it, please see my last post.)

For those of you unclear on the difference between correspondence format and business format (or, to put it another way, those who are coming upon this checklist in my archives, rather than reading it as today’s post), please see my earlier post on the subject.

(2) If my query letter just refuses to be shorter, am I trying to do too much here?
Specifically, is your query trying to do more than get the agent to ask to see the manuscript?

Is it perhaps trying to convince the agent (or the screener) that this is a terrific book, or maybe including the plot, rather than the premise? Is it reviewing the book, rather than describing it? Is it begging for attention, rather than presenting the book professionally? Is it trying to suit the tastes of every agent to whom you might conceivably send it, rather than the one to whom it is currently addressed?

All of these are extremely common ways in which query letters over-reach. Don’t try to cram a half an hour’s worth of conversation about your book into a scant page; just present the information necessary to interest an agent in your manuscript, then STOP.

(3) If my query letter is too long, am I spending too many lines of text describing the plot?
The attempt to force the query to serve the purpose of the synopsis or book proposal is, of course, the most common letter-extender of them all. All too often, the plot or argument description overflows its alloted single paragraph so dramatically that other necessary features of the query letter — why the querier has selected THIS agent and no other, the intended readership, the book category — get tossed overboard in a desperate attempt to keep the whole to a single page.

The simplest fix for this, in most instances, is to reduce the length of the descriptive paragraph. Remember, your job here is not to summarize the book (that’s what the synopsis is for), but to pique enough interest to generate a request for pages. Keep it brief.

How brief? Well, let’s just say that if you can’t say the first two paragraphs of your query letter — the ones where you say why you are approaching that particular agent, the book category, and the premise — in under 30 seconds of normal speech, you might want to take a gander at the ELEVATOR SPEECH category at right.

(4) Is my query letter polite?
You’d be amazed at how often writers use the query letter as a forum for blaming the agent addressed for prevailing conditions in the publishing industry, up to and including how difficult it is to land an agent. But Millicent and her ilk did not create the ambient conditions for writers; treating them as though they did merely betrays a lack of familiarity with how the industry actually works.

And even if they had plotted in dark, smoke-filled rooms about how best to make writers’ lives more difficult, pointing it out either explicitly or implicitly would not not the best way to win friends and influence people. In my experience, lecturing a virtual stranger on how mean agents are is NOT the best tack to take when trying to make a new friend who happens to be an agent, any more than cracking out your best set of lawyer jokes would be at a bar association meeting.

I know — shocking.

I’ve seen some real lulus turn up in query letters. My personal favorite began, “Since you agents have set yourself up as the guardians of the gates of the publishing world, I suppose I need to appeal to you first…”

A close second: “I know that challenging books seldom get published these days, but I’m hoping you’ll be smart enough to see that mine…”

Remember, even if you met an agent at a conference (or via a recommendation from a client; I’ll be talking a bit about that next week) and got along with him as though you’d known each other since nursery school, a query is a business letter. Be cordial, but do not presume that it is okay to be overly familiar.

Demonstrate that you are a professional writer who understands that the buying and selling of books is a serious business. After hours staring at query letters filled with typos and blame, professional presentation comes as a positive relief.

Speaking of which…

(5) Is it clear from the first paragraph on what precisely I am asking the agent to represent?
This may seem like a silly question, but you wouldn’t believe how many otherwise well-written query letters don’t even specify whether the book in question is fiction or nonfiction. Or, as I mentioned earlier in this series, the book category. Or even, believe it or not, the title.

Why is it so VERY important to make absolutely certain that this information is clearly presented in the first paragraph? Because, as I mentioned last week, the vast majority of queries are not read in their entirety before being rejected.

Or, to put it another way: the first paragraph of your query is one of the very few situations in the writing world where you need to TELL, as well as show. If your first paragraph doesn’t tell Millicent either that the book in question is in fact the kind of book her boss is looking to represent or another very good reason to query her (having spoken to her at a conference, having heard her speak at same, because she so ably represented Book X, etc.), she is very, very likely to shove it into the rejection pile without reading any farther.

“But Anne,” I hear the more prolific of you protest, “I write in a number of different book categories, and I’m looking for an agent to represent all of my work, not just some of it. But won’t it be confusing if I list all of my areas of interest in the first paragraph of my query?”

In a word, yes — and generally speaking, it’s better strategy to query one book at a time, for precisely that reason. If you like (and you should like, if you have a publication history in another book category), you may mention the other titles later in your query letter, down in the paragraph where you will be talking about your writing credentials.

But in the first paragraph, no. Do you really want to run the risk of confusing Millicent?

(6) Does my letter sound as though I am excited about this book, or as if I have little confidence in the work? Or does it read as though I’m apologizing for querying at all?
We all know that writing query letters is no one’s idea of a good time. Well, maybe a few masochists enjoy it (if they’re really lucky, maybe they can give themselves a paper cut while they’re at it), but the vast majority of writers hate it, hate it, hate it.

Which, unfortunately, can translate on the page into sounding apprehensive, unenthusiastic, or just plain tired. Understandable, absolutely, but not the best way to pitch your work.

A query is not the place to express querying fatigue. Try to sound as upbeat in your seventeenth query letter as in your first. No need to sound like a Mouseketeer on speed, of course, but try not to sound discouraged, either.

While it is a nice touch to thank the agent at the end of the query for taking the time to consider your work, doing so in the first paragraph of the letter and/or repeatedly in the body can come across as a tad obsequious. Begging tends not to be helpful in this situation.

Remember, reading your query is the agent’s (or, more likely, the agent’s assistant’s) JOB, not a personal favor to you. No, no matter HOW long you’ve been shopping your book around.

By the way, if you have already pitched to an agent at a conference and she asked you to send materials, you do not need to query that same agent to ask permission to send them, unless she specifically said, “Okay, query me.” Many conference-goers seem to be confused on this point. In-person pitching is a substitute for querying, not merely an expensive extension of it.

And yes, this remains true even if many months have passed since that pitch session: if it’s been less than a year since an agent requested pages, there is absolutely no need to query, call, or e-mail to confirm that she still wants to see them. (If it’s been longer, do.) To the pros, being asked over and over again whether they REALLY meant that request is puzzling and, if it happens frequently, annoying.

(7) Does my book come across as genuinely marketable, or does the letter read as though I’m boasting?
In my many, many years of hanging out with publishing types, I have literally never met an agent who could not, if asked (and often if not), launch into a medley of annoyingly pushy, self-aggrandizing query letter openings he’s received. As I mentioned earlier in this series, they’ve already seen a lifetime’s supply of, “This is the greatest work ever written!”, “My book is the next bestseller!”, and “Don’t miss your opportunity to represent this book!”

Trust me, they don’t want to hear it again. Ever. (And if that’s news to you, please see my most recent post on the subject.)

So how do you make your work sound marketable? By identifying the target market clearly, and demonstrating (with statistics, if you can) both how large it is and why your book will appeal to that particular demographic.

Why, that sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Why, it’s almost as though I had been thinking ahead.

Perhaps that’s because figuring out how to identify your book’s target market and a few reasons that your book would appeal to that demographic were exercises we did earlier in the summer. (If you missed that part of the Book Marketing 101 series, I have carefully hidden the relevant posts under the obscure monikers IDENTIFYING YOUR TARGET MARKET and YOUR BOOK’S SELLING POINTS in the category list at right.)

Which means that all of you out there who have been following this series the whole time should give yourselves a big ol’ pat on the back: you’ve spent the summer assembling a serious writer’s bag of marketing tools, a collection that will, I hope, serve you well throughout the rest of your writing life. Learning to figure out a book’s ideal readership, how to identify a selling point, coming to describe a book in the manner the industry best understands — these are all skills that transcend the agent-finding stage of a writer’s career.

So well done, everybody. Tomorrow, I shall move on with the red flag checklist. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

What should a query letter look like, anyway? Part IV: the good, the bad, and the shrunken

August 28th, 2008

I’ve been talking for a few days about the goals of the query letter and how to achieve them without sounding as though you’re trying to sell the agent vacation home land in Florida. In that spirit, I thought some of you might find it useful to see what a really good query letter looks like. Not so you can copy it verbatim – rote reproductions abound in rejection piles – but so you may see what the theory looks like in practice.

To make the example more useful, I’ve picked a book in the public domain whose story you might know: MADAME BOVARY. (And if you’re having trouble reading it at its current size, try clicking on the image a couple of times.)

That’s an awfully good query letter, isn’t it? After the last few days’ posts, I hope it’s clear to you why: it that presents the book well, in businesslike terms, without coming across as too pushy or arrogant. Even more pleasing to Millicent’s eye, Mssr. Flaubert makes the book sound genuinely interesting AND describes it in terms that imply a certain familiarity with how the publishing industry works. Well done, Gustave!

(The date on the letter is when the first installment of MADAME BOVARY was published, incidentally; I couldn’t resist.)

For the sake of comparison, let’s assume that Mssr. Flaubert had not done his homework; what might his query letter have looked like then?

Now, I respect my readers’ intelligence far too much to go through point by point, explaining what’s wrong with this second letter. Obviously, the contractions are far too casual for a professional missive.

No, but seriously, I would hope that you spotted the unsupported boasting, the bullying, disrespectful tone, and the fact that it doesn’t really describe the book. Also, to Millicent’s eye, the fact that it was addressed to DEAR AGENT and undated would indicate that ol’ Gustave is simply plastering the entire agent community with queries, regardless of individual agents’ representation preferences. That alone would almost certainly lead her to reject MADAME BOVARY out of hand, without reading the body of the letter at all.

Setting aside all of these problems, there are two other major problems with this letter that we have not yet discussed. First, how exactly is the agent to contact Gustave to request him to send the manuscript?

She can’t, of course, because Mssr. Flaubert has made the mistake of leaving out that information, as an astonishingly high percentage of queriers do.

Why? I suspect it’s because they assume that if they include a SASE (that’s Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope, for those of you new to the trade, and it should be included with every query and submission), the agent already has their contact information. A similar logic tends to prevail with e-mailed queries: all the agent needs to do is hit REPLY, right?

Well, no, not necessarily; e-mailed queries get forwarded from agent to assistant and back again all the time, and SASEs have been known to go astray. I speak from personal experience here: I once received a kind rejection for someone else’s book stuffed into my SASE. I returned the manuscript with a polite note informing the agency of the mistake, along with the suggestion that perhaps they had lost MY submission. The nice agency assistant who answered that letter — very considerately, as it happens — grew up to be my current agent.

True story.

The moral: don’t depend on the SASE or return button alone. Include your contact information either in the body of the letter or in its header.

Gustave’s second problem is a bit more subtle, not so much a major gaffe as a small signal to Millicent that the manuscript to which the letter refers MIGHT not be professionally polished. Any guesses?

If you said that it was in business format, congratulations: you’ve been paying attention.

Any other ideas? Okay, let me infect the good query with the same virus, to help make the problem a bit more visible to the naked eye:

See it now? The letter is written in Helvetica, not Times, Times New Roman, or Courier, the preferred typefaces for manuscripts.

Was that huge huff of indignation that just billowed toward space an indication that favoring one font over another in queries is, well, a tad unfair? To set your minds at ease, I’ve never seen font choice alone be a rejection trigger (although font size often is; stick to 12 point). Nor do most agencies openly express font preferences for queries (although a few do; check their websites and/or agency book listings). However, I can tell you from very, very long experience working with aspiring writers that queries in the standard typefaces do seem to be treated with a touch more respect.

I know; odd. But worth noting, don’t you think?

Let’s take a look at another common yet purely structural way that good query letters send off an unprofessional vibe:

Not all that subtle, this: a query letter needs to be a SINGLE page. This restriction is taken so seriously that very, very few Millicents would be willing to turn to that second page at all, few enough that it’s just not worth adding.

Why are agencies so rigid about length when dealing with people who are, after all, writers? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: TIME. Can you imagine how lengthy the average query letter would be if agencies didn’t limit how long writers could ramble on about their books?

Stop smiling. It would be awful, at least for Millicent.

Fortunately, the one-page limit seems to be the most widely-known of querying rules. So much so, in fact, that aspiring writers frequently tempt Millicent’s wrath through conjuring tricks that force all of the information the writer wishes to provide onto a single page. Popular choices include shrinking the margins:

or shrinking the font size:

or, most effective at all, using the scale function to shrink the entire document:

Let me burst this bubble before any of you even try to blow it up to its full extent: this sort of document-altering magic will not help an over-long query sneak past Millicent’s scrutiny, for the exceedingly simple reason that she will not be fooled by it. Not even for a nanosecond. The only message such a query letter sends is this writer cannot follow directions.

Nor will an experienced contest judge, incidentally, should you be thinking of using any of these tricks to crush a too-lengthy chapter down to the maximum acceptable page length.

Why am I so certain that Millie will catch strategic shrinkage? For precisely the same reason that deviations from standard format in manuscripts are so obvious to professional readers: the fact that they read correctly-formatted pages ALL THE TIME.

Don’t believe the tricks above wouldn’t be instantaneously spottable? Okay, glance at them, then take another gander at our first example of the day:

Viewed side-by-side, the differences are pretty clear, aren’t they? And in the extremely unlikely event that Millicent isn’t really sure that the query in front of her contains some trickery, all she has to do is move her fingertips a few inches to the right or the left of it, open the next query letter, and perform an enlightening little compare-and-contrast exercise.

Just don’t do it. But avoiding formatting skullduggery is not the only thing I would like you to learn from today’s examples.

What I would also like you to take away from this post is the fact that, with one egregious exception, these were all more or less the same query letter in terms of content, all pitching the same book. Yet only one of these is at all likely to engender a request to read the actual MANUSCRIPT.

In other words, even a great book will be rejected at the query letter if it is queried or pitched poorly. Yes, many agents would snap up Mssr. Flaubert in a heartbeat after reading his wonderful prose – but with a query letter like the second, or with some of the sneaky formatting tricks exhibited here, the probability of any agent’s asking to read it is close to zero.

Let’s not forget an important corollary to this realization: even a book as genuinely gorgeous as MADAME BOVARY would not see the inside of a Borders today unless Flaubert kept sending out query letters, rather than curling up in a ball after the first rejection.

Deep down, pretty much every writer believes that if she were REALLY talented, her work would get picked up without her having to market it. C’mon, admit it, you’ve had the fantasy: there’s a knock on your door, and when you open it, there’s the perfect agent standing there, contract in hand. “I heard that your work is wonderful,” the agent says. “May I come in and talk about it?’

Or perhaps in your preferred version, you go to a conference and pitch your work for the first time. The agent of your dreams, naturally, falls over backwards in his chair; after sal volitale has been administered to revive him from his faint, he cries, “That’s it! The book I’ve been looking for my whole professional life!”

Or, still more common, you send your first query letter to an agent, and you receive a phone call two days later, asking to see the entire manuscript. Three days after you overnight it to New York, the agent calls to say that she stayed up all night reading it, and is dying to represent you. Could you fly to New York immediately, so she could introduce you to the people who are going to pay a million dollars for your rights?

Fantasy is all very well in its place, but while you are trying to find an agent, please do not be swayed by it. Don’t send out only one query at a time; it’s truly a waste of your efforts. Try to keep 7 or 8 out at any given time.

This advice often comes as a shock to writers. “What do you mean, 7 or 8 at any given time? I’ve been rejected ten times, and I thought that meant I should lock myself away and revise the book completely before I sent it out again!”

In a word, no. Oh, feel free to lock yourself up and revise to your heart’s content, but if you have a completed manuscript in your desk drawer, you should try to keep a constant flow of query letters heading out your door. As they say in the biz, the only manuscript that can never be sold is the one that is never submitted. (For a great, inspiring cheerleading essay on how writers talk themselves out of believing this, check out Carolyn See’s Making a Literary Life.)

There are two reasons keeping a constant flow is a good idea, professionally speaking. First, it’s never a good idea to allow a query letter to molder on your desktop: after awhile, that form letter can start to seem very personally damning, and a single rejection from a single agent can start to feel like an entire industry’s indictment of your work.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: one of the most self-destructive of conference-circuit rumors is the notion that if a book is good, it will automatically be picked up by the first agent that sees it. Or the fifth, for that matter.

This is simply untrue. It is not uncommon for wonderful books to go through dozens of queries, and even many rounds of query-revision-query-revision before being picked up. As long-time readers of this blog are already aware, there are hundreds of reasons that agents and their screeners reject manuscripts, the most common being that they do not like to represent a particular kind of book.

So how precisely is such a rejection a reflection on the quality of the writing?

Keep on sending out those queries a hundred times, if necessary. Because until you can blandish the right agent into reading your book, you’re just not going to know for sure whether it is marketable or not.

More querying tips follow anon. Keep up the good work!

What should a query letter look like, anyway? Part III: suspense novel seeks LTR with agent

August 27th, 2008

Throughout this latest barefoot run through the often rocky field of query letters, I have been thinking a lot about querying fatigue, that dragging, soul-sucking feeling that every querier — and submitter, and contest entrant — feels if and when that SASE comes back stuffed with a rejection. “Oh, God,” every writer thinks in that moment, “I have to do this again?” Unfortunately, if an aspiring writer wants to land an agent, get a book published by press large or small instead of self-publishing, or win a literary contest, s/he DOES need to pick that ego off the ground and keep moving forward.

That’s just a fact. So I hope that my last post, about the very, very short amount of time a writer has to grab an agent’s attention in a query letter, did not discourage anyone from trying.

Yes, querying is a tough row to hoe, both technically and psychologically. But here’s a comforting thought to bear in mind: someone who reads ONLY your query, or even your query and synopsis, cannot logically be rejecting your BOOK, or even your writing; to pass a legitimate opinion on either, she would have to read some of your work.

I’m quite serious about this — aspiring writers too often beat themselves up unduly over rejections, and it just doesn’t make sense. Unless the agency you are querying is one of the increasingly rare ones that asks querants to include a brief writing sample, what is rejected in a query letter is either the letter itself (for unprofessionalism, lack of clarity, or simply not being a kind of book that particular agent represents), the premise of the book, or the book category.

So, logically speaking, there is NO WAY that even a stack of rejection letters reaching to the moon could be a rejection of your talents as a writer, provided those rejections came entirely from cold querying. Makes you feel just the tiniest bit better to think of rejections that way, doesn’t it?

The sole goal of querying, as of pitching, then, is to generate a request to read some of it — not, as many queriers and pitchers seem to believe, to sell the book per se.

Why am I bringing this up in mid-series, you ask, other than to be a ray of sunshine on a rainy Seattle day? Well, it’s all part of a longer-term plan: earlier in the summer, if you will recall, I promised that learning how to pitch would help make you a better querier; last week and this, I have discussed how a savvy pitcher might apply those lessons to constructing a query letter; yesterday, I broached the often-neglected subject of the difference between query letters that claim to be the next bestseller, and those that provide an agent with some reasons to believe it.

Beginning to descry the outlines of my evil plan? I don’t want any of you to follow my querying guidelines blindly, but to UNDERSTAND the goals and pieces of the query letter well enough to write one that is actually original. I would like to see my readers not merely sending out professional-looking query letters, but ones that shout, “Hey, I’m not just a writer who has slapped my ideas into a boilerplate query — I’m a smart, thoughtful person with a good idea for a book who has taken the time to learn how the industry works.”

Overkill? Perhaps. But in my experience, more effective than just changing the words in the same template half the aspiring writers in North America are using this week — and believe me, fashions in querying change almost as often as fashions in hemlines.

All of which brings me back to a question thoughtful reader Jake wrote in to ask earlier in the summer, in the middle of my rhapsodies on pitching:


I’ve been applying this series to query writing, and I think I’ve written a pretty good elevator speech to use as a second paragraph, but there’s something that bothers me.

We’ve been told countless times not to write teasers or book-jacket blurbs when trying to pick up an agent. (”Those damned writer tricks,” I think was the term that was used)

I’m wondering exactly where the line between blurbs and elevator speeches are, and how can I know when I’ve crossed it. Any tips there?

Jake, this is a great question, one that I wish more queriers would ask themselves. The short answer:


A good elevator speech/descriptive paragraph of a query letter describes the content of a book in a clear, concise manner, relying upon intriguing specifics to entice a professional reader into wanting to see actual pages of the book in question.


whereas


A blurb is a micro-review of a book, commenting upon its strengths, usually in general terms. Usually, these are written by someone other than the author, as with the blurbs that appear on book jackets.

The former is a (brief, admittedly) sample of the author’s storytelling skill; the latter is promotional copy. As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, many, if not most, queriers make the mistake of regarding query letters — and surprisingly often synopses, especially those submitted for contest entry, as well — as occasions for the good old American hard sell, boasting when they should instead be demonstrating.

Or, to put it in more writerly language, telling how great the book in question is rather than showing it. From Millicent’s perspective, the difference is indeed glaring.

So how, as Jake so insightfully asks, is a querier to know when he’s crossed the line between them? As agents like to say, it all depends on the writing, and as my long-term readers are already aware, I’m no fan of hard-and-fast rules. However, here are a couple of simple follow-up questions to ask while considering the issue:

(1) Does my descriptive paragraph actually describe the book, or does it pass a value judgment on it?

Generally speaking, agents and editors tend to be wary of aspiring writers who praise their own work, as I mentioned yesterday. To use a rather crude analogy, boasts in queries come across like a drunk’s insistence that he can beat up everybody else in the bar, or (to get even cruder) like a personal ad whose author claims that he’s a wizard in bed.

That’s at MAKING the bed, naturally, children.

My point is, if the guy were really all that great at either, wouldn’t otherpeople be singing his praises? Isn’t the proof of the pudding, as they say, in the eating?

The typical back-jacket blurb isn’t intended to describe the book’s content — it’s to praise it. And as counter-intuitive as most queriers seem to find it, the goal of a query letter is not to praise the book, but to pique interest in it.

See the difference? Millicent does.

(2) Does my query present the book as a reviewer might, in terms of the reader’s potential enjoyment, assessment of writing quality, speculation about sales potential, and assertions that it might make a good movie? Or does my query talk about the book in the terms an agent might actually use?

Does this question sound eerily familiar? It should, at least to those of you who followed me through the pitching series earlier this summer.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll no doubt say it again: an effective query or pitch describes a book in the vocabulary of the publishing industry, not in terms of general praise.

(3) Are the sentences that strike me as possibly blurb-like actually necessary to the query letter, or are they extraneous?

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but the average query letter is crammed to the gills with unnecessary verbiage. Just as your garden-variety unprepared pitcher tends to ramble on about how difficult it has been to find an agent for her book, what subplots it contains, and what inspired her to write the darned thing in the first place, queriers often veer off-track to discuss everything from their hopes and dreams about how well the book could sell (hence our old friend, “It’s a natural for Oprah!”) to mentioning what their kith, kin, and writing teachers thought of it (“They say it’s a natural for Oprah!”) to thoughtfully listing all of the reasons that the agent being queried SHOULDN’T pick it up (“You probably won’t be interested, because this isn’t the kind of book that ends up on Oprah.”)

To Millicent and her fellow screeners, none of these observations are relevant.

A successful query letter has ALL of the following traits: it is clear; it is less than 1 page (single-spaced); it describes the book’s premise (not the entire book; that’s the job of the synopsis) in an engaging manner; it is polite; it is clear about what kind of book is being pitched; it includes a SASE, and it is addressed to an agent with a successful track record in representing the type of book it is pitching.

You would not BELIEVE how few query letters that agencies receive actually have all of these traits. And to be brutally blunt about it, agents rather like that, because, as I mentioned in my last, it makes it oh-so-easy to reject 85% of what they receive within seconds.

No fuss, no muss, no reading beyond, say, line 2. Again, sound familiar?

A particularly common omission: the book category. Because, you see, many writers just don’t know that the industry runs on book categories; it would be literally impossible for an agent to sell a book to a publisher without a category label. And other writers, bless their warm, fuzzy, and devious hearts, think that they are being clever by omitting it, lest their work be rejected on category grounds. “This agency doesn’t represent mysteries,” this type of strategizer thinks, “so I just won’t tell them until they’ve fallen in love with my writing.”

I have a shocking bit of news for you, Napolèon: the industry simply doesn’t work that way; if they do not know where it will eventually rest on a shelf in Barnes & Noble, they’re not going to read it at all.

Yes, for most books, particularly novels, there can be legitimate debate about which shelf would most happily house it, and agents recategorize their clients’ work all the time (it’s happened to me, and recently). However, people in the industry speak and even think of books by category – trust me, you’re not going to win any Brownie points with them by making them guess what kind of book you’re trying to get them to read.

If you don’t know how to figure out your book’s category, or why you shouldn’t just make one up, please, I implore you, click on the BOOK CATEGORIES section of the list at right before you send out your next query letter. Or pitch. Or, really, before you or anything you’ve written comes within ten feet of anyone even vaguely affiliated with the publishing industry.

But I’m veering off into specifics, amn’t I? We were talking about general principles.

I find that it often helps aspiring writers to think of their query letters as personal ads for their books. (Oh, come on: everyone reads them from time to time, if only to see what the new kink du jour is.) In it, you are introducing your book to someone with whom you are hoping it will have a long-term relationship – which, ideally, it will be; I have relatives with whom I have less frequent and less cordial contact than with my agent – and as such, you are trying to make a good impression.

So which do you think is more likely to draw a total stranger to you, ambiguity or specificity in how you describe yourself?

To put it another way, are you using the blurb or demonstration style> Do you, as so many personal ads and queries do, describe yourself in only the vaguest terms, hoping that Mr. or Ms. Right will read your mind correctly and pick yours out of the crowd of ads? Or do you figure out precisely what it is you want from a potential partner, as well as what you have to give in return, and spell it out?

To the eye of an agent or screener who sees hundreds of these appeals per week, writers who do not specify book categories are like personal ad placers who forget to list minor points like their genders or sexual orientation.

Yes, it really is that basic, in their world.

And writers who hedge their bets by describing their books in hybrid terms, as in “it’s a cross between a political thriller and a gentle romance, with helpful gardening tips thrown in,” are to professional eyes the equivalent of personal ad placers so insecure about their own appeal that they say they are into, “long walks on the beach, javelin throwing, or whatever.”

Trust me, to the eyes of the industry, this kind of complexity doesn’t make you look interesting, or your book a genre-crosser. To them, this at best looks like a rather pitiful attempt to curry favor by indicating that the writer in question is willing to manhandle his book in order to make it anything the agent wants. At worst, it comes across as the writer’s being so solipsistic that he assumes that it’s the query-reader’s job to guess what “whatever” means in this context.

And we all know by now how agents feel about writers who waste their time, don’t we?

Don’t make ‘em guess; be specific, and describe your work in the language they understand. Because otherwise, they’re just not going to understand the book you are offering well enough to know that any agent in her right mind — at least, anyone who has a substantial and successful track record in selling your category of book — should ask to read all or part of it with all possible dispatch.

I know you’re up to this challenge; I can feel it.

Don’t worry, though — you don’t need to pull it off within the next thirty seconds, regardless of what that rush of adrenaline just told you. More discussion of the ins and outs of querying follows in the days to come, so take a nice, deep breath and keep up the good work!

What should a query letter look like, anyway? Part II: the inevitable effects of competition at the feeding bowl

August 26th, 2008

As you may see, this summer’s litter of wee raccoonlets (I’d call them cubs, but the term fails to convey the relevant cuteness) have found our outdoor cat’s food bowl. In broad daylight, no less, with the kitty in question regarding them with singular disfavor from a few scant feet away. Since we fed the babies’ mother when she was a cub, and her parents when they were, I suppose I would be unreasonable to expect them to be shy. They scratch on my door when they’re hungry.

I don’t have a whole lot of leisure to watch them, unfortunately, because I’m still on relative hiatus (read: I’m writing this propped up on a couch, nearly buried in blankets, cats, and Kleenex, not the healthy person’s choice for stylish summer apparel), but by gum, I’m on the job. The task at hand: helping those of you new to constructing query letters learn to build a good one — and giving those of you who have been at it for a while some tips on making yours better.

To that end, my last couple of posts have been re-runs (yes, a bit lazy of me, but you try moving the cat who likes sleeping on top of my mousing arm) on what a query letter is and isn’t. For the rest of this week, I’m going to continue this trend — mostly, like today, combining some material from different past posts into fresh ones, then folding in some visuals. After we’re all good and clear on the basic concepts, I’ll move on to how to spot trouble spots in existing query letters. Sounds like fun, eh?

Well, okay, maybe not fun, but doesn’t it at least sound bearable?

At minimum, it should be exceedingly useful. Honest. Think of it as taking your query letter to the gym.

Now would be a great time to work on its muscle tone: for those of you who don’t know, most of the NYC-based publishing world goes on vacation from mid-August until after Labor Day. Throughout that sleepy, humid period, mail rooms back up and desks disappear under as-yet-to-be-read query letters and manuscripts, threatening to bury the lone, pale intern left behind to answer e-mails and phones (or, alternatively, the agent who likes to work uninterrupted, and thus took his vacation at some other time of year).

It’s not the best time to query or submit. Nor is immediately after Labor Day, when Millicent and her cronies return, groaning, to sort through that pile — if you picture the look on her face when she reappears in the office after the winter holidays, wincing at the sight of the thousands of envelopes sent by well-meaning keepers of New Year’s resolutions, you’re feeling the mood correctly.

Take a couple of weeks to polish your query or submission. Trust me, Millie will be in a better mood after the 10th or so.

Why — what a remarkable coincidence! I have a couple of weeks of query-burnishing posts planned. Why so many? Well, plenty of aspiring writers find the querying process quite intimidating.

And who can blame them, considering how short a query letter is supposed to be? “My God,” the little voice in the back of my head which I choose to attribute to you is saying, “how is all of that possible within the context of a single-page missive? How can I cram all I need to say to grab their attention in that little space?”

Um, are you sitting down? You don’t actually have the entire page to catch their attention; on average, you have about five lines.

Yes, you read that correctly.

While you already have the heart medication and/or asthma inhaler at the ready, it seems like a good time to add: most query letters are not even read to their ends by screeners.

Why? Because the vast majority of query letters disqualify themselves from serious consideration before the end of the opening paragraph.

Hey, I told you to sit down first.

Unfortunately, Americans are so heavily exposed to hard-sell techniques that many aspiring writers make the mistake of using their query letters to batter the agent with predictions of future greatness so over-inflated (and, from the agent’s point of view, so apparently groundless, coming from a previously unpublished writer) that they may be dismissed out of hand. Some popular favorites:

“This is the next (fill in name of bestseller here)!”
“You’ll be sorry if you let this one pass by!”
“Everyone in the country will want to read this book!”
“It’s a natural for Oprah!”
“This book is like nothing else on the market!”

I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but to professional eyes, these are all absurd statements to find in a query letter. Yes, even if the book in question IS the next DA VINCI CODE.

Why? Because these aren’t descriptions of the book; they’re back-jacket blurbs, marketing copy, equally applicable to (and equally likely to be true about) any manuscript that crosses their desks. Even in the extremely rare instances that these statements aren’t just empty boasts based upon wishful thinking, consider: whose literary opinion would YOU be more likely to believe in Millicent’s shoes, the author’s vague claim of excellence about his own book or another reader’s recommendation?

Hitting too close to home? Okay, let me put it this way: if someone you’d never met before came up to you on the street and said, “Hey, I bake the world’s best mincemeat pies, the kind that can change your life in a single bite,” would you believe him? Would you trustingly place that total stranger’s good-looking (or not) slice of God-knows-what into your mouth? Or would you want some assurances that, say, this hard-selling Yahoo knows something about cooking, had produced the pie in a vermin-free kitchen, and/or hadn’t constructed the mincemeat out of ground-up domestic pets?

Oh, you may laugh, thinking that this isn’t really an apt parallel, but what is agents and editors’ desire to hear about a new writer’s past publication history — or educational background, or even platform — about, if NOT to try to figure out if that pie is made of reasonable materials and in a manner up to professional standards of production?

That’s why, in case you’ve been wondering, a good query letter includes what I like to call ECQLC, Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy. Not because agencies are determined to seem exclusionary toward previously unpublished writers (okay, not merely to seem exclusionary), but because specific references to specific past literary achievements are signals to a quick-scanning screener that this is a query letter to take seriously.

As will an opening paragraph that states clearly and concisely why the writer decided to query this agent, as opposed to any other; a well-crafted single-paragraph elevator speech for the book; some indication of the target market, and a polite, respectful tone — the same basic elements, in short, as an effective verbal pitch.

Did some light bulbs just flicker on over some heads out there? That’s right, campers — the difference between a vague boast and solid information about your book and why THIS agent is the best fit for it is actually a show, don’t tell problem, at base. Your goal in the query letter is to demonstrate through your professional presentation of your project that this is a great book by an exciting new author, not just to say it.

As in, “My friends say this is the greatest novel since THE GRAPES OF WRATH. It’s also a natural for Oprah.”

“But Anne,” I hear some of you protest, “my book really is a natural for Oprah! I’m going on her show next week!”

Well, congratulations — go ahead and open your query letter with the date of your appearance on the show, and the best of luck to you. For the vast majority of you who have not already heard from her production staff, I wouldn’t suggest mentioning your book’s Oprah potential at all, either in the query letter or, if you write nonfiction, in the book proposal.

Why? Because, conservatively speaking, at least 40% of book proposals will mention the possibility of appearing on Oprah. As will most marketing plans, a hefty percentage of verbal pitches, and a higher percentage of query letters than I even like to say.

What’s the result of all of that repetition? Usually, Millicent will simply stop reading if a query letter opens with an empty boast, because to her, including such statements is like a writer’s scrawling on the query in great big red letters, “I have absolutely no idea how the industry works.”

Which, while an interesting tactic, is unlikely to get an agent or her screener to invest an additional ten seconds in reading on to your next paragraph.

That’s right, I said ten seconds: as much as writers like to picture agents and their screeners agonizing over their missives, trying to decide if such a book is marketable or not, the average query remains under a decision-maker’s eyes for less than 30 seconds.

That’s not a lot of time to make up one’s mind, is it?

Even the best-meaning Millicent might conceivably, after as short a time as a few weeks of screening queries, might start relying pretty heavily upon her first impressions. Consider, for instance, the English major’s assumption that business format is in fact not proper formatting for either query letters or manuscripts.

Again, think about it: it’s true, for one thing, and let’s face it, improper formatting is the single quickest flaw to spot. Let’s take another gander at what Millicent expects to see, a letter formatted observing standard English rules of paragraph-formation:

Now let’s take a look at exactly the same letter in business format:

Interesting how different it is, isn’t it, considering that the words are identical? In an e-mailed query, of course, the latter format would be acceptable, but on paper, it’s not the best strategic choice.

Which may, I gather, come as a surprise to some of you out there. Unfortunately, a lot of aspiring writers seem not to be aware that business format tends to be regarded in the industry as less-than-literate, regardless of whether it appears in a query letter, a marketing plan, or — heaven forfend! — a submitted manuscript. (If you don’t know why I felt the need to invoke various deities to prevent you from using business format your manuscripts, please run, don’t walk to the STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED category at right.)

In fact, I am always meeting writers at conferences and in classes who insist, sometimes angrily, that a query letter is a business letter, and thus should be formatted as such. They tell me that standards have changed, that e-mail has eliminated the need for observing traditional paragraph standards, that it’s the writing that counts, not the formatting.

I understand the logic, of course, but it just doesn’t apply here: not all businesses work in the same way. As anyone who works in an agency or publishing house would no doubt be delighted to tell you, there are many, many ways in which publishing doesn’t work like any other kind of business. One does not, for instance, require an agent in order to become a success at selling shoes.

If you’re looking for evidence of the biz’ exceptionalism, all you have to do is walk into a bookstore with a good literary fiction section. Find a book by a great up-and-coming author that’s sold only 500 copies since it came out last year, and ask yourself, “Would another kind of business have taken a chance like this, or would it concentrate on producing only what sells well? Would it continue to produce products like this year after year, decade after decade, out of a sense of devotion to the betterment of the human race?”

Okay, so some businesses would, but it’s certainly not the norm.

Yet almost invariably, when I try to tell them that publishing is an old-fashioned industry fond of its traditions, and that agents and their screeners tend to be people with great affection for the English language and its rules, I receive the same huffy reply from writers who dislike indenting: some version of, “Well, I heard/read/was told that a query/marketing plan had to be businesslike.”

I’m always glad when they bring this up — because I strongly suspect that this particular notion is at the root of the surprisingly pervasive rumor that agents actually prefer business format. I can easily envision agents stating point-blank at conferences that they want to receive businesslike query letters.

But businesslike and business format are not the same thing. Businesslike means professional, market-savvy, not overly-familiar — in short, the kind of query letter we have been talking about for the last couple of posts.

Business format, on the other hand, doesn’t dictate any kind of content at all; it’s purely about how the page is put together. There’s absolutely nothing about this style, after all, that precludes opening a query with the threat, “You’ll regret it for the rest of your natural life if you let this book pass you by!”

All of these negative examples are lifted from real query letters, by the way.

All that being said, there’s another reason that I would strenuously advise against using business format in your query letters — and a comparative glance at the two letters above will show you why.

Take another look, then put yourself in Millicent’s shoes for a moment and ask yourself: based upon this particular writing sample, would you assume that Aspiring Q. Author was familiar with standard format? Would you expect Aspiring’s paragraphs to be indented, or for him/her (I have no idea which, I now realize) NOT to skip lines between paragraphs?

Okay, would your answer to those questions change if you had a hundred query letters to read before you could get out of the office for the day, and you’d just burned your lip on a too-hot latte? (Millicent never seems to learn, does she?)

No? Well, what if it also contained a typo within the first line or two, had odd margins, or began with, “This is the best book you’ll read this year!” or some similar piece of boasting? Wouldn’t you be at least a LITTLE tempted to draw some negative conclusions from the format?

Even if you wouldn’t, Millicent would — and perhaps even should. Why? Because although most aspiring writers seem not to be aware of it, every sentence a writer submits to an agency is a writing sample. Even if the writer doesn’t treat it as such, a screener will.

After all, when that stranger comes up to sell you a meat pie, you’re going to be looking for whatever clues you can to figure out if he’s on the up-and-up.

Quick rejections are not about being mean or hating writers — they’re about plowing through the mountains of submissions that arrive constantly. The average agency receives 800-1000 queries per week (that’s not counting the New Year’s Resolution Rush, folks), so agents and screeners have a very strong incentive to weed out as many of them as possible as rapidly as possible.

That’s why, in case you were wondering, that agents will happily tell you that any query that begins “Dear Agent” (rather than addressing a specific agent by name) automatically goes into the rejection pile. So does any query that addresses the agent by the wrong gender in the salutation. (If you’re unsure about a Chris or an Alex, call the agency and ask; no need to identify yourself as anything but a potential querier.)

So does any query that is pitching a book in a category the agent is not looking to represent. (Yes, even if the very latest agents’ guide AND the agency’s website says otherwise.)

And you know what? These automatic rejections will, in all probability, generate exactly the same form rejection letter as queries that were carefully considered, but ultimately passed upon. Again: how precisely is an aspiring writer to learn what does and doesn’t work in a query?

By finding out what agency screeners like Millicent are trained to spot — and learning what appeals to her. So go to conferences and ask questions of agents about what kind of queries they like to see. Attend book readings and ask authors about how they landed their agents. Take writers who have successfully landed agents out to lunch and ask them how they did it.

But do not, whatever you do, just assume that what works in other kinds of marketing will necessarily fly in approaching an agent. After all, almost universally, they specifically ask aspiring writers not to use the hard-sell techniques used in other types of business: writers seeking representation are expected not to telephone to pitch, send unrequested materials, or engage in extracurricular lobbying like sending cookies along with a query letter.

Instead, be businesslike, as befits a career writer: approach them in a manner that indicates that you are aware of the traditions of their industry. And, of course, keep up the good work!

A few more thoughts on boilerplate query letters

August 25th, 2008

Hello, campers —

I’m still a bit under the weather, I’m afraid, but I wanted to post something today, to kick off our week of talking about query letters with, if not a bang, at least not with silence. In that spirit, I am re-running a pertinent post from last year below.

Don’t worry; new thoughts on the subject follow shortly.

In the meantime, bright and generous reader Memoirista has been kind enough to post as a comment some formatting advice for those of you who were stunned to discover that standard format calls for two spaces after a period or colon, instead of just one. She’s figured out a way to effect this change throughout an entire manuscript in just a few easy steps; I suspect many of you out there will find it useful. Thanks for being so public-spirited, Memoirista!

And now return with me to that most tortured of topics, the construction of a winning query letter. Lest I confuse anyone, let me state up front that there is no connection between the picture above and the post below. I just happened to be struck by something the landscaper was doing. (And yes, they’re STILL here. Or, rather, are here again after having vanished like Houdini for weeks at a time, in that mysterious manner so dear to the hearts of all those in the throes of home improvement.)

Enjoy!

In my last post, I set out a very basic structure for a query letter, using the skills and tools that we’ve been working on all summer during the Book Marketing 101 series (for those of you who missed it, please see the appropriately-named category on the list at right). I had fully expected to post a follow-up the next day, assuaging the fears of the nervous, adding nuances to the prototype, and generally spreading joy and enlightenment abroad.

Then there was a HUGE racing event at a certain track located more or less exactly halfway between my mother’s current home and the town where I grew up. So basically, I spent Saturday zigzagging all over Northern California, trying to get from one to the other without sitting for hours in racing-enthusiast traffic, to get to a minor class reunion.

I say minor, because it was not commemorating one of those nice, round year markers that professional event-organizers keep insisting that we all should celebrate like clockwork. (Or like calendar-work, even.) We’re two years from one of those, and frankly, the guy voted Most Likely to Succeed had to give the crowd a passionate pep talk on Saturday night to generate any enthusiasm at all about the next.

Which is funny, because I’m from the Napa Valley, and we tend to hold our reunions in wineries. As we did our prom, our jazz choir fundraisers, our Girl Scout cookie sales…you get the picture. Not the kind of places that one typically needs to use much blandishment to cajole people to visit.

It’s not that we’re averse to seeing one another — actually, it’s a pretty nice group of people, on the whole; the halfback who used to tease the small and the meek (speaking of clichés that turn up all the time in fiction…oh, wait, weren’t we talking about those?) was going around apologizing to people, even. It’s that going from kindergarten all the way through high school with the same 111 people (and I went to nursery school with 40 of them) can get a MITE claustrophobic in a town where the primary activities for teens are watching grapes grow (in answer to the question urbanites’ minds just shouted: slowly) and trying not to be run over by tourists who have over-sampled at the wineries.

I’m fairly confident that I set some sort of land-speed record when I left at 17.

I dreaded going to the reunion, but how could I stay away? One of the organizers, my best buddy during those dark days of Browniedom when our troop leader had what I suspect was a well-earned nervous breakdown — compounded, no doubt, by both the minor coup that we girls staged one day when we simply refused to cut up yet another set of aluminum cans to make decorative Christmas ornaments for the indigent elderly at the county home while little Roseanne ravished us with selections from her new accordion primer, and the dramatic reenactment of the troop leader’s hysterics that we staged for our parents’ benefit shortly thereafter (not my best writing, certainly, but it got the point across, and isn’t this a long sentence? Henry James would be so pleased) — ruthlessly described her 8-year-old daughter’s school year in precisely the same classroom where we had spent the third grade.

She continued in this vein until I threw my hands over my eyes and cried, “Enough! I’ll go!”

Once I got there, I was genuinely glad she’d blandished me. Because, of course, while pretty much everyone hated high school — since those who didn’t tend not to become writers, I feel fairly confident about making such a sweeping generalization here — it’s kind of hard to hold a grudge against the kid who spilled hot chocolate on you in the second grade much past your mid-thirties, isn’t it? And while reunion-goers tend to dread running into old nemeses and look forward to greeting old friends, it’s the folks one hasn’t thought about in a decade or two who often present the most delightful surprises.

All of which is to say: despite some pretty dangerous-sounding pre-reunion rumblings, Most Likely to Succeed was neither tarred nor feathered, run out of town on a rail, nor burned in effigy. No one was mean to anyone else; no one cried, and everyone seemed to have a pretty good time.

What does all this have to do with querying, you ask? Plenty.

(You thought I was just rambling about my weekend? Au contraire, mes braves.)

Querying, I think we can all agree, is a necessary evil: no one likes it; it generates a whole lot of inconvenience for writer and agency alike, and to engage in it is to put one’s ego on the line in a very fundamental way. Rejection hurts, and you can’t be rejected if you never send out your work, right? So you can either try to lie low, keeping your dreams to yourself, or you can attempt to approach those high-and-mighty gatekeepers of the industry, asking to be let inside the Emerald City.

Sounds a lot like high school, doesn’t it?

Just as many people stay away from reunions because they fear exposing themselves to the judgment of people whom past experience has led them to believe to be, well, kinda shallow and hurtful, many, many writers avoid querying, or give up after just a handful of queries, because they fear to be rejected by folks they have heard are kinda shallow and prone to be hurtful.

There are a variety of ways to deal with such fears. One could, for instance, not query at all, and resign oneself to that great novel or brilliant NF book’s never being published. One could query just a couple of times, then give up.

Or — and if you haven’t guessed by now, this would be my preferred option — you could recognize that while some of the people at the reunion may in fact turn out to be kind of unpleasant, you really only need to find the one delightful person who finds you truly fascinating to make the entire enterprise worthwhile.

You’ll be pleased to hear, though, that unlike gearing up to attend a reunion, there are certain things you can do before querying to increase the probability of a positive reception. Certain elements mark a query letter as coming from a writer who has taken the time to learn how the industry works.

Agents like writers like that. Ask ‘em.

The structure I proposed last time — which is, I assure you, NOT the only one possible by any means, or even the only one that works; it’s just what has worked best in my experience — also frees the writer from the well-nigh impossible task of trying to cram everything good about a book into a single page.

Which is, I have noticed over the years, precisely what most aspiring writers tend to try to do.

No wonder they get intimidated and frustrated long before they query the 50 or 100 agents (yes, you read that correctly) it often takes these days for a good book to find the right fit. To put this in perspective, a truly talented writer might well end up querying the equivalent of my entire high school class before being signed.

It’s no reflection on the book; it’s just the way the industry works. The only way that I know to speed up that process is to make the query letter itself businesslike, but personable.

Do keep in mind that the SOLE purpose of the query is to engender enough excitement in the reader that she will ask to see a representative chunk of the book itself, not to reproduce what you would like to see on the book’s back jacket or to complain about having to work through an agent at all.

If either of the last two options made you chuckle in disbelief, good. Believe it or not, I’ve seen both turn up many, many times in unsuccessful query letters. Boasting and petulance both abound, and both tend to discourage positive response.

Now, I know that my readers are too savvy to do this deliberately, but isn’t it worth sitting down with your query letter and asking yourself: could an exhausted agency screener like Millicent — in a bad mood, with a cold, having just broken up with her boyfriend AND burned her lip on that over-hot latte again — possibly construe that letter as either?

Yes, querying is a chore, and an intimidating one at that; yes, ultimately it will be the agent’s job, not yours, to market your work to publishers, and an agent or editor probably would have a far better idea of how to spin your book than you would.

Agents and their screeners (it is rare for agents at the larger agencies to screen query letters themselves; thus Millicent) are in fact aware of all of these things. You don’t need to tell them.

Your query letter needs to market your book impeccably anyway, in a tone that makes you sound like an author who LOVES his work and is eager to give agent and editor alike huge amounts of his time to promote it.

As I said: not a walk in the park, definitely, but certainly doable by a smart, talented writer who approaches it in the right spirit. Sound like anyone you know?

I shall overwhelm you with tips and tricks of the trade tomorrow, I promise. But for now, start thinking, please, about how to make your query the one that waltzes into the reunion with a positive attitude, not the one who storms in with a chip on its little shoulder, gunning for Mr. Most Likely to Succeed. Or, heaven forefend, the one that doesn’t stick its nose through the door at all.

Keep up the good work!

Okay, I get it about standard format for manuscripts. Now what does a query letter look like?

August 22nd, 2008

Hello, campers —

No time for a long-winded missive today, I’m afraid, but I’m anxious to start fulfilling a promise I made earlier in the summer. Cast your mind back to those thrilling days of yesteryear, way back in mid-June, and you’ll find that when I first began talking about how to pull together a verbal pitch, I promised that doing so it would help you crank out a stellar query letter.

Well, now’s the time to prove it.

In that spirit, I’m going to be re-running a few posts (edited) from last year’s interminable-but-useful Book Marketing 101 series. Today, we’re going to talk about how to construct a query letter from the building blocks of the pitch. (And if you’re not clear about what they are, check the category list at right — each has its own category, for easy reference.)

This is a perfect time of year to be working on polishing a query — as I’ve mentioned before, the vast majority of the publishing industry goes on vacation from mid-August until after Labor Day, so waiting until early-to-mid-September (after Labor Day, but before the Frankfort Book Fair, to be precise) makes good strategic sense.

Enjoy!

Here’s a startling statement for an online writing guru to make: I wish writers talked amongst themselves about the nuts and bolts of querying more.

Why? Well, although I know that my readers are too savvy to fall into the pitfalls of the average writer, the vast majority of query letters agents receive are either uncommunicative, petulant in tone, just poor marketing — or obviously copied from a standard one-size-fits all boilerplate.

We can do better than that, I think.

For those of you absolutely new to the process, a query letter is a 1-page (single-spaced) polite, formal inquiry sent out to an agent or editor in the hope of exciting professional interest.

It is not, contrary to popular practice, an occasion for either begging or boasting; you will want to come across as a friendly professional who has done her homework. (Or his, as the case may be.) A good query introduces the book and the author to a prospective agent in precisely the terms the industry would use to describe them.

This should sound familiar to those of you who have stuck with me all the way through Book Marketing 101: this was the purpose of the Magic First Hundred Words, wasn’t it? (For those of you new to the concept, please see a category on the list at right entitled, straightforwardly enough, THE MAGIC FIRST HUNDRED WORDS.)

And, like the hallway pitch, your goal here is not to make the agent fall down on the floor, foaming at the mouth and crying, “I will die if I do not sign this author immediately!” but to prompt a request to submit pages.

That’s a much less formidable goal, isn’t it?

How does one pull that off? By being businesslike without using business format (long-time readers, chant it with me now: documents without indented paragraphs appear illiterate to folks in the publishing industry).

There are a zillion guides out there, each giving ostensibly foolproof guidelines for how to construct a positively stellar query letter, but in my experience, simple works better than gimmicky. (Possibly because the former is rarer.) Typically, a query letter consists of five basic elements:

1. The opening paragraph, which includes the following information:

* A brief statement about why the writer is approaching this particular agent (Hint: be specific. “I enjoyed hearing you speak at Conference X,” “Since you so ably represent Author Q,” and “Since you are interested in (book category), I hope you will be intrigued by my book” all work better than not mentioning how you picked the agent in the first place.)

*The book’s title

*The book’s category (i.e., where your book would sit in Barnes & Noble. Most queries leave this off, but it’s essential. If you don’t know what this is, or are not sure where your book will fall, please see the BOOK CATEGORIES section at right).

*Word count. (Optional. Actually, I have never included this, because it makes many novels easier to reject right off the bat, but many agents to have it up front. Because, you see, it makes it easier to reject so many queries off the bat. If your work falls within the normal word count for your genre – for most works of fiction, between 80,000 and 100,000 words – go ahead and include it. And if you don’t know how to estimate word count — most of the industry does not operate on actual word count — please see the WORD COUNT category at right.)

2. A paragraph pitching the book.

3. A BRIEF paragraph explaining for whom you have written this book (that’s the target market, mind you, not a paraphrase of your dedication page) and why this book might appeal to that demographic in a way that no other book currently on the market does. If the demographic is not especially well-known (or even if it is; agents tend to underestimate the size of potential groups of readers), go ahead and include numbers.

Don’t make the very common mistake, though, of having your book sound like a carbon copy of a current bestseller: you want to show here that your work is unique. If you can compare your book to another within the same genre that has sold well within the last five years, this is the place to do it, but make sure to make clear how your book serves the target market differently and better.

4. An optional paragraph giving your writing credentials and/or expertise that renders you the ideal person to have written this book — or, indeed, absolutely the only sentient being in the universe who could have. Actually, it’s not optional for NF, and it’s a good idea for everyone.

Include any past publications (paid or unpaid) in descending order of impressiveness, as well as any contest wins, places, shows, semi-finalist lists, etc., and academic degrees (yes, even if they are not relevant to your book).

If you have no credentials that may legitimately be listed here, omit this paragraph. However, give the matter some serious, creative thought first. If you have real-life experience that gives you a unique insight into your book’s topic, include it. (Again, it need not have been paid experience.) Or any public speaking experience – that’s actually a selling point for a writer, since so few have ever read in public before their first books have come out. Or ongoing membership in a writers’ group.

Anything can count, as long as it makes you look like a writer who is approaching the industry like a professional. Or like a person who would be interesting to know, read, and represent.

5. An EXTREMELY brief closing paragraph, thanking the agent for her time, mentioning any enclosed materials (synopsis, first five pages, whatever the agent lists as desired elements), calling the agent’s attention to the fact that you’ve sent a SASE, and giving your contact information, if it is not already listed at the top of the letter. (If you can’t afford to have letterhead printed up, just include your contact information, centered, in the header.) Say you look forward to hearing from her soon, and sign off.

There, that’s not so impossible in a single page, is it?

Before you tense up at the prospect, here’s the good news: if you have been prepping your pitch, you’ve already constructed most of the constituent parts of a professional-looking query letter.

Don’t believe me? Look at how easily the building blocks snap together to make a log cabin:

Dear Ms./Mr. agent’s last name (NEVER just “Dear Agent”),
I enjoyed hearing you speak at the Martian Writers’ Conference. Not many New York-based agents take the time to come to Mars to meet the local writers; we really appreciate the ones who do.

Since you so ably represented BLUE-EYED VENUSIAN, I hope you will be interested in my book, {TITLE}. It is a {BOOK CATEGORY} that will appeal to {TARGET MARKET} because {#1 SELLING POINT}.

{ELEVATOR SPEECH}

I am uniquely qualified to tell this story, because {the rest of your SELLING POINTS, including any writing credentials}.

Thank you for your time in reviewing this, and I hope that the enclosed synopsis will pique your interest. I may be reached at the address and telephone number above, as well as via e-mail at {e-dress}. I enclose a SASE for your convenience, and I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Sincerely,

Aspiring Q. Author

Or, to show it as it might appear on an actual piece of paper (white, please; this is not the time to break out the solar yellow in an misguided effort to grab Millicent’s attention), like this:

You can pull that off without breaking a sweat, right?

Don’t worry; this structure isn’t my last word on the query, by any stretch of the imagination, and I’m going to be showing you precisely what a properly-formatted query letter looks like on the page. For today, however I’m going to leave you to ponder the possibilities. A big part of staying in this business for the long haul is knowing to pace oneself, after all.

Keep up the good work!
PS to those of you who are reading this post for the first time in the archives: this is my basic how-to post for query writing, but there is a wealth of further information located in the QUERY LETTER 101 category on the list at right. For tips on technical formatting, please see the QUERY LETTERS ILLUSTRATED category. Best of luck!

What does standard format look like, anyway? Part IX: why you SHOULDN’T take all writing advice as Gospel (yes, even mine), or, why does Cookie Monster have a tummy ache?

August 19th, 2008

Hello, campers —

Every so often, I like to make a quick tour of blogs that have linked to mine, just to see if we here at Author! Author! have sparked interesting discussions or raised new questions elsewhere. I’ve gotten many ideas for new posts this way. Today, I was doing a spot of surfing and came upon a very engaging manuscript-reviser’s cri de coeur at Thoughts in Yellowwood Forest, appropriately entitled “arrgggrrrrggggggggggggggggggggggggggggg.” In it, the author mentioned having applied some archived advice of mine, then observed,

I’ve just got to stop doing research about writing. It’s driving me nuts. I want this to be the very best it can be, but trying to follow all of everyone’s rules is driving me nuts.

I find this excellent, a truly healthy attitude toward revision: there is so much advice out there, and so much of it conflicting, that I can easily imagine that an attempt to avoid every possible decried pitfall — or even to try to form a single, coherent plan based upon all the advice floating around out there — could eat up years of an aspiring writer’s time.

In fact, hardly a week passes here at Author! Author! when I don’t hear from some frantic soul who has, bless his or her heart, been gobbling up online writing and marketing advice like Cookie Monster in a well-intentioned attempt to understand the publishing industry — only to find her/himself stymied by two or more of us writing gurus decreeing opposite modes of approach.

In defense of my tribe, it is honestly quite difficult to give generalized writing advice at all, especially based upon reader questions, which are seldom accompanied by actual examples. As they like to say in the industry, it all depends on the writing. So without actually seeing the manuscript itself, it can be very difficult to give a helpful answer — and impossible to formulate one that is applicable to every similar case.

Yet what often seems to happen is that one of us will post an answer to a reader’s specific question, and violà, through the magic of the Internet, that innocent piece of advice suddenly turns up all over the place as a general axiom, to be applied everywhere, every time. Sometimes, too, the advice gets mutated a bit through repetition, as in the children’s game of Telephone, until the version being shared between participants at writers’ conferences bears little resemblance to the original advice.

And don’t even get me started on all of the many areas where experts legitimately differ, matters of individual literary taste, and competing schools of thought. Gobbling all of that up together, no wonder Cookie Monster sometimes finds himself with a tummy ache!

Do bear this in mind the next time you discover conflicting advice — as you inevitably will, if you are looking online for it, attending conferences, and/or taking a lot of writing classes. Not every piece of writing advice out there is necessarily applicable to YOUR manuscript — and not every self-proclaimed rule being bandied about is universally accepted, even amongst the pros.

Good writing requires far more complex alchemy than that, after all. Use your judgment, and when what any advice-giver says doesn’t make sense to you, track down the original source and start asking questions BEFORE you accept what any of us say as Gospel.

Yes, even if I’m the one who gave the advice. As far as I’m concerned, the object of this exercise is to help you improve your submissions, not to bend the masses to my will. (The latter will have to wait until my ongoing plot to rule the universe finally comes to fruition. I’ll keep you posted.)

That being said, do I think it’s worthwhile for EVERY writer to take the time learn what the most common rejection reasons are? Yes, because constantly submitting a manuscript containing easily-rectified problems can also suck up years of an aspiring writer’s time. Ditto with the rules of standard format, basic principles of pacing, characterization, marketing, etc. Doing one’s homework can ultimately save quite a bit of time.

But please, don’t make tracking down and following advice your life’s work. If you’re a writer, you already have an avocation, the grandest there is.

In this spirit, I’m re-running a post from last December, one I wrote in response to a reader’s expressed grumpiness (and who could blame her?) about the prospect of changing her manuscript from one space after each period and colon to two, as I had advised and indeed the vast majority of the industry prefers. But I’m not going to lie to you: even amongst agents, preferences do differ on this particular subject; although I’ve literally never heard of an agent’s asking a client to remove that second space, not every agent will tell his Millicent to take umbrage at its not being there.

So here, for your perusing pleasure, is my take on one of those areas where advice does legitimately differ. Enjoy!

After yesterday’s post, an intrepid reader Paula wrote in to take issue with my stand about the burning issue of whether the language has, without the intervention of the English professors of the world, spontaneously changed to require only one space between sentences and after colons, rather than two. And, as you may perhaps be able to tell from that last sentence, it’s a topic upon which, as an editor, I have some fairly strong feelings.

After I was well into my fourth page of response, it occurred to me that the comment sections aren’t subject-searchable. So I’m going to put off the next installment in my series on how and why standard format is so easily recognizable to professional readers in order to devote an entire post to the issue, where future readers will be able to track it down.

Fasten your seatbelts; I’m about to go to town.

Every time I do a post on standard format, readers write in to tell me that the rules have changed, on this point or on others. And frankly, they SHOULD be commenting, if they believe I have misspoken, or even if they feel a particular point requires further elucidation: false modesty aside, quite a few people do read this blog on a regular basis, and the last thing that I want to do is lead anyone astray inadvertently.

So please, folks, keep sending in those constructive comments.

Apart from the community-support reason to ask follow-up questions, there is another, more self-interested reason that you should consider giving a shout if you think I’ve just told a real whopper: no writer, aspiring or otherwise, should apply a rule to her book without understanding WHY its application is a good idea.

Yes, even with something as basic as standard format. If a particular suggestion doesn’t make sense to you, PLEASE don’t do it just because I say so. Do it because you have thought about it and decided that trying it might help you market your writing.

I know, I know: life would be a whole lot easier if it came with a foolproof set of directions, and nowhere is that more true than in one’s first approaches to the publishing industry. It’s definitely confusing to a newcomer, fraught with unspoken expectations and counterintuitive requirements. As someone who has spent a lifetime around it, I could just give you a list of standard format requirements, dust off my hands, and traipse off to finish my holiday shopping.

That’s not my style, however. I like to take the time to explain the rules, both to render submission less of a big, ugly mystery and to give my readers a chance to make up their minds for themselves. Call me wacky, but in the long run, I think my way helps people more than pronouncements from on high.

Speaking of pronouncements from on high, my correspondent began, charmingly, by quoting one of mine:

“In fact, in all of my years writing and editing, I have never — not once — seen a manuscript rejected or even criticized for including the two spaces that English prose requires after a period or colon. ”

Have you heard of a manuscript being rejected for using only ONE space between sentences? Within the past five years or so?

Isn’t that a trenchant question? Isn’t it about time I stopped yammering about the desirability of discussion and got around to answering it?

Here’s the short answer: rejected SOLELY upon that basis, no; criticized as unprofessional, yes, often. Knocked out of finalist consideration as contest entries, absolutely. And I’ve certainly heard it listed among several equally subtle points that led to rejection at agencies; basically, like the other minor restrictions of standard format, it’s contributes to the sense that a writer just doesn’t know the ropes.

The irony, of course, is that the sources that claim the language HAS changed — and permanently, at that — tend to insist that skipping the second space after a period or colon, as our dear old white-headed English teachers taught us to do, automatically stamps a manuscript old-fashioned, obsolete, and generally silly.

How do they justify this? The logic, as I understand it, runs thus: since printed books, magazines, newspapers, and to a great extent the Internet have been omitting these spaces in recent years, the language must therefore have changed. So much so that not only is leaving out the second space now permissible — which it definitely was not until very recently; Paula’s estimate of the last five years is pretty accurate — omitting it is now REQUIRED.

That sounds very serious, doesn’t it? Scary, even. The problem is, if it is required, why isn’t the industry enforcing it in the ways that formatting restrictions are generally enforced, by agents and editors asking writers to change their submissions accordingly?

I’m not being flippant about this: while this rather radical formatting rule change has been popping up in a lot of fora that give advice to aspiring writers over the past five years, the actual practices of the industry have not seemed to be the engine behind the change. I have literally never seen (or heard) an argument in favor of omitting the second space made by anyone who works within the publishing industry — although I have chatted with a number of agents (including my own), who don’t mind the single space omission.

So it’s safe to say that the doubled space is still the norm — as long as we’re talking about MANUSCRIPTS.

Printed books, well, those are a different story — and here, I think, is where the confusion lies, because many publishers have made this change in their newer releases. Essentially, the proponents of eliminating the second space between sentences are arguing that what one sees in print is what one should reproduce on the manuscript page.

As I pointed out yesterday, publishers have made this shift in order to save paper. Which, as those of you who followed this summer’s Book Marketing 101 series already know, is most emphatically NOT the goal of manuscript format, which aims toward ease of reading and hand-editing.

Omitting that second space does, as I mentioned yesterday, render it considerably harder to write corrections on hard copy. It may not seem like a lot of room, but believe me, when you’re trying to make four grammatical changes within a single sentence legibly, any extra bit of white space is a boon.

Hey, carrots are room-consuming. So are scrawls that read confusing, expand this, or Aristotle who?, all of which editors have bestowed upon my manuscripts at one time or another.

I suspect that the underlying assumption of the second-space elimination movement is that editing on hard copy has gone the way of the dinosaur (it hasn’t), just because it is now feasible to send and edit manuscripts electronically. But just because it is technically POSSIBLE to eliminate paper from the process doesn’t mean that it occurs in practice all the time, or even very often.

Remember when Internet-based shopping first became popular, and technology enthusiasts assured us all confidently that the supermarket and shopping mall would be obsolete within a decade? Turns out that a lot of people still wanted to squeeze melons and try on clothes before they bought them.

Who knew?

Also, for the argument that the extra spaces are obsolete to makes sense on a practical level — or, at minimum, to generate the levels of resentment amongst agents and editors that its proponents predict — the industry would have to expect that every submission would be camera-ready by the time it hits a prospective agent’s desk.

In other words, in EXACTLY the format that it would appear in the finished book. Anybody seeing a problem here?

As those of you who have been following the current See For Yourself series are already aware, standard format for MANUSCRIPTS has little to do with how BOOKS are formatted. As I have been demonstrating for the past few days, manuscripts differ in many important respects from the format the Chicago Manual tells us to expect in a published book, or that AP style urges us to produce in a magazine or newspaper.

Which prompts me to ask: is it really so astonishing that spacing would also differ? And why would a change in publishing practice necessarily alter what professional readers expect to see in a manuscript — especially when that alteration would unquestionably make their jobs harder?

And that, in case you were interested, is why I don’t embrace the practice of eliminating the second space between sentences in manuscripts. Until I see strong evidence that agents, editors, and contest judges have begun to FROWN upon the extra space, I’m going to continue to recommend it.

So there.

I can certainly understand why aspiring writers who had gone the single-space route would be miffed at this juncture, though; changing that fundamental an aspect of a text could eat up a LOT of time. As, indeed, my insightful correspondent pointed out:

It took a lot of effort to train myself to STOP using the two spaces. It’s one of those grammatical rules that seems to have all but disappeared (much like the rather perplexing fad to omit the comma before the word “too”). If it’s necessary, I suppose there’s an easy “find and replace” way to correct my manuscript to add an additional space between sentences?

I’m very glad that the commenter brought up the comma elimination fad, because it provides a perfect parallel to what has happened with the spaces. Just because a rule of grammar’s relaxation becomes common doesn’t mean that the rule itself has disappeared; it just means that breaking the rule has become marginally more acceptable.

For instance, these days, few people other than my mother would stop a conversation in order to correct a speaker who referred to “everyone and their beliefs,” but technically, it remains incorrect. To preserve subject-object agreement, it should be “everyone and his beliefs” or “everyone and her beliefs.” The reason for this shift is primarily sociological, I suspect: when American businesses (and television writers) began to take active steps to make language more friendly to women, the incorrect version sounded less sexist, and thus became widely accepted.

Does that mean that “everyone and their beliefs” magically became grammatically correct overnight? Not on your life. And the better-educated the intended reader- or listenership for the sentence, the more likely that the error will raise hackles.

Had I mentioned that Millicent, along with pretty much everyone who works in her agency, was probably an English major? Heck, she probably wrote her senior thesis on this kind of colloquial speech.

The fact is, the grammatical rule about the requisite number of spaces between sentences and after colons HASN’T changed — the PRACTICE has in many published works; in manuscripts, academic work (almost always the last to accept any sea change in the language), and private writing, the rule most emphatically has not.

And, as with splitting infinitives or ending sentences with prepositions, while most people won’t care, the ones who DO care feel very strongly about it indeed. To them, it’s more serious than formatting: it’s a matter of literacy.

Don’t believe me? The next time you’re at a book signing by a Grand Old Literary Figure, walk up to him or her and speak a sentence ending with a preposition. (“Which college did you go to?” would suffice, for experimental purposes.) Then count the number of seconds of wincing before the GOLF can compose his or her features enough to respond to you with the courtesy due a long-time fan.

That may seem surprising, given that most of the aspiring writers who have embraced the practice of eliminating the second space report that they are doing it because some apparently authoritative source told them to make the switch — but tellingly, those sources’ certainty on the matter didn’t stop howls of protest from the professional reading community when Miss Snark (among others) suddenly started advising aspiring writers to leave it out.

Props to Miss S, the result was pretty dramatic: mysteriously, half the submissions agents received were harder to read, and the change happened more or less overnight — and since most agents don’t read even the major writing blogs, it seemed to come out of nowhere.

How loud were those howls, you ask? Suffice it to say that the grumbles continue to this day. No one who edits text for a living would vote for this particular change. To most professional eyes, it still just looks wrong.

To get return to my correspondent’s last comment, I don’t know of an easy way to make the change universally, alas; Word’s grammar checker currently accepts both single and double spaces between sentences as correct, treating it as a stylistic choice rather than a grammatical one. (If the language had actually changed to require only a single space, presumably Word would follow, eventually.) Like most of the population, the good folks at Microsoft seem perplexed by the dual standard.

Yes, it’s a pain for the writer — but as you have probably already noticed, the industry is not exactly set up to minimize effort for writers. Sorry. If I ran the universe…well, you know the rest.

If anyone reading this HAS figured out a simple way to make the change universally throughout a document, PLEASE write in and share it with the rest of us. Aspiring writers the world over will bless your name, and who wouldn’t want that?

A wiser person would probably sign off now, but I’m going to bite the bullet and bring up the question that is probably on many, many minds at this juncture: barring a flash of insight from a reader or a well-timed act of celestial intervention, could you get away with retaining the single-space convention in a document already written?

As you may have gathered, I would not advise it, especially in a contest submission. However, it really is up to the individual writer. As much as writers would LIKE for there to be a single standard upon which every single person in the industry agreed, it just doesn’t happen. There are exceptions in what individual agents and editors want; you might strike lucky.

If you DO decide to go the single-space route (picture me rending my garments here), make absolutely certain that your manuscript has NO other problems that might trigger Millicent’s ire. Also, be prepared for an agent to ask to make the change before the manuscript is submitted to editors — and, if asked, do it cheerfully and without explaining at length why you originally embraced the single-space practice.

Not that YOU would do such a thing, of course, but for those who don’t know better: agents and editors tend not to be amused when writers of first books lecture them on how the industry has changed.

And this is definitely an instance where folks outside the industry have been making pronouncements about how the industry should operate for quite a while. Even if you are completely polite in how you express it, chances are that the last writer who made the case to Millicent’s boss was not.

The word Luddite may actually have been uttered.

One more caveat before I sign off: I would caution any aspiring writer against assuming that any single problem, formatting or otherwise, was the ONLY reason a manuscript was getting rejected. Most of the time, it’s quite a few reasons working in tandem — which is why, unfortunately, it’s not all that uncommon for Millicent and her cohorts to come to believe that an obviously improperly-formatted manuscript is unlikely to be well-written. So changing the spaces between sentences alone probably isn’t going to be the magic bullet that results in instant acceptance.

Whatever course you decide to pursue, though, make it YOUR decision — and stick to it. Don’t leap to make every change you hear rumored to be an agent’s pet peeve unless you are relatively certain in your heart of hearts that implementing it will make your manuscript a better book.

Yes, even if the suggestion in question came from yours truly. It’s your manuscript, not mine.

Thanks for the great question, Paula, and everybody, keep up the good work!

What does standard format look like, anyway? Part VIII: taking your fate into your own hands, or, you go, princess!

August 18th, 2008

Hello, campers —

Well, I am feeling a bit better after my weekend off, due in part to taking a break to go see Seattle Opera’s surprisingly powerful production of AIDA. I may have an odd sense of humor, but few things cheer me up like observing a character bellowing her deepest secrets at the top of her (well-developed) lungs for minutes at a time, only to have her antagonist, who is standing all of three feet away, observe to the audience, “Aha! Her reaction has betrayed her!” as if all the the soprano had done was frown fleetingly.

Why was I surprised by the production, you ask? From an editor’s point of view, the story of Aida is kind of a nightmare — predictable, repetitious, and quite, quite downbeat. The protagonist is almost completely passive (unless you count the aforementioned secret-bellowing); her love interest is quite possibly the least ethically flexible human being ever to have trod the planet, and the moment that the latter changes his mind even a little, Aida’s father pops out from behind a 30-foot statue of Anubis or somebody and tells Dumbo that he’s just betrayed his country.

ANY editor would have told Verdi to have the father use the information to set up the ambush of the Pharaoh’s army FIRST and gloat about it later. That’s just a basic application of the old Show, don’t tellrule.

This production violated this precept even more than most by moving the big trial scene in Act II offstage entirely, so the audience only hears it. Actually, this turned out to be quite a clever way of staging it, since all the audience had to watch throughout was the reaction of Stephanie Blythe, the perfectly marvelous mezzo playing Aida’s rival, Amneris, instead of the usual 50+ supernumeraries wearing King Tut headdresses. In fact, switching the perspective here and in a number of small ways throughout might have made an audience member new to the storyline wonder why the opera was called AIDA, not AMNERIS.

I’m bringing this up not only because I enjoyed the production, of course: this isn’t a bad strategy for perking up a story centered around a passive protagonist.

A I’ve mentioned before, readers tend to lose interest in passive protagonists’ dilemmas rather quickly, and with good reason: characters who sit around and think about their problems, or let events happen all around them without at least trying to change the status quo, become predictable after the third or fourth scene. A character who surprises the reader by taking the occasional risk is inherently suspense-generating — what, the reader wonders, will that feisty protagonist do next?

Now, to be fair, Aida has some pretty great excuses for being passive: she’s Amneris’ slave; she’s in love with Amneris’ fiancé, who also happens to be the commander of the army fighting with her own father’s troops; pretty much everyone she loves has been or is about to be slaughtered, and Amneris is a savvy enough expression-watcher that she’s understood those shouted asides about how deeply Aida and the general are in love. About all she can manage to do is determine the method of her own death — which is, you guessed it, slow and passive.

Hey, it’s an opera: you expected it NOT to be tragic?

Emphasizing Amneris’ perspective was a great choice — not only is she far, far more active in the story than Aida (whose best aria is about not the storyline per se, but how much she misses her homeland), but she experiences genuine moral dilemmas, a broad range of easily shouted-about emotions, AND has both the courage and the resources to act upon her decisions. While Aida stands around and suffers tunefully, Amneris gets to do cool things like have her boyfriend dragged off by guards, offer him his life in exchange for renouncing his love, and curse the priests who bury him alive.

As we editors like to say, she experiences a growth curve throughout the narrative. Since Aida is primarily an observer of her own tragedy, her mindset doesn’t change a whole lot.

Not that I blame her. I wouldn’t like to be walled up in a tomb, either.

Which is not to say that a narrative always benefits by concentrating on the more powerful players — anyone with a decently-stocked fiction collection could point out many novels that prove quite the opposite.

However, concentrating on a character who fights against fate, growing and changing in the process, rather than one who merely suffers the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, usually produces a more sympathetic protagonist. Counter-intuitive, isn’t it, that the pure victim might excite less empathy than her feistier foe?

None of which, I notice, has a great deal to do with the post I am re-running today. Except this: presentation choices do affect the emotional impact of art. Even, as in today’s examples, when those choices are purely cosmetic.

Enjoy!

I was all set to clamber onto my moral high horse again and dispense more of yesterday’s philosophy, honest — but then sharp-eyed long-time reader Janet caught, as is her wont, the missing puzzle piece in my illustrated romp through standard format. So I’m sliding elevated ethical questions onto the back burner for the nonce and diving right back into practicalities.

As Janet so rightly pointed out, I had completely skipped over one of the more common first-page-of-chapter controversies (and yes, in my world, there are indeed many from which to choose), whether to place the title and/or chapter designation at the top of the page, or just above the text.

To place the options before you, should the first page of a chapter look like this:

Or like this?

Now, I had been under the impression that I had waxed long and eloquent about the side I took in this burning debate, and that quite recently, but apparently, my eloquence has been confined to posts more than a year old, exchanges in the comments (which are not, alas, searchable, but still very worth reading), and my own fevered brain.

So let me clear up my position on the matter: the first version is in standard format; the second is not. No way, no how. And why might a professional reader prefer the first?

Chant it with me now: BECAUSE IT LOOKS RIGHT TO THEM.

Yet, if anything, agents and contest judges see more examples of version #2 than #1. Many, many more.

Admittedly, anyone who screens manuscripts is likely to notice that a much higher percentage of them are incorrectly formatted than presented properly, this particular formatting oddity often appears in otherwise perfectly presented manuscripts.

And that fact sets Millicent the agency screener’s little head in a spin. As, I must admit, it does mine and virtually every other professional reader’s. Because at least in my case — and I don’t THINK I’m revealing a trade secret here — I have literally never seen an agent submit a manuscript to a publishing house with format #2. And I have literally never even heard of an agent, editor, or anyone else in the publishing industry’s ASKING for a chapter heading to be moved from the top of the page to just above the text.

Oh, I’ve heard some pretty strange requests from agents and editors in my time, believe me; I’m not easily shocked anymore. But to hear a pro insist upon placing the chapter heading where you have to skip down a third of a page to read it…well, that would have me reaching for my smelling salts. (Do they even make those anymore?)

But clearly, somebody out there is preaching otherwise, because agents, editors, and contest judges are simply inundated with examples of this formatting anomaly. We see bushels of ‘em. Hordes of aspiring writers are apparently absolutely convinced that the sky will fall in if that chapter heading is located anywhere but immediately above the text.

In fact, it’s not all that uncommon for an editor to find that after she has left a couple of subtle hints that the writer should change the formatting…

…the subsequent drafts remain unchanged. The writer will have simply ignored the advice.

(Off the record: editors HATE it when their advice is ignored. So do agents. Contest judges probably wouldn’t be all that fond of it, either, but blind submissions mean that a writer must submit the same chapter two years running to the same contest, have the entry land in the same judge’s pile — in itself rather rare — AND the judge would have to remember having given that feedback.)

This may seem like a rather silly controversy — after all, why should it matter if the white space is above or below the title? — but sheer repetition and writerly tenacity in clinging to version #2 have turned it from a difference of opinion into a vitriol-stained professional reader pet peeve. (See earlier comment about how we tend to react to our advice being ignored; it isn’t pretty.)

Which, unfortunately, tends to mean that in discussions of the issue at conferences degenerate into writing-teacher-says-X, editor-at-Random-House-says-Y: lots of passion demonstrated, but very little rationale beyond each side’s insisting that the other’s way just looks wrong.

However, there is a pretty good reason that moving the chapter heading information to just above the text looks wrong to someone who edits book manuscripts for a living: it’s a formatting tidbit borrowed from short stories, whose first pages look quite different:

There, as you may see for yourself, is a mighty fine reason to list the title just above the text: a heck of a lot of information has to come first. But that would not be proper in a book-length manuscript, would it?

Let’s see what Noël’s editor has to say, viewing his submission as the first page of a book:

Ouch. (That last bit would have been funnier if the entire page were readable, by the way, but my camera batteries were running low.) But as Millicent and that angry mob of pitchfork-wielding ignored editors would be only too happy to tell you, short stories don’t HAVE chapters, so who on earth are they to be telling those of us in the book world how to format our manuscripts?

Stick with version #1.

Which is not to say, of course, that this particular small deviation will automatically and invariably result in instantaneous rejection. Chances are it won’t, even in the latté-stained hands of the most format-sensitive Millicent. (See, she spilled coffee on her hands after she took a sip while it was still too hot — and if you didn’t get that joke, you probably haven’t been reading this blog for very long.) If a submission is beautifully written AND technically correct in every other respect, she might only shake her head over the location of the chapter heading, making a mental note to tell you to change it between when her boss, the agent, signs the writer and when they will be submitting the manuscript to editors at publishing houses.

But if you don’t mind my saying so, that’s a mighty hefty set of ifs.

While I’ve got the camera all warmed up, this would probably be a good time to show another ubiquitous agent and editor pet peeve, the bound manuscript – and this one IS generally an automatic-rejection offense. As with other ploys to make a manuscript appear identical to a published book, binding the loose pages of a manuscript for submission will NOT win you friends in the publishing world.

Why? Not only does this not look right (I spared you the chanting this time), but it seems so wrong that Millicent will be positively flabbergasted to see a submitter to do it.

Seriously, this is one of those things that is so engrained in the professional reader’s mind that it seldom even occurs to authors, agents, or editors to mention it as a no-no at writers’ conferences. Heck, I’m not sure that I’ve mentioned it once within the last six months — and by anyone’s standards, I’m unusually communicative about how manuscripts should be presented.

So pay attention, because you’re not going to hear this very often: by definition, manuscripts should NEVER be bound in any way.

Not staples, not spiral binding, not perfect binding. There’s an exceedingly simple reason for this: binding renders it impossible (or at least a major pain in the fingertips) to pull out a chapter, stuff it in one’s bag, and read it on the subway.

Hey, paper is heavy. Would YOU want to lug home ten manuscripts every night on the off chance you’ll read them?

In practice, I’m sorry to report, a bound manuscript will seldom survive long enough in the screening process for the chapter-separation dilemma to arise, because — and it pains me to be the one to break this to those of you who’ve been submitting bound manuscripts, but if I don’t tell you, who will? — those pretty covers tend never to be opened.

Remember that immense pile of submissions Millicent has to screen before going home for the day — and it’s already 6:30? Well, when she slits open an envelope that reads REQUESTED MATERIALS on the outside, she fully expects to see something like this lurking between the cover letter and the SASE tucked underneath:

But in the case of the bound manuscript, she instead sees something like this:

Kind of hard to miss the difference, isn’t it? And unfortunately, nine times out of ten, the next sound a bystander would hear would be all of that nice, expensive binding grating against the inside of the SASE.

Honestly, it’s not that she is too lazy to flip open the cover; she just doesn’t see why she should. Her logic may not be fair or open-minded, but it’s a fairly common argument throughout the industry: if this submitter does not know this very basic rule of manuscripts, how likely is she to know the rules of standard format?

And if she does not know either, how likely is she to be producing polished prose?

Yes, this logic often does not hold water when it comes down to an individual case. But from her perspective, that matters less than we writers would like — because, as unpleasant as it is for aspiring writers to realize, her agency is going to see enough technically perfect submissions this week to afford to be able to leap to unwarranted conclusions about this one.

Don’t waste your money on binding.

Now that I have depressed you all into a stupor, let me add a final note about learning to conform to these seemingly arbitrary preconditions for getting your book read: any game has rules.

If you saw a batter smack a baseball, then dash for third base instead of first on his way around the diamond, would you expect his home run to count? Would an archer who hit the bulls-eye in her neighbor’s target instead of her own win the grand prize? If you refused to pay the rent on Park Place because you didn’t like the color on the board, would you win the Monopoly game?

I can go on like this for days, you know.

My point is, submitting art to the marketplace has rules, too, and while your fourth-grade P.E. teacher probably did not impart them to you (as, if I ran the universe, s/he would have), you’re still going to be a whole lot better at playing the game if you embrace those rules, rather than fight them.

You’ll also, in the long run, enjoy playing the game more.

And remember, you’re playing this game by choice: you could, after all, make your own rules and publish your book yourself. Weigh the possibilities, and keep up the good work!

So you were considering self-publishing: some words of wisdom from guest blogger (and happy self-published author) Janiece Hopper

August 15th, 2008


Good evening, campers —

In light of recent events, I’m taking a break from my ongoing series on what standard format for book manuscripts looks like — don’t worry; it will return next week, along with some tips on writing and formatting a query letter — and taking the weekend off. (I know: practically unheard-of here at Author! Author!) In order to give you some fresh material for weekend pondering, I threw myself on the mercy of FAAB (Friend of Author! Author! blog), blogger, and novelist Janiece Hopper. She very kindly agreed to help us out. Thank you, Janiece!

For those of you who missed my wholesale gloating when Janiece’s first novel, Cracked Bat, came out — I love announcing my readers’ triumphs! — here’s a brief synopsis:

Linnea Perrault is the editor of The Edge, a successful community newspaper. Happily married to Dan, Spinning Wheel Bay’s premier coffee roaster and owner of The Mill, she is the mother of an adorable four-year-old daughter who insists upon lugging a fifteen-pound garden dwarf everywhere they go.When Linnea’s wealthy father returns to their hometown to make amends for abandoning her to a cruel stepfather twenty-eight years earlier, she painfully resurrects his old place in her heart. He buys the local baseball team. Before long, fairy tales, Islamic mystics, and a host of cross-cultural avatars come into play as the team is propelled to the top of the league. After a foul pass and an accident at the stadium, Linnea finds herself locked in the stone tower of pain as she realizes how much the man she married is like the father she never knew. Doctors can’t diagnose her debilitating condition, but kind, magical strangers give her a chance to save her soul. Cracked Bat is dedicated to the approximately five million people who have experienced the mystifying and frustrating ailments of myofascial pain syndrome, fibromyalgia, and chronic fatigue.

As you may see, it’s not a novel that is particularly easy to assign to a book category — which is one of the many reasons that I’m particularly thrilled that Janiece has given in to my blandishment to share her self-publishing experiences with us. I know that many of you write between genres and thus must have given dead-of-night thought to a question haunting many fiction writers these days: what would happen if I published it myself?

It’s a great question — and here is an author who can answer it from direct personal experience. Take it away, Janiece!

Hello everyone! I am absolutely delighted to be Anne’s guest blogger. So thank you, Anne. Today, I am going to share why I created Ten Pentacles to publish my novel, Cracked Bat. Self-publishing works for me because it reflects my relationship with writing and my purpose for doing the work.

We’ve all heard agents at conferences say that good writing will always find a home. This storyline serves. It keeps aspiring authors going to conferences and certainly helps keep the United States Postal Service in business. (Just think how much you’ve spent on stamps for query letters and how much you’ve paid in return postage for bulky, boxed manuscripts.) Unfortunately, the idea that good writing will always find a publisher to finance and promote it is simply not true.

In reality, the current publishing paradigm requires authors to tweak and twist their “good” writing until an agent can see (in a split-second, mind you) exactly how it fits into a publisher’s pre-established list and how it appeals to a pre-determined market.

I’m not critiquing, but after two years of intense writing, repetitive stress injury, and a divorce, I wasn’t willing to force Cracked Bat to be anything other that what it became. Whether or not a New York agent could “fall in love” with Linnea Perrault on the first page so that she could bulldoze a bleary-eyed, overworked editor into buying it with her enthusiasm became completely irrelevant.

Cracked Bat is good, true, beautiful, quirky…and exactly what I hoped it would be. But it is different. I call it Intuit-Lit.

Intuit-Lit illuminates limiting socially-constructed and neurologically-wired thought, behavorial, and physiological patterns so that characters can recast and overcome obstacles on their life paths. By sharing the characters’ experiences, I hope my find themselves further along on their own life journeys and are more conscious of and more comfortable with their own intuitive abilities. Please see my blog for more about how the blank stare of agents actually guided me to this rewarding work.

Cracked Bat faces what is painful truth for many Gen X women and transforms what must die into new life. The painful truth in the publishing industry today is, fiction that doesn’t “fit in” with what’s out there either dies in a drawer or needs a dynamic new structure to support it.

In Cracked Bat, Linnea Perrault learns to speak her truth in an unreceptive environment. As she embraces her authenticity, she takes responsibility for the outcome of her choices and her actions. In developing her character, I strengthened that part of myself. I didn’t want Cracked Bat to stagnate on a flash drive in my safety deposit box, so I took on the responsibility of creating something new, Ten Pentacles, to bring the book into being.

Authors pitching a book often find themselves in an unreceptive environment and spend a lot of time and energy trying to figure out how to make their creative “babies” conform to a distant other’s vision. It is very dysfunctional to parent the children we birth this way and it’s a disservice to our muse to force the art our “selves” create into a marketer’s take on reality.

Just as writing Cracked Bat led me to choose a more authentic life, I want this novel to live a book’s life that is consistent with its unique energy. I’m still figuring out exactly what that means, but I love being on this path. I love that it was my choice to print on recycled paper and not to ship it out in reams of bubble-wrap. I don’t care that my cover isn’t compatible with what’s on the shelves of the local bookstore today. The fact that my cover is deeply integrated with the story is more important to me than competing with someone else’s image.

Writers with traditional publishers almost never have any say over their book covers at all. I think this is almost abusive. We ought to get to dress our “baby,” the way we want to. I always wanted my cover to have a sleeping beauty on a massage table in the middle of a baseball diamond and I loved brainstorming all the symbolic images that could be embedded in that picture. I knew I wanted the cover to look like a cracked wooden bat and to have lots of red and white on it, like a baseball. I also wanted red, white, and black because I associate these colors with the Triple Goddess. Imagine explaining the need to honor that to someone at a traditional publishing house!

Well, the Universe stepped in to help me get just the look I wanted. Just as I began to consider forming Ten Pentacles, an educational assistant was assigned to my English as a Second Language classroom. She didn’t stay long before being moved to a higher needs assignment, but she was with me long enough to mention that she was a watercolor artist. I asked to see her work and loved it. The rest is history:

Now, at first glance, some people think Cracked Bat is a children’s book. As a former school librarian I can understand the misperception. Was that horrible packaging on my part?

No, I don’t think so. Not for this novel because this book is for people who are willing to take time to look beyond the surface, who go deep, and who can remember the thrill of settling down to let the magic of a fairy tale seep into their psyche.

Of course, I want to sell a million copies of my book, but only so that I could have more time to creative what I want to create. Choosing to self-publish, self-promote, and self-distribute while single-parenting teenagers and teaching full-time does seem to diminish my chances of hitting the bestseller mark.

Yet truly “owning” my story, both literally and figuratively, is far more satisfying than I ever imagined. I love my book so much that I’m actually I’m happy to have boxes full of yet-to-be sold, sealed with joy, and delivered (yes, via USPS) copies stacked all around my writing space. I love its physical manifestation so much that I’m grateful to the bank and glad to write the checks toward paying off the hefty loan I had to take out to get it printed. I can image my dad snickering at my business sense. Go ahead. I can laugh at it, too. I’m lucky enough to have a day job that I love as much as writing.

People always ask me if this was expensive. They ask how I started a company, designed a website, edited, proofed, published, and marketed while going through a major life transition. I know Anne’s readers expect honesty, so here it goes. Financially speaking, I have excellent credit…and I have become quite talented at justifying expenses that help me grow. For about the price of flying to and participating in Maui’s Writer’s Retreat and Conference (which I’ve always wanted to do) and hanging out on the beach for a few extra days (which any new divorcee seems entitled to), I created a company and produced my books. I missed out on the leis, the sand, and the great company, but I’ve got a very significant book in print.

Energetically, I have no idea how I did everything I did to make it happen. At one point, I realized I would never feel fulfilled, no matter how many beautiful seashores I visited or how many more writing classes I took until Cracked Bat was available for people who might want or actually need to read it. All I can say is that I was propelled by the story itself to get it out there. (I also have empathetic, creative sons who cheerfully make their own dinner several nights a week and do their own laundry.)

I truly wish all of Anne’s readers the best of luck in pursuing publication and hope you sell tons of books. But, above all, I urge you to honor your good writing in your heart and then, it will always have the home it really wants.

Janiece Hopper lives in Snohomish, Washington. She met her first garden dwarf on an island in the Pacific Northwest when she was four years old. Thirty years later she met a witch in the same place. As an elementary school teacher, librarian, and book reviewer with an M.Ed. from the University of Washington and a B.A. from California State University, she always struggled with calling fairy tales fiction. Intuit-Lit has resolved her conflict nicely. If Janiece ever goes to another baseball game, she’ll be the woman in the stands, trying to drink a mocha while wearing full catcher’s gear.

What does standard format look like, anyway? Part VII: my memoir is WHAT?

August 14th, 2008

Hello, campers —

Okay, I am officially annoyed: someone has had the temerity to write a bad Amazon review of my memoir, A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK. Which would be a little less odd if the book had ever been released, but as far as I know, not even review copies were ever available.

And I certainly never sent this person a copy of any draft of my manuscript. So what can she possibly be reviewing? The blurb on the Amazon page — which, like pretty much every marketing blurb, was written not by the book’s author, but by the publisher’s marketing department?

Yes, yes, I know: Amazon lists my book as being out of print — limited ability, not as still to be released, which implies that there are a few copies running around out there. Their assertion is technically true, because it was never IN print, but factually inaccurate.

So how did it end up with a listing on Amazon at all? Well, as long-time readers of this blog already know, Carroll & Graf was supposed to publish it in February, 2006 — then May, 2006, then September, 2006 — before the project was permanently put on ice, due to a series of nebulous threats from the Dick estate. Although to the best of my knowledge, they never asked my publisher to make any changes in the book whatsoever, the figure two million dollars was bandied about menacingly.

A right about the same time as the A MILLION LITTLE PIECES scandal broke. That the publisher would balk was inevitable.

I’ve come to peace with all that, mostly: I have faith that the book will eventually come out, even if I have to outlive the naysayers to do it; it’s not as though the audience for it is going to disappear. I know that my memoir is honest; someday, a larger audience will see the story.

In the meantime, I have a life to live and books to write.

Still, it rankles me that someone who apparently hasn’t read the book should review it — and that the review should have come (evidently) from one of Philip’s ex-wives — to be precise, the one three wives after my mother. I don’t even understand why Amazon would ALLOW her to review it, when for over two years now, it apparently hasn’t permitted others who HAVE read drafts of the book to post reviews.

You HAVE already lined up fellow writers to tap out Amazon reviews for you when your first book comes out, right?

What makes me think that this review didn’t filch a stray draft copy to pass judgment upon, you ask? Because her sole stated objection to the book is that I couldn’t possibly have spoken with Philip on the telephone, because, she claims — brace yourselves, because I think this is going to come as a shocker to those hoping to make a career writing science fiction — she and Philip were too poor to afford a phone during their very brief marriage.

Interesting claim. She is presumably referring to the early 70s, when Philip had been publishing his writing successfully for over 15 years, including a little number called THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE. It won a Hugo Award in 1963, not an achievement typically associated with a writer’s book sales declining to the point of penury, especially one as prolific as Philip was throughout the 1960s.

But even he had been reduced to living in a treehouse in a public park, my memoir isn’t ABOUT the early 70s, as those happy few who have read the manuscript could tell you. It takes place mostly in the late 70s and early 80s, when Philip and I were indeed talking on the phone a great deal (as were others, some of whom seem to recall having picked up the phone a few years earlier and calling…well, never mind), and the 1950s, when Philip and my mother were married. (The same period when, not entirely coincidentally, he was working with my father, my science fiction-writer uncle was giving him marketing advice, and my godfather was dropping by to play chess…well, you get the picture.)

In other words, I’ve been writing what I know.

In fact, for this critique to be remotely apt, my entire memoir would have to have been devoted to ages 5 to 8 — years which, if memory serves, take up only a small handful of pages in the manuscript at all. Why? Well, I was a precocious child, certainly, but if I was slandering anyone mid-elementary school, it’s news to me.

Even if there were an honest difference of recollection here (which I don’t think is the case), why this review should wait to bring this up until more than two years after the book in question was supposed to be released mystifies me. Unless she’s planning to write a book of her own?

And don’t even get me started on the irony of someone who has ever been married to an SF/fantasy writer using the term fantasy as an insult about a piece of writing.

Okay — deep breath. I don’t need to get upset over this. But I have to tell you, it did give me a turn to be accused of slander on an Amazon discussion board. (In an apparent effort to leave no stone unturned in discrediting me, the reviewer evidently started a discussion thread. Thorough of her, no?)

Now, to set all of you memoirists’ minds at ease, this is a pretty empty accusation — the dead have no reputations, my lawyer tells me, and thus cannot be libeled. Also, rumor has it that truth is an absolute defense against both libel and slander, and so far, no one who has objected to the book’s publication has shown me — or, to the best of my knowledge, my publisher — any evidence whatseverthat my memories are not grounded in fact. It’s all just been assertions of different points of view.

Which, strange to say, has been hard to get the relevant parties to understand. Contrary to criticisms leveled at some popular memoirists lately, few people’s lives are documented down to the last second. How would you, for instance, prove that everything that happened on your first date actually occurred, in the absence of the other party?

You couldn’t, of course. Welcome to the dilemma of the present-day memoirist.

I can’t even begin to tell you how tired I am of all this — I’ve been defending this book for over three years now, without anyone ever having produced a single tangible reason it shouldn’t be published. Yet until today, as far as I knew, no one had ever even implied that anything about my memoir had broken the law.

Prior to this review, the issues of alternate points of view and who owns personal memories, if not the person herself — both subjects upon which Philip Dick wrote frequently, as it happens — dominated the discussion of my memoir. Now, it seems as though my very memories are being called libelous.

I can’t explain it.

In fact, I wouldn’t be bringing it up at all, except the only reason I found out about this puzzling review at all was that I was double-checking a link in the post below, a little gem on standard format from last December. To be precise, I originally posted it on Philip’s birthday.

Don’t ever say I didn’t do anything for you people; I may never double-check a link again. Enjoy the post.

Many thanks to all of you sweet souls who forwarded me links to the many literary and SF sites out there that commemorated what would have been my good old friend Philip K. Dick’s 79th birthday. This was the first year that I received a whole boatload of these messages, so it was great fun — rather like receiving a flotilla of birthday cards in the mail.

I needed the cheering up, I’m afraid, as usually, I throw a little dinner party on this particular day. Not only out of respect for my first serious writing teacher, but also as a birthday shindig for some of the other great artists born today: Beethoven, Sir Noël Coward, Sir Arthur C. Clarke (of 2001 and CHILDHOOD’S END fame), and of course, Author! Author!’s own beloved, wise auntie, Jane Austen.

You could do worse than to raise a glass to that crowd. But this year, I’ve just been too wiped out to allow anyone but the postman to drop by — and some days, I’m not even up to seeing him.

Thus, no dinner party this year, more’s the pity. I did a little too much last week, so this weekend, all I did was sleep and make groggy suggestions about how to maneuver the Christmas tree in order to make it stand up straight. (Which actually is necessary in our household: due to a truly spectacular bracken-and-cat interaction a few years back, we now tie the top of the tree to a ring firmly attached to the ceiling, so the tree does not need to be completely vertical in order to keep from toppling over.)

But enough about me; let’s talk about you.

While I was incapacitated, a group of my wonderful readers was holding down the fort here, trading tips on how to deal with that pesky problem, how to add a second space between sentences if a writer had mistakenly typed the whole thing thinking there should only be one. If you have even a passing interest in this topic, I implore you, check out the comments on the last two days’ posts; it’s well worth it. (Here’s a link to the first and here’s one tothe second.)

We have only few rules of standard format left to cover in this series, so my first instinct was to use the text of one of Philip’s short stories for the examples. (Seemed appropriate, given that he used to mark deviations from standard format on stories I wrote for school and send them back to me for correction. What 11-year-old girl wouldn’t have loved THAT?) But since fair use permits only 50 consecutive words in a quote without explicit permission from the copyright holder, and the copyright holders in his case have a nasty habit of waving $2 million lawsuits in my general direction (and my quondam publisher’s) every time I so much as breathe his name, that didn’t seem entirely wise.

So I thought, in honor of the day, I would use a little something that I am undoubtedly entitled to reproduce here. Here is the first page of Chapter Six of my memoir:

Every chapter should begin like this: on a fresh page, 12 single lines (or 6 double-spaced) from the top.

As with the first page of text, the only reference to the author’s name or the title should appear in the slug line, located in the upper left-hand margin. (And in answer to reader Janet’s intelligent question: the slug line should appear .5 inches from the top of the paper, floating within the 1-inch-deep top margin. I can’t believe I never mentioned that before.) The page number belongs within it, rather than anywhere else on the page.

The slug line confuses a lot of aspiring writers; until you have seen piles and piles of professional manuscripts, it looks kind of funny, doesn’t it? And when you’ve been told over and over again that a manuscript should have a 1-inch margin on all sides, it can seem counterintuitive to add a line of text, even such a short one, IN that margin.

But I assure you, it’s always been done that way. And why? Followers of this series, chant it with me now: BECAUSE IT LOOKS RIGHT.

Yes, that logic IS tautological, now that you mention it. If you have a problem with that, I would suggest taking it up with the powers that rule the universe. I, as I believe the reference above to my memoir’s troubled path makes abundantly clear, apparently do not rule the universe.

If I did, today would be a holiday for every writer on the planet. Especially the ones who are having trouble getting their work published, like, oh, Philip K. Dick, Arthur C. Clarke, and Jane Austen all did at the beginning of their fiction careers.

I just mention.

Back to business. Placing the slug line in the header (located in Word under the VIEW menu) also enables the writer to take advantage of one of the true boons of the advent of word processing, pages that number themselves. Every so often, I will receive a manuscript where the author has, with obviously monumental effort, typed a slug line onto the first line of TEXT of each page, so it looks like this:

See how pulling the slug line down into the text messes with the spacing of the page? An entire line of text is sacrificed to it — and let me tell you, that line is not going to go quietly.

Why not? Well, what’s going to happen if new writing is inserted on a page formatted this way? That’s right: the author is going to have to go back and move each and every one of those slug lines to match the NEW pagination.

I’d show you a picture of this, but it’s just too ugly to contemplate. Trust me, it would be a heck of a lot of work.

See any other problems with this page? How about the fact that the slug line includes the word PAGE? Shouldn’t be there; just the numbers will suffice.

Did I just hear some huffs of indignation out there? “But Anne,” I hear the formatting-ambitious cry, “it’s kind of stylish to include PAGE before the page number, isn’t it? It’s just a matter of personal style — who could be hurt by including it, if I like the way it looks?”

Well, you, for starters. And why? (Chanters, ready your lungs.) BECAUSE IT JUST WOULD NOT LOOK RIGHT TO A PROFESSIONAL READER.

I’m quite serious about this; I’ve seen screeners get quite huffy about this one. “Does this writer think I’m STUPID?” Millicent is prone to huff. (Don’t answer that question; it’s rhetorical.) “Does she think I DON’T know that the numeral that appears on every page refers to the number of pages? Does she think I’m going to go nuts and suddenly decide that it is a statistic, or part of the title?”

Don’t bait her. Do it the standard way.

Okay, did you spot any other problems? What about the fact that the first paragraph of the chapter is not indented, and the first character is in a different typeface?

The odd typeface for the first letter, in imitation of the illuminated texts hand-written by monks in the Middle Ages, doesn’t turn up all that often in manuscripts other than fantasy and YA, for one simple reason: books in that category are more likely to feature this it’s-a-new-chapter signal than others. But once again, what an editor may decide, rightly or wrongly, is appropriate for a published book has no bearing upon what Millicent expects to see in a manuscript.

Save the bells and whistles for someone who will appreciate them. Hop in your time machine and track down a medieval monk to admire your handiwork, if you like, but in this timeframe, keep the entire manuscript in the same typeface and size.

The non-indented first paragraph of a chapter is fairly common in mystery submissions, I have noticed. I’ve been told by many mystery writers that this is an homage to the great early writers in the genre, an echo of their style.

But you know what? Almost without exception, in Edgar Allan Poe’s time all the way down to our own, the EDITOR has determined the formatting that appeared on any given printed page, not the author. To professional eyes, especially peevish ones like Millicent’s, a manuscript that implicitly appropriates this sort of decision as authorial might as well be the first step to the writer’s marching into Random House, yanking off a well-worn riding glove, and striking the editor-in-chief with it.

Yes, you read that correctly: it’s sometimes seen as a challenge to editorial authority. And while we could speculate for the next week about the level of insecurity that would prompt regarding a minor formatting choice as a harbinger of incipient insurrection, is the manuscript of your first book REALLY the right place to engender that discussion?

Exactly.

If you want to make Millicent and her bosses happy — or, at any rate, to keep them reading calmly — indent every paragraph of the text should the expected five spaces. It just looks right that way.

While we’re at it, how about the bolded chapter number and title? Nothing in a manuscript should be in boldface. Nothing, I tell you. Uh-uh. Not ever.

Well, you could get away with the title itself on the tile page, but frankly, I wouldn’t chance it.

Nor should anything be underlined — not even names of books or song titles. Instead, they should be italicized, as should words in foreign tongues that are not proper nouns.

I heard that gigantic intake of breath out there from those of you who remember constructing manuscripts on typewriters: yes, Virginia, back in the day, underlining WAS the norm, for the simple reason that most typewriters did not have italic keys.

If you consult an older list of formatting restrictions, you might conceivably be told that publications, song titles, and/or foreign words (sacre bleu!) should be underlined. But trust me on this one: any agent would tell you to get rid of the underlining, pronto.

And why? All together now: because IT JUST DOESN’T LOOK RIGHT THAT WAY.

All right, campers, do you feel ready to fly solo? Here are two pages of text, studded with standard format violations for your ferreting-out pleasure. (I wrote these pages, too, in case anyone is worried about copyright violation or is thinking about suing me over it. Hey, stranger things have happened.)

How did you do? Are those problems just leaping off the page at you now? To reward you for so much hard work, here are a couple of correctly-formatted pages, to soothe your tired eyes:

good example

Whenever you start finding yourself chafing at the rules of standard format, come back and take a side-by-side gander at these last sets of examples — because, I assure you, after a professional reader like Millicent has been at it even a fairly short time, every time she sees the bad example, mentally, she’s picturing the good example right next to it.

And you know what? Manuscripts that look right get taken more seriously than those that don’t. And regardless of how you may feel about Millicent’s literary tastes, isn’t a serious read from her what you want for your book?

Keep up the good work!

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