Naming names, part III: hey, I don’t make the rules

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Happy Canada Day, neighbors to the north! Way to combine those provinces and keep them together!

At the risk of sounding trite, my most memorable Canadian experience actually was Mountie-related. I was leaving an exhibit of ancient Egyptian artifacts in a museum in Victoria, I thought the sudden transition to bright sunlight had done something terrible to my eyes: everywhere I looked, I saw blaring red. Every square foot of public space was filled with Mounties in uniform — scarlet jacket, shiny black boots, the works — chatting with friends and relatives. Hundreds, at least, a veritable red sea.

The sight was, I need hardly say, staggering. I felt as though I had accidentally stumbled into a recruitment poster.

Back to business. In the roughly 24 hours since I wrote my last post on name selection, I have sensed a certain amount of reader bewilderment. (Never mind how I know that. Blogging imbues one with super-sharp sensory perceptions.) At least a few hands, I suspect, are still raised from Wednesday. Not too surprising, I suppose, since I have been writing all week about how to avoid confusing readers.

For the last couple of posts, I have waxed long on the Cast of Thousands phenomenon, manuscripts that name every character, no matter how minor, down to the dogs and the goat tethered in the back yard in Chapter 3. “Who,” the befuddled reader cries helpfully, “are Ernest, James, and Algernon, and what are their respective relationships to Delilah, the character I have been caring about for the last hundred pages? Have they been mentioned earlier in the book, and I have simply forgotten them, or is this their first appearance?

Don’t dismiss this cri de coeur as the just punishment of an inattentive reader, my friends — from a reader’s perspective, manuscripts afflicted with COT can get overwhelming pretty fast. Especially, as we have discussed, if the COT members have similar names, either beginning with the same capital letter (to which the skimming eye is automatically drawn, right?), ones that replicate letter patterns and sounds, or — and we have not yet talked about this much — are too like the other proper names in the book.

Still in doubt about the eye-distracting effect of all of those capitals? I wouldn’t want you to have to take my word for something like that — cast your gaze over this sterling piece of prose.

Names first letters

See the problem? No? Okay, get up from your desk chair, take two giant steps backward, and look at it again. Notice where your eye is drawn first?

Even when the names don’t look anything alike, introducing too many of them in one fell swoop can prove equally frustrating to the reader. Again, take a gander:

Names in abundance

An avalanche of characters on page 1, in particular, before the narrative has established a context in which they might be understood, tends to have a character-blurring effect.

“Who are all these people?” the reader muses. “And why are they all dressed in the quite striking uniform of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police?”

Either variety of confusion, it pains me to say, causes readers to cast otherwise well-written books aside, it pains me to report. If that’s not a strong enough reason for a writer self-editing a Frankenstein manuscript to say, “Hmm, perhaps I should devote a few hours of my precious revision time to weeding out some of the extras lurking in the corners of my story,” here’s another: our old pal Millicent, the agency screener, tends to become impatient when characters pile up.

As, indeed, do editorial assistants, contest judges, and other professional readers; just because it’s their job does not mean that they possess a magical ability to absorb 23 names in a single page without mixing them up. “How,” the hapless peruser of a COT-riddled manuscript wonders, “am I supposed to keep all of these characters straight? Is this writer planning to market this book with a program, or perhaps dress the background characters in numbered jerseys, so the reader can possibly tell the individual members of this mob apart?”

Or, as Millicent likes to put it, “Next!”

Ooh, the notion of the pros not putting in the necessary effort to keep track of all of your characters ruffles a few writerly feathers, doesn’t it? “Wait just a minute” I hear some of you murmuring indignantly. “An ordinary reader may not have options if s/he forgets who is who, but Millicent does. If she finds she’s forgotten who a character is, she has a perfectly easy way to find out — her boss asked that I send a synopsis along with my submission. All she has to do is flip to the back of the packet. Or are you saying that if I have a lot of characters in my opening scenes, I should place my synopsis first in the packet?”

To take the last question first, no — at least, not unless an agency specifies in its submission guidelines that it prefers to see submissions packaged that order. Why is it in your interest to pay attention to such minor niceties? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: a submitter should always send a requesting agent PRECISELY what s/he asked to see.

No more, no less. Yes, even if she asked for the first 50 pages and your chapter ends a paragraph into page 51. No fudging.

And please trust a frequent literary contest judge (hey, I don’t spend all of my scant leisure time wandering around Canadian museums) when she tells you that rule applies to stated length restrictions in contest rules, too. Part of what you are demonstrating by your submission or entry is that you can follow directions, after all. Professional readers tend to harbor great affection for writers who pay attention to the details of requests; it’s so rare. Writers who start printing out pages after reading only the first line of a request for materials seem to be the norm, unfortunately, not the exception.

That giant tsunami-like rush of air you just heard was every agent, editor, and denizen of every publisher’s marketing department sighing in unison. They honestly do have a reason to be cranky on this point.

But enough of their pain — I’m sensing more conceptually-based disturbances of the ether out there, especially from those of you just on the cusp of stuffing synopses into submission envelopes. “But Anne,” the more literal-minded ether-rockers cry en masse, “I just read a blog by an anonymous agent/heard an agent say at a conference/happened to be eavesdropping in that bar that’s never more than 100 yards from the dais at any writers’ conference, and this guy said he didn’t care about exact page count in requested materials; he just wanted the first three chapters. So aren’t you, you know, wrong about the importance of sticking to 50 pages?”

Actually, literal rockers, you’ve provided evidence in support of my point, not against it. Remember, no matter how much aspiring writers would like for there to be an absolutely uniform set of expectations for submissions — and a well-publicized one, at that — individual differences do exist. So once again, long-time readers, please take out your hymnals and sing along: if your submission-requester says he wants to see something specific in your submission packet, for heaven’s sake, give it to him.

Ditto with contest rules, incidentally. General submission or entry guidelines only kick in when the requester doesn’t ask for something different — which is to say, the vast majority of the time. (As always, if you’re unfamiliar with how professional manuscripts differ from printed books or other commonly-scene formats, I implore you to check out the STANDARD FORMAT BASICS and/or STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED categories on the list at right. Actually, I would strongly recommend any reader new to this blog to take a gander at those categories first.)

Which is to say: if the agent you overheard wants four chapters, you should send four chapters. If she asks you to give your pitch in mime while juggling seventeen oranges, you should consider doing that, too, because she’s the one who is going to be deciding whether she wants to represent you or not.

That being the case, is your first professional contact with her truly the best time to say (at least implicitly), “Look, I know what you said you wanted to see, and that request was based upon your far greater knowledge of both how the publishing industry works and how you like to read, but I’m just going to assume that I’m right and you’re wrong. Got a problem with that?”

I can tell you now: she will. So will her Millicent and any contest judge you might see fit to treat in a similar fashion.

That being said, don’t revere such requests so highly that you fall into the extremely common trap of generalizing any such quirky individual preferences into industry-wide expectations. Writers brand-new to the biz make this mistake all the time, learning only through hard experience that such extrapolations seldom pay off. Just because one agent, small publisher, and/or contest has a wacky preference doesn’t mean that any other agent, small publisher, and/or contest will share it.

Or, to express it in mathematical terms, 1 agent’s preference ? every agents’ preference.

Bear that in mind, please, the next time you find yourself confronted with the latest panicky iterations of “Oh, my God, I heard an agent speak last week, and submission standards have completely changed!” that trouble the literary world in the wake of every conference season.

Whenever you encounter any hyper-specific submission guidelines that deviate sharply from the rules of standard manuscript format that an agency might post on its website or an agent might specify at a conference — like, say, specifying that submissions may only be in Helvetica or that they should be bound, both usually no-nos — should be treated as applicable to THAT REQUESTER ALONE, rather than to every authors’ representative currently walking the earth.

Everyone clear on that? Good.

Back to the original question, and thence to my argument already in progress: why wouldn’t a professional reader who got a large character list mixed up simply fish out the synopsis for reference? And if helping a busy Millicent keep the characters straight is a legitimate purpose for a synopsis, shouldn’t it come first in the packet?

In a word, no. If you put the synopsis at the front of your packet, Millicent is just going to toss it aside and go straight to the first page of your manuscript. If dear Millie reads all the way through your submission and likes what she sees, THEN she will read the synopsis.

Maybe.

You’re hoping that I’m kidding, aren’t you? Bizarre but true, that synopsis you slaved to make short enough is not always considered at the submission stage. Reading the synopsis is often not necessary to determining whether to ask to see the rest of the book — and why would Millicent bother to read the synopsis of a manuscript she has just finished reading in its entirety?

Seriously — ask at the next writers’ conference you attend. There’s a certain logic to this, at least for fiction. After all, if a book made it to the submission stage, presumably, the novel’s premise was deemed acceptable by the query screener or the agent to whom the writer pitched it. The only reason to read the synopsis at the submission stage, then, would be to find out what happens after the last page of the submission.

Try not to waste any energy being annoyed about this. If Ernest, James, and Algernon appearance in Ch. 2 was brief enough, chances are that they wouldn’t have shown up in the synopsis, anyway.

While I’m apparently free-associating about any and all topics related to character names, and since this contest entry season, this seems like a dandy time to talk about character name choice that could get a writer into a whole lot of trouble. Yes, Virginia, I’m talking about that pesky but oh-so-common literary contest rule that forbids entrants from mentioning their own names anywhere in a submission.

Kind of inconvenient for memoirists and other writers of the real, isn’t it? In practice, this ubiquitous rule means that entrants in memoir and personal essay categories, not to mention those many fiction writers who like to blur the line between fiction and nonfiction by making themselves characters in their own narratives, have to select new monikers for themselves.

Stop laughing, oh writers of thinly-veiled autobiographies passing as fiction. For a writer who has embraced the unique difficulties of thinking of herself as a character in a book, renaming himself can be a genuine chore. Novelists attached to their characters’ names should be sympathetic to that: if it’s trying to track down and change every mention of Monique to Madge when she’s your creation, imagine the emotional difficulties involved when Monique has to rechristen herself.

That’s not to say that the no-name rule itself is objectionable. However annoying renaming may be to contest-entering writers of the real, it exists for a very good reason: for a contest to be worth its salt, it must be able to claim that its judging procedures are not biased; the first step to assuring lack of personal bias is to institute blind judging, where no judge knows the name of any given author. Admittedly, some competitions are only apparently unbiased, but for the most part, contest organizers take authorial anonymity very seriously indeed.

So no, finding a clever way to get around the rules is not going to endear you to them. Not at all.

Which is why I am about to turn very hard-line: if you are submitting a memoir entry, FOLLOW THE RULE ABOUT NOT HAVING YOUR OWN NAME APPEAR ANYWHERE IN THE MANUSCRIPT. And do bear in mind that this rule applies to not only your entire name, but either your first or your last appearing alone as well.

That may seem like rather redundant advice — every contest entrant everywhere should follow all the rules in the contests he enters, right? — but this is the single most common way memoir entries get themselves disqualified. For a memoir entry, you should never just print up the opening chapter of your book and send it in; check the rules very carefully and apply them to your pages first.

You could, of course, sidestep the issue entirely by not entering a piece of writing in which dear self is a character — which is, again, a trifle difficult for memoirists and other habitual writers of the real. The second-best way that I’ve found is to christen oneself anew with the name that you wish your parents had had the wit and wisdom to give you in the first place.

Come on — none of us had the name we wanted in junior high school. Pick the one you believe would have made your life lovely and do a search-and-replace.

Obviously, you’re going to want to make a duplicate document of the chapter or essay you’re planning on entering in the contest before you perform this bit of minor surgery — as I said, it’s never a good idea just to print up the requisite number of pages from your already-existing manuscript and send off to a contest. (Your slug line in your submitting-to-agents version will have your name in it, for one thing.) Perhaps less obviously, you’re going to need to perform the search-and-replace function for both your first and last name, as well as any nicknames you might have incorporated into the manuscript.

Even when you’ve gone to all the trouble of using a pseudonym, it is a good idea to add a note on the title page, saying that since the contest forbids the author to mention his own name, you will be using “Bobby” (not your real name) throughout.

Why take that extra precaution, you ask? Because it’s practically impossible not refer to yourself by name in the story of your own life. Since judges are aware of that, and become accordingly eagle-eyed.

And don’t think being coy about it will help you evade their scrutiny, either. Make yourself comfortable; I’m going to tell you a little story.

I went to college with Danny, a very clever, very ambitious writer who eagerly contributed pieces to the on-campus humor magazine. (As those who happened to be hanging around Harvard at the time would no doubt be quick to point out, I use the term humor loosely here: the magazine was seldom actually funny to those who were not in the writers’ clique, but bear with me.) Danny had every reason to try to get his articles published: the magazine had long ago spawned an extremely profitable off-campus humor magazine, so a successful Lampoon piece could be a stepping-stone to a career as a comedy writer.

Despite or perhaps because of these articles’ worth as resume-candy, it was the practice of the magazine to publish all of its pieces without bylines, to encourage collaboration amongst members of the writing club. But as I said, Danny was ambitious: he, like many of the other writers in the club, was anxious to graduate with clippings he could use to promote his work later on. So Danny did something exceptionally crafty: he inserted his own name into every ostensibly anonymous piece he wrote, much as Jerry Lee Lewis used to refer to himself in his own lyrics, so radio listeners would know who sang the song.

His favorite way of doing this was to insert an imaginary conversation with himself into the text, so an alter ego could address him by name, as in, “Danny boy, you’re really in trouble now!” Occasionally, he would vary it by having an authority figure yell at his narrator: “Wilson, you’re out of line!” (Because Danny is now a fairly prominent magazine writer, I should say straight away: to protect his identity, Wilson is not Danny’s actual last name. See me practicing what I’ve been preaching?)

Now, as my parenthetical aside just told you indirectly, Danny’s little stratagem actually did help him generate the clippings he coveted, but he was relying upon his club’s editorial indulgence to let him get away with breaking the rules. In a contest, however, this practice would have gotten him disqualified immediately.

I bring this up not because I suspect that there are legions of Machiavellian-minded rule-breakers out there, but because I have seen so many contest entrants apparently doing inadvertently what Danny did on purpose. Within the first-person narrative common to memoirs, narrators tend to talk to themselves all the time, à la Hamlet: “Danny, you get ahold of yourself, now.” And that single reference, to a judge who was looking to pounce upon contest rule violations, could get a memoir entry disqualified.

Yes, Virginia (if that’s even your real name), even though it would be highly unlikely, without the judge’s having the list of memoir entrants by his side for first-name cross-referencing purposes, for the judge to guess the author’s identity. Simply the implication that the author might have referred to himself can appear to be a rule violation.

So a word to the wise: innocent naming mistakes can knock your entry out of competition. It would behoove you, then, to prepare your entry, like your queries, under the assumption that the judge who is going to read it is the nastiest, most curmudgeonly nit-picker since, well, me.

“But Anne,” I hear you cry, quite rightly pale at the prospect of encountering yours truly as a contest judge, “if this mistake is usually made inadvertently, how can I hope to avoid it?”

Well asked, oh fearful trembler. Experience sharpens the editing eye. Rest yourself upon the judge’s reading couch for a moment, and take a look at where these slips most commonly occur.

Let’s say the memoir’s author is named Biddy MacAlister-Thames, not a name anyone’s eye is likely to encounter on a page without noticing. Even if Biddy has had the foresight to rename herself Libby McPherson-Seine and do a search-and-replace accordingly, she should double-check her entry especially carefully in the following places:

(1) When another character directly addresses the narrator: “Biddy, have you seen the our pet tiger, Max?”

(2) When another character is talking about the narrator behind her back: “Ward, I’m worried about the Beaver. He’s paying too much attention to that Biddy next door.”

(3) When another character refers to the narrator by an abbreviation that a search-and-replace might not catch. “I’m talking to you, Bid,” is substantially less likely to get changed automatically than, “I’m talking to you, Biddy.”

(4) And, in the VAST MAJORITY of childhood memoirs, when the narrator gets in trouble, some adult shouts some version of: “Elizabeth Deirdre MacAlister-Thames, you come in this house this instant!”

Remember, in order to violate the rule, even if a character other than the author appears with the author’s last name, it can cost you. So keep our Biddy should keep her eye out for these kinds of situations, too:

(5) When a third party addresses a family member: “Mrs. MacAlister-Thames, your daughter is under arrest.”

(6) When the narrator refers to her family collectively, or to a possession as theirs: The Easter Bunny had been unusually generous to the MacAlister-Thames family that year.

Remember, as I pointed out above, self-references to either your first or last name, not just to both together, count as rule violations. So Biddy would be wise to do a search-and-replace for BOTH her first AND last names in her entry before she printed it up, would she not?

Yes, it’s a tedious thing to have to do, Biddy (or whatever you’re calling yourself these days), and yes, you have my sympathies for having to do it. But frankly, I would rather see you annoyed and on the finalist list than not proofread and disqualified.

I’m funny that way, at least since I was partially blinded by a Mountie convention. Keep up the good work!

The mysteriously mysterious strictures of standard format, part XI: page 137 deserves your loving scrutiny, too, or, no time for napping yet, gargoyle!

napping gargoyle in Carcassonne

Have you been enjoying our in-depth guided tour of the manuscript from the top down? Literally: so far, we’ve talked about the piece of paper on top of the submission stack, the title page; we’ve talked about the next sheet of paper, the first page of text and how it differs from both the title page and the pages that come after it; we’ve extrapolated from that first page to standards for the first page of each chapter and any titled section breaks.

Now, it’s time to talk about all of those pages in the middle, don’t you think? Perhaps, while we’re at it, we could engage in some more of those nifty compare-and-contrast exercises we engaged in so fruitfully yesterday.

I know, I know: hard to contain your enthusiasm, isn’t it?

Okay, so it’s not a particularly sexy topic, but as I mentioned yesterday, it’s a really, really good idea for an aspiring writer to devote a spot of time in comparing properly and improperly formatted manuscripts. Yes, yes, writing time is precious for all of us — and scarce for most of us — and school compare-and-contrast exercises left most graduates with but think of it as an investment in your writing career: once you’re learned to spot formatting problems easily, you’ll be a much, much more effective proofreader. Not to mention being able to format your manuscripts correctly from the get-go.

Oh, that doesn’t sound like much of a door prize to you? Just wait until you’re trying madly to pull a submission packet together in response to a request for materials, or frantically constructing a contest entry four hours before it needs to be postmarked. Or, even more stressfully marvelous, responding to a last-minute revision request from your editor. Believe me, you’ll be very grateful then for every nanosecond that you don’t have to devote to wondering if your margins are consistent.

With an eye to building up those vital professional skills, I have been running through the strictures of standard manuscript format and some common deviations from it, to demonstrate just how clearly our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, discerns the differences between a professionally-formatted manuscript and, well, everything else. At the end of a long day’s reading, they definitely jump out at her, and with good reason: once a professional reader gets used to seeing the similarities that pretty much all professional manuscripts share, submissions formatted in other ways might as well have UNPROFESSIONAL stamped on them in bright red ink.

And while Millicent may strive valiantly not to allow that impression to color her reading of the submission itself, it’s just not a good idea to assume that it won’t. She’s only human, after all.

It’s an even worse idea to assume a charitable reading for a contest entry, by the way. If anything, contest judges tend to be even more sensitive to the beauty of standard format than Millicent, for the simple reason that they’ve usually been reading a whole lot longer. The agency gig may well be Millie’s first job out of college, but the judge handed your entry may well have just retired from a long and fruitful career teaching English composition.

Her fingers positively ache for the red pen of correction.

This is not entirely accidental — most well-respected contests require some professional credentials from their judges, either as writers, editors, or teachers. Which means, in practice, that judges have often been writing in standard format themselves for years or bludgeoning other writers into compliance with its requirements.

Translation: other kinds of formatting won’t look right to them, either. By now, you’re having a similar reaction, aren’t you?

Don’t think you’re developing professional eyes? Or don’t want to believe you could conceivably share any traits with Millicent? Let’s test the proposition by trying a little Aphra Behn on for size.

If you don’t know her work, you should, at least historically: as far as we know, she was the first woman paid for writing in English — which, as Virginia Woolf pointed out, means that every female writer who earns so much as a sou from it now should be laying wreaths on her grave in gratitude.

Our girl Aphra’s also hilarious — and if you think it’s easy for a joke written in 1688 to remain funny today, well, I look forward to reading your comedic stylings in the year 2332.

Don’t believe me? Here is a page from THE FAIR JILT. (If you’re having trouble reading the small writing, try double-clicking on the image, then enlarging the resulting window.) Try not to be too distracted by the story to notice how the page is put together.

You clever souls could tell instantly that there was something wrong here, couldn’t you, and not just because Miranda’s trying to seduce her priest? (For convent, read monastery.) Set aside Aphra’s practically Dickensian affection for semicolons for the moment — which would tend to turn off a modern Millicent pretty quickly — why might this page have a hard time as a submission.

Before you commit to a final answer, here’s what it should have looked like in standard format:

Let’s take the problems in the first version from the top of the page: the incorrect version does not have a proper slug line. Seeing this lone page out of context, it’s quite obvious why a slug line is a dandy idea, isn’t it? Without it, how would it be even remotely possible to return this wandering page back into the manuscript from whence it came.

“Who wrote this?” Millicent cries in ire, glaring around her cubicle at the 47 manuscripts lying there. “This stray piece of paper could be from any of these!”

At least Ms. Behn thought to number the pages of Example #1 — but did you catch the problem with how she did it? The page number is in the bottom right-hand margin, rather than in the slug line, where it belongs.

Okay, that’s enough review from my last post. Did you catch any other problems that might register on Millicent’s umbrage meter??

What about the 10-point type, which will strain Millicent’s already overworked eyes? Or the Ariel typeface? There is nothing inherently wrong with either, but when she’s used to see practically every manuscript that heads out of the agency to publishing houses in 12-point Times New Roman, (chant it with me here) it just doesn’t look right.

Anything else? What about that right margin? Mighty straight, isn’t it? That look proper to you?

What’s going on here is called block-justification, another problem that can be laid squarely at the feet of those who insist that a manuscript and a published book should be identical. The text in many published books, and certainly in many magazines and newspapers, is spaced so that each line begins at exactly the same distance from the left-hand edge of the page and ends (unless it’s the last line of a paragraph) at exactly the same distance from the right-hand edge of the page.

Which, to let you in on why this type of neatness bugs the heck out of professional readers, renders skimming quite a bit more difficult.

Why? Well, as you may see for yourself, block formatting provides fewer landmarks, as it were; to the glancing eye, practically every line of narrative text resembles every other. To those of us used to the ragged right margins and even letter spacing of standard format, it’s actually kind of hard to read.

So there’s quite a bit in Example #1 that’s distracting from the actual writing, isn’t there? Doesn’t help sell the text, does it?

Okay, all of these rhetorical questions in a row are beginning to make me dizzy, so I’m going to wind down for the day. But before I do, let’s take one more look at Example #2, the one Millicent and a contest judge would like:

Now, let’s take a gander at the same page in — ugh — business format; if you don’t know why it’s ugh-worthy, you might want to revisit this series’ earlier post on the immense value of indentation.

Startlingly different, isn’t it, considering that I made a grand total of two formatting changes?

You did catch both of them on your skim through, right? All I did was I eliminate the indentations at the beginning of each paragraph and skipped a line between paragraphs to produce the norm for business correspondence, as well as for most of the text currently posted on the Internet.

Including this blog, unfortunately. As a professional writer and reader of manuscripts, it drives me nuts that my blogging program won’t allow me to indent paragraphs.

Why? Because — wait for it — it just doesn’t look right. So much so that in a contest entry, as in a submission, business format is often grounds all by itself for knocking a manuscript out of finalist consideration.

Finding yourself asking why again? Well, technically, indented paragraphs are grammatically requisite, so to a judge, non-indented paragraphs may well seem as great a violation of everything we hold dear as frequent misspellings or use of the wrong form of there, their, and they’re.

Fortunately for judges and Millicents who care deeply about the health of the language, errors seldom come singly in entries and submissions. Like spelling errors, formatting mistakes are apparently social: they like to travel in packs, roving all over a manuscript like Visigoths sacking Rome.

As a result of this convenient phenomenon, a manuscript that contains errors within the first few lines (or on the first page) is easy for a professional reader to dismiss; statistically speaking, it’s a pretty good bet that if Millicent kept reading after a technically flawed opening, she would find more causes for umbrage.

Given how many submissions she has to screen between now and lunch, do you think she is going to (a) press on in the hope that the first error was a fluke, or (b) leap to the (perhaps unwarranted) assumption that there is more of the same to come and reject it right away?

I leave that one to your fine critical faculties to answer. Let’s just say that her umbrage-taking threshold tends to be on the low side.

Why am I bringing this up in the middle of a discussion of the perils of business format, you ask? Well, for starters, an ever-increasing number of agents are not only accepting e-mailed queries (a genuine rarity until astonishingly recently), including some who ask queriers to include the opening pages, a synopsis, and/or other writing samples with their queries. Since few agents open attachments from writers with whom they’ve had no previous contact, many request that those opening pages be included in the body of the e-mail, pasted just below the letter.

See a potential problem there? That’s right: most e-mail programs are not set up for easy tabbing; consequently, business format is the norm for e-mail communications. But that doesn’t mean that the Millicent assigned to screen those queries won’t turn up her nose at non-indented paragraphs in those pages.

Again, why? Are you sitting down, dislikers of indentation?

I hate to be the one to break this to you, but there are Millicents out there (and agents, editors, and contest judges as well) who will leap directly from noticing a lack of indentation and unwarranted spaces between paragraphs to our friend, option (b): if the submitter is not aware of how to format a paragraph of English prose properly, she reasons, aren’t there inevitably more snafus to come?

Not every Millicent — or agent, judge, etc. — will have this knee-jerk reaction, of course. But do you really want to take the chance that she’s not going to seize the opportunity to save herself a little time?

The specter of illiteracy is not the only reason using business format is likely to cost you, either. To a professional reader, the differences between the last two examples would be more than visually jarring — they’d be downright confusing. In standard format, the only reason for a skipped line between paragraphs would be a section break, so Millicent would be expecting the second paragraph to be about something new.

Okay, so a misconception like that might distract her attention for only few consecutive seconds, but let’s not kid ourselves: your garden-variety Millicent is spending less than a minute on most of the submissions she rejects — it’s actually not all that uncommon for her not to make into the second or third paragraph before reaching for the SASE and a copy of that annoying form rejection letter.

Take a moment for the implications of that to sink in fully. Don’t worry; I’ll wait.

While those of you new to the speed with which rejection typically occurs are already in shock, let me add for the sake of anyone who doesn’t already know: those who regard business format as a symptom of creeping illiteracy — hey, I just report the news; I don’t dictate it — are every bit as likely to frown upon it just as much in a query letter or synopsis as in a manuscript submission.

Time loss is not the only reason she might take umbrage at momentary confusion. Let me let you in on a little secret: professional readers, especially those who inhabit agencies and publishing houses, tend not to be overly fond of having their mental image of the story they are reading at the moment jarred. How do I know this? Well, for one thing, they commonly refer to it as being tricked.

As in, “I hate being tricked by a first paragraph that is about someone other than the protagonist.”

There’s a practical basis to this dislike, of course, but it’s kind of complicated. I wrote a couple of fairly extensive posts on the subject a while back (here’s a link to the first, and here’s a link to the second, in case you’re interested), but I’ll run over the thumbnail version now.

Is everybody comfortably seated? My thumbnails are a tad long. (Just try to get THAT image out of your head anytime soon.)

To get through all of those manuscripts she’s assigned to screen each week, Millicent has to read quite quickly, right? If she doesn’t, she’ll get buried in paper, as basically, she’s got to make it through WAR AND PEACE several times over in a week.

That’s a whole lot of material to remember, by anyone’s standards — and remembering actually is important here. If she decides to allow a manuscript to make it to the next level of consideration, she is going to need to be able to tell her boss what the book is about: who the protagonist is, what the conflict is, why that conflict is important enough to the protagonist for the reader to be drawn into it, and so forth.

In essence, she’s going to need to be able to pitch it to the higher-ups at the agency, just as the agent is going to have to do in order to sell the book to an editor, and an editor is going to have to do in order to convince his higher-ups that the publishing house should acquire the book.

And, often, as first-round contest judges will need to do on an evaluation form in order to pass an entry onto the next round.

Okay, brace yourself, because explaining what comes next involves delving into one of the great cosmic mysteries that has long perplexed aspiring writers the world over. It’s not for the faint of heart.

Remember earlier in thus series, when I mentioned that agents and editors don’t read like other people? Well, one of the primary differences is that from line one of page one, they’re already imagining how they’re going to pitch this book. So if paragraph 2 or 3 (or page 2 or 3) suddenly informs them that their mental patter has been about the wrong character, they feel as if they’ve been backing the wrong horse.

And while there may have been any number of perfectly reasonable narrative reasons for the text to concentrate upon an alternate character for the opening, unless the writing and the story have already really wowed Millicent, her resentment about being tricked mistaken about the identity of the protagonist is often sufficient to make her reach for that SASE and form letter.

Feel free to go scream into the nearest pillow over that last piece of convoluted logic; you don’t want to keep that kind of existential cri de coeur pent up inside. I’ll wait until it’s out of your system.

Feel better? Good.

Before you go rushing off to see if your opening paragraphs might possibly be laying you open to a charge of trickery — because, for instance, you might have taken the bold authorial step of noticing that there is more than one human being in the world, and written about an interpersonal relationship accordingly — let’s return to the formatting issue that prompted my little segue into the psychology of resentment. Can we extrapolate any practical lesson about business format from it?

You bet your boots we can: it’s not a good idea to give the impression of a section break where there isn’t one. And when producing pages for people who read all day, you might want to stick to the rules governing written English and indent your paragraphs.

Starting to feel more at home with standard format? Excellent; my evil plan plot for world domination teaching strategy is working. More compare-and-contrast exercises follow in the days to come, so keep up the good work!

The getting-a-book-published basics, part XV: the rapidly-changing face of self-publishing, or, objects in motion may not look the same as objects at rest

sunshine-moving-in-trees

This, believe it or not, is a photo of something exceedingly straightforward: a wind-blown stand of trees alongside a rural road in Oregon, shot as I was driving by at sunset. Unfortunately — or fortunately, depending upon how one chooses to look at it — my camera has an annoyingly stubborn propensity to assume, contrary to all empirical input, not only that any object I might choose to photograph is going to be stationary, but that I am as well.

News flash, camera: I move occasionally. So do objects in the material world.

(And I don’t appreciate how judgmental you’ve become lately, camera. Yes, I am a writer, and like so many of my breed, may generally be found in front of my computer, day and night. It’s my natural habitat, but I’m not a mushroom. I’ve been known to uproot myself and walk around. Look, I’ve just wiggled my toes. But did you bestir yourself to capture it? Not a chance.)

To give the camera creative credit, sometimes the clash of logically-exclusive presuppositions can lead to unexpectedly interesting results. Since both the trees and I were moving, the camera elected to move from the realm of realism, its usual forte, to impressionism.

Keep this heavy-handed (and tree-filled) metaphor in mind as you read merrily through today’s post, please: clinging too rigidly to preconceived notions of how things are supposed to work may lead to a distorted view of what’s actually going on. So can taking a brief preliminary peek at a process in motion and assuming that momentary snapshot is in fact representative of the whole.

I assure you, forests in Oregon don’t really look like that. My camera’s opinion notwithstanding.

That observation should feel at least a trifle familiar by now: throughout this series, we have seen a number of ways in which the prevailing wisdom about how books get published is, to put it charitably, a tad outdated, if not outright wrong. Contrary to popular opinion, sheer speed of landing an agent or garnering a publishing contract is not a particularly reliable indicator of how good a manuscript is, presenting a manuscript or book proposal professionally does make a difference in how agency screeners respond to it, and advances, particularly for first books, are seldom so large that the writer can afford to quit her day job and live on it, unless she happens to have an unusually developed capacity for deriving nutrition from the air she breathes. If it was ever true that the instant a brilliant writer wrote THE END, agents and editors magically appeared on her doorstep, clamoring to represent and publish, respectively, the just-finished book, well, let’s just say that it hasn’t happened recently.

To be precise, since the days when Cinderella’s fairy godmother was still making regular house calls. If you catch my drift.

At least, it doesn’t work that way for writers who weren’t already celebrities in another medium. If you happen to have won the Nobel Prize in economics, spent your formative years starring in movies, or are the recently-deposed dictator of some interesting small country, I’m afraid that different rules apply; you’re going to need to find guidance somewhere else.

For the rest of us, getting our writing recognized as marketable by those in a position to do something practical about it — like, say, an agent with connections to editors who regularly handle your book category — is darned hard work. And, as I pointed out earlier in this series, all of that nerve-wracking labor and waiting doesn’t stop once one lands an agent to represent one’s manuscript. What the work entails may change, but the imperative to produce one’s best writing, presented in the best possible manner, never goes away.

It’s part of the job description of the professional writer. (Sorry to be the one to break that to you. But if I don’t, who will? Last I heard, the fairy godmothers’ guild was still on strike. Must have been all of those house calls. )

But that does not necessarily mean that someone else will be calling the shots.

Which brings be back, thank goodness, to the matter at hand. Last time, I touched upon several reasons that an aspiring writer might decide to bypass the traditional agent-to-major-publisher route to publication in favor of other options such as approaching a small publisher directly or self-publishing. A writer might conclude that his life was too short to spend querying every agent in the last three years’ editions of the Guide to Literary Agents, for instance; rather than shooting for the big publishing contract, he might be thrilled to see his book in print, even sans advance, through an indie press.

Or, to borrow the rather more poetic rendering of the late, great Hilaire Belloc: When I am dead, I hope it may be said, “His sins were scarlet, but his books were read.”

Strategic reasons might weigh into the decision to go indie as well. A writer might feel, for example, that a regional press would be a better bet for her book on migratory waterfowl of the Mississippi delta. (There must be some, right?)

Or the writer might just find the prospect of an agent’s having the right — nay, the obligation — to dictate changes in his manuscript, changes that may well be countermanded by the editor who acquires the book. Even that’s not necessarily the end of the revision road: since editors come and go with dizzying frequency at the major houses these days, the editor who acquires the book may not be the editor in charge of the project when it’s time for the writer to deliver the manuscript, or when she’s finished making the changes requested in the initial editorial memo. Or in the days before the book goes to print.

Yes, it’s been known to happen. So have requested revisions — sacre bleu! — after the review copies have gone out to the advance reviewers (i.e., the one that review books before distributors get them, such as Kirkus, Library Journal, and Publishers Weekly). If those reviews are dismal enough, editors have been known to get a mite nervous, and the editorial memos start flying.

The moral: what a writer regards as a finished book — which is how most aspiring writers think of their books prior to submission, right? — often isn’t. In the traditional publishing world, a whole lot of people have the right to request changes, right up to the point that the spine is about to be pressed against the pages. And sometimes even after.

If I haven’t already hammered this particular point home throughout this series, let me do it now — and since it’s a truth that long-time readers of this blog should find familiar, feel free to open up your hymnals and sing along: in the eyes of the publishing industry, no manuscript is beyond revision until it is actually sitting on a shelf in Barnes & Noble.

Some writers find this rather trying, as you might imagine. Being a writer, Lawrence Kasden wrote, is like having homework every night for the rest of your life.

I am hardly the first to point out that art and the business of promoting it have not invariably been on the friendliest of terms, historically speaking. One of the perennial frustrations of the aspiring writer’s life is the paradoxical necessity of bringing one’s submissions into conformity with what an unknown agent (or agency screener, editor, editorial assistant, contest judge, etc.) expects to see on the page without unduly compromising one’s authorial voice and artistic vision.

Last time, I brought up an increasingly attractive way out of this dilemma: self-publishing.

Don’t roll your eyes, those of you dead-set on traditional publishing — it’s an increasingly attractive option, especially for nonfiction. These days, you can hardly throw a piece of bread at a respectable-sized writing conference without hitting an aspiring writer who, exasperated by the ever-increasing difficulty of breaking into the world of the major houses, are at least toying with striking out on his own.

Self-publishing has come a long way in the last few years. The rise of print-on-demand (POD) and Internet-based booksellers’ increasing openness to featuring POD books has rendered the self-publishing route a viable option for those who balk at the — let’s face facts here — often glacial pace of bringing a book to publication via the usual means, working with the usual suspects.

Yet if you wander into a writers’ conference and ask representatives of the traditional publishing houses about self-publishing, you’re likely to receive a dismissive, if not overly scornful, answer. Often, agents and editors will act as though self-publishing was purely an act of vanity reserved for those who couldn’t hack it in the big time– unless, of course, the book about which you are inquiring happened to sell exceptionally well and ultimately got picked up by a major publisher as a result.

Which does indeed happen — not often, but from time to time.

In case you were wondering, exceptionally well in this context usually translates into something over 10,000 books, give or take a hundred or two depending upon book category. That’s not only good ECQLC (Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy, for those of you new to the Author! Author! community); that’s a statistic that an agent can carry to an editor at a publishing house as evidence that there’s already a demonstrated readership eager for your next book.

Those are the exceptions, though. The last time I checked, the average self-published book was selling less than 500 copies.

Yes, even the ones posted on Amazon. Just as the mere fact of throwing up a website doesn’t automatically result in the world’s beating a path to one’s virtual door, having a book available for sale online doesn’t necessarily translate into sales. The web is, after all, search-oriented: if a potential reader doesn’t know that a particular book exists, s/he’s unlikely to be Googling it, right?

Someone needs to give that reader a heads-up. Increasingly, that someone is the author.

The many, many obstacles facing the self-published book
There’s a reason for the comparatively low sales statistics, of course: self-publishing generally means that the author is solely responsible for promoting his own book — and placing it in bookstores. At a traditional publishing house, large or small, while authors are increasingly expected to invest their own time and resources in hawking their writing (it’s fairly common now for an author to be responsible for setting up her own website, for instance, and to handle virtually all web promotion), but the publisher will handle getting the book to distributors and book buyers.

A self-published book, on the other hand, almost always has a promotional staff of one: the author.

In practice, this can make self-publishing a pretty hard row to hoe, unless the author happens already to have her pretty mitts on some hefty promotional credentials, a mailing list of thousands, or connections at bookstores nationwide that would make the late Jacqueline Susann weep with envy. (Any writer seriously considering self-publishing, or even promoting her own book, should run, not walk, to rent the uneven but often very funny Susann biopic, Isn’t She Great?. It has some problems on a storytelling level, as real people’s lives often do, but there’s no denying that it’s a great primer on how to promote a book, based upon the undisputed mistress of the art. Seriously, she would stop in every bookstore she passed, sign every copy of her books they had, and send individual thank-you notes to everyone who worked in the bookstore afterward. The lady worked for her sales.)

Also, as I mentioned yesterday, self-published works (as well as POD books) currently face some pretty formidable structural obstacles in a literary world that is still very much oriented toward traditional publishing. Most US newspapers and magazines won’t even consider reviewing a self-published or POD book, for instance; even the standard advance review sources won’t do it.

So there goes the standard source for free publicity. But what about distribution?

In practice, anti-review policies mean it’s harder to convince a library or bookstore to carry a non-traditionally published book. And since fiction is traditionally more review-dependent than nonfiction — it all depends on the writing, right? — almost anyone in the traditional book selling or buying biz will tell you that self-publishing a novel is just a poor idea. (Which isn’t necessarily true anymore — as tomorrow’s guest blogger will be here to attest. But shh; I’m not letting that particular cat out of the bag just yet.)

Then, too, since bookstores must purchase self-published and POD books up front, they don’t have the option to return them to the publisher if they don’t sell. As a result, it can be substantially more expensive for a bookstore to carry them than books from a traditional publisher. So both big chains and small indie stores tend to shy away from self-published books; the author tends to have to talk his book into some shelf space, venue by venue.

And then there’s the conceptual barrier
As if all that didn’t present an intimidating enough obstacle course for the self-published writer, there’s also quite a bit of lingering prejudice against self-published work — an attitude still strong enough in literary circles that an author’s already having brought out even a comparatively successful self-published book will not necessarily impress an old-school agent or an editor.

Yes, really. Despite some notable recent successes, reviewers, librarians, agents, and editors still remain, at least overtly, relatively indifferent to the achievements of self-published books, to the extent that not all of them even make the decades-old distinction between so-called vanity presses (who print short runs of books, often at inflated prices, solely at the author’s expense, so the author may distribute them), subsidy presses (who ask authors to contribute some portion of the printing expenses; the press often handles distribution and promotion), desktop publishing (where the author handles the whole shebang herself), and print-on-demand (which refers to how the books are actually produced, rather than who is footing the bill to produce them).

Why would any reasonable human being lump all of those quite disparate categories together, you ask? Well, practical reasons, mostly: as I mentioned above, the average self-published book does not sell awfully well, so the whole species tends to be dismissed by those who sell books for a living as irrelevant to the book market as a whole.

Interestingly, the prevailing opinion on this point hasn’t changed all that much over the last decade or so, despite the fact that many POD and self-published works have proved quite profitable. Remember what I said above about rigid assumptions sometimes leading those who cling to them to misapprehend reality?

The other reason is philosophical: they just don’t think self-published books are inherently as good as those produced by traditional publishers. If the book in question were genuinely of publishable quality, they reason, why didn’t an agent pick it up? Why didn’t a mainstream publisher bring it out?

Yes, what you just thought is absolutely correct: this logic is indeed circular. However, that doesn’t mean the argument doesn’t have any merit — we’ve all seen dreadful self-published books that have only too obviously never passed under the eyes of a reasonably competent proofreader, let alone editor. — or that the publishing industry and those who feed it for a living are simply hostile to any book they didn’t handle themselves.

Like so much of reality, it’s substantially more complicated than it appears at first glance.

So what precisely do they have against self-publishing, other than that it’s not what they do?
In essence, the underlying objection here is that for a book to be self-published, only its writer has to consider it of publishable quality — which is to say, it has inherently violated the rules by which traditional publishing operates. Breaking into print via single person’s say-so is, as we have seen throughout this series, a far, far cry from how mainstream publishing works. Traditionally published books must jump through a rigorous series of hoops before hitting print, hurdles intended (at least ostensibly) to sift out the manuscripts that are not yet up to professional standard by passing them through an increasingly fine set of mesh screens, as it were.

A trifle startling to think of it that way, isn’t it? To try to understand the traditional publishing industry’s view of self-publishing, let’s take a gander at why they might consider it their selection process akin to panning for gold:

The querying stage: agencies evaluate hundreds of thousands of queries and verbal pitches in order to weed out book projects that don’t fit easily into an established book category (if you don’t know what that is, I implore you to peruse the BOOK CATEGORIES posts on the archive list at right without delay), concepts that have been done too many times (every bestseller spawns thousands of copycats), premises that are unlikely to sell well in the current literary market (which changes all the time), and works by writers that cannot write clearly (I’m sure that all of my readers are sending off gems, but you’d be amazed at how many query letters border on the incoherent).

Based upon these assessments — and other criteria, of course, but we’re thinking in generalities for the moment — the agent (and her Millicents) select a small fraction of the queried or pitched projects to read in manuscript form. In theory, then, any book project that makes it past this stage is considered to be conceptually acceptable and in accordance with professional querying standards.

The agency submission stage: Millicent and her boss agent remove from the pool of possible manuscripts that exhibit grammatical errors, spelling mistakes, formatting problems, storytelling difficulties, pacing angst, a not-very-compelling voice, and a whole host of composition problems. Not to mention those that just don’t grab the agent’s interest or he doesn’t think he can sell in the current market.

By this point, the initially immense applicant pool has been narrowed down to just a few thousand of any year’s queriers — or, depending upon book category, possibly a few hundred. Ostensibly, the manuscripts that make it past this stage are all professionally formatted, grammatically impeccable, are written in a voice and style appropriate to the chosen book category, and are stories well told and/or arguments well made.

Yes, yes, there are other criteria at play, too. Keep picturing those sieves and prospectors panning for gold.

The editorial submission stage: agents take manuscripts and book proposals to editors (and their assistants, known here at Author! Author! as Maury, Millicent’s cousin; their aunt Mehitabel is a veteran contest judge) who assess the submissions for voice, content, and pacing appropriateness for the audience the imprint or press is already targeting (like agents and editors, imprints within major publishing houses specialize, right?), potential marketing pluses and minuses, cost of publishing (one of the primary reasons too-long manuscripts have a hard time making the cut), and what the publishing house’s powers that be believe readers will want to buy a year or two hence.

The miniscule fraction of the original querying pool that clear the hurdles of this stage AND impress an editor more than books by already-established authors (whose books always make up the overwhelming majority of releases in any given year) will then move on to the editorial committee. Every book that makes it to this stage should be of publishable quality by professional standards; in theory, the selections from here on are amongst the best the current aspiring writers’ market has to offer right now.

The decision-making stage: editors pitch the books they have selected of an editorial committee and/or higher-ups at the publishing house who will make the ultimate decision about which books to publish, possibly after consultation with the good folks in the production, marketing, and legal departments. By now, the original querying pool has usually been narrowed so much that the group of accepted first-time authors in a given year could fit quite comfortably into a good-sized movie theatre.

Contrast all of this to the process of self-publishing a book, as an agent or editor might conceive it:

Step 1: write book.

Step 2: pay publisher.

Step 3: receive a stack of books with one’s name on the cover.

Of course, there’s far, far more to it than that, but you can see their point, right? Unless a self-published book really wows the market, the streamlined road to publication itself more or less guarantees that the mere fact that it is in print is not going to impress those who work in traditional publishing.

Again, sorry to be the one to report that, aspiring self-publishers. But wouldn’t you rather know the pros and cons up front, rather than finding out about them after you have already invested in bringing out your book yourself?

Criminy.
Yes, yes, I know: I could feel many of you slowly going pale throughout that last part. I’m sorry to sadden anybody, but if we’re going to understand the odds that render self-publishing attractive to many aspiring writer, it’s vital to bear in mind that in traditional publishing, it’s rare that the annual percentage of releases by first-time authors exceeds 4% of the books sold in the United States.

That statistic, by the way, is from before the recent economic downturn.

Try not to let that depress you into a stupor. Instead, take a deep breath and remember what we learned earlier in the series: draconian winnowing-down techniques are not the result of agencies and publishing houses being inherently hostile to promoting new voices, but the flat necessity of narrowing down the avalanche of book projects to the relatively few that publishers, even behemoth ones, can actually publish in a given year.

When you’ve recovered sufficiently from the shock, I would invite you to consider two possibilities that fly in the face of some of the prevailing wisdom floating around out there. Time to squint our eyes and try to pick out some trees.

First, in the unlikely event that none of you out there has noticed, it’s been getting harder and harder for a new writer to land an agent, much less get a first book published. The hurdles a first book (particularly a first novel) must clear are high and numerous enough that at least considering self-publishing is a fairly rational response to a difficult situation, if one happens to have the resources to pull it off.

Second — and this one is going to challenge some of the prevailing notions floating around the writers’ conference circuit — those who work in traditional publishing honestly do have legitimate reason to regard their acquisition process as literarily rigorous. Yet as recent literary history has shown, that does not necessarily mean that self-published books are invariably less polished than their traditionally-published counterparts.

Which is to say: just because traditional publishing types sneer at self-publishing doesn’t mean that it might not be the right route for your book. Believe me, if you have the gumption, push, and creativity to sell enough copies, they might actually be more impressed than if you’d sold the same number via a traditional publisher.

And then there’s the control
Many self-published authors report that they’re quite happy that they grabbed the proverbial bull by the horns and released their books themselves. Nowhere in the publishing world can a writer enjoy such complete control over what will and will not appear on the page; as most first-time authors working with traditional publishers can tell you to their cost, marketing departments change book titles all the time, and while authors sometimes have consultation rights over their book’s covers, it’s rare that they enjoy much actual input into the finished image.

By contrast, such decisions lie entirely in the hands of the self-publishing author. (Go ahead, take a moment to bask in the glow of that mental image. It’s a pretty one.)

While many presses that cater to self-publishers do offer design services (at a price, of course), the final call is the author’s. If a writer was absolutely married to a particular typeface — something that would be utterly beyond his control at a traditional publisher, right? — it’s his for the asking. DItto with the cover art, or the title.

Heck, if he wanted to have each character’s dialogue appear in a different font, while a press might try to talk him out of it, it would be up to him.

But how might an interested writer get started?
As always, tread with care in pursuit of your dreams. This is yet another area of publishing where it genuinely pays to do your homework.

As with any other aspect of publishing, it really does behoove a writer to think very seriously about what she wants out of the publishing process, which type of publication is most likely to meet those expectations, and to do her homework very thoroughly before committing to any route to publication. Never having self-published anything myself, I don’t pretend to be an expert, but I have collected advice from a number of happily self-published authors under the SELF-PUBLISHING category on the archive list at right. These posts do not constitute an exhaustive how-to by any means, but they will give you some tips on what to expect, how to get started, and ways to avoid getting burned.

Remember, not all presses are equally reputable, and the range of charges can vary wildly. While there are many presses that work very well with writers for a reasonable per-copy price, there are also many that operate on the assumption that self-published books should be glossy, high-cost personal calling cards. So even if you don’t have your heart set on leather binding, you’re going to want to inspect very carefully what you’ll be getting for your money.

Ask lots of questions. Not only of any press that you’re considering entrusting with your work, but of successfully self-published authors as well. Don’t be shy — trust me, if you’re willing to show up for a book reading she’s set up at great trouble, she’ll be more than happy to tell you all about her experience with her press.

But please, be kind: if you ask her for advice, buy a copy of her book. She’s probably hand-selling each one.

As a first step toward learning more about self-publishing — and as a reward for your virtue in sticking with this series to close to the bitter end — I’ve recruited a successful self-published author, the erudite and charming James Brush, to give us the low-down on what he wishes he had known before plunging into the wonderful world of doing it for himself. I’ve taken an advance peek at his guest post, and trust me, each and every one of you who has ever given a passing thought to self-financing a book is going to want to see what he has to say.

So don’t forget to tune in this weekend — same Author! Author! time, same Author! Author! channel.

I’ll be wrapping up this series next week, you’ll probably be delighted to hear, and then be moving on to that topic most vital to submitters, how to format a manuscript. Yes, it’s not a very sexy topic, but as long as I have the energy to blog, not a single one of my readers is going to get her submission rejected because she didn’t know how professional authors present their work to agents.

Besides, after all the forest-gazing of recent weeks, I thought it might be rather refreshing to zero in on some individual trees. Keep up the good work!

The getting-a-book-published basics, part XI: a few more observations on offer-acceptance etiquette, and a cautionary tale

lily tomlin operator

There I was, peacefully enjoying some well-deserved rest this weekend, when a prime specimen of that species so justly dreaded by writers, the hobgoblins of self-doubt, abruptly pulled up a pillow and sat down on my bed. “Um, Anne?” the wily fellow asked, playfully poking at my cat with his tail. “You know those last couple of posts about what to say and do when an agent calls and offers representation. What if some gifted writer out there mistakenly believes that the questions you recommended are the only ones it’s polite, reasonable, and necessary to ask?”

I yanked the pillow out from under him. “Demon Joe,” — that’s the name of the hobgoblin who specializes in tormenting advice-giving bloggers in the dead of night, so you’ll know should you ever run into him — “Author! Author!’s readers are much, much smarter than that. They know that just as every manuscript requires different revision, and that every book category requires a slightly different kind of agent, every offer from an agent and every subsequent conversation will differ. Now unhand my cat and get out of here.”

Demon Joe slithered across the comforter until he was nose-to-nose with me. “Perhaps. But did you talk about what a writer’s supposed to say if she has manuscripts out with other agents at the time that she receives the offer?

“I talked about that indirectly,” I said defensively, extracting my cat’s tail from Joe’s grasp. “Last weekend, when I was discussing what to do if an agent asks for an exclusive while another agent is already reading the manuscript. You ought to remember — you yanked me out of bed to write it.”

“True enough.” Demon Joe stroked his small, pointed beard thoughtfully. “And I wouldn’t want to disturb your sleep. I Just can’t help worrying about whether an excited aspiring writer, burbling with glee over a phone call from a real, live agent, is going to be in any mood to, you know, extrapolate. But if you’re confident that you’ve covered all of your bases…”

I hate it when Demon Joe is right. If you’ve ever wondered why some of my posts bear timestamps at three or four in the morning, blame him.

I certainly do.

Here, then, is an extra-special bonus middle-of-the-night end-of-the-weekend post, devoted to that most burning of problems most aspiring writers pray someday to have: what you to say to an agent who wants to represent you, when one or more other agents are also considering your manuscript?”

Seem like an unlikely scenario? It isn’t, actually, for any aspiring writer sending out simultaneous submissions. Any time more than one agent is considering the same manuscript, one possible outcome — the best one, actually — is that the writer will need to say something along the lines of, “Gee, I’m flattered, but I’m afraid that I shall have to talk to the X number of other agents currently reading my book. May I get back to you in, say, two weeks?”

The very idea of saying that to an agent who wants to represent you made some of you faint, didn’t it? Believe me, I’ve been there.

Seriously, I have. I wish I had known from the very beginning that having more than one agent reading a manuscript at a time is actually a very good thing for a writer. At least, if all of the agents concerned are aware that they’re in competition over the book.

“What makes you do darn sure of that?” Demon Joe demands. “Stop eyeballing that head-shaped indentation in your pillow and share your experience.”

Okay, okay — I’ll tell the story, but then I’m going back to sleep. Everybody but me comfortable? Excellent. Let’s proceed.

Many years ago, I had just sent out a packet of requested materials — memoir book proposal plus the first three chapters of a novel — when another agent asked to see my book proposal as well. Naturally, when I sent off the second package, I mentioned in my cover letter that another agent was already considering the project.

Thanks, Demon Joe, but I’m way ahead of you on this one: all of you multiple submitters do know that you should always mention it in your submission cover letter if another agent is already reading any part of your manuscript or book proposal? And that you should always drop any agent already reading your work an e-mail if you submit your work to another agent thereafter?

Well, now you do.

Although I knew to be conscientious about that first part, back in those long-ago days of innocence, I was not aware of the second. Indeed, the hobgoblin of doubt dedicated to torturing aspiring writers waiting to hear back on their submissions — Demon Milton, if you must know his name — would have forbidden my acting upon it if I had known: unfortunately, the old conference-circuit advice about never calling an agent who hasn’t called you first was deeply engrained in my psyche.

In other words, I was too afraid to bug Agent #1 to let her know that Agent #2 was looking at my book proposal. Big, big mistake.

Okay, Demon Joe, stop battering my head with your tail: I’m going to show them how to avoid that particular pitfall before I reveal the hideous consequences of not playing by this particular not-very-well-known rule.

So what should I have done instead? If more than one agent asks to see my manuscript (or, in this particular case, book proposal), I should have informed all of them, pronto, so they could adjust their reading schedules accordingly.

No need to name names, of course, or even to go back and tell Agents #1 and #2 that Agents #4-6 also asked to see it a month later. All that any given agent in the chain needs to know is that she’s not the only one considering it.

But I didn’t know that; frankly, I was too tickled to have attracted so much interest. Having stumbled into this rather common error, I set myself up for another, more sophisticated one.

A month later, Agent #2 called me to offer to represent the book. Since Agent #1 had at that point held onto the proposal for over six weeks without so much as a word, I assumed — wrongly, as it turned out — that she just wasn’t interested. So I accepted the only offer on the table, and sent Agent #1 a polite little missive, thanking her for her time and saying that I had signed with someone else.

Demon Joe is prompting me to pause here to ask: did that sweeping, unjustified conclusion make you gasp aloud?

It should have, especially if you have been submitting within the last couple of years. Six weeks really isn’t a very long time for an agent to hold onto a manuscript, after all; now, six months isn’t an unusual turn-around time. But even back then, when about eight weeks was considered the outside limit of courtesy, I should not have leapt to the conclusion that Agent #1 had simply blown me off.

Two days later, the phone rang: you guessed it, an extremely irate Agent #1. Since she hadn’t realized that there was any competition over the project, she informed me loudly, she hadn’t known that she needed to read my submission quickly. But now that another agent wanted it, she had dug my materials out of the pile on her desk, zipped through them — and she wanted to represent it.

I was flattered, of course, but since I had already told her that I’d accepted another offer, I found her suggestion a trifle puzzling. I had, after all, already burbled an overjoyed acceptance to Agent #2. I couldn’t exactly un-burble my yes, could I?

Yet when I reminded her gently that I’d already committed to someone else, all Agent #1 wanted to know was whether I had actually signed the contract. When I admitted that it was in the mail, she immediately launched into a detailed explanation of what she wanted me to change in the proposal so she would be able to market it more easily.

Had I been too gentle in my refusal? What part of no didn’t she get? “I don’t think you quite understood me before,” I said as soon as she paused to draw breath; #1 must have been a tuba player in high school. “I’ve already agreed to let another agent represent this book.”

“Nonsense,” #1 huffed. “How could you possibly have made up your mind yet, when you haven’t heard what I can do for you?”

I’ll spare you the 15-minute argument that ensued; suffice it to say that she raked me over the coals for not having contacted her the nanosecond I received a request for materials. Agent #1 also — and I found this both fascinating and confusing — used every argument she would invent to induce me to break my word to Agent #2 and sign with her instead.

Unscrupulous? Not exactly. She was merely operating on a principle that those of you who have been following this series should have by now committed to heart: until an agent offers a representation contract and a writer actually signs it, nothing that has passed between them is binding.

As I so often tell first-time pitchers who have just been asked to send pages: until there’s a concrete offer on the table, that nice conversation you just had with that agent about your book is just that, a nice conversation.

Of course, #1 may have taken the axiom to heart a little too much — I had, after all, already said yes to another agent, somebody equally enthusiastic about my proposal — but as it turned out, I should have listened to her. I should also have done my homework better: Agent #2, a charming man relatively new to my book category, actually had very few connections for placing the book.

Yes, Demon Joe: that is something I might have learned had I asked him a few more questions before saying yes. Thank you for pointing that out. Now stop rolling around on my flannel sheets.

What happened here? Well, my initial mistake in not keeping both agents concerned equally well-informed allowed an agent who probably knew that acting quickly was his best chance of competing in a multiple submission situation to shut out a better-qualified agent by the simple expedient of asking first.

So what should I have done instead? Contacted Agent #1 as soon as I received the second request, of course — and called her before I gave Agent #2 an answer.

Admittedly, that second part would have required some guts and finesse to pull off; if #2 was deliberately rushing me to commit before I asked too many questions about his track record in selling my type of book, I doubt that he would have been particularly thrilled about my asking for some time to make up my mind. (His agency went out of business within the year, after all; he gave up on my proposal after showing it to only five editors. I received a letter from one of them, saying that he had not submitted it through the proper channels.)

In the long run, though, it would have clearly been far better for me and my book proposal had I taken the time to make sure that I knew what my options were before I took what I deemed to be an irrevocable step. (For a more tips on handling simultaneous submissions far, far better than I did that first time around, please see the WHAT IF MORE THAN ONE AGENTS ASKS TO SEE MY MANUSCRIPT? category on the archive list at right.)

The story does have a happy ending, however: fortunately, the next time I was lucky enough to be in this position, right after having won a major award for my memoir, I had the experience to know how to handle it. I was also fortunate enough to know several previous winners of that particular contest who were kind enough to give me excellent advice on what to do if I won. (It’s always worth tracking down past winners, if you happen to be a finalist: it’s amazing how nice most authors are one-on-one.)

Just so I can convince Demon Joe to remove his pitchfork from my foot region, let’s recap what a writer should do if more than one agent is considering a manuscript when a representation offer gladdens his heart:

(1) Thank the offering agent, but remind her that other agents are currently considering the manuscript.
That should not be news to her, right?

(2) Ask for 3 weeks to check in with the others and make up your mind.
Since this is precisely what she would expect you to do for her if another agent had made an offer first, she should be fine with this. If she isn’t, offer not to commit to anyone else until you have spoken to her again — and set up an appointment a couple of weeks hence to do just that.

Why as much as three weeks? Because it’s entirely possible that none of the other agents have yet so much as glanced at the manuscript. You don’t expect them to make a representation decision before they’ve read your book, do you?

Demon Joe likes that so much that he’s doing a little jig on my bedroom slippers. “Let me be the one to draw out the implication here: yes, some agents who are aware that a manuscript is being multiply-submitted will wait to hear that someone else has made an offer before they give the manuscript a serious once-over.”

The hobgoblin in charge of that particularly nasty (from the writer’s point of view, anyway) game of chicken is called Harold, in case you were wondering. You might want to mutter at him under your breath, should you ever be the writer caught in this situation.

Which is, lest we forget, a good outcome for a submitter. Back to our to-do list:

(3) Then ask all of the other questions you would have asked Agent #1 if she had been the only agent to whom you submitted.
You want to have a basis to decide between her and any of the other agents who say yes, don’t you?

(4) As soon as you get off the phone with #1, e-mail ALL the other agents currently reading any part of your manuscript. Let them know that you have had another offer — and that if they are interested, you will need to hear from them within the next ten days.
Seem fast? It is. It’s also a reasonable amount of time for a rush read, and it gives you a little leeway if any of the other agents needs more time.

After all, the fact that others are reading it isn’t going to come as a surprise to any of them, right? Besides, you don’t want to keep Agent #1 waiting too long, do you?

Stop poking me in the kidneys, Demon Joe. I was getting to the leeway issue.

It’s not uncommon for agents in this situation to ask for more time to read your work. That’s up to you, but do be aware that if you grant extensions, you’re going to have to tell Agent #1 about them.

Doesn’t sound like such an attractive prospect, does it? Wouldn’t you rather build a little extra time into your arrangement with #1, so #2-16 can miss the mark by a few days without sending you into a nail-gnawing panic?

(5) Try to obtain similar information from every agent who makes an offer.
That way, you will be comparing apples to apples, not apples to squid. So if you ask one for a client list — and you should — ask each one that makes an offer. If you talk to a client of #1, talk to #3′s client as well. Otherwise, it’s just too tempting to sign with the one who spontaneously offered you the most information — who may or may not be the best fit for your work.

(6) Make up your mind when you said you would — or inform everyone concerned that it’s going to take a little longer.
But don’t push it too long, and don’t try to use what one agent has said to hurry another. (Over and above simply informing them that another has made an offer, that is.) This is not a bargaining situation; it’s a straightforward collection of offers from businesspeople about whom you should already have done your homework.

And try not to move the deadline more than once. Why? Well, you’re going to want to have a pleasant working relationship with whomever you choose — and although writers often feel helpless when torn between competing agents, that is not how they will see it. The last impression you

(7) After you’ve chosen, inform the agent with whom you will be signing first.
This is basic self-protection, especially if you’ve had to push the decision deadline back more than once. It’s unusual for an agent to change her mind after making an offer, but if she does, you will be a substantially happier camper if you have other offers in reserve.

(8) After you have sealed the deal with your favorite, inform the others promptly and politely.
Do this even if some of the others didn’t bother to get back to you at all — some agents do use silence as a substitute for no, but it’s not courteous to bank on that. They honestly do need to know that they’re no longer in the running.

Resist the urge — and believe me, you will feel it — to explain in thanks, but no thanks e-mails why you selected the agent you did. The agenting world is not very big, after all, and the other agent(s) really don’t need to know anything but that you have indeed made a decision.

Above all, make sure to thank them profusely for their time. After all, they were excited enough about your writing to consider representing you; don’t you want them to buy your book when it comes out?

Hey, my cats are asleep, my various body parts seem to be free of pitchforks, and the hobgoblin all-clear has sounded. (It sounds a lot like a snore from my SO.)

That means it’s time for me to turn in, campers. Good night, sleep tight, and don’t let the hobgoblins of self-doubt bite. Oh, and keep up the good work!

Entr’acte: when an agent asks for pages, but you’ve already granted an exclusive to somebody else, and other soap opera-worthy dilemmas

Proposal-woodcut

I’m taking a break from my ongoing series on how getting published does and doesn’t work — as those of you following the series may have noticed with alarm, an awful lot of the common wisdom on the subject just isn’t true, or at any rate, just isn’t true anymore — to address a question that I get about once per month from aspiring writers. The latest iteration, courtesy of a comment from intrepid reader Virginia a few days back:

Here’s my question: I submitted only two queries to two agents. One got back to me quickly and did ask for exclusive right to review. A few days after I agreed to this, the second agent replied and asked for pages. I don’t want to violate my agreement, but how do I tell the second agent I’m really happy she wants to see more but she has to wait?

Queriers end up in this kind of dilemma all the time, often without understanding how they got there. An exclusive is always a good thing, right, a sign that an agent was unusually eager to see a queried or pitched book, and thus decided to bypass her usual method of requesting manuscripts?

Not always, no. Sometimes, a request for an exclusive genuinely is the result of an agent’s being so excited by a query or pitch (especially if that book has just won a contest) that she’s afraid that another agent will snap it up first. But far more often, it is the natural and should-have-been-expected outcome when a writer queries an agency that has an exclusives-only policy that the querier simply didn’t do enough research on the agency to know about, and so is surprised by the request.

Especially gobsmacked by this (usually predictable) outcome: queriers who do what virtually every aspiring writer asked to submit materials does (and what I suspect occurred here), sending out requested pages immediately upon receipt of the request. Overjoyed at what they assume (in this case, wrongly) will be the only interest their queries will generate, many multiply-querying writers don’t pause to consider that multiple requests for manuscripts are always a possible outcome while sending out simultaneous queries. So is a situation where one of those agents requests an exclusive.

This is why, in case any of you inveterate conference-goers have been curious, agents, editors, and those of us who teach classes on marketing writing invariably sigh when an aspiring writer raises his hand to ask some form of this particular question — and it’s not for the reason that other aspiring writers will sigh. (The latter will sigh because they wish they had this problem.) They will sigh because they’re thinking, “Okay, did this writer just not do his homework on the agents he approached? Or is he asking me to tell him that he can blithely break the commitment he’s made to Agent #1?”

That’s why everyone else will sigh. I, however, sigh whenever I hear this question because I think, “Okay, I have to assume that the questioner is someone who hasn’t read any of my blog posts on querying or submission, as much as that possibility pains me to consider. But since I have no fewer than four explicitly-named categories on my archive list — conveniently located at the bottom right-hand side of my website’s main page: EXCLUSIVES AND MULTIPLE SUBMISSION, EXCLUSIVES TO AGENTS, SIMULTANEOUS SUBMISSIONS, and WHAT IF MORE THAN ONE AGENT ASKS TO SEE MY MANUSCRIPT? — directly aimed at answering this question, and eight more that deal with it within the larger context of submission (AFTER YOU RECEIVE A REQUEST FOR PAGES, AFTER YOU SUBMIT, HOW LONG BEFORE THE REQUEST FOR PAGES EXPIRES? HOW SOON MUST I SEND REQUESTED MATERIALS? INDUSTRY ETIQUETTE, IS IT OKAY TO SUBMIT TO SEVERAL AGENTS AT ONCE? and REQUESTED MATERIALS), as well as a dramatically-reenacted scenario in the Industry Etiquette series, I also have to assume that the questioner is in a situation that I have managed to overlook addressing in any of these posts. So I shall eschew the temptation just to send the questioner to any or all of those categories, try to understand how and why this situation is unique, and answer the darned question for the 475th time.”

Yes, I can think with that much specificity in mid-sigh, thank you very much. It’s just one of my many talents.

All that being said — or at any rate thought loudly — it actually isn’t fair to leap to the conclusion that if aspiring writers read agents’ websites and agency guide listings more thoroughly, they would never end up in this situation. Sometimes, this request does come out of a genuinely blue sky, whacking a conscientious multiple querier or submitter right in the noggin.

In fact, it seems to be happening to aspiring writers more and more these days, and for good reason: as a group, you’re querying more widely. That’s a good thing.

Now that many agencies routinely just don’t respond to queries at all if the answer is no, it would be equally silly for a savvy writer to query them one at time and to wait to hear back from all of those simultaneous query recipients before submitting to the first agent who asks to see pages.

Often, the writer simply will not know that exclusivity is a possibility until an agent asks for it, and the request is seldom formulated in a manner that informs a writer not already aware of the fact that she can say no. Or put a time restriction on the exclusive, if she grants it at all.

All of these things are true, incidentally. Unless an agency informs would-be queriers in advance that it has an exclusives-only submission policy, a submitting writer is under no obligation to grant a request for an exclusive to an individual agent. And, as with any other favor, the writer has the right to place conditions on it if she grants it.

But widespread misunderstanding of how exclusives work is not the primary reason it isn’t fair for the pros to be dismissive of writers in this situation. We should all have sympathy, because 99.999% of the time, what an aspiring writer asked for an exclusive hears is not, “Okay, this sounds interesting and marketable, but I don’t want to have to rush to beat competing agents in reading the manuscript. Please remove the necessity of my having to hurry by agreeing not to show it to anyone else until I’ve gotten back to you.”

Which is, by the way, what a request for exclusivity means, at base. Deflating to think of it that way, isn’t it?

What 99.999% of aspiring writers in this situation hear is “Oh, my God — this is the most exciting book premise/pitch/query I’ve ever heard. I’m almost positive that I want to represent it, even though I have not yet read a word of the manuscript or book proposal. If you grant my request, I’m going to clear my schedule so I may delve into this submission the nanosecond it arrives in my office.”

And then the giddy aspiring writer is astonished when weeks or months pass before the agent makes a decision, precisely as if there had been no exclusive involved. The only difference, from the writer’s point of view, is that she was honor-bound not to approach other agents until she heard back.

Pardon my asking, but what precisely did the writer gain by granting that exclusive? And does anybody out there have a good suggestion for a new category title that would more quickly catch the eye of (a) submitters who find themselves in this situation, (b) queriers or pitchers who MIGHT find themselves in this situation soon, and (c) readers not patient enough to scroll through a couple of hundred categories to find what they want?

Okay, so the last is a tall order for a 40-character max category title. Believe it or not, the main reason there are so many categories is because I keep hearing from panicked writers who did not instantly find what they were seeking.

I think that a couple of factors contribute the confusion so many agent-seeking writers seem to feel on this subject. First, many writers confuse initial interest with a commitment — why would an agent ask to see a manuscript exclusively, they reason, unless they already thought they might want to sign the author?

The short answer: typically, an agent won’t ask for an exclusive (or for pages, for that matter) unless he thinks representing it as a possibility; since, however, agents who ask for exclusives seldom make the request of only one writer, a writer should not assume that his is the only exclusive on the agent’s desk.

If that last bit made your stomach drop to somewhere around your knees, don’t feel blue, or even slightly mauve: the vast majority of writers who have ever been asked for an exclusive peek at their work were under the same misconception. The temptation to believe the request means more than it actually does is vast.

Compounding this misconception is the cold, hard fact that when aspiring writers agree to an exclusive, they don’t necessarily understand what it actually entails. So let’s invest some blog space into going over the basics.

Hey, maybe this post does belong in my Getting a Book Published Basics! Who’d have thought it?

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

– ONLY that agent will have an opportunity to read the materials;

– no other agent is already looking at it;

– the writer will not submit it anywhere else;

– in return for this significant advantage (which, after all, pulls the manuscript out of competition with other agents), the agent will make a legitimate effort to read and decide whether or not to offer representation within the specified time period.

Is everyone clear on the rules? If not, please leave a comment with a question — just the second I come up with a brand-new category name covering this particular dilemma, today’s post is going to be popping into it. So if you ask now, future writers-in-a-bind will enjoy the full benefit of your having asked.

Okay, now that we know what Virginia agreed to do, let’s take a gander at her options. If she wants to play by the rules — and she should, always — her choices are three.

If she specified a time limit on the exclusive — which the agent will very seldom propose spontaneously; it’s not in her interest — the answer is very simple: if less than that amount of time has passed, don’t send the manuscript to anyone else until it has.

What is she to tell the other agent? Nothing, if the agreed-upon length of the exclusive is reasonable — say, between three and eight weeks. Agents are perfectly used to writers taking some time to revise before submitting requested materials. Virginia’s second agent probably wouldn’t blink twice if she didn’t get back to him before then; remember, it’s not as though an agent who requests materials sit there, twiddling his thumbs, until he receives it.

And what would she gain by telling him she’d already promised an exclusive to another agent, other than informing him that she had already decided that if the other Agent #1 offered representation, she would take it? How exactly would that win her Brownie points with #2 — or, indeed, help her at all?

In practice, all waiting on fulfilling the second request means is that Virginia will have an attractive alternative if Agent #1 decides to pass on the manuscript. That’s bad because…?

Oh, wait: it isn’t. Actually, it’s an ideal situation for a just-rejected submitter to find herself occupying. Way to go, Virginia!

Worrying about what might happen to Virginia if Agent #1 doesn’t get back to her within the specified time frame? Relax; she still has three pretty good options, one completely above-board, one right on the board, and the last slightly under it.

First, the high road: about a week after the agreed-upon exclusive expires, Virginia could send Agent #1 an e-mail (not a call), reminding her that the exclusive has elapsed. Would A1 like more time to consider the manuscript solo, or should Virginia send the manuscript out to the other agents who have requested it?

I can already tell you the answer will be the former. The writer doesn’t achieve much by taking the high road, usually, other than a bit of comfort from the fact that the agent hasn’t forgotten her altogether.

The level road is cosmetically similar, but frees the writer more. Virginia could write an e-mail to the agent, informing her politely that since the agreed-upon period of exclusivity has elapsed, she’s going to start sending out requested materials to other agents. Then she should actually do it, informing Agent #2 in her cover letter that another agent is also considering the work.

That way, she gets what she wants — the ability to continue to market her work — while not violating her agreement with Agent #1. All she is doing is being up front about abiding by the terms of the exclusive.

The slightly subterranean but nevertheless justifiable third option would be not to send an e-mail at all, but merely wait until the exclusive has lapsed to send out the manuscript to Agent #2, informing him that there’s also another agent reading it. I don’t favor this option, personally, because despite the fact that Virginia would be perfectly within her rights to pursue it — the agent is the one who breached the agreement here, not the writer — if Agent #1 does eventually decide to make an offer, Virginia will be left in a rather awkward position.

Enviable, of course, but still a bit uncomfortable.

When an exclusive does not carry an agreed-upon time limit — and most don’t — the ethics are more nebulous, the costs to the writer significantly higher. Sometimes enough so that being asked to grant an exclusive turns out to be a liability.

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

In an environment where it often takes 3-6 months to hear back on a submission, it’s not all that hard to envision a situation where a writer might actually want to say no to an exclusive, is it?

While you’re pondering the implications, I’ll be changing the subject slightly, to underscore a few points. But never fear: I’m going to talk about the perils and escape hatches of the unlimited exclusive tomorrow; it’s too complex to toss off in just a few paragraphs.

For now, let’s concentrate on the kind of exclusives a savvy writer should be delighted to grant. To that end, I want to make absolutely certain that each and every querier and submitter out there understands two things — no, make that three:

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

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

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

Why limit it to your favorite picks? Try to think of granting an exclusive as if you were applying for early admission to an Ivy League school: if the school of your dreams lets you in, you’re not going to want to apply to other universities, right?

By applying early, you are saying that you will accept their offer of admission, and the school can add you to its roster of new students without having to worry that you’re going to go to another school instead. It’s a win/win, in other words.

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

To put it another way, if you are asked for an exclusive because your work is sought-after, it is up to you whether you would prefer to go steady right off the bat or date around a little. Got it?

If not, I can keep coming up with parallel cases all day, I assure you. Don’t make me start sending you to past posts.

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

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

Set a time limit. Four to six weeks is ample.

No need to turn asking for the time limit into an experiment in negotiation, either: simply include a sentence in your submission’s cover letter along the lines of I am delighted to give you an exclusive look at my manuscript, as you requested, for the next month.

Simple, direct — and trust me, if the agent has a problem with the time you’ve specified, s/he’ll contact you to ask for more.

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

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

Noticing a homework theme in all of these unspoken assumptions? Good. Let me pull out the bullhorn to reiterate: because agents tend to assume that any serious writer would take the time to learn how the publishing industry does and doesn’t work — oh, if only some reputable blogger would run a series on THAT, eh? — querying and submitting writers who don’t do their homework are much more likely to get rejected than those who do.

Okay, bullhorns down; back to the issue at hand. Why might an exclusive submissions policy be advantageous for an agency to embrace?

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

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

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

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

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

(Yes, in response to that shocked wail your psyche just sent flying in my general direction: positive responses are often form-letters, too, even when they arrive in e-mail form. I sympathize with your dismay.)

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

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

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

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

Hey, check their T-shirts. Because I assure you, no one concerned is going to have any sympathy for a writer complaining about feeling trapped in an exclusive. They’ll just assume that he didn’t do his homework.

So check submission policies before you query, everyone; it can save you a world of chagrin later.

Thanks for asking the question, Virginia; I’ll discuss other aspects of your dilemma next time. To you and all of your fellow conscientious writers, keep up the good work!

The romance — and limitations — of exclusivity, part II

1885-proposal-caricature

Last time, I took a break from our ongoing series to respond to a readers’ question about how to handle an exclusive request from an agent. Specifically, she wanted to know what she should do if she had already agreed to let one agent sneak an exclusive peek at her manuscript, but another agent had asked afterward to see it non-exclusively. What’s a writer to do?

The short answer: abide by her commitment to Agent #1 for the duration of the agreed-upon period of exclusivity, then move on to Agent #2. The only apparently shorter answer: what honoring that agreement means vis-à-vis approaching other agents really depends upon the terms of the exclusivity agreement.

Have I lost those of you who walked in halfway through this discussion? Okay, I’ll recap: an exclusive is an arrangement whereby a writer allows an agent to read a particular manuscript while no other agent will be reviewing it. The agent requests an exclusive because he would prefer not to compete with other agents over the manuscript; the writer agrees, presumably, because if this agent says yes, she will neither need nor want to approach other agents.

Let’s be clear about what that means in practice, campers: the writer guarantees that nobody else will be in the running while the requesting agent is pondering the pages. Anyone see a potential problem with that?

Give yourself a large, shiny gold star and a pat on the back if you instantly asked, “Wait a minute — what happens if the request for an exclusive comes in while another agent is already considering the manuscript?” That would indeed present a problem, because by definition, a writer cannot grant an exclusive if any agent is currently reading any part of the manuscript in question; in order to comply with a request for an exclusive, the writer must wait until all of the agents reading it at the time the exclusivity request arrived have informed him of their decisions.

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

Which leads me to the other potential problem that I sincerely hope some of you came up with two paragraphs ago: what happens if an agent who asked for an exclusive doesn’t get back to the writer within a reasonable amount of time? Is the writer still bound by the exclusivity agreement? Or is there some point at which it’s safe to assume that silence = thanks, but we’re not interested?

The short answers to each of those last three questions, in order: it depends on the terms of the original agreement; it depends on the terms of the original agreement; it depends on the terms of the original agreement.

What does it depend upon? Those of you who read breathlessly through yesterday’s post, shout it along with me now: it depends upon whether the writer had the foresight to set an end date for the exclusive. If an exclusive is open-ended, the writer cannot ethically send out requested materials to other agents until one of two things happens: the exclusive-requester informs the writer that she has rejected the manuscript, or so many months have passed without word from the agent that it’s safe to assume that the answer is no.

Even then — say, six months — I’d still advise sending an e-mail, asking if the exclusive-seeking agent is finished with the manuscript. It’s only polite.

Or avoid this dilemma entirely by hedging your bets from the get-go: grant the exclusive, but send the manuscript along with a cover letter that mentions how delighted you are to agree to a six-week exclusive. The agent can always come back with a request for more time, but at least you won’t be left wondering six months hence whether you’ll offend her if you move on.

I’m sensing some severe writerly disgruntlement out there. “But Anne!” exclaim aspiring writers who want there to be more options. “Why should I borrow trouble? Surely, you don’t expect me to run the risk of offending an agent by implying that he’s not going to get back to me in a timely manner?”

Hey, I don’t expect anything; do as you think best. I’m just the person that aspiring writers keep asking how to get out of an exclusive that hasn’t panned out as they had hoped.

To help you weigh the relevant risks, let’s look at the phenomenon from the other side of the agreement. Generally speaking, agents will request exclusives for only one of three reasons: they fear that there will be significant competition over who will represent the project, they don’t like to be rushed while reading, or it is simply the agency’s policy not to compete with outside agencies, ever.

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

Why rare? Well, the first kind of exclusive request I mentioned yesterday, the one Agent A might use to prevent Agents B-R from poaching your talents before A has had a chance to read your manuscript (hey, A’s desk is already chin-deep in paper), tends to be reserved for writers with more than just a good book to offer. Celebrity, for instance, or a major contest win fifteen minutes ago. Basically, the agent is hoping to snap up the hot new writer before anybody else does.

Or before the HNW realizes that s/he might prefer to be able to choose amongst several offers of representation. Since pretty much every respectable agency offers the same service, such choices are often made on the basis of connections, how well-established the agency is, or even how well the writer and the agent happen to hit it off. If an agent fears that the other contenders might be able to offer a rosier prospect, it might well be worth her while to buttonhole the HNW and get her to commit to an exclusive before anyone else can get near.

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

Oh, pick your chin up off the floor. If your work is in demand, it’s not necessarily in your best interest to sign with the first agent who makes an offer — you will want the one with the best track record of selling books like yours, right? Ideally, you would like to be in a position to compare and contrast offers from different agents.

Why not pick the one who asks first and be done with it? Chant it with me now, long-time readers: you do not want to land just any agent; you want the best agent for your work.

If you shouted, “Yes, by Jove: I want to query and submit in a manner that maximizes the probability to be fielding several offers at once!”, then I suggest you consider two questions very carefully before you decide which agents to approach first:

(1) If an agency has an exclusives-only policy, should it be near the top of my query list, potentially forcing me to stop my submission process cold until they get back to me? Or are there agents who permit simultaneous submissions that I could approach all at once before I queried the exclusive-only agency?

(2) Is there an agent on this list to whom I would be OVERJOYED to grant an exclusive, should he happen to request it after seeing my query or hearing my pitch, or would I be equally happy with any of these agents? If it’s the former, should I approach that agent right off the bat, before sending out queries to any exclusives-only agents on the list?

The disgruntled murmur afresh: “Okay, Anne, I get it; an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. But where does this leave Virginia and the many other writers out there who have granted exclusives to the first agent who asked, only to find themselves chafing under the agreement down the line, when other agents asked to see the manuscript? Can’t you offer then just a few ounces of cure?”

Again, it depends: why did the agent asked for the exclusive in the first place, and how long it has been since the writer granted it?

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

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

“Of course, you may indulge in multiple submissions,” the agent would say, tossing candy to the world’s children from Santa’s sleigh, assisted by the Easter Bunny, Bigfoot, and a miraculously still-alive Amelia Earhart. “My agency was just kidding about that whole exclusives-only thing.”

Call me a pessimist, but I simply don’t believe that’s going to happen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Regards,
Clinton McPicky

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

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

Melissa

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

Clinton

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

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

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

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

“Okay,” the formerly disgruntled agree reluctantly, “I guess that makes some sense. But what about the writer — say, Melissa’s brother Melvin — who has an open-ended exclusive arrangement with Jade, an agent whose agency does not insist upon solo submissions? She’s had it for a while, and four other agents have asked to see his book! Given how many are interested, can’t he just move on without telling her, and hope that she will be the first to make an offer, so he doesn’t have to ‘fess up about sending his manuscript elsewhere?”

The short answer is no. The long answer is that it depends upon how much time has elapsed.

Melvin should check the agency’s website, its agency guide listing, and the letter Jade sent him, asking for an exclusive: has it been at least as long as any mentioned turn-around time — or, to be on the safe side, a couple of weeks longer? If not, he cannot in good conscience send out requested materials to any other agent regardless of whether others requested exclusives in the meantime.

Don’t even consider it, Melvin. Otherwise, your word to Jade would be meaningless, no?

For some reason, the vast majority of the Melvins who creep into my atelier in the dead of night to ask my advice on the subject — a practice I discourage, incidentally; the comment section is there for a reason — almost always seem surprised, or even hurt, by this response. But the situation honestly is pretty straightforward, ethically speaking: Melvin agreed to the exclusive, so everyone in the industry would expect him abide by it.

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

Here’s how I would advise Melvin to handle this dilemma with his integrity intact: wait it out for the stated turn-around time (plus two weeks), then send the polite note I mentioned above: remind her that she asked for an exclusive, but inform her that he has had other requests for materials. Do not leave that last bit out: it’s imperative that Jade is aware before she makes a timing decision that others are indeed interested.

If Jade writes back and says she wants to represent him, he has only two options — saying yes without sending out further submissions or saying no and sending out to the other four. If Jade does make an offer he wishes to accept, it would be courteous of Melvin to send a polite note to the other four, saying precisely what happened: another agent made an offer before he could send out the materials they requested. They’ll understand; this happens all the time.

If Jade asks for more time, Melvin should consider carefully whether he is willing to grant it. If he does, he should set a date — say, a month hence — beyond which he will start sending out manuscripts to the other four.

If, however, Jade doesn’t respond to his polite e-mail within six weeks, he should not, as many writers in this situation are tempted to do, overload her inbox with increasingly panicked e-mails. On day 43 (six weeks + 1 day), Melvin should send the requested materials to the four agents, along with cover letters explaining that others are looking at it simultaneously. No need to specify who is doing the looking, just that they are.

To deal courteously with Jade at this point, he should send a letter, saying that while she is still his first choice (the implication of an exclusive, always), since the exclusive has now expired, he is now sending out requested materials to other agents. As, indeed, he had already given her notice that he might do if she didn’t get back to him.

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

A tip for figuring out how long to suggest a requested exclusive should be: take the amount of time you feel you could wait calmly if you had a second request for materials burning a hole in your pocket. Now double it.

Take a gander at that number: is it in days, rather than weeks or months? If so, may I suggest gently that you may be too impatient to be happy with any length of exclusive?

You can always say no, right? Right? Can you hear me?

Frankly, I think most submitters in this situation overreact to the prospect of a comparatively short wait — or did not have a realistic sense of how long it can take these days for an agent to make up his mind about a manuscript. 3-6 month turn-around times are not uncommon, and let’s face it, holding off for a few days or weeks is not going to harm the writer’s chances with the other requesting agents.

Chances are that they’re reasonable people. After all, it’s not as though they requested the materials, then cleared their schedules for the foreseeable future in order to hold their respective breaths until the submission arrived.

And, please, I implore you, do not grant de facto exclusives. If an agent did not ask for an exclusive and the writer did not agree to it, the writer is perfectly at liberty to continue to submit, query, and pitch until a representation contract is signed. While not continuing to pursue other leads while an agent is perusing your work may seem like a well-deserved break, a reward for successful querying, it’s effectively like applying to only one college per year: you might get in eventually, but it’s a far more efficient use of your time to apply to many simultaneously.

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

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

Next time, I shall resume the Back to Basics series. Keep those expectations reasonable, folks, and keep up the good work!

PS: I really was serious yesterday when I asked if any of you lovely readers had any bright ideas for a category title on this subject; people seem to have a hard time finding EXCLUSIVES AND MULTIPLE SUBMISSION. So if you can think of a pithy-yet-eye-catching description less than 40 characters long, please let me know — I shall be eternally grateful, and so will all of the many, many submitters who find themselves in this situation every year.

Not another best and worst of the decade list!

one-way sign in graveyard

It’s certainly been a year — and a decade — of mixed blessings, hasn’t it? Why, only last month, as I was noting with annoyance that Publishers’ Weekly’s list of the top 100 new releases of 2009 did not contain a single book by a female author, I realized with a shock that the Matthew Crawford at #8 used to sit next to me in grad school seminars. Naturally, I rushed out and bought Shop Class as Soulcraft at a brick-and-mortar bookstore right away, on general principle and to boost my writerly karma, but it made me think: the dark, dark clouds of the last year have certainly had some odd silver linings.

So, belatedly: congratulations, Matt. And here’s to finding writers I like on 10-best lists, anywhere, anytime.

I’ve been mulling over those unexpected flashes of silver in the sky all month, as I’ve been gearing up to this, my last post of the decade. I had planned to come up with one of those ubiquitous best and worst lists from a writerly perspective — you know, books I hated, editors at Random House I was sorry to see take early retirement, that sort of thing.

Frankly, coming up with a worst list was no problem at all. Took about four minutes. Yet every single one of my hard-found bests — all seven of them — were charming surprises like seeing Matt’s name turn up on the PW list, not genuine trends I could laud as harbingers of good things coming to writers everywhere. And while I could follow the excellent example of other end-of-the-decade commenters like Julianna Baggott (whose recent Washington Post article on why it is so hard for female authors to crack those top ten lists is well worth reading, by the way), devoting my last post of the year purely to criticism of the status quo, I just can’t bring myself to believe that those silver linings, however few and far between, are not something worth celebrating.

But let’s not kid ourselves: we writers have a heck of a lot to complain about these days.

So here’s what I’m going to do. First, I’ll be taking a barefoot run through what I think are the ten worst things to happen to writing over the last decade, followed by what I consider the single nastiest development for aspiring writers. Then, with all of that out of our collective system, I’ll let you in on some reasons that I think all of us should continue keeping the faith.

With me? Tremendous. Let the snarly bits begin.

The Ten Worst Things to Happen to Writing in the 2000s So Far

(10) Benefit-free simplification of the language
You know what I’m talking about, right? We’ve all picked up a newspaper — remember those? — and been knocked out of an otherwise interesting article by , say, the completely gratuitous capitalization of the first word following a colon. It’s never been correct in English — so why the heck has it suddenly become so very common in recent years? Why, in fact, has it become acceptable by AP editing standards?

For heaven’s sake, it’s not a new sentence!

Okay, so maybe that’s not the type of irritant that makes folks who don’t read or write manuscripts for a living choke on their coffee, but I assure you, such creeping attacks on literacy drive those of us who do absolutely nuts. Why? Because after enough readers have seen the incorrect version often enough and in authoritative enough sources, it will begin to look correct to them.

Can the fall of civilization be far behind?

No, but seriously, the last decade has seen the dubious legitimization of quite a lot of technically incorrect practices. More nails on the proverbial blackboard:

* The use of quality as a synonym for high-quality, without the necessary modifier. Technically, quality could be high, low, or middling. The sole exception, as far as I know, is when it refers to obsolete social class distinctions: it was obvious from her bearing that she was a lady of quality.

See? I didn’t capitalize the first word after the colon in that last sentence, and the grammar gods didn’t strike me dead on the spot.

* The use of unique with a modifier, as in she is very unique. By definition, something is unique because it is the only one of its kind.

* Leaving question marks off sentences that are clearly questions, as in do you hear me. It’s a lame writer’s trick, intended to convey flatness of tone. If only the language contained some sort of descriptors for sound, so the reader could know how a speaker’s voice sounds…oh, wait, it does.

Nit-picky? You bet. But since when did wielding the language correctly become optional for good writers?

(9) Conspiracy theories whose individual elements can be adequately exposed within a three-page scene.
I’m looking at you, Dan Brown. Just once, couldn’t a necessary clue not be instantly recognizable the second our hero stumbles upon it? Followed, perhaps, by that crusty old character who has held his tongue for the past forty-three years not blurting out everything he knows the instant the protagonist happens to ask? Or sometimes even before he asks?

Call me a complexity-monger, but if a long-unsolved mystery can be revealed to the first yahoo who bothers to glance in its direction, and that within the first four minutes, I’m just not interested. I have too much faith in the inventive capacities of mystery writers to settle for boneheaded plot twists.

(8) Single spaces after periods and colons in manuscripts.
Yes, yes, I know: eliminating these necessary spaces in published books saves a lot of paper and ink. In a manuscript, however, omitting these spaces is not only an offense to the rules of punctuation, but renders text significantly harder to edit by hand.

Which, in case you’d been wondering, is generally the only way to catch the kind of errors mentioned in (10). And why it’s so obvious to most professional readers handed a manuscript without the necessary two spaces that the writer has not worked with an editor before.

(7) A radical increase in pop culture references in published books.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with this in, say, a memoir: mentioning that the protagonist’s sister is lying on the floor, watching a brand-new Gilligan’s Island episode is a legitimate way to give a sense of place and time to a scene. But using current pop references in a novel to make it seem up-to-date now will simply render it out of date in five years.

Sorry; I don’t make the rules governing the turnover rate of pop culture. Nor of the passage of time.

I object to this one, like the last, primarily for its negative effect upon aspiring writers. It can take a couple of years for a manuscript to travel the bumpy road from sale to a publishing house to a spot on a bookshelf at Borders; what’s hip today may well be dated by then. Manuscripts still do get rejected, and often, by old-school professional readers trained to spot references that readers will not necessary catch three years from now.

Yes, I know: you’ve seen plenty of published books with these references. So have I. That doesn’t mean that it’s in your best interest to follow their example.

(6) Not dividing the YA market into as strongly-defined book categories as the adult market
Didn’t see that one coming, did you? Well, I guess you might have to talk to a lot of writers, agents, and editors to notice this problem, but since YA has taken off as a major market, more and more agents who represent primarily adult fiction have, predictably, started actively seeking out the next Harry Potter or Twilight.

Which are, correct me if I’m wrong, quite different from each other. So how is an aspiring writer to know what an agent who says she’s looking for YA, any YA, to know what she’s got in mind?

Defining YA books more precisely would be very, very helpful to agent-seeking writers — and not just by guiding those who write YA paranormal romance to agencies with a more successful record with vampire stories than horse books. Lumping too many kinds of YA together makes it harder for those who write for niche markets — like, say, the book for the smartest girl in the class, rather than for the boy who has a hopeless crush on an unattainable girl — find the right homes for their books.

There is literally nothing writers can do about this one, of course. Doesn’t mean it’s not worth grumbling over.

(5) “Whatever!”
Oh, God, how I wish that this one had never entered the language — although, as a means of irritating adults, I suppose the very fact that I want to strangle the next character who utters it indicates that it has been a rousing success.

Fine; you win, whatever-ers. Now give it a rest, already.

I’m not talking to young writers here, although I must admit that I have had a younger students hand me pages where whatever played a prominent role. (Unfortunately, the pages were in a term paper on Rousseau, and the first sentence that caught my eye was In human beings’ natural state, they all lived alone or whatever. The ensuing discussion was not pretty.) I’m aiming this complaint squarely at adult writers who shove whatever into their teenage characters’ mouths in an effort to make them sound like, well, teenagers.

Personally, I find this dismissive; most of the teenagers I know are pretty interesting people. As a reader, I want to hear what a specific teenage character has to say, not to see her merely parrot what any generic teenager might say.

And don’t tell me that young people really talk that way; real-life dialogue can be pretty boring. Astonish me with how your characters are different from anyone I might overhead in a movie ticket line, rather than lulling me to sleep with a transcript.

Want to show an attitude problem? Go right ahead. Writers have plenty of other narrative tools with which to demonstrate all kinds of emotional states.

(4) The demotion of the art of memoir to mere journalism
As recently as seven or eight years ago, memoirists signed contracts with their publishers that specified that the stories they were telling were essentially true, to the best of their knowledge. Lawsuits did occasionally happen, but pretty much everyone concerned recognized that (a) every human being recollects any shared event differently, (b) one of the things that separates a gifted memoirist from the rest of the population is the ability to hone and plane reality into a story that someone might conceivably want to read, and (c) occasionally, the effective exercise of (b) might lead to a bit of narrative fudging.

In short, no one seriously believed that all memoirists did was stand around for their entire pre-publication lives, taking notes like a court reporter. Poetic license was considered legitimate. Heck, ten years ago, you’d only have to buy a junior editor at a major publishing house one drink before he’d be assuring you that the latest celebrity memoir was a good 87% poetry.

Oh, I’m sorry — should I have warned you that the emperor’s clothes were about to be affected by gravity?

Now, memoirists are not only often required to sign iron-clad contracts, taking on all legal liability for any misstatements, but sometimes have to obtain signed releases from anyone mentioned in the book. Under the threat of negative publicity, publishers have been regarding memoirs with a far more suspicious eye. And no wonder, given how the media has reacted to the news: one established memoirist after another is outed as having made up salient facts, and some hyper-literal reporter so misunderstood David Sedaris’ essays that he meticulously fact-checked them.

Sedaris writes humor, people. Comedy writers see things differently than the general population. And may I introduce you once again to the concept of poetic license? Should I invite you all over for dinner, so you may get better acquainted?

It’s tempting to blame James Frey, he of the Million Little Pieces scandal, for this rather severe shift in publishing attitude. If only those rumors that his agent sold the book as a novel, not a memoir, would stop circulating so persistently, I might be able to jump on that bandwagon. However, as a memoirist whose publisher was dogged with lawsuit threats (unfounded) over my book, I’m inclined to think that the real culprit here is a trend for authors to be saddled with more and more of the burdens of bringing out a successful book.

If an author is now expected to, say, pay for his own book tour or hire his own publicist, is it really all that astonishing that he should be saddled with all of the risk of telling his own story? The emperor needs a new wardrobe, after all.

(3) The rise of editing on computer screens
I’m placing this one near the top of my list, since it has contributed so heavily to some of the problems lower down. Long-time readers of this blog, pull out your hymnals and sing along: since the human eye reads 70% faster on a screen than on a page, it is markedly more difficult to catch typos, logical problems, and other textual errors if one edits on a computer screen.

I could — and have — unleash an avalanche of examples at this point, but I’ll restrain myself and provide only one, a little something I like to call the according to Smith problem. See if you can spot it for yourself in this (completely fictional) article opening:

For the Anderson family, this was not the New Year’s Eve they were expecting. Last year, and every year before that, Mom Sheila, Dad Egbert, twins Drucilla and Delward, and little Ermintrude had gathered around the cheerful fire on their hearth, toasting one another with the vodka-laced grog Sheila’s grandmother used to make.

That was before the fire. Like so many now-scarred Americans, the Andersons were tragically unaware that vodka is flammable.

According to Smith, however, the turning of the year was not the only time the family used to drink. “I thought the kids were a little young. I mean, grog in the baby’s bottle? But hey, who am I to tell them how to raise ‘em?”

Did you catch it? No? Here’s a hint: WHO IS SMITH?

As an editor, this sort of editing error drives me nuts — and I assure you, it is an editing error, not a writing one. To an editorial eye, it’s fairly obvious that in an earlier draft, a sentence identifying Smith, probably including his first name and his relationship to the Andersons, appeared prior to the paragraph with the quote. In a subsequent draft, the reference was cut, and nobody noticed.

Except the confused reader, that is.

Would this be a good time to remind you to read your manuscripts IN HARD COPY, IN THEIR ENTIRETY, and, if possible, OUT LOUD? No? Okay, I’ll move on to my next point.

(2) The swiftly-widening gap between advances for bestselling authors and those less established
Do I really have to explain to a readership of writers why this one is bad for our art form? I doubt it, but just in case I need to spell it out: tiny advances mean that first-time authors can’t quit their day jobs.

Am I the only one who worries that the full-time book writer is in danger of becoming obsolete? And does anyone seriously believe that eventuality will improve the overall quality of the literary market?

Especially in combination with…

(1) The rapid turnover of editors, or, the rise of the five-editor book project
Ten years ago, it was rare that the editor who acquired a manuscript did not remain with the project all the way through the publication process. Heck, it was fairly normal for an editor to stick with a successful author for half a career.

Now, a first-time author may thank her lucky stars if her book is handled by only two or three editors; the turnover rate over the last year has been so rapid that I know no fewer than three authors whose books were overseen by five editors, all of whom wanted the book to be something different. One poor novelist got assigned a new editor less than a month before his book was scheduled to be printed.

Guess how he spent the first three weeks of that month? Oh, well, his protagonist didn’t really need that lesbian sister, anyway.

I’m not casting aspersions on any of his five editors, of course; for all I know, each of their widely divergent opinions on the book could have worked — had it been the only editorial vision. I’m merely suggesting that continually asking writers to adjust their creative process to different masters’ expectations within a single project might not be the most efficient means to get the best out of talented people.

Of course, the rate of turnover isn’t really the editors’ fault — I’ve seldom meant one who actively yearned to be fired — any more than the notoriously short average tenure of agency screeners and editorial assistants is the result of some active conspiracy of the powerless. So before we leave behind the blame portion of our evening, let’s talk about one other negative development for writers that is very much within these decision-makers’ control.

Bonus: the increasingly common practice of agents and editors not responding to submissions at all
A decade ago, an agent’s using a form letter to reject a query was the most common source of complaint among aspiring writers; now, it’s far from uncommon for that same agent not to respond to a query at all if the answer is no. But until just a couple of years ago, it was unheard-of for an agency to apply the silence-means-no practice to requested materials.

The times, they have indeed been a-changin’. Now, it’s not unusual for a submitter to hear back 6 months later, or even not at all.

Obviously, this widespread policy shift has been terrible for agent-seeking writers — and not just because it’s harder to wait five months to hear back than two. How, for instance, is a writer to know whether four months of non-response means that (a) his manuscript has been rejected, (b) his manuscript has not been rejected, but has not yet been read by all of the people who need to read it before the agent can say yes, or (c) the manuscript never got there in the first place?

Yet despite this quite radical change in how some agencies — not all, thank goodness — handle requested submissions, most aspiring writers still submit to only one agent at a time. Or even — sacre bleu! — query one at a time.

In the current environment, that means that even a writer who gets picked up unusually quickly will unnecessarily waste a year or two. Once again, I implore you: unless an agent’s website or guide listing specifically says s/he will not accept simultaneous submissions, keep sending out your work.

Unless, of course, you have an extra decade or so to kill before your book gets published?

Okay, that’s enough gloom-inducement for one night. On to the reason that all of you talented writers out there should keep pushing forward, despite an increasingly difficult publishing environment.

Come closer, and I’ll whisper it: the fact that it’s become significantly more difficult to get it published has little to do with the quality of your writing; these are systemic changes. But that doesn’t mean a good manuscript isn’t still worth promoting.

Yes, yes, I know: that sounds suspiciously similar to what I’ve been saying here at Author! Author! for the last five years. It’s still true. The primary difference is that in the face of ever-heightening barriers to good writers’ getting discovered, it’s becoming harder and harder to keep the faith.

And yet you still push forward, don’t you? That’s one of the things I love most about our Author! Author! community: we don’t give up on our talent. Even when the odds are, frankly, pretty ridiculous, good writers keep writing.

Which is why, despite my deep concerns about the future of writing, I’ve decided to end the year not with my suggestions for how to keep the faith, but yours. Here, at long last, are the winners of November’s Words to Write By contest:

“Don’t look down.” — Jennifer Crusie, bestselling romance author

Submitted by Jenyfer Matthews, who adds: “Seemingly simple, I interpret this quote to mean believe in yourself. Be brave enough to take that first step and then let the magic of the writing process carry you. Keep your head up, eyes forward, and just keep putting one word in front of the other until you reach the end. Don’t second guess yourself or the story – or else. Have faith.”

I’m with you, Jenyfer. Here’s another:

“You are allowed to suck.” — Mur Lafferty

Submitted by Bart Silverstrim, who went on to explain: “I first heard that aphorism as one of Mur Lafferty’s Rules of Writing in her podcast called “I Should be Writing.” My fears of ridicule, lack of talent, not being “good enough” to deserve the chance to become a published author melt away when I remind myself of this. It is the permission that all new (or aspiring) authors need in order to face that keyboard; you cannot edit your manuscript that sucks into something better until you have a manuscript to improve upon!”

So true, Bart. In a similar spirit:

“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” — Dodie Smith

Submitted by Natalie Kingston, along with this charming comment: “I love this quote; it’s the opening line of I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith (more famous for her Disney-adapted work The Hundred and one Dalmations). It reminds me that it’s always possible to find the time and space to write, if you look hard enough. It’s Virginia Woolf’s “room of one’s own” shrunk down to fit into the most prosaic, domestic space. The quote is typical of the whole novel, which contrasts romanticism of writing and the cold reality; the father takes a forty year lease on a dilapidated but charming castle in the hopes it will help him write his second novel, but it is his daughter who takes inspiration from their struggles to survive there. It reminds me not to cut myself off, and that the best ideas come from the most unexceptional places.”

Feeling more empowered already, aren’t you? Hold that feeling, because here comes the entry the judges found most inspiring of all, the winner of a brand-spanking-new copy of Askhari Johnson Hodari and Yvonne McCalla Sobers’ excellent LIFELINES: THE BLACK BOOK OF PROVERBS:

“I am a writer. I have books to write. What am I doing building a museum?”
~ Orhan Pamuk, possibly from a New York Times interview on the creation of his new museum

Submitted by Juniper Ekman, who went on to say:

“This is a quote I post to each page of my calendar, the quote I have taped to my phone. This is the quote I write in permanent marker on my palm so I can hold it up every time I answer yes to the wrong question:

“Do you have a few hours to make fifteen puppets for the holiday puppet show?”

“I know you’re already working five jobs, but would you mind coming in for an extra shift on Thursday? We forgot to hire somebody to replace the last employee we fired.”

Or when I find myself distracted by my hobbies, my friends, my feller, my life. All the things that make life worth living but prevent me from living on.

What am I doing?

No.
I am a writer.
I have books to write.”

I can think of no better way to end the year. Congratulations, Juniper, Natalie, Bart, and Jenyfer for trumping some pretty hefty competition for top inspiring quote, and thanks for helping all of us keep the faith for another year.

I say it at the end of every post, but never have I meant it more: keep up the good work, my friends. The world needs to hear your voice.

SOIA, part V: but what if…what if…

crossing-finish-line

Before I launch into today’s juicy buffet of meaty topics, a quick reminder: next Wednesday, November 25 is the deadline for submissions to the Author! Author! Inspirational Writerly Quotes contest. It’s easy to enter, and I’m genuinely excited to see all of your favorite keeping-the-faith quotes. For contest rules, click here.

Some additional incentive, for those of you who need a nudge to enter: if I keep getting thought-provoking entries, I may need to add more prizes. I’m just saying.

Back to that tempting buffet I mentioned — and lordy, is it bounteous at the moment. I’ve been getting such good questions in response to the SIOA (Send It Out, Already) series that I’m going to extend it into next week. So please, if you have any reservations whatsoever about the timing of mailing off requested materials or — heaven preserve us — are thinking about not complying with a submission request at all, stick around. And feel free to leave questions in the comments on these posts.

To give the comment-shy a bit of incentive, remember how I was telling you that some of my most trenchant blog topics come from readers’ comments — and that many of the most thought-provoking are left anonymously, presumably because their leavers are convinced that their situations are unique enough that there might be some repercussions if the comment were posted under their real names?

The last time I went on a SIOA rampage, way back in 2007, one such timid questioner raised a fascinating point under the clever pseudonym Anonymous — a bit of evasion that in this case appears to be abundantly justified:

Should I send requested materials to an agent that I took a genuine dislike to? During the panel, she said she had never picked up anyone from a conference and didn’t hope to. During my pitch she was brusque, kept cutting me off, and I had the feeling she only requested {pages}to get rid of me.

Should I chalk it up to jetlag, headache, hangover, being from New York, MBLS (Millicent Burned Lip Syndrome), and send them anyway?

I suppose I could always say no later, but she’s from a fairly big agency and I’d just assume cold-query someone else from there if it’s going to be a long-term relationship.

Whenever I get a question like this, the wee hairs at the back of my neck begin to quiver — and not just because I can already feel half the agents I know lining up to glower at me for what I’m about to say. It’s because I hear stories like this from so many conference pitchers.

Yes, of course, I’m going to delve into why this is apparently such a common conference experience. But allow me to set some anonymous minds at ease first.

For starters, please, for your own sake, don’t prejudge an agent (or editor — or writer, for that matter, if you happen to be on the other side of the pitching table) based on a less-than-stellar first impression. It’s not unheard-of for a good agent-client relationship to emerge from a so-so or even downright hostile pitch meeting.

Stop shaking your head — it’s true. It’s also true that warm personal interaction at a first meeting or a we-love-writers speech from a conference do not necessarily guarantee a good future working relationship. Mostly because being a nice person is not an indispensable prerequisite for being either a good agent or a good writer.

Yes, yes, I know: those of us who happen to be both talented and nice would prefer that the two were linked. Because there is no necessary correlation, the oh-so-common writerly conference strategy of deciding whom to pitch based upon who sounded nicest during an agents’ forum is not particularly strategic.

How so? Well, in the first place, it’s far from unheard-of for a nice agent to put on a standoffish persona in conference situations, to avoid being swamped by eager would-be clients. The theory, I believe, is that if one makes oneself approachable, one is less likely to be approached.

In the second place, agents and editors are not infrequently sent to conferences primarily to give a talk, sit on a panel, or to promote a client’s book — only to find themselves expected to hear pitches as well for no additional compensation. One extremely prominent agent stalked into a Conference That Shall Remain Nameless a few years back and alienated virtually every writer there by not only announcing that he NEVER picked up clients via pitching, but that he wasn’t interested in speaking to anyone who wasn’t either already published or an attractive woman under 30.

He might have meant that last part as a joke. But I’m sure you can easily imagine the dismay of the fifty or so conference attendees who had been assigned to pitch to him. Especially when he devoted the rest of his time on the agents’ panel to alternating between promoting his recently-released book of advice for aspiring writers and rubbing it in the other agents’ faces that a client of his had recently won the Pulitzer Prize.

See earlier comment about the correlation between being nice and being good at selling books.

His book is quite well-respected, by the way. Yet after he treated that roomful of aspiring writers — who, after all, had paid a fairly hefty sum to hear him dash their dreams contemptuously into the convention center’s musty carpet — wild horses would have to drag me across a frozen lake in Hades before I would touch his book with a ten-foot pole, much less recommend it to my charming and sensitive readers.

But at least he was honest about pitching to him being a waste of time — as Anonymous’ manuscript-requester sounds like she was. (Or she could have been having a bad day, or it was her first conference…) Actually, I have more of a problem with agents who take the opposite tack, being immensely friendly to conference-attending writers when they have no intention of picking up any new clients.

It just goes to show you: an agent’s sales record is pretty much always a better indicator of how well she will represent your work than her level of charm on any given day.

Lest we forget, agents end up at conferences for a lot of different reasons — including drawing the short straw when the person the fairly large agency usually sends can’t do it this year. An agent who didn’t really want to be there might easily have made the statement Anonymous reported. As might someone new to conferences — or, as he pointed out, who is hung over, jet lagged, or just plain rude.

That being said, a hung-over, unhappy-to-be-there, naturally brusque, etc. person is infinitely more likely to get a writer to go away by saying no than by saying yes, so it’s worth considering the possibility that she genuinely wanted to see Anonymous’ material. Or thought his book might interest someone else at her agency — agents at large agencies do occasionally pass along submissions to one another.

Perhaps neither was the case here, but it was definitely worth checking out. And how does an aspiring writer do that, clever readers?

Shout it with me now: by Sending It Out, Already!

I can sense you scowling, SIOA-avoiders. “But Anne,” some of you protest mid-grimace, “I still think sending my precious manuscript to nasty old Grumblepuss is a waste of my time and resources. Why bother, when I could be querying or submitting to somebody else?”

Good point, oh scowlers — provided that you are indeed investing the energy you’re not investing in following up with Grumblepuss in approaching and submitting to other agents. Most SIOA-avoiders do not, alas.

And that’s especially unfortunate, because in the vast majority of post-pitching situations, the choice is not SIOAing to Grumblepuss or not sending it out at all. A savvy pitcher can usually garner several requests for materials at a large conference (if you doubt that, you might want to check out the HOW TO WRITE A REALLY GOOD PITCH and/or HALLWAY PITCHING categories on the archive list at right); even if Anonymous wasn’t able to buttonhole any other agent, he could always query other agents he heard speak. (As in, “I so enjoyed hearing your talk at Conference X that I am hoping you will be interested in my paranormal mystery…”)

After all, there’s no earthly reason that Anonymous couldn’t be SIOAing to Grumblepuss while simultaneously SIOAing, pitching, or querying others, right? Sing it out, long-time readers: unless an agent or agency SPECIFICALLY informs writers that he/she/it only accepts exclusive queries or submissions, an aspiring writer asked for materials is free to submit it to other agents at the same time. And should.

Besides, what does Anonymous really have to lose here? If Grumbles falls in love with his writing, it’s unlikely that she’s going to be anything but nice from there on out — and if she doesn’t fall in love with it, then her interpersonal skills won’t affect Anonymous ever again. It was just a bad conference meeting.

It’s also entirely possible that Grumbles wouldn’t have perceived herself as being brusque at all — I know plenty of agents who would begin to hurry a writer through a pitch the moment they decided that they wanted to see it. If they’ve already decided to read it, the logic runs, what more is there to say?

Especially if every syllable uttered in her presence sounds like a jetliner breaking the sound barrier somewhere within her brainpan. The demon drink does affect everyone differently, and few are the writers’ conferences where teetotalism prevails, if you catch my drift. Heck, I’ve attended conferences where the behind-the-scenes parties were so intense that some of the agents didn’t make it to their morning pitch meetings at all.

You might want to pick your jaw off the floor, lest some passerby inadvertently tread upon your lower lip.

When it comes right down to it, Grumbles DID make a professional commitment to read Anonymous’ work; he is well within his rights to expect her to honor it. If she was being brusque to hide that she was too much of a softie to say no, or to scare off potential submitters, well, that’s just sort of quixotic, and it’s not worth any aspiring writer’s energy to second-guess her.

But frankly, the too-nice-to-say-no contingent is generally, well, nice about it. They want to be liked, you see.

So unless Anonymous already knew for a fact that another agent at Grumbles’ agency has a strong track record of representing your kind of book AND he was planning to cold-query that agent within the next couple of months, I would go ahead and SIOA. Perhaps not with high hopes, but especially if she has scared off other potential submitters (thus reducing the number of manuscripts she will have received from the conference), Anonymous isn’t going to lose anything by doing what she asked him to do.

Because she might just say yes, right? And presumably, Anonymous knew enough about who she is and what she represents to want her as an agent.

Even if she did, out of some bizarre desire to make more work for herself, say yes when she meant no (not a common practice, in my experience, for the habitually insensitive), it’s highly unlikely that she would have let her Millicent in on her evil plan. At least not in enough detail to cause Millie to take one look at your cover letter, giggle, and pass it directly into the reject pile.

Hey, really effective sadism takes time and planning. Both Grumbles and Millicent are far to busy perusing that 4-month backlog of submissions.

Everyone comfortable with that? Or, if comfortable is too much to ask, at least able to live with it?

Nor was Anonymous’ the only great question raised by readers of my last rousing SIOA series. Listen, if you will, to the excellent point Rose raised:

I think I have a variation of this. Talked to you a while back about how several agents have been sitting on requested partials and fulls for a while. You suggested I contact them. I was too scared. I’ve queried over 100 agents already, this is a difficult book I think, but I know that it’s quite good—so what I’ve begun to do…I did write to an agent who had the full for 6 months, he said he didn’t remember getting it so I sent it again (electronically) and asked him to let me know he got it. He didn’t.

That was two months ago.

I’m more concerned about a couple of agents who have partials. They seem to be good fits for me, but they just haven’t replied and it’s been 6 months. I’ve resolved to send it again, this time on paper, with a note. (Actually one of these agents *did* get it on paper originally. Why would so many agents be so eager to see my book and then not even reply to reject it?)
And while it’s getting harder to hold this pose, my chin is still up pretty high.

Oh, how I wish Rose were the only aspiring writer in North America with this problem! Unfortunately, her dilemma seems to be getting steadily more common.

So common, in fact, that intrepid reviser Jenyfer posted a comment about it just the other day:

What I wonder more is why it is that once an agent asks to see the material and the material is actually sent, the agent can’t be bothered to respond. It’s one thing to ignore an unsolicited query / partial, but if they actually request it, you would think they could at least say “thanks, but no thanks” if they aren’t interested. Surely I’m not the only one this has happened to?

You and Rose are most emphatically not the only aspiring writers to whom this has happened, Jenyfer, but the why is hard to explain. Hard enough, I think, that I want to devote an entire post to the subject sometime soon.

In the meantime, let me complete the translation process Jenyfer initiated: the vast majority of the time, when an agent simply doesn’t respond at all to either a submission of requested materials or a query accompanied by materials that the agency’s website or agency guide listing specifically request that all queriers send, the answer is no, at least on this book project.

Or there isn’t an answer at all, because the agency never received the materials in the first place, accidentally deleted an e-mailed submission, mixed up your SASE with another aspiring writer’s…

You get the picture. The real problem with the increasingly frequent practice of not replying if the answer is no is not, to my mind, the inherent rudeness — I was brought up to treat even complete strangers’ dreams and aspirations with greater respect — but the fact that the submitter can never really know for sure whether the agent (or her Millicent) ever read the pages at all.

While you absorb the full horror of that last statement, let’s get back to Rose’s practical dilemma. Since it’s been 6 and 8 months, respectively, it’s almost certainly safe to assume that the answer is no, and the agents concerned just didn’t get around to mentioning that salient fact to Rose. Yet it is also possible that in those 6/8 months, one or all of these agencies adopted a policy that they respond only if they want to see additional pages or are ready to offer representation.

Such policies are, alas, increasingly common, especially for agencies that accept electronic queries and submissions. So if it’s been a while, a nail-gnawing waiting writer’s first stop should be the agency’s website and/or listing in the most recent edition of a well-established agency guide.

“That makes sense, Anne,” those who were scowling earlier concede. “But what should a self-respecting writer like Rose do if these agencies have no posted policies on the subject?”

Ah, that’s a more difficult question. Since Agent #1 has now spaced out twice, Rose is naturally more than within her rights to e-mail him and remind him that other agents are looking at it. Two months is long enough for courtesy, although I wouldn’t normally recommend following up before twice the agency’s stated average turn-around time. And before she follows up at all, of course, she should — chant it with me now — check the agency’s website or most recent guide listings for average turn-around times and possible policies of silence.

She should not send a whole new copy of the manuscript, mind you, but a politely-worded question that allows the agent to save face if he’s simply lost it:

Dear Mr. (Wayward Agent’s last name),

As you requested, I sent you the full manuscript of my novel, PLEASE DON’T IGNORE THIS STACK OF PAPERS, a couple of months ago. While you have been considering it, several other agents have asked to read it as well.

I thought you might want to be aware that other agents were also considering it. If you have decided that you are not interested, or if the manuscript has gone astray, please let me know.

Thank you for your continued interest in my book project, and I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Sincerely,

Rose Nailgnawer

See? No recriminations, no hurry-it-up-buddy, no here-it-is-for-a-third-time-you-moron, just a polite, professional reminder that Rose exists and is waiting for a response. And believe it or not, if the agency actually did lose the submission (the agent’s ambiguous statement that he doesn’t remember having received it doesn’t tell us anything either way), or if it’s still sitting in a post office just outside Peoria, the agent actually will want to know about it.

Unfortunately, the only way he is at all likely to find out about such an error is if the submitting author tells him. In an environment where most agents vastly prefer to be left alone to consider their immense backlog of manuscripts, that’s an inherently risky thing to do.

See why being polite is so very important? And why I always recommend continuing to query and submit elsewhere while any given agent is considering a manuscript, partial or full?

Speaking of multiple submissions, a missive like this would be an especially good idea to send if she had formerly neglected to mention that there were other agents taking a gander at it in the first place. In fact, this would be a good time to politely remind/inform Agents #2 and 3 of the same fact — because technically, the non-responsive agent IS considering it, right?

Incidentally, though, there are a couple of ways that Rose could have hedged her bets earlier, both when she submitted in hard copy and electronically. The accepted method of asking for receipt confirmation is to send a self-addressed, stamped postcard (with a hard copy, obviously) and ask the agent in your cover letter to drop it in the mail when he receives it.

The other common method is to send the pages via a mail service (and the USPS does offer this cheaply) that requires a signature upon receipt. Do check in advance, though, whether the agency has a policy that it will not sign for parcels — many now do.

Two more reasons that paper submissions are far, far better for writers than electronic ones. But if an agent insists upon an electronic submission, the easiest way to confirm that it got there is to cc the missive to yourself. That way, you will receive a dated copy.

Most of this is moot, of course, if Agent #1 works at an agency whose stated policy forbids simultaneous submissions to other agencies. But even if he did insist on having a solo peek at the work, Rose should have moved on after three months, maximum; it’s not fair to her otherwise. That’s a subject for another post, however.

The moral: while yes, most of the time-related decisions in a submission situation do lie in the receiving agent’s hands, the writer does not need to sit around and wait helplessly. A career-minded writer keeps moving forward until some agent worthy of representing the book says yes.

Even if that takes more than a 100 tries — not at all out of the ballpark these days, by the way, even for the best of first books. So keep pressing forward, because that’s the only way to succeed in the end.

Welcome to a world where overnight successes have almost always been at it for at least five years. Hanging in there has benefits, I assure you. Keep up the good work!

SIOA, Part IV: some tips on combating the “Oh, God — have I blown it?” blues

billie

Still hanging in there, everyone? Or have my several days of admonitions to SIOA — Send It Out, Already! — materials requested in months past sent some of you scurrying into the back of your coat closets, whimpering amid the cast-off galoshes of Januaries past?

I certainly hope not. I was kind of hoping that significant numbers of you would find this series empowering — at least enough to, say, spend this coming weekend frantically reading requested pages IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and preferably OUT LOUD before popping them in the mail next week. You know, before agents and editors go on their traditional long winter’s nap.

In other words: rah, rah, Team Literate!

Earlier this week, I told you the story of SIOA-avoider Zack, who had talked himself into a fairly common agent-seeking writer’s dilemma. He had pitched successfully at a conference last summer — so much so that he had been asked to send both the first 50 and the whole manuscript, respectively, to a number of different agents, so well done, Zack — but he had become so intent upon revising the book into a pinnacle of perfection that he never quite managed to get any of those requested materials packets out the door.

Not that he intended not to send them out when he was pitching, of course. No, at the time, and even for a few weeks after the conference, he was willing — nay, eager! — to place his work under as many agents’ noses as possible. He certainly stressed out often enough about it. But somehow, he kept delaying making those last crucial changes.

And one day, he woke up to realize that five months had gone by. Or seven. Or a year.

It may have been as little as three or four weeks, but regardless of the actual number of cast-off calendar pages involved, it was long enough to prompt that thought always so close to the front of a writer gearing up for submission’s mind:

“Oh, God, have I blown my big chance?”

From that cri de coeur, it was only a small step to Zack’s talking himself into believing that the agents in question would be miffed over the delay, so his submission really didn’t have a chance, anyway. Why, he reasoned, waste postage, now that rejection was a foregone conclusion?

For one very, very good reason, Zack: it wasn’t.

What doomed the submission was not anything that happened on the agent’s end; what guaranteed failure was Zack’s not pulling out of the SIOA-avoidance spiral. There are, of course, plenty of things a submitter can do to render rejection more LIKELY, but — take out your hymnals and sing along, please, long-time readers — the only manuscript that has absolutely no chance of being picked up by an agent is one that no agent ever sees.

So today I’m going to ask the Zacks of the world: if you’ve already decided that rejection is a foregone conclusion because so much time has passed, what precisely do you have to lose by sending it out at this point? ,

And yes, that’s a perfectly serious question.

Admittedly, I wouldn’t ADVISE waiting 7 or 8 months to submit requested materials (or pushing it for longer than a year, regardless of the reason), but it’s not as though Millicent the manuscript screener will take one look at the return address, consult a list of expected arrivals, and toss it aside unread, muttering, “Well, we’ll never know if THAT one had potential, will we?”

For one thing, handling it this way would require her to take the 14 seconds required to check a list — and for someone to have gone to the trouble of creating and maintaining such a list in the first place. Yes, the requesting agent probably jotted a few words down next to your name on his conference appointment sheet, but it’s unlikely to the point of hilarity that our pal Millicent will have that sheet next to her when she receives your manuscript. So the only point at which anyone concerned is at all likely to take a peek at that who-pitched-me list is the agent for whom Millicent is screening — which means that Millicent has to think your submission is very, very good indeed.

What is she likely to do instead of going off to double-check precisely when her boss originally requested Zack’s long-delayed manuscript? Well, here’s a hint: ripping open an envelope marked REQUESTED MATERIALS and starting to read is a pretty time-consuming task, when multiplied by a hundred manuscripts.

That’s right: she’s almost certainly just going to — you guessed it — rip open the envelope and start reading. Oh, she may roll her eyes at the line in Zack’s cover letter that mentions at which conference her boss requested the enclosed pages (all of you conference pitchers are mentioning where the agent or editor heard your pitch, right?), if she happens to recall off the top of her head how long ago it was. But in all likelihood, she’s going to take a gander at the first page, at least.

And if the agent or editor requested pages in response to a written query, she’s not going to blink twice if it took 11 months to reach her desk. Unless, of course, the agency or publishing house is not longer handling that type of book.

Yes, it happens — all the time, in fact. If it’s been a VERY long time since the agent of your dreams requested those pages, you might want to double-check — but not, I beg of you, by sending the agent another query letter, asking if it’s still okay to send those long-awaited materials. A quick, discreet trip to the agency’s website or listing in the most recent edition of one of the standard agency guides should tell you whether the AOYD has moved on to other book categories while you’ve been revising.

PLEASE do not, however, regard the likelihood that Millicent simply will not care how long ago her boss requested materials as carte blanche to push off revising that requested material until some dimly-imagined future point when you’ll have unbroken time to revise. Some agents do take umbrage at long delays, particularly after face-to-face pitching.

You can see their point, can’t you? Listening to many pitches in a row is pretty exhausting, after all, and one of the first reactions someone who makes her living by selling books is likely to have to the pitch that truly excited her is to start brainstorming quietly about which editors might be interested in the book in question. Don’t you want to keep that train of thought going — or at least (hold on, racking my brains for a train metaphor here) place your good writing under her nose while that moment of excitement is still within living memory?

(Couldn’t come up with an appropriate follow-up railroad metaphor, obviously. We all have our off days.)

If you want to build upon the excitement generated by a pitch or query letter, it’s prudent to try to get it out the door within 6 weeks of the request (not counting standard publishing not-at-home periods, like the three weeks leading up to Labor Day). The common wisdom dictates 3, but since agents hear SO many pitches at conferences and Millicent sees SO many queries, it’s unlikely that either is going to recall details of a pitch or query.

It IS nice, though, if you can get it to ‘em soon enough so something about your project seems at least vaguely familiar. More recognition than that isn’t necessary, strictly speaking, because you will have written REQUESTED MATERIALS in big, fat marker on the outside of the envelope and reminded them in the first line of your cover letter that they did, in fact, ask to see it. (If anything in the last sentence came as a surprise to you, I would highly recommend taking a gander at the HOW TO PUT TOGETHER A SUBMISSION PACKET category at right.)

Less than 6 weeks is ideal, but if you can send it out in under 3 months, there really is no need to apologize for the delay, or even to mention it. (As writers often do, and at great length. Often whilst groveling.) Longer than that, though, and it’s a good idea to add a sentence to your cover letter, apologizing for the delay.

What you most emphatically do not need to do is — wait for it — query again and ask for permission to send it at all. A crisp, businesslike cover letter set on top of your requested materials will do beautifully. Something like this is ample:

Dear Mr./Ms. (Requesting Agent’s Last Name),

Thank you for asking to see the first fifty pages of my novel, INVISIBLE INK. Please find it enclosed, along with a SASE for its safe return.

I had hoped to get these pages to you a trifle sooner, but the confluence of an unusually protracted work crisis and a bright idea for improving Chapter Two rendered my proofreading eye a bit slower than usual. I apologize for the delay.

Thank you for considering this, and I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Sincerely,

Charlotte Brontë

See? No obsequiousness required at all; just the facts, ma’am. If our Charlotte had pitched at a conference last March, she should mention it, but without calling attention to how long it’s been. If she has overcome her SOIA-avoidance sufficiently to send requested materials out to everyone who has asked to see them, she should bring that up, too:

Dear Mr./Ms. (Requesting Agent’s Last Name),

Thank you for asking to see the first fifty pages of my novel, INVISIBLE INK. Please find it enclosed, along with a SASE for its safe return.

I enjoyed speaking with you at the Desperate Writers’ Proving Ground Conference. I had hoped to get these pages to you sooner, but each of the agents and editors I pitched there asked for something slightly different. Please be aware that several of them will be considering this project simultaneously with you.

Thank you for your interest in my writing, and I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Sincerely,

Charlotte Brontë

Nice, clean, professional — and most importantly, not maudlin. No need to go on at length about what actually delayed you; you’re just being polite here, not filling in a long-lost buddy about the last six months of your life. (If you don’t like the work crisis motif, try a computer meltdown: everyone can identify with that.) All you really need to do here is to establish that you realize that you may have been slow to SIOA, and that you don’t plan to make a habit of it.

If you DO plan on making a habit of it — a way of life I do not recommend any writer’s embracing — you can buy yourself some additional time if you are polite about any anticipated delays early on. Naturally, if you experience a genuine life crisis, that’s beyond your control. If one occurs within the first couple of months after a request, it is perfectly proper to send out a courteous (and BRIEF) e-mail or letter to the requesting agent, stating that there’s going to be an unavoidable delay in sending those pages he asked to see. Perhaps something along the lines of…

Dear Mr./Ms. (Requesting Agent’s Last Name),

Thank you for requesting the full manuscript of my novel, INVISIBLE INK. Unfortunately, a fire has just consumed half of my neighborhood, so it may be a few months before I can reconstitute the text from my back-ups. I shall send it to you just as soon as I am able.

Thank you in advance for your patience — and I am looking forward to submitting to you soon.

Sincerely,

Charlotte Brontë

See? Even if the writer has a genuinely tragic justification for the delay, it’s possible — indeed, preferable, not to make a big deal of it. Just provide a simple, straightforward explanation, and leave it at that.

Do everything in your power, though, to keep the lapse between request and submission under a year, especially for a follow-up on a conference pitch. (Since conferences are annual, and agencies frequently send different agents in different years, it can be really, really obvious if a submitter’s cover letter refers to the 2009 or 2008 conference.)

One more piece of practical advice: if you are SIOAing after a substantial delay, I would HIGHLY recommend submitting your work via regular mail, rather than as an e-mail attachment, unless the agency categorically refuses to consider hard copy submissions. Yes, even if the agent or editor originally suggested that you send it via e-mail.

Why? Because while Millicent will almost certainly open even a months-late envelope, she may not open a months-late attachment. Especially if the first line of the e-mail runs something like, “Please, please, PLEASE forgive me for taking eighteen months to send these pages to you…”

Or she may not read the accompanying e-mail at all, if she mistakes it for an unsolicited submission. (Since e-mailed queries and submissions typically have swifter turn-around times, the probability of a what’s-been-requested list is substantially higher.) Most agencies will not open unrequested e-mail attachments, ever, due to fear of viruses, and the chances of your submission’s being mistaken for unsolicited grows as your name recognition at the agency fades.

If, knowing all this, you still find yourself firmly in the do-not-send-it-out-until-Groundhog-Day camp, I have one last question for you: are you absolutely positive that you really want to submit this book to professional scrutiny at all?

That may sound flippant, but listen: chronic SIOA-avoidance is a extremely common phenomenon, but in my experience, its severity does not correlate with how ready the book in question is to be marketed or the inherent talent of its writer. It’s very frequently a manifestation of fear of rejection, a way to protect one’s baby from criticism.

Completely understandable, right? A manuscript that is never submitted cannot be rejected; it’s logically impossible.

So for many aspiring writers, it just feels more comfortable to cut the process short by not mailing requested materials — in essence, rejecting their own work before the agent can do it — than to take the risk of exposing their books to professional critique. That way, they can never learn for sure whether their books are marketable or not.

Let me be clear here: I have absolutely nothing negative to say about writers who create solely for their own pleasure. Bless the Emily Dickinsons of this world, I say, who limit their audience to people they already know. That route can be wonderfully fulfilling, if the writer is honest about it, embracing the desire for an intimate readership — and doesn’t torture herself by continually trying to find an agent and/or editor she doesn’t really want or need.

However, the VAST majority of writers write in order to be read by people they DON’T know. To do that necessarily means risking rejection.

And let’s not kid ourselves about the kind of personal strength taking that level of risk requires: you have to be damned brave to send your work out to hyper-critical strangers. There aren’t a lot of professions where the practitioner’s FIRST official act is to take a piece of her soul and allow people a couple of time zones away to examine it under a microscope for minute flaws.

So, just for today, let’s celebrate how courageous we are when we do send out our work, rather than castigating ourselves when we don’t. Just for today, let’s clap our hands for all of us who have taken the great leap of submission. And for those who are going to pluck up the courage to break the SIOA spiral now.

I would swear that I can still hear some of you SIOA avoiders out there saying, “But…but…” Next time, I’m going to tackle some of the lingering buts that have troubled readers past.

In the meantime, chins up, my friends, and keep up the good work!

Submission packet mystery theatre, continued: the race is not always to the swift

monk writing at desk

Before I launch back into my ongoing spate of darkly illustrative tales of Submitters Gone Wrong (hey, it’s Halloween — what could possibly be scarier to a writer than a submission gone horribly awry?) I have a bit of procedural business: I’m going to be taking a brief hiatus from posting here at Author! Author!, probably about a week, to lock myself in a suitably arty and consumption-inducing attic somewhere to perform a bit of intensive writing. In the interim, please feel free to post questions and comments; I shall be checking in every couple of days. Do talk amongst yourselves.

To provide you with some mental chewing gum to munch while I’m off doing an intensive rewrite, I shall be wrapping up this week’s micro-series on SASEs and other things an aspiring writer might conceivably ship to an agent or editor with a bit more discussion of the submission process — specifically, more cautionary tales where completely well-meaning aspiring writers go wrong in pulling together and sending off requested materials.

Or at the very least, cause themselves some unnecessary chagrin.

Case in point: too many aspiring writers waste scads of money speeding up the delivery time between their houses and a requesting agency. Overnighting a submission is utterly unnecessary; it won’t win you any Brownie points whatsoever with Millicent the agency screener, and it most assuredly will not get her boss to read your manuscript any faster.

Save your money for something else — nice paper upon which to print the submission, for instance. Or a bottle of aspirin for the stress headache induced by waiting for the response.

With an eye to helping submitting writers figure out what is and isn’t a necessary expense, I have spent the last few posts talking (in part) about ways to save money when shipping requested materials to an agent or editor. We writers don’t talk about this very much amongst ourselves, but the fact is, the process of finding an agent can be pretty expensive.

Did a few of you new to the process just choke on your cornflakes? “Wait just a minute, Anne,” a sputtering few still working up to the marketing stage cry. “Surely, you’re talking about the entire agent-finding process being expensive, right, not just the shipping-off part? I mean, really, I’ve just shelled out hundreds of dollars to attend a writers’ conference so I could meet agents to query — I hadn’t thought at all about the next step, mailing off requested materials, taxing my scant savings.”

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but better to shatter your illusions than your piggy bank: the submission process itself can be quite expensive. Especially if you decide, as many a savvy writer does, to submit to several agents simultaneously.

Why might it add up? Well, let’s take a gander at what’s involved. At minimum, the costs of producing a professional-looking submission packet include:

shipping (both there and back),
boxes,
paper,
ink cartridges or photocopying expenses,
wear and tear on your computer, and
a ton of your time that could be used for, well, anything else.

While individually, these may not seem as potentially scarifying to your checking account as the even greater optional costs of attending conferences, entering contests, and hiring freelance editors like me to help pull your submission into tip-top shape, if you’re printing out five different packets, the cumulative cost can be significant.

So much so that if you’re a US citizen and marketing a book, it’s worth looking into the possibility of filing a Schedule C for your writing as a business, so you can deduct these expenses. Talk to a tax professional about it (I am not a tax professional, so I cannot legally give you advice on the subject), but do try to find one who is familiar with artists’ returns in general and writers’ returns specifically: ones who are not will almost invariably say that a writer must actually sell some writing in a given year to claim associated expenses. That’s not necessarily true.

Or so I’m told. Had I mentioned that I’m not a professional tax advisor, and that you absolutely shouldn’t take my word on any of this?

Last time, as part of my ongoing quest to save you a few sous, I brought up the case of Antoinette, the writer who rushed out and overnighted her manuscript, then waited seemingly endlessly by the phone for the agent of her dreams to respond. I went into her possible reasons for doing this — rather than sending the book regular mail or the more affordable 2-3 day Priority Mail rate.

Today, I want to talk a bit about the other two primary motivators for jumping the proverbial gun and springing for swifter-than-normal shipping: clawing, pathological fear and nail-gnawing eagerness.

To let one of the most poorly-hidden cats out of one of the most hole-ridden bags in the business, few souls walking the planet are in a greater hurry than a writer who has just received a request for materials. Especially if that request comes at the end of a long period of querying or after a particularly intense conference, it’s far from uncommon for the lucky writer to decide, wrongly, that the only possible response is to drop everything else in her life — by calling in sick to work, evading kith and kin, pretending to have emigrated to Morocco, that sort of thing — to throw together the requested materials and get them out the door as close to instantly as possible.

One of two rationales may prompt this super-speedy response. In the first, the writer cries, “Oh, my God, this request to see all or part of my manuscript must be a fluke. I’d better get these materials under the agent or editor’s nose within the next few hours, before either (a) s/he changes her/his mind, (b) the malignant forces that rule the universe cause the wall of indifference to art to rise again, this temporary fissure mended, or (c) both!”

Whichever thunderbolt the hostile gods of publishing are planning to send his way, the hyper-fearful writer wants to make absolutely sure that his submission is out of his hands well before it strikes. Who cares that he hasn’t had time to double-check his submission for easily-overlooked gaffes that a few hours invested in proofreading (IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and read OUT LOUD, preferably), or that overnighting that package will cost four times as much as sending it via regular mail? He’s trying to submit before the agent of his dreams comes to his/her senses.

In reality, of course, it just doesn’t work like that: a request to submit materials will be every bit as good two weeks from the day it was made as it was in the moment. Or two months hence.

As I MAY have hinted gently above, the writer’s speed in getting the submission to the agent typically does not make one scintilla of difference in how quickly a manuscript is read — or even the probability of its moldering on an agent’s desk for months. Certainly, whether the agent’s receiving the manuscript the next day or in the 2-3 days offered by the much more reasonably priced Priority Mail will make no appreciable difference to response time.

Especially during summer conference season, since most of the industry goes on vacation from early August through Labor Day. Or between Thanksgiving and Christmas, when the NYC-based part of the biz more or less shuts down. Or in January, when half the aspiring writers in North America are trying to live up to their New Year’s resolution to get those queries and submissions out the door, pronto.

The other, more common rationale for too-swift submission is eagerness. “Whew!” the writer who has just received a request to submit exclaims. “The hard part is over now: my premise has been recognized as a good one by an agent who handles this sort of material. From this point on, naturally, everything is going to happen in a minute: reading, acceptance, book sale, chatting on Oprah.”

You know, the average trajectory for any garden-variety blockbuster. Who wouldn’t want to cut a week, or even a few days, out of the delivery time for that brilliantly fabulous future?

I sincerely hope that yours is the one in eight million submissions that experiences this second trajectory — and that’s the probability in a good year for publishing — but writerly hopes to the contrary, a request for submission is the beginning of the game, not the end. The fact is, as small a percentage of queries receive a positive response (and it’s usually under 5%, even in a brisk economy), even fewer submissions pass the initial read test.

Or, to put it the terms we typically use here at Author! Author!, it generally takes even less provocation to cause Millicent shout “Next!” over the first page of a manuscript than over a query. (If that’s news to you and you’re in the mood for a good, old-fashioned Halloween scare, I would strongly urge you to set aside a few hours to run through the posts in the HOW NOT TO WRITE A FIRST PAGE category on the archive list at right. It’s sent many a strong writer running screaming from the room.)

There’s a reason that I grill you on the details, you know: I want your queries and submissions to be in that top few percentiles. Which is why I would rather see your resources and energy going toward perfecting the submission itself, rather than getting it there with a rapidity that would make Superman do a double-take.

This is true, incidentally, even when the agent has ASKED a writer to overnight a project. Consider the plight of poor Gilberto:

Submission scenario 2: Gilberto has just won a major category in a writing contest with his thriller, DON’T PAY ANY ATTENTION TO THE MAN BEHIND THE CURTAIN; HE’S NOT REALLY CARRYING AN AXE. During the very full pitching day that follows his win, five agents ask him to send submissions. Seeing that he was garnering a lot of interest, Maxine, the most enthusiastic of the agents, requests that he overnight the manuscript to her, so she can respond to it right away.

Over the vehement objections of every previous winner of this particular contest (and, incidentally, yours truly), Gilberto says yes. When his local post office opens the next day, he’s already waiting in line, all set to overnight the submission packet he stayed up all night preparing..

However, being a savvy submitter, he submits simultaneously to the other five via regular mail right away. Yet he does not tell Maxine — or any of the others — that he is letting many agents read his manuscript at the same time. He writes REQUESTED MATERIALS — FIRST PLACE, CONTEST NAME on the outside of every submission and mentions the request in the first line of his cover letter, to minimize the possibility of his work being lost in amongst the many submissions these agencies receive.

Within three weeks, he’s heard back from all but one of them; puzzlingly, the super-eager Maxine is the very last to respond. And when she finally does, six weeks after he overnighted her the manuscript, it’s with a form letter. This most enthusiastic of agents has rejected him without even telling him why.

What did Gilberto do wrong? Not much, really, except for saying yes to an unreasonable request — and not telling all of the agents concerned up front that they were competing over his work. That not made his submission process more expensive than it needed to be, but also more or less eliminated any benefit he might have derived from the contest-generated buzz about his book.

Let’s take Gil’s missteps one at a time. Why was Maxine’s request that he overnight the manuscript unreasonable?

In essence, the situation was no different than if Maxine had asked him to leave the conference, jump in his car, drive three hours home to print up a copy of his manuscript for her, drive three hours back, and hand it to her. In both cases, the agent would have been asking the writer to go to unnecessary effort and expense for no reason other than her convenience. Yet as Maxine’s subsequent behavior abundantly demonstrated, she had no more intention of reading Gilberto’s manuscript within the next couple of days than she did of reading it on the airplane home.

So why did she ask him to overnight it at all?

Give yourself full marks if you said it was to get a jump on other interested agents. Lest we forget, agents tend to be competitive people — to many of them, a book project’s value will increase in direct proportion to how many other agents are interested in it. (Also true of many editors, incidentally.) The give-me-first-peek request is one way it manifests.

Yet another reason that — chant it with me now, long-time readers — it is always in an aspiring writer’s best interest to make simultaneous submissions and queries, rather than approaching them one at a time.

Not clear why? For the same reason Gilberto’s not telling all of the agents concerned that they were in potential competition over his work was a mistake: had they known that, they would probably have been a bit more interested. Or at any rate aware that they might miss out if they put off reading his submission for too long. Thus, not using his manuscript’s being in demand as a selling point may actually have harmed Gilberto’s chances of landing an agent.

That out-of-the-blue pop quiz worked so well, I’m going to spring another one upon you: why do you think Maxine didn’t get back to him sooner?

In practice, of course, she could have had a lot of reasons — a death in the family, a problem with an existing client’s relationship with her editor, a particularly exciting negotiation, rehab…the list goes on and on. But any other possible factors aside, Maxine knew that if any of those other agents at the conference had made an offer, Gilberto would have contacted her — and when he didn’t, she could treat his might-have-been-hot property just like any other submitted manuscript.

In other words, jumping in and asking for a first peek cost Maxine nothing — it obviously affected her subsequent treatment of Gilberto’s work not at all — but guaranteed that she would be first to know about how his other submissions fared. And once she could safely assume that he had not been picked up by anyone else, the shiny gleam of being the most sought-after new writer at the conference faded from his manuscript.

Now pause and consider the ramifications of Maxine’s attitude toward other agents’ interest levels for a moment. Picture them spread thickly across the industry. Let the possible effects ripple across your mind, like the concentric circles moving gently outward after you throw a stone into a limpid pool, rolling outward until…OH, MY GOD, WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR THE AVERAGE QUERY-GENERATED SUBMISSION?

Uh-huh. Not high on the average Maxine’s to-do list.

Explains quite a bit about why the agent who requested your first 50 pages two months ago hasn’t gotten back to you, doesn’t it? While an agent expects that the writer querying her will be simultaneously querying elsewhere, the converse is also true: she will assume, unless you tell her otherwise, that the packet you send her is the only submission currently under any agent’s eyes.

This is why it is ALWAYS a good idea to mention in your submission cover letter that other agents are reading it, if they are. No need to name names: just say that other agents have requested it, and are reading it even as she holds your pages in her hot little hand.

I heard that thought go through some of your minds: I would have to scold you if you lied about this, just to ramp up the agent’s sense of urgency. Sneaky writer; no cookie.

Okay, here’s the extra credit question: in the scenario above, Maxine already knows that other agents are interested in Gilberto’s work; she is hoping to snap him up first. So why didn’t she read it right away?

Give up? Well, I don’t know her personally, so this is merely an educated guess, but I strongly suspect that Maxine’s goal was to get the manuscript before the other agents made offers to Gilberto, not necessarily to make an offer before they did.

Is that a vast cloud of confusion I feel wafting from my readers’ general direction? Was that loud, guttural sound a collective “Wha–?”

It honestly does make sense, when you consider the necessary level of competition amongst agents. Maxine is aware that she has not sufficiently charmed Gilberto to induce him to submit to her exclusively; since he won the contest, she also has a pretty good reason to believe he can write up a storm. So she definitely wants to read his pages, but she will not know whether she wants to sign him until she reads his writing.

Because, as agents like to say, it all depends upon the writing.

Maxine’s met enough writers to be aware that it is distinctly possible that Gilberto’s response to his big contest win will be to spend the next eight months going over his manuscript with the proverbial fine-toothed comb, perfecting it before showing it to anyone at all. She would like to see it before he does that, if at all possible.

To beat the Christmas rush, as it were, of his submitting to other agents. And to increase the chances of being able to see it at all.

Even if she doesn’t get an advance peek, Maxine is setting up a situation where Gilberto will automatically tell her if any other agent makes an offer: he’s probably going to call or e-mail her to see if she’s still interested before he signs with anyone else. By asking him to go to the extraordinary effort and expense of overnighting the manuscript to her, she has, she hoped, conveyed her enthusiasm about the book sufficiently that he will regard her as a top prospect.

If she gets such a call, Maxine’s path will be clear: if she hasn’t yet read his pages, she will ask for a few days to do so before he commits to the other agent. If she doesn’t, she will assume that there hasn’t been another offer. She can take her time and read the pages when she gets around to it.

What’s the hurry, from her perspective? (Hey, I promised you a serious Halloween scare, didn’t I?)

Asking a writer to overnight a manuscript is a compliment, not a directive: it’s the agent’s way of saying she’s really, really interested, not that she is going to clear her schedule tomorrow night in order to read it. And even if so, the tantalization will only be greater if she has to live through another couple of days before cloistering herself to read it.

So what should Gilberto have done instead? The polite way to handle such a request is to say, “Wow, I’m flattered, but I’m completely booked up for the next few days, and several other agents have already asked to see it. I can get a copy to you by the end of the week, though, when I send out the others.”

And then he should have sat down, read it IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD to catch any glaring mistakes, and Priority Mailed it a few days later, accompanied by a cover letter reiterating that other agents are also reading it. (Tick, tick, Maxine.)

Sound daring? Well, let me let you in on a little secret: after a publisher acquires your book, the house will generally be paying for you to ship your pages overnight if they need them that quickly, not you; after you’ve signed with an agent, you’ll probably be asked to e-mail anything s/he needs right away, because it’s cheaper for everyone concerned.

You need some time to wrap your brain around that last point, don’t you? Perfect — I shall slip away into my studio while nobody’s looking. Just keep looking in the other direction…

That didn’t work, did it? Well, boo! And keep up the good work!