May I help you to a second helping of stress?

loukomades

With Thanksgiving once again upon us — happy, happy, by the way — I figure that if you’re tapping away at your computer today, you’re most likely not either (a) the primary cook in your extended family, (b) one of the 38.2 million U.S. citizens traveling more than 50 miles to eat turkey, and/or traveling more than the average 815 miles to get to your plate. No, I’m guessing that a compatriot of mine reading this today is quite likely to be either on the way to meet relatives, friends, or total strangers likely to ask about your writing, have just returned from interacting with relatives, friends, or total strangers who asked about your writing, or are actively avoiding relatives, friends, or total strangers who might ask about your writing.

Don’t bother to tell me whether I’m right. Conserve your energy. Instead, let’s spend today’s post taking about how to deal with that question aspiring writers so frequently face whenever they are reveling in the warm embrace of their nearest and dearest: “When will your book be coming out?”

As in, “Why is it taking so long for your book to get published?”

“Aren’t you, you know, working hard enough?”

“Isn’t the book any good?”

“Don’t you have enough talent?”

“Shouldn’t you have given up this ridiculous quest long ago?” and other well-meaning but rather unsupportive sentiments.

Okay, so that’s NOT usually what they say verbatim — but it’s often what we writers hear, isn’t it, when we’re asked about an as-yet-unpublished book’s progress? Even the most innocuous inquiry, if it comes at the wrong time, can sound like a challenge for us to produce instantly a full and complete explanation of exactly why this book does deserve to be picked up, and pronto.

And then, before we realize what’s happened, we’ve been talking about the horrors of searching for an agent, or revising a manuscript, or finishing that last chapter, for 20 minutes as our original questioner looks at us with deer-the-headlights eyes and the gravy gets cold.

Such inquirers know not what they’re getting into, obviously.

Be gentle with them. Amazingly — from our perspective, at least — non-writers often do not have the vaguest conception that implications that the process is taking too long can be to writers fighting words, akin to calling someone’s mother…

Well, I wasn’t brought up to call people’s mothers that sort of thing. It’s not nice.

In fact — and I tremble to be the one to tell you this, but better that I inoculate you before your Great-Aunt Rhoda’s new husband mentions it while passing you a third helping of turkey — one’s kith and kin frequently seem to be laboring under the to-writers-bizarre delusion that you will be HURT if they do not ask you how the book is going, whether you’ve managed to land an agent yet, aren’t you just being lazy if you’ve been working on the same project for two years and haven’t yet completed it, and so forth.

They don’t want to be remiss or insensitive about your little hobby, after all. In their minds, it’s support.

So positively aglow with sweet intentions, they fling their arms around you practically the instant you cross the threshold into their homes, bearing platters of cookies that you took time out of your writing schedule to bake, bellowing at the top of their lungs, “Darling? Haven’t you finished that novel yet?”

Or, “Sweetheart, what a lovely color on you. When will I be able to order your book on Amazon?”

Or, “I won’t even ask if you’ve managed to sell that book of yours, so spare me the speech about how hard it is to catch an agent’s eye. And is it safe to assume that you burned the pies again this year?” (Some relatives are more supportive than others.)

If this doesn’t happen to you like clockwork every holiday season, feel free to breathe a great big sigh of relief. In North America, at least, it is not considered permissible, or even legal, for a writer to respond to such ripostes by taking a swing at such people in response, or poisoning their holiday punch, or even making fun of that completely unattractive pumpkin-orange sweater with the dancing turkey on it that they’re wearing.

No, we’re expected to smile, hug back, and say, “Oh, it’s coming along.” Rather than, say, telling them anything that remotely resembles the truth, especially if the truth entails something along the lines of three or four years of extremely stressful querying book #1 while trying to write book #2, or a year and a half of revising a manuscript seven times before one’s agent is willing to send it out to editors, or eight months of nail-biting anxiety while s/he does send it out to editors.

Because, let’s face it, unless your relatives happen to be writers themselves, they’re probably not going to understand that clapping you on the back and telling you that the only obstacle to publishing success is that you haven’t been visualizing your book’s selling magnificently hard enough is going to make you want to scream, if not throw cranberries at somebody.

Take a nice, deep breath if this impulse begins to overwhelm you: most non-writers have absolutely no idea of the difficulties that writers face getting into print. Heck, even for writers, discovering just how challenging it is to land an agent and/or sell a book often comes as a gigantic, ugly surprise.

Come on — you probably remember precisely where you were and what you were wearing when you first realized that there was more to winning this game than mere talent, don’t you? Or that, contrary to what agents and editors like to tell writers at conferences, not every great manuscript gets picked up by an agent, especially those that don’t happen to be in book categories popular in recent years. Or that even the most brilliant authors don’t produce Pulitzer-worthy material in first drafts, but routinely revise until their fingers are sore?

Catching your mother playing Tooth Fairy probably didn’t even come close in the disillusionment department. Fortunately for me (I guess), I do come from a family of writers, so I already knew what agents and publishing houses long before my older brother broke the news about the Tooth Fairy.

Hey, a kid can only take so much bubble-bursting at one time. So if you have anything negative to say about Santa Claus, kindly keep it to yourself.

Fortunately for human happiness as a whole, most members of the general public are spared more or less permanently the disorienting shock of learning that not all good books necessarily get published, that agents don’t just pick up every piece of good writing that they read, or that speed of composition usually isn’t a particularly good indicator of writing quality, or that only a teeny, tiny proportion of authors have even a prayer of a spot on Oprah.

So when George, your next-door neighbor, waltzes into your kitchen and booms, “When are you going to be finished with that damned book of yours, Harriet?” he almost certainly doesn’t mean to be nasty. Or even passive-aggressive.

No, George just isn’t that kind of guy.

He almost certainly believes, bless his heart, that by remembering to tease you light-heartedly about the book you have been slaving over for the past fifteen years, he is offering non-judgmental good fellowship. Because in his world, if you HAD finished the book in question, you would already be burbling with excitement about its imminent release — if not planning what to wear on Oprah.

Try not to judge him too harshly; you believed in the Easter Bunny once, too.

Bizarrely enough, these unintentionally pointed questions from well-meaning non-writers most emphatically do not cease after one lands an agent. Quite the contrary: they increase, often exponentially.

Why? Well, the average citizen of this fine republic has only a vague sense of what a literary agent actually DOES with a book — so much so, in fact, that it is not all that uncommon for one’s kith and kin to conflate an agent with an editor. Or even — brace yourselves, those of you who have signed with agents within the last year — landing an agent with landing a book contract.

Think I’m kidding, or that this level of conflation dissipates once an author lands an agent? Then how do you explain the fact that I’ve been publishing my writing since I was ten years old, and yet just two days ago, one of my best friends from elementary school blithely asked me how soon she could buy the book I’m currently revising for my agent?

As any agented-but-not-yet-published writer can tell you, these are extremely common confusions. Although they may not say it outright, most people will just assume that because a writer is so excited to have landed an agent, the agent must therefore have BOUGHT the book.

“So,” these kind-hearted souls chortle at holiday time, sidling up to a writer who has been sitting on the proverbial pins and needles for five interminable months, waiting to hear back on a round of submissions to editors, “when will you be giving me a copy of your book?”

They mean to be supportive, honest. Which is why they will not understand at all when you burst into tears and empty your glass of eggnog all over their sparkly holiday sweaters. They will think, believe it or not, that you are the one who is overreacting.

And in the non-artistic universe, they’ll sort of be right.

Because they genuinely mean so well, you must not, under any circumstances, kill such well-meaning souls for asking what are, from a writer’s perspective, phenomenally stupid questions. No, even if the implication of such questions is that these would-be supporters apparently haven’t listened to ANYTHING you have ever told them on the trials of writing a book, finding an agent, working with an agent after one has found one, meeting editorial deadlines, or any of the other myriad trying phenomena associated with aspiring authorship. Nor is it considered polite to scream at them, or even glare in a manner that might frighten any small children who might happen to be gnawing on a drumstick nearby.

Nice person that you are, you are going to honor these restrictions. Even if you’re not all that nice, you will want to retain George on your mailing list for the happy day when you DO have a book out for him to purchase.

So what’s a writer to do, especially when these questions come during unusually stressful times, such as when that agent you met at a conference has had your first fifty pages for three months and counting, or when you’ve just received three requests for material (because you were so good about SIOAing those query letters earlier in November, right?) and have spent the last week frantically trying to get those packets out the door before, well, yesterday?

(My, that was a long sentence, wasn’t it? You might want to avoid paragraph-long questions in those submissions. Yes, I know that Henry James was a great advocate of page-long sentences. I’m fond of his work, but I suspect that he would have rather a hard time getting a manuscript past Millicent today.)

Well, you COULD regard the question as a serious inquiry, and talk for the next fifteen minutes about characterization, the desirability of semicolon usage vis-à-vis Millicent’s literary tastes, and just how much you hate form rejection letters. You could also launch into a spirited compare-and-contrast exercise, illustrating vividly how the publishing industry has changed from, say, fifty years ago, which is probably the period your questioner has in mind but isn’t aware of it. You might even pull helpful charts out of your back pocket, the better to demonstrate how precipitously book sales have dropped over the past year.

If you are gifted at disregarding your interlocutor’s eyes glazing over for minutes at a time, this actually isn’t a bad strategy: once you have established a firm reputation for waxing long, humorless, and/or angry on the subject, the non-writers in your social circle may well learn not to inquire how your book is going. Depending upon how sensitive one happens to be to such questions, that might be a reasonable goal.

If, however, your kith and kin’s avoiding the topic of your writing like the proverbial plague is not your idea of a comfortable holiday gathering, I would save this tack for when you are speaking with other writers. Like any shop talk, it’s far more interesting to those who deal with it regularly than to anyone else.

So what’s the alternative? You could, most politely, take your favorite cousin by the arm and say confidentially, “You know, Serena, I spend so much time obsessing over my book that I’m likely to bore you to extinction if I start to talk about it. Do you mind if we give my brain a rest and talk about something completely different?”

I hate to break it to you, but Serena may actually be relieved to hear this.

Why? Because poor Serena may well have been traumatized by how testy you got the last time she asked about it, that’s why. Do you honestly think she isn’t still telling her friends the horror story about the time you began weeping copiously into the cranberry sauce when your Uncle Art told you that if you’d only generated 37 rejection letters, you just hadn’t been trying hard enough to sell your book? Or when you threatened Cousin Ada with the electric carving knife when all she did was suggest that if the agent you spent half a decade trying to land hadn’t sold your book to a publisher within six weeks of your signing the agency contract?

Strange to say, in the non-writerly world, “Honey, find yourself a new agent!” are not fighting words.

There’s a good reason for that: the publishing world really, really likes to maintain the illusion that talented writers just appear out of the ether to become overnight successes. It makes for great interview copy, as long as you’re willing to downplay the decade these authors often spend slogging at their craft before becoming overnight successes.

It’s not really fair to blame non-writers for buying this line. Yet due to the naïve-but-pervasive belief in the inevitability of publication for talented writers — what, do they think that our fairy godmothers go around whacking editors at publishing houses over the head with their wands on our books’ behalf? Don’t be silly; that’s the agent’s job — non-writers (and writers who have not yet worked up the nerve to submit) are often puzzled by the intensity of writerly reactions to casual inquiries about their work.

Especially if they only asked in the first place to be polite, just as they would have asked you about fly-fishing had that been your passion. (People do, you know.) Again, the people who are going to be the most fascinated in your book’s ups and downs at every stage are going to be other writers.

Actually, after you’re agented, other writers may be your most persistent questioners, especially writers who have not yet had a book subjected to the microscopic analysis that is editorial scrutiny. It can be a very lengthy process, the timing of which is utterly outside the author’s control, but even most writers don’t know that until they have been through the submission wringer themselves.

But if they haven’t, they think they’re just supporting a fellow writer when they ask, “So, has your agent managed to sell that book of yours yet? What’s the hold-up?”

Or — not that I have any first-hand experience with this or anything — “What’s new with that memoir of yours that publisher bought a few years ago? Are they still frightened by the lawsuit threats? I can’t believe how long it’s been.”

As if you would have sold — or finished, or released — your book but neglected to shout the news from the rooftops. Or at least to your Christmas card list.

I like to think that they ask out of love — as in they would LOVE to be able to celebrate the triumphs of a writer that they know. Admittedly, it sometimes takes some determination on my part to cling to this inspiring little belief (when one’s memoir has been on hold at a publishing house for a couple of years, people do tend to express sympathy by venting frustration about the delay at one), but ultimately, I’m quite sure I’m happier than I would be if I took every iteration of the question as a demand that I instantly drop everything I’m doing and rush off to rectify the situation.

Because that’s not really what they mean, is it? No matter how much such well-meant indignation might sound like criticism to the writer at whom it is aimed, badgering was probably the last thing on the commenter’s mind.

I know, I know; it doesn’t feel that way, and it may be kind of hard to believe that your Grandpa Gregory, the guy who has relentlessly picked to pieces everyone you have ever even considered dating, is trying to be non-judgmental about your publishing success. Just hear me out on this one.

This is a translation problem. Most of the time, neither writers nor non-writers mean their enthusiastic cries of, “Is it done/sold/out yet?” as criticism about not being the latest Oprah book club pick. Not even if they walk right up to you and say, as if it had never occurred to you or as if every writer in the world didn’t aspire to it, “You know, your book belongs on Oprah.”

What they mean is, “I like you. I want you to succeed. And even though I don’t really understand what you’re going through, I want to acknowledge that you’re trying.”

A little Pollyannaish of me to translate it that way? Perhaps. But permit me to suggest a little stocking-stuffer that writers can give their kith and kin this holiday season: just for this one dinner party or get-together, assume that that IS what they do mean, even if they express it poorly. And respond to the underlying sentiment, not the words.

Just my little suggestion for keeping the peace on that typically not-the-most-silent of nights.

But that doesn’t mean that it’s healthy for you to keep biting your tongue indefinitely. So here is a constructive use for any underlying hostility these questions may raise in you: this is the perfect opportunity to cure your kith and kin of the pie-in-the-sky notion that they’re going to be on the receiving end of every book you ever publish just because they know you.

Something else the general public does not know about publishing: these days, the author herself is often the one who pays for those give-away copies. Even if the publishing contract is generous with advance copies, authors are often expected to use them for promotional purposes, not as give-aways to their relatives. And while the author is generally able to purchase additional copies at a substantial discount, those books do not count toward sales totals.

Yes, you read that correctly: promising your kith and kin free copies may actually harm your overall sales statistics.

So the sooner you can get your relatives to accept that the best thing they can do to support your writing career is to plan to buy your books early and often, the happier you will be in the long run — and thus the more joyful you will be at future holiday gatherings, hint, hint. Tell them you’ll be overjoyed to sign any copies they buy, and leave it at that.

You feel a trifle less stressed at the mere thought of telling Grandpa Gregory that, don’t you?

In that same spirit of blowing off some steam, let me throw the question open to you, readers: how do you cope with this avocation-specific form of holiday stress? Have you come up with clever comebacks, succinct explanations, cunning evasions, or other brilliant coping mechanisms that you would like to share with the Author! Author! community?

Or, alternatively, a funny story about the time that you couldn’t stand it anymore and tossed a candied yam at an over-persistent relative who kept asking why you haven’t given up by now? (I probably shouldn’t encourage such behavior, but I have to admit, I would probably get some vicarious pleasure from hearing about it. Am I the only one?)

I’m looking forward to hearing what you have to say. In the meantime, I’ve got to get dressed — I have some cranberry sauce to pass with a smile.

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody, and keep up the good work!

How to write a really good author bio, part IV: resisting the temptation to be terse, or, yet another reason to admire Amy Tan. Oh, and you might want to steer clear of those carnivorous toads.

scary toads

For the last couple of posts, I’ve been encouraging you — yes, YOU, you fabulous writer — to mine your background for intrigue-producing tidbits for your author bio. Not for its own sake, mind you: the creation of a lengthy list of everything about you that either:

1. Renders you the best possible candidate currently wandering the earth’s surface for writing your particular book (and no, novelists and memoirists, you may NOT skip this step), or

2. Renders you fascinating in any way perceptible to a person of at least average intelligence.

is merely the first step in the creation of a stellar author bio to tuck into your query or submission packets.

Why bother? Because an author bio that doesn’t make the author sound interesting is an author bio that’s not going to be all that helpful to Millicent the agency screener when trying to decide whether to recommend that her boss, the agent of your dreams, invest serious time in reading your manuscript or book proposal or to reject your query or submission. While it is necessary to be terse — 1 page double-spaced or 1/2 – 2/3 page single-spaced if you plan to include a photo — it’s also necessary to present yourself as fascinating.

In other words: if the agency had wanted a résumé, it would have asked you for one. Instead, it asked for bio.

Contrary to popular opinion, when an agency’s guidelines or an agent who has already received a query asks for an author bio, they’re not asking to be bored to death. Nor are they asking for a tombstone-like deadpan list of a writer’s achievements — just the facts, ma’am, and make sure not to mention anything that might conceivably surprise the reader the least little bit.

I can certainly understand where so many aspiring writers picked up the idea that they should just be producing résumés in paragraph form, however — and so should you, if you have been taking my advice and wending your way down to your local bookstore to take a gander at what’s turning up on book jackets these days. To grab a random work from the shelf nearest my desk — no, not entirely random. To render the test more interesting, I’m going to limit all of today’s examples to literary fiction authors:

The author of nine works of fiction, Andre Dubus received the PEN/Malamud Award, the Rea Award for Excellence in short fiction, the Jean Stein Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, The Boston Globe’s first annual Lawrence L. WInship Award, and fellowships from both the Guggenheim and MacArthur foundations. Until his death in 1999, he lived in Haverhill, Massachusetts.

Now, all of the listed facts are undoubtedly true, but this biographical blurb doesn’t exactly make you want to leap out of your nice, comfy office chair and rush out to buy a copy of We Don’t Live Here Anymore, does it? And that’s genuinely a pity, because if you’re even vaguely interested in the art of the novella, that would be a pretty grand book for you to pick up. (After you read it, consider seeking out the movie version one of the better adaptations of contemporary literary fictions I’ve seen in my lifetime.)

It’s also kind of surprising, as Mssr. Dubus was by all accounts a pretty interesting guy. So, I’m told, is Paul Auster, but you’d never know it from this jacket bio:

Paul Auster was born in New Jersey in 1947. After attending Columbia University {sic} he lived in France for four years. Since 1974 {sic} he has published poems, essays, novels and translations. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Tell me honestly: would it even have occurred to you from that bio that the gentleman would have penned a novel opening as grabbing as the first paragraph of The Music of Chance:

For one whole year he did nothing but drive, traveling back and forth across America as he waited for the money to run out. He hadn’t expected it to go on that long, but one thing kept leading to another, and by the time Nashe understood what was happening to him, he was past the point of wanting it to end. Three days into the thirteenth month, he met up with the kid who called himself Jackpot. It was one of those random, accidental encounters that seem to materialize out of thin air — a twig that breaks off in the wind and suddenly lands at your feet. Had it occurred at any other moment, it is doubtful that Nashe would have opened his mouth. But because he had already given up, because he figured there was nothing to lose anymore, he saw the stranger as a reprieve, as a last chance to do something for himself before it was too late. And just like that, he went ahead and did it. Without the slightest tremor of fear, Nashe closed his eyes and jumped.

Now, we could quibble about whether a writer who wasn’t already established could have gotten away with including a cliché like materialize out of thin air in the first paragraph of a submission, or induced Millicent to overlook the slips into the passive voice — remember, what an author with a long-term readership can get into print and what an aspiring writer can hope will make it past Millicent are often two very different things — but I don’t think that’s why some of you have been shifting uncomfortably in your seats. Let me guess why: when you looked at those two bios, all you saw was the mention of publications and awards, right?

No wonder writing your own bio seems intimidating. With expectations like that, it must feel as though an aspiring writer would have to be published already in order to produce a bio at all.

So you should be both delighted and relieved to hear that listing professional credentials is not the point of a query or submission author bio. What is the point? To depict the writer as an interesting person well qualified to write the book s/he is marketing.

How does one pull that off, short of beginning one’s bio Penster McWriterly is a fascinating person? By showing, not telling, of course, and the use of creative detail.

Don’t believe me? Okay, let’s take a gander at a book jacket bio (hey, I’m trying to play fair by choosing examples you might actually discover in a bookstore) that does include details over and above the professional basics. Here’s the jacket bio from The Bonesetter’s Daughter:

Amy Tan is the author of The Joy Luck Club, The Kitchen God’s Wife, The Hundred Secret Senses, and two children’s books, The Moon Lady and The Chinese Siamese Cats, which will adapted as a PBS series for children. Tan was a co-producer and co-screenwriter of the film version of The Joy Luck Club, and her essays and stories have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies. Her work has been translated into more than twenty-five languages. Tan, who has a master’s degree in linguistics from San Jose State University, has worked as a language specialist to programs serving children with developmental disabilities. She lives with her husband in San Francisco and New York.

That third sentence is the one that jumps out at you, isn’t it? Could that be because it’s both interesting and unexpected?

The bio on her website is even more eye-catching. I shan’t reproduce it in its entirety — although I do encourage you to take a peek at it, as a good example of a longer author bio than you’re likely to find on the dust jacket of a living author — but I can’t resist sharing its final paragraph:

She created the libretto for The Bonesetter’s Daughter. Ms. Tan’s other musical work for the stage is limited to serving as lead rhythm dominatrix, backup singer, and second tambourine with the literary garage band, the Rock Bottom Remainders, whose members include Stephen King, Dave Barry, and Scott Turow. In spite of their dubious talent, their yearly gigs have managed to raise over a million dollars for literacy programs.

Let’s face it: of the facts mentioned in this paragraph, only writing the opera libretto is actually a literary credential, strictly speaking. But don’t you like Ms. Tan better after having read the rest of it. And aren’t you just a tiny bit more likely to pick up The Bonesetter’s Daughter if you happen upon it in a bookstore?

Brava, Ms. Tan!

Including quirky, memorable details is very smart marketing in an author bio, even at the query or submission stage: memorable is good, and likable even better. Who wants to fall in love with an author without a face? Yet most aspiring writers are afraid to take the risk, calculating — not entirely without reason that dull and businesslike is more likely to strike Millicent as professional than memorable and unexpected.

Come closer, and I’ll let you in on a little secret: any agent worth her proverbial salt thinks about whether a prospective client might make a good interview subject. Based upon the bio blurbs shown above, which of the three authors would you expect to give the most intriguing interview?

Which is to say: professional and interesting are not mutually exclusive. Just as a well-written, interesting query letter packed with unusual specifics is more likely to captivate Millicent than a dull, just-the-facts presentation of the same literary qualifications and book project, an author bio that shows the writer to be a complex individual with whom someone might conceivably want to have a conversation tends to go over better than the typical list of publications.

Some of you are still shaking your heads. I see that I shall have to pull out the big guns and revert to my all-time favorite example of a fascinating author presented as dull.

What follows is perhaps the Platonic bad author bio, the one that most effectively discourages the prospective reader from perusing what is within. And to render it an even better example for my purposes here, this peerless bio belongs to one of my all-time favorite authors, Rachel Ingalls. Her work is brilliant, magical, genuinely one-of-a-kind.

And as I have read every syllable she has ever published, I can state with confidence: never have I seen an author bio less indicative of the quality of the actual writing in a book. (Yes, dear readers, that is what writing this blog for the last four+ years has done to my psyche: discovering a specimen that might do you good, even if it disappoints me personally, now makes me cackle with glee.)

I don’t feel bad about using her bio as an example here, because I shall preface it with some awfully high praise: I think everyone on earth should rush right out and read Ingalls’ Binstead’s Safari before s/he gets a minute older. (In fact, if you want to open a new window, search for some nice independent bookstore’s website, and order it before you finish reading this, I won’t be offended at all. Feel free. I don’t mind waiting.)

But my God, her bios make her sound…well, I’ll let you see for yourself. This bio is lifted from the back of her most recent book, Times Like These:

Rachel Ingalls grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She has lived in London since 1965 and is the author of several works of fiction — most notably MRS. CALIBAN — published both in the United States and United Kingdom.

Just this, accompanied by a very frightening author photo, one that looks as though she might take a bite out of the photographer:

I have no problem with the photo — actually, I REALLY like it, because after all, this is a writer who gave the world a very beautiful story in which more than one protagonists was consumed by carnivorous toads, so a sense of menace seems downright appropriate. But have you ever seen a piece of prose less revealing of personality?

Admittedly, U.K. author bios do tend to be on the terse side, compared to their American brethren (as H.G. Wells wrote, “the aim of all British biography is to conceal”), but even so, why bother to have a bio at all, if it is not going to reveal something interesting about the author?

I have particular issues with this bio, too, because of the offhand way in which it mentions Mrs. Caliban (1983), which was named one of America’s best postwar novels by the British Book Marketing Council. Don’t you think that little tidbit was worth at least a PASSING mention in her bio?

I take this inexplicable omission rather personally, because I learned about Rachel Ingalls’ work in the first place because of the BBMC award. We’re both alumnae of the same college (which is to say: we both applied to Harvard because we had good grades, and both were admitted to Radcliffe, because we were girls, a bit of routine slight-of-hand no longer performed on applications penned by those sporting ovaries), and during my junior and senior years, I worked in the Alumnae Records office. Part of my job involved filing news clippings about alumnae. Boxes of ‘em. In the mid-1980s, the TIMES of London ran an article about the best American novels published since WWII, using the BBMC’s list as a guide.

Rachel Ingalls’ MRS. CALIBAN was on it, and the American mainstream press reaction was universal: Who?

Really, a novel about a housewife who has a torrid affair with a six-foot salamander is not VERY likely to slip your mind, is it? The fact is, at the time, her work was almost entirely unknown — and undeservedly so — on this side of the pond.

Naturally, I rushed right out and bought MRS. CALIBAN, rapidly followed by everything else I could find by this remarkable author. Stunned, I made all of my friends read her; my mother and I started vying for who could grab each new publication first. She became my standard for how to handle day-to-day life in a magical manner.

The Times story was picked up all over North America, so I ended up filing literally hundreds of clippings about it. And, I have to confess: being a novelist at heart in a position of unbearable temptation, I did read her alumnae file cover to cover. So I have it on pretty good authority that she had more than enough material for a truly stellar author bio — if not a memoir — and that was almost 20 years ago.

And yet I see, as I go through the shelf in my library devoted to housing her literary output, that she has ALWAYS had very minimal author bios. Check out the doozy on 1992’s Be My Guest:

Rachel Ingalls was brought up and educated in Massachusetts. She has lived in London since 1965.

I’ve seen passports with more information on them. But quick: can you tell me what Amy Tan does in her spare time?

You remembered, didn’t you? So which bio do you think Millicent would be more likely to recall five minutes after she read it?

But Ms. Ingalls’ value as an exemplar does not stop there. Occasionally, the travelogue motif has varied a little. Here’s a gem from a 1988 paperback edition of The Pearlkillers:

Rachel Ingalls, also the author of I SEE A LONG JOURNEY and BINSTEAD’S SAFARI, has been cited by the British Book Marketing Council as one of America’s best postwar novelists.

Better, right? But would it prepare you even vaguely for the series of four scintillating novellas within that book jacket, one about an apparently cursed Vietnam widow, one about a long-secret dorm murder, one about a failed Latin American exploratory journey turned sexual spree, and one about a recent divorcée discovering that she is the ultimate heiress of a plantation full of lobotomized near-slaves?

No: from the bio alone, anyone would expect her to write pretty mainstream stuff.

Once, some determined soul in her publisher’s marketing department seems to have wrested from her some modicum of biographical detail, for the 1990 Penguin edition of Something to Write Home About:

Rachel Ingalls grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. At the age of seventeen, she dropped out of high school and subsequently spent two years in Germany: one living with a family, the second auditing classes at the universities of Göttingen, Munich, Erlangen, and Cologne. After her return to the United States, she entered Radcliffe College, where she earned a degree in English. She has had six books published, including BINSTEAD’S SAFARI and THE PEARL KILLERS {sic}. In 1964 {sic} she moved to England, where she has been living ever since.

Now, typos aside, that’s a pretty engaging personal story, isn’t it? Doesn’t it, in fact, illustrate how a much more interesting author bio could be constructed from the same material as the information-begrudging others were?

(And doesn’t it just haunt you, after having read the other bios: why does this one say she moved to London a year earlier than the others? What is she hiding? WHAT HAPPENED DURING THAT MYSTERIOUS YEAR, RACHEL? Were you eaten by wolves — or carnivorous toads?)

I was intrigued by why this bio was so much more self-revealing than the others, so I started checking on the publication history of this book. Guess what? The original 1988 edition of this book had been released by the Harvard Common Press (located not, as the name implies, within easy walking distance of Radcliffe Alumnae records, but a couple of bus transfers away). Could it be that I was not the only fan of her writing who had gone file-diving in a desperate attempt to round out that super-terse bio?

”Talent is a kind of intelligence,” Jeffrey Eugenides tells us in Middlesex, but all too often, writers’ faith in their talent’s ability to sell itself is overblown. Good writing does not sell itself anymore; when marketing even the best writing, talent, alas, is usually not enough. Especially not in the eyes of North American agents and editors, who expect to see some evidence of personality in prospective writers’ bios.

I can only repeat: if they didn’t want the information, they wouldn’t ask for it.

Think of the bio as another marketing tool for your work. They want to know not just if you can write, but also if you would make a good interview. And, not entirely selflessly, whether you are a person they could stand to spend much time around. Because, honestly, throughout the publication process, it’s you they are going to have to keep phoning and e-mailing, not your book.

Meet ‘em halfway. Produce an interesting author bio to accompany your submissions. Because, honestly, readers like me can only push your work on everyone within shouting distance AFTER your books get published.

Speaking of which, if I have not already made myself clear: if you are even remotely interested in prose in the English language, you really should get ahold of some of Rachel Ingalls’ work immediately.

You don’t want to be the last on your block to learn how to avoid the carnivorous toads, do you?

Practical advice on how to sound fascinating follows next time, I promise. Keep up the good work!

How to write a really good synopsis, part VIII: truth in advertising

parrot sketch

It’s got to be a quick one today, I’m afraid, campers: as some of you may have suspected when I didn’t turn up here yesterday, the monster deadline I mentioned last week has devoured me whole. While I’m busy crawling out of its gullet, though, I didn’t want you to think I had forgotten you.

Last time, I suggested that if you write nonfiction, you might want to use part of your synopsis to establish — gently — your platform, to make it pellucidly clear to agency screener Millicent in even her worst moods that you are indeed uniquely qualified to write the book you are summarizing. While that is a pretty good idea, it occurred to me in the dead of night that before I proceed with more synopsis-writing advice, I might want to warn you about tumbling into the rather common opposite trap.

I refer, of course, to synopses that sound not just like back jacket blurbs for the book, all premise and puff, without a serious overview of the plot, but like the speech the MC makes before handing the author his or her Lifetime Achievement Award: not only is this book’s author brilliant, talented, and the best person in the universe to write this book, but a great humanitarian and my close personal friend as well.

It’s funnier if you picture Sammy Davis, Junior saying it. Or if you happen to be old enough to remember the alcohol-soaked roasts where compères used to utter such platitudes.

If you are writing a synopsis for a novel, PLEASE avoid the temptation to turn the synopsis into either a self-praise session (“My writing teacher says this is the best comic novel since CATCH-22!”) or an essay on why you chose to write the book (“Wrenched from the depths of my soul after seventeen years of therapy…”). Neither tends to work well, both because neither is really about the book — and, let’s face it, praise is more credible coming from someone other than the person being praised, isn’t it?

And if you doubt the latter, flip over pretty much any book published in North America within the last twenty years and take a gander at the blurbs from famous people. Don’t they ring truer coming from pens OTHER than the author’s?

Yet both the relayed second-hand compliment and the diatribe about the author’s personal motivation for writing the book are rather common inclusions in synopses. How common, you ask? Well, if I had a dime for every novel synopsis or query I’ve seen that included the phrase, it isn’t autobiographical, but… I would own my own miniscule island in the Caribbean.

If I had a dime for every time I’ve heard it in a pitch, I’d fly the remaining members of Monty Python to that Caribbean and have them do the parrot sketch live for my friends. Or maybe just listen to Eric Idle talk for several hours straight. (One pretty good indication that a 4th-grader is going to grow up to write comedy: she has a crush on the guy in Monty Python who did his writing solo, rather than with a partner. Swoon!)

And if I had a dime for every time seen it in a query letter, I’d just buy the five major North American publishing houses outright and make their policies more writer-friendly. But it seems that the repetition fairy isn’t giving out spare change to editors like me anymore, no matter how many aspiring writers I stuff under my pillow. More’s the pity.

My point is, hyperbolic self-review is almost as common as…well, I was going to say as common as aspiring writers who claim, “My book is a natural for Oprah!” but that’s hyperbolic self-review, isn’t it?

The frequency with which synopsizers attempt these approaches is precisely why these techniques are so often turn-offs for our pal Millicent the agency screener — or her Aunt Mehitabel the contest judge, for that matter. When you’re reading 800 submissions per week, commonalities can get pretty darn annoying. At minimum, they can make the synopses that contain them all start to blur together.

Trust me, however true any second-hand praise above may be — not knowing your writing teacher and her relationship to Joseph Heller, I cannot comment upon the blurb above’s veracity — or how difficult it was for an author to write a book, both forms of self-compliment come across as clichés.

Besides, a good fiction synopsis is NOT a justification for having written the book in the first place: properly, it is one hell of a good story, presented well. Period.

For nonfiction, as I mentioned yesterday, you will want to do some gentle self-promotion, to give an indication of why your book is uniquely marketable and you are the most reasonable person in the universe to write it (platform, platform, platform!) but again, try not to get sidetracked on WHY you chose to write it or boasting about how generally necessary this book is to the betterment of humanity.

Again, it may surprise you to hear, but a LOT of NF synopses go off on these tangents, to their own detriment. Given a choice, use the space to flesh out your argument with — chant it with me now, readers — INTRIGUING SPECIFICS.

There are very few contexts in the publishing world where launching on a lengthy disquisition why you wrote the book is even appropriate — and just so you have it in the back of your mind for future reference, here they are:

(1) Within a nonfiction book proposal, it is sometimes a necessary component to making the argument that you are uniquely qualified to write the book you are proposing, to establish your platform or the book’s marketability. If so, your agent may well advise you to add a section to the proposal entitled something like, “Why Tell This Story Now?”

(2) Within the context of an interview AFTER the book is released, writers are free to ramble on about it as long as they like. Interviewers LOVE hearing about writers’ motivations — which, I suspect is why aspiring writers so often want to tell everyone they see what is and is not autobiographical in their novels; we’ve all seen it in a million literary interviews.

(3) When you are chatting with other writers, or if you become very, very good friends with your agent or editor after the contract is signed. Then, talking about it until you’re blue in the face is an accepted part of the creative process.

(4) Immediately after Eric Idle asks you, “So what inspired to became a comic novelist?”

Other than those four situations, however interesting your motivations may have been, they tend not to be anywhere near as interesting to other people — at least those who work in the publishing industry — as the book itself. Nor should they be. At least if the book is any good.

Don’t believe me? Start attending book readings for tomes you are unlikely to read. 99% of the time, the author will speak at length about why s/he chose to write this particular book. Watch the audience’s reaction: it’s rare that eyes don’t glaze over at this point.

After you have attended three such readings within the course of a week without yawning once, THEN come to me and talk about whether your synopsis should include a paragraph on why you wrote the book.

I know it’s hard to accept, but actually, in a business sense, why an author wrote any book is not particularly important to the industry. In their eyes, unless you are a celebrity cashing in on your name recognition, you wrote your book for one very simple reason: because you are a writer.

Writers tend to do that, they’ve noticed. From that rather cold point of view, a writer who goes on and on about the psychological impulses to tell a particular story (unless the book in question is a memoir) comes across as not very professional — or, at any rate, as a writer who might not really understand that readers can’t reasonably be expected to purchase a book simply because the writer went to the trouble of writing it.

Sorry to be the one to break it to you, but it’s true: as much as we writers love to talk about our creative process, on the business side of the industry, such discussion tends to be regarded as a sign of that species of self-involvement that can render an artist rather deaf to the demands of the marketplace.

I have extremely mixed feelings about this assumption, because in my experience, most aspiring writers tend to blurt out their reasons for penning a book not because they think of themselves as Artistes Above Such Sordid Considerations as Marketability, but because they feel so isolated throughout the actual writing process. After years locked up with a book project, it can a positive relief to be able to talk about it to someone, isn’t it, especially when that someone is empowered to get the book published at long last?

It’s natural, it’s understandable, and it’s probably even healthy. By all means, go with that impulse. But please, please take my word on this one: you should most emphatically not do it in your synopsis.

Or indeed, in the presence of anyone employed in the publishing industry, unless you are responding to a direct question from an agent or editor. At least, not until after a contract is signed.

As usual, there are a couple of exceptions. Obviously, if the agent of your dreams asks, “So, where did you get the idea for this book?” you can and should give an honest answer, unless you happen to have beaten another writer over the head in the dead of night and stolen her work-in-progress. Or if someone stands up at a book reading and asks the same question — although as a rule, I would discourage planting your significant other or other crony in the audience to ask that particular question.

(Yes, I’ve seen it happen, and it’s invariably really obvious that it’s a set-up.)

Also — at the risk of repeating myself — if you have some very specific expertise that renders your take on a subject particularly valid, feel free to mention it in your pitch or query letter. And in your synopsis, if you are summarizing a nonfiction book. But in fiction, that information does not really belong in the synopsis.

But I can feel already that some of you are not going to fight me on this point. So here is a bit of advice for those of you who are planning to, well, ignore my advice: if you are writing a novel, and you feel that you have an inside perspective that simply must be mentioned in the synopsis, stick it at the end, where it won’t be too intrusive.

On that logically convoluted note, I leave you for the day. Keep up the good work!

How to write a really good query letter, part XI: what do you mean, you want me to talk about my writing credentials?

Janet Leigh shower
You know how I’m always talking about how I glean some of my best ideas for posts from readers’ questions and comments? Quite recently and in our very midst, it happened again. Earlier in this series, thoughtful readers Gayton and Anni were kind enough to bring up an issue that troubles many a conscientious would-be querier and book proposer: what kind of credentials are literary enough to constitute a legitimate platform?

Or, to put it a bit more practically: other than previous publications, what’s going to impress Millicent the agency screener?

This is a terrific question, I think, one that looks deeper than the mere what-might-you-conceivably-include-in-your-pitch list I ran in this summer’s Pitching 101 series (conveniently gathered under the heading of that same name in the archive list at right, for those of you who missed it). And, conveniently enough for my evil plan for the weeks to come, it’s also a fabulous way to get all of you thinking about the author bio that I’m going to be nudging you to write later in the month. (Yes, really — it’s an increasingly-common part of a query packet.)

More to the point of our current series, the question also speaks to an incredibly common insecurity: plenty of aspiring writers — novelists in particular, I notice — become abashed when asked about their platforms, and downright depressed while trying to write the credentials paragraph for their query letters. Even for a writer crammed to the gills with self-esteem tend to wilt a little when confronted with that seemingly hostile agency guide notation, prefers previously published writers.

That’s the kind of statement that makes those talented souls trying to break into the biz wander down the street, grumbling and kicking the nearest tin can. “What credentials do I have?” they murmur mournfully. “It’s a Catch-22: I have to be published in order to get published.”

A not-unreasonable argument, oh can-kickers, but I can’t help feeling that as a querying concern, it’s a trifle misplaced. I ask you: when would you rather learn that an agency would rather represent writers who already have a book or article out, after you queried — or before, when you could save yourself a stamp by not approaching such agents at all?

It may not be nice to hear, but let’s face it: in terms of stamp-consumption, agencies willing to state in print or on their websites that they only want to hobnob with those with clippings are actually doing aspiring writers a favor.

Besides, even the quickest flip through the rest of that agency guide that drove you onto the streets, abusing recyclables, will abundantly demonstrate that there are plenty of wonderful agencies out there that represent first-time writers. Why not start with them, instead of wasting your energies resenting the others?

I hear that can rattling against the curb again, don’t I? “Fine, Anne,” the credentials-impaired reluctantly concede, “I won’t fritter away my time dwelling on the others. But I still have to write a platform paragraph for my query letter, and I have no idea what to say.”

Again, a fair worry. May I make a couple of suggestions for alleviating it? What if you thought of that paragraph as dealing with your book’s selling points, rather than yours personally? And while we’re on the subject of your personal credentials, is it possible that you’re thinking too narrowly?

Those got you to stop kicking that can, didn’t they?

Let me take the second suggestion first, the one about expanding one’s conception of platform. Technically, any fact about your background or the book’s appeal could conceivably be a legitimate platform plank. As long as it might spur readers to buy the book, it’s fair game..

So if you have previous publications, and thus a readership, you’re definitely going to want to mention it — yes, even if those publications don’t happen to be books. Articles are great, as are online publications and even blogs: what you are proving here is that you have an existing audience, one that might conceivably recognize your name enough to pick up a volume in a bookstore.

That, in case you had been wondering, is the primary reason agents harbor a preference for working with previously-published authors, as well as why self-published books don’t tend to work well as platform credentials unless they’ve sold a ton of copies: a previously-published author has already demonstrated that somebody out there is interested in what s/he has to say.

That’s a perfectly legitimate selling point, isn’t it?

But that’s not the only reason that you might want to list any previous publications — and I do mean any — in your query letter. The previously published tend to have an edge because, presumably, they have experience pleasing an editor.

Why might that conceivably be important to an agent? Well, for one thing, that experience implies that the writer in question has met at least one deadline — a perennial concern of agents and editors alike. It shows that the writer can follow directions. It also implies that the writer has at some point in his or her checkered existence successfully accepted editorial feedback without flying into bits — again, something about which agents and editors worry, because a writer unable or unwilling to handle feedback professionally makes their jobs harder.

Getting the picture? Previous publications of ANY sort silently signal that you are a pro. Why wouldn’t you mention any and all that you might have?

The can just bounced off the lamppost again, didn’t it? “I can think of one might good reason, Anne: I wasn’t paid for my past publications.”

The professional response to that is complicated, of course, but here goes: so what?

Seriously, why should it matter, as long as readers got to see your work? Admittedly, Millicent is probably going to be more impressed if you can legitimately state that you have published three short stories in The New Yorker than if you were the periodic book reviewer for your community’s free newspaper, but you had to meet a deadline, didn’t you? You had to conform to submission standards without throwing a tantrum, didn’t you?

Don’t you want the agent of your dreams to be aware of that experience?

Ditto with contest wins and placings, incidentally: since they are tangible proof that others have liked your writing, you’re going to want to mention them in your query letter.

Yes, even if the writing for which you received recognition is completely unlike the manuscript you’re querying. In the first place, what makes you think Millicent has the time to check whether the Edna St. Vincent Millay Award was for poetry, plays, or prose? Even if she made an educated guess that you won for a poem and you are marketing an urban vampire fantasy, she’s still going to regard it, rightly, as a sign that you might conceivably know how to write.

And the down side is?

Successful contest entries also demonstrate — out comes the broken record again — that the writer who won them can, you guessed it, follow directions and meet deadlines. In case the sheer number of times I have brought up these laudable traits hasn’t tipped you off yet, these are surprisingly rare abilities in writers, especially those new to the publishing process.

Why? Well, you didn’t hear it from me, but all too often, neophyte writers are under the impression that they should be concerned with only the artistic side of getting their books published. Artsy writers chafe at deadlines, because they want to write only when inspiration hits; they become enraged at editorial suggestions, because after all, who is the publishing house that bought their manuscript to interfere with their artistic vision? And, if you believe the horror stories agents and editors like to tell in that bar that’s never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference in North America, plenty of art-loving writers simply throw a fit if anyone at all suggests at any point in the publication process that they should change a sentence or two.

Such writers are, in short, a pain to the agents and editors unfortunate enough to work with them.

But you’re willing to be reasonable, right? And if you’ve published before, in any context, you worked and played well with the editorial staff, didn’t you?

Any particular reason you don’t want Millicent to know that when she’s considering your query?

“Okay, Anne,” the can-kickers admit, “that makes some sense, in theory. But my previously-published writing has nothing to do with my current book! Won’t Millicent just laugh at it?”

Probably not, for precisely the reasons I mentioned above: those publications tell her that you already have an audience (albeit in a different field), that you can follow directions, that you can meet deadlines…need I go on?

Perhaps I do, because the question implies that the asker is unaware that many, many professional authors write in different genres. So if the Millicents of the world discounted journalists who had never written memoirs before, or nonfiction writers who have just produced their first novels, what would we prefer working with previously-published writers even mean, in practice? That they were only interested in reading work by those who already had a book out from a small press — or authors with larger presses already represented by other agents?

Okay, so that is what some of them mean. But most of the time, they’re just looking for writers who have worked with an editor before, have an existing audience…

You know the tune by now, right?

“Back up a minute,” some of you are saying. “What do you mean, many pros write in different book categories? Why on earth would they do that?”

Finances, usually. Most aspiring writers seem unaware of it, but since it’s gotten pretty hard to make a living solely by being a novelist — or from a single book in any category, unless it sells awfully well — authors often supplement their incomes with other writing. Magazine articles, for instance, or nonfiction books. They might even develop another voice and write books in their own genre.

Which is why, in case you had been wondering, Millicent is going to want to hear about your educational degrees and certificates, even if they have nothing to do with your writing.

Yes, really. While an MFA certainly makes for some ECQLC (Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy), so does a master’s degree in anything else, especially to a Millicent whose boss happens to like nonfiction book proposals. While an exciting new novelist is, well, exciting for Millicent to discover, she knows how the business works: if that particular book category’s sales slow, a writer with an unrelated degree might be able to write a book about something else.

If that argument doesn’t appeal to you, try this one on for size: in order to make it through most degree programs, somebody generally needs to be able to follow directions, met deadlines, etc. And you never know whether Millicent or her boss shares an alma mater with you — it shouldn’t make a difference, of course, but occasionally, it does.

Try not to think of it as nepotism. Think of it as the industry’s liking demonstrably smart people.

Speaking of nepotism, Is that a much-dented can I see hurtling in my general direction? “I’m totally confused, Anne,” an aspiring writer with remarkably good aim calls out. “You asking us to cram an awful lot of argument into just three or four lines of letter. Or had you forgotten that this missive must be only a page long?”

No, I hadn’t, oh can-thrower: you’re going to have to be brief.

And that, in case you’d been wondering, is why agents and editors who talk about platforms at conferences so often use celebrities as examples: the market appeal of their names may be described very briefly — not an insignificant advantage in a context where only a 1-page argument is permitted.

It takes only a couple of words to explain that an author had been a Monkee, after all.

The more visible one is, the higher one’s platform, generally speaking. Try not to get huffy about that: it’s purely a marketing reality. (If you are puzzled about why Millicent might believe that already-existing fame might prove useful in moving some books, all I can say is that maybe you should get out more.)

Yet fame and platform are not synonymous, as many aspiring writers depress themselves by believing: fame is just one of the better-known ways to construct one. Another way is by establishing one’s credibility as the teller of a particular story.

Again, nonfiction book proposers have been expected to do this for quite some time, but it often doesn’t occur to novelists or even memoirists that their credibility might be a factor in how Millicent responds to their queries. Obviously, one’s 9 years as a marriage counselor, would add credibility to one’s self-help book for couples experiencing problems sharing the medicine cabinet — so why wouldn’t that same experience add credibility to a memoir on the same subject, or even a novel?

Don’t believe me? Would it surprise you to learn that although my doctorate has absolutely nothing to do with the subject matter of my memoir, my agents mentioned it every time they pitched the book? Or the novel she pitched after it?

Why? For the same reason that any skilled lawyer would establish my credentials if I were called as a witness to a crime: my Ph.D. would certainly not make me a better observer of a hit-and-run accident, but it would tend to make the jury believe that I was a reasonable human being.

A personal platform, I have been known to say over and over again like a mantra, is like a pitch for oneself, rather than one’s book: whereas a pitch makes it plain to people in the industry why the book is marketable and to whom, the platform demonstrates why people in the media – might be interested in interviewing the author.

So while your extensive background as a supermodel might not be relevant to your credibility if you are writing the definitive book on weevils, for instance, it would most assuredly mean that you would be a welcome guest on TV shows. Perhaps not to talk about weevils, but hey, any publicity you can garner is bound to be good for your book, right?

Which is yet another reason that celebrities enjoy a considerable advantage in marketing their books. Case in point, as gleaned from the original Publishers’ Marketplace announcement of the sale:

Jenna Bush’s ANA’S STORY: A Journey of Hope, based on her experiences working with UNICEF in Central America, focusing on a seventeen-year-old single mother who was orphaned at a young age and is living with HIV, with photographs by Mia Baxter, to Kate Jackson at Harper Children’s, for publication in fall 2007 (Harper says they’ll print about 500,000 copies), by Robert Barnett at Williams & Connolly (world). Her proceeds will go to UNICEF, where she is working as an intern.

Hands up, anyone who thinks that the phrase First Daughter appeared nowhere in the query for this book.

I haven’t read the book in question, but I find this listing a miracle of platform-raising, both for what it says and what it doesn’t say. Plenty of people write books based upon time living and working abroad, and a YA book of this sort is certainly a good idea. However, this is an unheard-of run for such a volume, so we must look elsewhere for an explanation of what made the publisher decide that this particular YA book is so very valuable: the author is, of course, the President’s daughter, presumably following in the well-worn footsteps of Amy Carter, the author of a YA book herself.

Amy Carter, however, was not summarily ejected from any major Latin American country for hardcore partying at any point in her long and colorful career, unlike Ms. Bush and her sister. (How much carousing would one have to do to be declared undesirable in Rio, one wonders?) Ms. Carter did occasionally turn up chained to South African embassies next to Abbie Hoffman during the bad old days of apartheid, though, if memory serves.

It just goes to show you: when you’re building a platform, any kind of fame is a selling point.

Some cans have started their forward motion again, haven’t they? “All that sounds great, Anne — for folks who happen to have previous publications, degrees, or presidents for fathers. All I have is 27 years volunteering in a hospice, which provided the inspiration for my novel, HOSPICE HA-HAS. What am I supposed to use for a platform?”

Um, how about those 27 years of experience directly applicable to the book?

Again, it doesn’t matter whether you were paid or not — ANY experience that makes you an expert on your topic is worth including in your platform. Extensive interviews you’ve done on the subject, for instance, or years of reading.

Seeing where I’m going with this? If you do not already have a platform that makes the case that you are an expert in your subject area, you can go out and get some.

I’m quite serious about this — constructed platforms can be every bit as convincing ECQLC as professional ones. So why not spend the fall making a wise time investment or two?

Think about it: if you’re writing about wild animals, what’s a better use of your time, sitting around for six months regretting that you don’t have a doctorate in zoology, or spending every other Saturday volunteering at your local zoo? I’m betting that Millicent is going to want to read the manuscript by the lady who fondles juvenile tigers in her spare time.

Or if your subject matter is not conducive to practical application, why not approach your local free paper with an article idea? Heck, with the current level of layoffs in journalism, you might try the local not-free paper, too — good unpaid labor is hard to come by.

You’re an expert in something, right?

If you’d rather not beard an editor face-to-face, the Internet is rife with writing opportunities. Fair warning, though: Millicent is unlikely to regard a blog as a writing gig per se; if it’s going to impress her, it will be due to its potential as a promotional platform for your book and your understanding of the Internet, whose promotional potential the major publishing houses have been slow to exploit.

Conference goers, are those statements from the dais about how agents now expect to see some sort of writing credential in a query letter making more sense now? The folks who spout those sentiments almost certainly were not thinking only of books; they meant the kind of credential that a good writer with persistence can manage to get.

Think of it as DIY ECQLC.

Ready to stop abusing that can yet? No? “Okay, Anne,” some impatient souls say, “I can see where this would be very good advice for a writer who was halfway through her first novel, or even someone who is still a few months away from being ready to query. But I’ve been querying my book for a few years now — perhaps not many agents at a time, but I’ve been persistent. As much as I would love to take a season or two off to build up some ECQLC, I barely have time to get out a query a month and still write. Any advice for me, something that I can apply to my already-existing query letter to beef up my platform paragraph?”

This kind of question drives those of us who teach querying nuts, just so you know; asking something like it is not typically a particularly good way to become teacher’s pet in a conference seminar. Basically, my straw man is saying, “I’m not willing to put in the time to follow the advice you’ve already given — how may I get the same results with less work?”

Shame on you, straw man. Go ask the wizard to give you some brains.

But I have to say, I understand our stuffed friend’s frustration: good writers who have not yet cracked the query code often send out letters for years without landing an agent. So I’m going to go ahead and answer the question.

The quickest way to upgrade a manuscript’s apparent marketability in Millicent’s eyes is to add statistics to the platform paragraph, demonstrating that your target market is larger than she might think. For this tactic to work, though, you’re going to have to make the case that the target market you identify is likely to be interested in your book.

This advice should sound a bit familiar to those of you who hung out here at Author! Author! during this summer’s Pitching 101 series, as well as to anyone who has ever written a nonfiction book proposal, yet it often seems to come as a shock to novelists and memoirists that the market appeal of their manuscripts is not self-evident.

The single best thing you can do for your querying prospects is to assume that it isn’t.

Why? Well, among other things, it may prompt you to do a spot of market research. Who is your target reader, and why does s/he need your book? Not in general terms, but specifically: what in particular will appeal to him or her? What will she learn? Why will she enjoy it?

Yes, yes: the beautifully-written summary paragraph that presents your premise or argument intriguingly will go a long way toward answering that last question, but a well-argued platform paragraph can only bolster the book’s appeal. Don’t go overboard and claim that everyone in the continental U.S. will rush out and buy your book; instead, give a couple of interesting (and truthful) selling points that would render your book attractive to your target reader.

Again, why? Well, I hate to be the one to break it to you, but if Millicent gets to the end of your query letter and doesn’t still doesn’t know what your manuscript’s appeal to an already-established market is, she is very, very unlikely to ask to see the manuscript.

Yes, even if the query letter is very well written. Remember, she’s on the business side of the business; you’re on the artistic side.

No cans seem to be flying at my head this time, but I do spot a few raised hands. “Okay, Anne,” some ECQLC-seekers murmur wearily, “I can understand how each of these types of platform might appeal to Millicent. But heavens, woman, make up your mind! You’ve told us to put two very different things in a single paragraph: a statement of our credentials, up to and including our possibly irrelevant academic degrees and any years we might have spent on television, and an argument for why the book is marketable, complete with supporting statistics. Can’t I just pick one and be done with it?”

You could — and should, if that’s the best way to produce an intriguing, brief platform. However, for most aspiring writers, a composite paragraph pulling from several different types of selling point makes the most credible case.

In other words, you’re the one who is going to have to make up your mind. I’m just the advice-giver here; it’s your book. Which is the most important reason why the query should make your credentials shine.

Your mother is not the only one who should be proud of you, after all; let Millicent know why she should be as well. Keep up the good work!

Pitching 101, part XXIII and Writers’ Conferences 101, part III: the bare necessities of pitching — and no, I’m not just talking about 3 lines scrawled on the back of a business card

glass-of-water

I honestly am trying to wrap up our weeks-long series on formal and informal pitching, but the fact is, if I’m going to talk about getting the most out of (often quite expensive) writers’ conferences, it only makes sense to give a few more practical tips on pitching while I’m at it. So please bear with the absurdly long and complicated titles for a while: labeling discussions as series makes it easier for late-joining readers to follow them in the archives, I’ve found.

Since we’ve all been so very good for so very long, I have a fun-but-practical topic for today: what materials should you bring with you to a conference — and, more importantly, to your pitch sessions with agents and editors? Other than good, strong nerves, an iron stomach, and faith that your book is the best literary achievement since MADAME BOVARY, of course.

At minimum, you’re going to want a trusty, comfortable pen and notebook with a backing hard enough to write upon, to take good notes. You’ll also want to bring all of the paperwork the conference organizers sent you, including a copy of your conference registration, information about your agent and/or editor appointments, and tickets to any dinners, luncheons, etc. for which you may have paid extra. (As, alas, one almost invariably does now at literary conferences. I can remember when rubber chicken banquets were thrown in gratis, and folks, I’m not that old.)

I’m already sensing some shifting in chairs out there, amn’t I? “But Anne,” those of you new to writing great big checks to conference organizers protest, “why would I need to burden myself with all of that paperwork? I already signed up for those events, as well as my pitch appointments. Won’t the conference folks have all that on file?”

I hate to burst anyone’s bubble here, but not necessarily. Remember, most writers’ conferences are organized by hard-working volunteers, not crack teams of hyper-efficient event organizers assisted by an army of support staff with Krazy Glue on their fingertips. Details occasionally fall through the cracks.

So it’s not very prudent to assume that your paperwork has not been crack fodder — or even that the selfless volunteers working the registration tables will have access to their computers to double-check what you paid to attend. Few literary conferences are held in the offices or homes of the organizers, after all, and while being able to get into the dinner where you paid $60 to hear the keynote speaker may be vitally important to you, the volunteers on site will probably neither have the time nor the inclination to run home to double-check a misprinted list of attendees.

All of which is to say: if you registered electronically, make sure to bring a hard copy of the confirmation. And if everything goes perfectly when you check in, please remember to thank the volunteer who helped you.

As my grandmother used to say: manners cost nothing.

While you’re printing things out, go ahead and produce a hard-copy confirmation of your hotel reservation as well, if you’re not attending a conference that permits you to sleep in your own bed at night. Again, I hate to be the one to break it to you, but it is not at all unheard-of for a hotel hosting a conference to over-book.

Also, it’s a good idea to bring a shoulder bag sturdy enough to hold all of the handouts you will accumulate and books you will buy at the conference. This is not an occasion for a flimsy purse. Think grad student backpack, not clutch bag.

Don’t underestimate how many books you may acquire. It’s rare that a literary conference doesn’t have a room devoted to convincing you to buy the collected works of conference speakers, local writers, and the folks who organized the conference. (At the Conference That Shall Not Be Named, for instance, only organization members’ and conference presenters’ work are typically featured.)

Don’t expect to receive discounts on those books, however; because the conference typically gets a cut of sales, offering a members’ discount seldom seems to occur to organizers. On the bright side, it’s usually child’s play to get ‘em signed. Even if the author is not hovering hopefully behind a pile of his literary output, if he’s at the conference at all, he’s going to be more than happy to autograph it.

Don’t be shy about walking up to ‘em in hallways and after speeches to ask; this is basic care and feeding of one’s readership. And if you’re polite about it — introducing yourself by saying how much you loved the author’s latest work and/or speech last night, perhaps, or via the Magic First Hundred Words — who knows? You might just end up with a marvelous literary friend.

Which is one of the reasons you signed up to go to a conference in the first place, right?

Do be aware, though, that when major bookstore chains organize these rooms (and at large conferences, it’s often a chain like Barnes & Noble), they often take an additional payment off the top, so a self-published author may well make less per book in such a venue. And if an author with a traditional publisher has shown up with her own copies, purloined from the sometimes generous stash of promotional copies publishers often provide authors because the expected copies did not show up on time for the conference (yes, it happens), the sales may not count toward official sales totals.

This is not to say that you should hesitate to purchase a book from the writer with whom you’ve been chatting in the book room for the last half an hour. You should. However, if the book is self-published, you might want to ask the author if s/he would prefer for you to buy it elsewhere. Generally, authors will be only too glad to steer you in the right direction.

Speaking of requests folks in the industry are thrilled to get, if you are struck by a particular agent or editor, you can hardly ask a more flattering question than, “So, are there any books for sale here that you worked upon? I’d like to read a couple, to get a sense of your taste/style/why on earth anyone would want to spend years on end editing books about horses and flamingos.”

Hard for even the surliest curmudgeon scowling at early morning light not to be pleased by that question.

By the way, at a conference that offers an agents’ or editors’ panel (and most do), do not even CONSIDER missing it. Attendees are expected to listen to what the agents and editors are seeking at the moment and — brace yourself for this — note where it does not match what was said in the conference guide blurb or on the agents’ websites.

Oh, did I forget to tell you to sit down before I mentioned that?

Tastes change. So does the market. But blurbs tend to get reused from year to year. Even the standard agency guides, resources that actually are updated yearly, often don’t represent what any given member agent wants right this minute.

No comment — except to say that you will be a much, much happier camper if you keep an ear cocked during the agents’ and editors’ fora to double-check that the agent to whom you were planning to pitch a vampire romance isn’t going around saying, “Heavens, if I see ONE more vampire romance…”

In addition to noting all such preferences in my trusty notebook, I always like to carry a few sheets of blank printer paper in my bag, so I can draw a diagram of the agents’ forum, and another of the editors’, to keep track of who was sitting where and note a few physical characteristics, along with their expressed preferences in books.

Why do I do this? Well, these fora are typically scheduled at the very beginning of the first full day of the conference — a very, very long day.

By the time people are wandering into their appointments at the end of the second day, dehydrated from convention hall air and overwhelmed with masses of professional information, I’ve found that they’re often too tired to recall WHICH editor had struck them the day before as someone with whom to try to finagle a last-minute appointment.

Being able to whip out the diagrams has jogged many a memory, including mine. It’s also a great help a month or two after the conference, to help you remember which of the dozen agents who spoke struck you as worthwhile to query instead of pitching, and which left you with the impression that they eat books, if not aspiring writers, for breakfast.

On my diagrams, the latter tend to be depicted with horns, pitchfork, and tail. But that’s just me.

I always, always, ALWAYS advise writers to bring bottled water to conferences — even to ones where the organizers tend to be very good about keeping water available. A screw-top bottle in your bag can save both spillage and inconvenience for your neighbors.

Why? Well, when you’re wedged into the middle of a row of eager note-takers in a classroom, it’s not always the easiest thing in the world to make your way to the table with the pitcher on it, nor to step over people’s legs with a full glass in your hand.

If I seem to be harping on the dehydration theme, there’s a good reason: every indoor conference I have ever attended has dried out my contact lenses, and personally, I prefer to meet people when my lenses are not opaque with grime.

I’m wacky that way.

If your eyes dry out easily, consider wearing your glasses instead. Men may not make passes at girls who wear ‘em, to paraphrase the late great Ms. Parker, but looking bookish is seldom a drawback at a writers’ conference.

Even if you have perfect vision, there’s a good reason to keep on sippin’. If you are even VAGUELY prone to nerves — and who isn’t, while preparing to pitch? — being dehydrated can add substantially to your sense of being slightly off-kilter. You want to be at your best. Lip balm can be helpful in this respect, too.

Both conferences and hotels, like airports, see a lot of foot traffic, so the week leading up to the conference is NOT the time to skip the vitamins. I go one step further: at the conference, I dump packets of Emergen-C into my water bottle, to keep my immune system strong.

If this seems like frou-frou advice, buttonhole me at a conference sometime, and I’ll regale you with stories about nervous pitchers who have passed out in front of agents. Remember, if you find yourself stressed out:

*Take deep breaths. Not just every so often, but on a regular basis.

*Don’t lock your knees when you’re standing. People who do tend to fall over.

*If you need to sit down, say so right away, no matter who happens to be standing in front of you. Trust me, that editor from Random House doesn’t want to have to pick you up off the floor.

*Don’t drink too much coffee, tea, or alcohol. (Even though everyone else will be doing so with enthusiasm.)

*Go outside the conference center every so often. A glimpse of blue sky can provide a lot of perspective.

*Make some friends. You’ll have more fun, and you can meet in the hallway later to swap notes about seminars happening simultaneously.

*If you’re feeling nervous or scared, talk about it with some nice person you met in the hallway, rather than keeping it bottled inside.

*Be willing to act as someone else’s sounding board. Just for the karma.

Trust me, this is a time to be VERY good to yourself. A conference should not be an endurance test. If I had my way, the hallways at any pitching conference would be lined with massage chairs, to reduce people’s stress levels.

While I’m sounding like your mother, I shall add: don’t try to pitch on an empty stomach.

I’m VERY serious about this — no matter how nervous you are, try to eat something an hour or so before your pitch appointment. When I ran the Pitch Practicing Palace (a safe space for those new to the game to run their pitches by agented writers BEFORE trying them out on an agent or editor, to weed out potential problems), I used to keep a bowl of candy on hand, because so few pitchers had remembered to feed themselves.

Trust me, even if your stomach is flipping around like the Flying Wallendas on speed, you’ll feel better if you eat something. If you are anticipating doing a lot of hallway pitching, or dislike the type of rubber chicken and reheated pasta that tends to turn up on conference buffets, you might want to conceal a few munchies in your bag, to keep yourself fueled up.

It’s also not a bad idea to bring along some mints or ginger candy, just in case you start to feel queasy. As a fringe benefit, the generous person with the tin of Altoids tends to be rather popular in the waiting area near the pitching appointments.

Since you will most likely be sitting on folding chairs for many, many hours over the course of the conference, you might want to bring a small pillow. I once attended a conference where instead of tote bags, the organizers distributed portable seat cushions emblazoned with the writers’ organization’s logo.

You should have heard the public rejoicing.

In the spirit of serious frivolity, I’m going to make another suggestion: carry something silly in your bag, a good-luck charm or something that will make you smile when your hand brushes against it. It can work wonders when you’re stressed, to have a concealed secret.

Honest, this works. I used to advise my university students to wear their strangest underwear on final exam day, for that reason — it allowed them to know something that no one else in the room knew.

(It also resulted in several years’ worth of students walking up to me when they turned in their bluebooks and telling me precisely what they were wearing under those athletic department sweats — and, on one memorable occasion, showing me, à la Monica Lewinsky. So I say from experience: resist the urge to share; it’s disconcerting to onlookers.)

If you suspect you would be uncomfortable wearing your 20-year-old Underroos or leather garter belt (sorry; you’re going to have to find your own link to that) under your conference attire, a teddy bear in your bag can serve much the same purpose. Anything will do, as long as it is special to you.

So far, my advice has been concerned with your comfort and welfare. From here on out, the rest of today’s tips will be all about networking.

That’s right, I said networking. Conferences are about CONFERRING, people.

Because you will, we hope, be meeting some God-awfully interesting at your next writers’ conference, you will want to bring some easily transferable pieces of paper with your contact information printed on it: a business card, for instance, or comparably sized sheets from your home printer.

I mention this now, so you may prepare in advance. Having to scrabble around in your tote bag for a stray scrap of paper upon which to inscribe your vitals every time you meet someone nice gets old FAST.

Besides, if you file a Schedule C to claim your writing as a business, the cost of having the cards made is usually tax-deductible – and no, in the US, you don’t necessarily have to make money as a writer in every year you file a Schedule C for it. Talk to a tax advisor experienced in working with artists. Heck, all of those books you buy might just be deductible as market research.

Seriously, it is VERY worth your while to have some inexpensive business cards made, to print some up at home, or to ask Santa to bring you some professional-looking jobs for Christmas. First, it’s always a good idea to be able to hand your contact info to an agent or editor who expresses interest in your work. They don’t often ask for it, but if they do — in a situation, say, where an editor from a major press who is not allowed to pick up an unagented book REALLY wants to hook you up with an agent — it’s best to be prepared.

Second, unless you make a point of sitting by yourself in a corner for the entire conference, you are probably going to meet other writers that you like — maybe even some with whom you would like to exchange chapters, start a writers’ group, or just keep in contact to remind yourself that we’re all in this together.

The easier you make it for them to contact you, the more likely they are to remain in contact. It’s just that simple.

I’m sensing some ambient rustling again. “But Anne,” some rustlers exclaim, “I’m going to the conference to meet folks in the industry who can help me get my work published. Why would I waste my time chatting up other aspiring writers, who are ostensibly there for precisely the same reason?”

A very good question, oh rustlers, and one that deserves a very direct answer: because it’s far from a waste of time.

Besides, avoiding the unpublished is just a wee bit snobbish, I think. I would urge you to avoid the extremely common mistake of walking into ANY writers’ gathering thinking that the only people it is important for you to meet are the bigwigs: the agents, the editors, the keynote speakers. It requires less energy to keep to yourself, true, but it is a tad elitist, not to say short-sighted: in the long run, casting a wider acquaintance net will pay off better for you.

Why? For one very, very simple reason: the more writer friends you have, the easier it is to learn from experience.

Why make your own mistakes, when you can learn from your friends’, and they from yours? What better source for finding out which agents are really nice to writers, and which are not? And who do you think is going to come to your book signings five years from now, if not that nice writer with whom you chatted about science fiction at lunch?

Obviously, if you can swing a one-on-one with the keynote speaker, go for it — I once spent several hours stranded in a small airport with Ann Rule, and she is an absolutely delightful conversationalist. (Especially if you happen to have an abnormally great interest in blood spatter patterns; she’s a well-respected expert on the subject.)

But try not to let star-watching distract you from interacting with the less well-known writers teaching the classes — who are there to help YOU, after all — or the writer sitting next to you in class. I have met some of the best writers I know by the simple dint of turning to the person rummaging through the packaged teas on the coffee table and saying, “So, what do you write?”

Don’t tell me that you’re too shy to handle this situation — I happen to know that you have a secret weapon. Remember those magic first hundred words? This is the time to use ‘em.

Believe me, it’s worth doing. Someday, some of your fellow conference attendees are going to be bigwigs themselves — realistically, can you rule out the possibility that the person sitting next to you in the session on writer’s block ISN’T the next Stephen King? — and don’t you want to be able to say that you knew them when?

And even if this were not true (but it is), writing is an isolating business — for every hour that even the most commercially successful writer spends interacting with others in the business, she spends hundreds alone, typing away. The more friends you can make who will understand your emotional ups and downs as you work through scenes in a novel, or query agents, or gnaw your fingernails down to the knuckle, waiting for an editor to decide whether to buy your book, the better, I say.

Even the most charmed writer, the one with both the best writing AND the best pure, dumb luck, has days of depression. Not all of us are lucky enough to live and work with people who appreciate the necessity of revising a sentence for the sixth time. Writers’ conferences are the ideal places to find friends to support you, the ones you call when your nearest and dearest think you are insane for sinking your heart and soul into a book that may not see print for a decade.

So stuff some business cards into your conference bag along with a folder containing several copies of your synopsis AND five copies of the first five pages of your book, as a writing sample.

Why five pages, specifically? Well, not all agents do this, but many, when they are seriously taken with a pitch, will ask to see a few pages on the spot, to see if the writing is good enough to justify the serious time commitment of reading the whole book.

Having these pages ready to whip out at a moment’s notice will make you look substantially more professional than if you blush and murmur something about printing it out, or simply hand the agent your entire manuscript.

Don’t, however, bother to bring your entire manuscript with you to the conference, UNLESS you are a finalist in one of the major categories. You will never, ever, EVER miss an opportunity by offering to mail or e-mail it instead.

In fact, agents almost universally prefer it. This is often true, bizarrely, even if they insist that they want to read it on the airplane home.

Why the exception for the contest finalists? Well, I don’t think it should come as much of a surprise to anyone that agents tend to be pretty competitive people. The primary reason that an agent would ask for the whole thing right away, in my experience, is if he is afraid that another agent at the conference will sign you before he’s had a chance to read it — and the writers who tend to be the objects of such heart-rending scenes of jealousy are almost invariably those sporting blue ribbons.

So while I have known agents to read a chapter or two of the winners’ work in their hotel rooms, the chances of its happening in the normal run of a pitch day are roughly the same as finding the complete skeleton of a dinosaur in your back yard.

It could happen — but it doesn’t really make sense to plan your life around a possibility that remote.

Otherwise, don’t hurt your back lugging the manuscript box around; the sample will do just as well. And no, don’t bother to bring an electronic copy of your book — it’s actually considered rather rude to hand out CD-ROMs willy-nilly.

Why? Well, because not everyone is as polite as my lovely readers. It’s not at all uncommon for a total stranger to come charging up to an agent, editor, or someone like yours truly at a conference, shove a soft copy into our astonished hands, and disappear, calling back over her retreating shoulder, “My contact information’s on there, so you can let me know what you think of it.”

Without exception, electronic media presented in this manner ends up in the trash, unread.

Why? Well, apart from the general impoliteness involved in insisting that just because someone is in the industry, s/he has an obligation to read every stranger’s work, there’s also the very real risk that a stranger’s disk is going to be infected with a computer virus; it would be rather imprudent even to try to check out its contents.

Even if the recipient happened to have a really, really good firewall, this method also conveys a tacit expectation that the recipient is going to go to the trouble and expense of printing the book out — or risk considerable eyestrain by reading an entire book onscreen. Not very likely.

These days, if an agent or editor wants an electronic copy of your book, s/he will ask you to e-mail it. Trust me on this one.

Regardless, your 5-page sample should be in hard copy. If you feel that an excerpt from the end of the book showcases your work better, use that, but if you can at all manage it, choose the first five pages of the book as your sample — it just exudes more confidence in your writing, as these are the first pages a screener would see in a submission.

From the writer’s POV, the sole purpose of the writing sample is to get the agent to ask you to send the rest of the book, so although I hammer on this point about twice a month here, I’m going to say it again: as with everything else you submit to any industry pro, make sure that these pages are impeccably written, totally free of errors, and in standard format.

Seriously, this is not a moment when you want your pages to cry out, “The author’s unfamiliar with the standards of the industry!”

If the fact that there IS a standard format for manuscripts — and that it does NOT resemble the formatting of published books — is news to you, rush into the archives at right immediately, and take a gander at the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT and STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED categories at right. Even if you’re relatively sure you’re doing it right, it isn’t a bad idea to double-check.

Stop groaning, long-time readers; we all could use a refresher from time to time. As long as I am writing this blog, no reader of mine is going to have his or her work rejected simply because s/he didn’t know what the rules of submission were.

Again, I’m funny that way.

Keep practicing those pitches, everyone, avoid dehydration like the plague, and keep up the good work!

If this is Tuesday, it must be Minneapolis, by guest blogger Stanley Trollip

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Hello, campers –

Today, I’m giving us all a much-deserved respite from our rather taxing ongoing series on conference pitching to bring you all a reward for virtue — no, make that several rewards for virtue. Remember earlier this summer, when award-winning police procedural author and fab guy Stanley Trollip stopped by to give us his insights on publication contracts, promising to return to tell us all about his book tour for his second novel, THE SECOND DEATH OF GOODLUCK TINUBU?

Well, jump for joy, fans of thrillers and book signings: he has proven as good as his word.

For those of you who have joined the Author! Author! community only recently, Stan is best known as Michael Stanley, nom de plume of Stan Trollip and Michael Sears. It’s one of the great thriller collaborations of our time.

But don’t take my word for that: the Los Angeles Times named their last novel, A CARRION DEATH, as one of the top ten crime novels of 2008. It also raked in finalist honors for the Minnesota Book Award, Strand Magazine’s Critics Award for Best First Novel, and Mystery Readers International Macavity Award for Best First Novel.

The flattering buzz has been even louder for their new novel, THE SECOND DEATH OF GOODLUCK TINUBU. Here’s the publisher’s blurb for it, along with both the US cover and the cover and title you’d see if you happened to be browsing in a Canadian or UK-based bookstore:

seconddeath cover michael stanleydeadlytrade cover Michael StanleyHow can a man die twice?

That is the question facing Detective David “Kubu” Bengu when a mutilated body is found at a tourist camp in Northern Botswana. The corpse of Goodluck Tinubu displays the classic signs of a revenge killing. But when his fingerprints are analyzed, Kubu makes a shocking discovery: Tinubu is already dead. He was slain in the Rhodesian war thirty years earlier.

Kubu quickly realizes that nothing at the camp is as it seems. As the guests are picked off one by one, time to stop the murderer is running out. With rumors of horrifying war crimes, the scent of a drug-smuggling trail, and mounting pressure from his superiors to contend with, Kubu doesn’t notice there is one door still left unguarded – his own. And as he sets a trap to find the criminals, the hunters are closing on him…

Not a bad pitch, is it? Notice how those one-of-a-kind details just leap out at you? Out comes the broken record again: never, ever forget that even the most tedious chore in book description is an opportunity to show what a good storyteller you are.

I digress, however. I promised you goodies, and goodies you shall have.

A whole literary cornucopia of them, too: to keep things interesting, not only will Author! Author! be bringing you Stan’s insights today, but a newfangled high-tech treat and a good, old-fashioned contest. To avoid scaring any technophobes out there away from winning a copy of THE SECOND DEATH OF GOODLUCK TINUBU free, gratis, and entirely without encumbering your monetary worth even tangentially, allow me to fill you in about the contest first.

To prepare you to enter, please study this lovely photo of precisely the kind of literary event most aspiring writers would happily give their little toes to attend:

Seated at the round table are Stanley (left), Michael (right), with their agent, Marly Rusoff

Stan (left) and Michael at the round table with their agent, Marly Rusoff

To win a copy of Michael Stanley’s latest book, all you have to do is answer this question: where are Stan and Michael hobnobbing with their agent? (Hint: as public places in New York City go, it could hardly be more literary.)

Answers should be emailed to michaelstanley@detectivekubu.com with subject line “Author! Author! contest” before September 15th. Three lucky winners will be drawn randomly from all correct answerers shortly thereafter, and the results shall be announced here and on the Detective Kubu website.

So this is a chance for fame as well as (modest) fortune!

Okay, now on to the technofest. As it happens, it directly relates to what you might be winning.

HarperCollins is beta-testing a nifty promotional feature that not only enables potential readers to browse books on its website, but allows me to offer my readers that opportunity, too. It’s not the whole book, mind you, and it’s not printable, but this feature does allow you to see more than most readers skim in a bookstore before buying. Take a gander, and see what you think:

What do you think? Like it as a promotional device, or would you rather be turning pages in a brick-and-mortar bookstore? Would you feel differently about it if it were your book being promoted this way — in other words, do you prefer it as a writer than as a reader, or vice-versa?

As if all that weren’t exciting enough for one post, we haven’t yet gotten to the watermelon at the heart of the cornucopia (oh, you had a better metaphor in mind?): Stan’s promised insights into the mysteries of book tours, working with publicists, and every author’s nightmare, what happens if no one shows up to a book signing.

So please join me in a big Author! Author! welcome for Stan Trollip! Take it away, Stan!

seconddeath cover michael stanleyseconddeath cover michael stanleyseconddeath cover michael stanleyseconddeath cover michael stanleyseconddeath cover michael stanley

June 2nd saw the launch of our second Detective Kubu mystery — The Second Death of Goodluck Tinubu — at the wonderful Once Upon a Crime bookstore in Minneapolis, and kicked off something of a whirlwind book tour of the US. We visited 12 cities and 20 bookstores over about six weeks, but most of the trip was concentrated over a three-week period. During that time, we were in New York, Minneapolis, Urbana-Champaign IL, Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, Ann Arbor, Houston, San Diego, and Los Angeles. Book signings were interspersed with radio and TV slots and online interviews, and surrounded by Book Expo, Thrillerfest, and the American Library Association convention.

We were fortunate to have strong support from HarperCollins, particularly from our in-house publicist Heather Drucker, and things went smoothly as a result. And external publicist Susan Schwartzman buzzed around getting media slots for us. It would be a big challenge to arrange this sort of tour without the support of such knowledgeable and energetic people.

Michael with HarperCollins publicist Heather Drucker in New York City

Michael with HarperCollins publicist Heather Drucker in New York City

Many writers don’t understand the role of the publicist at a major house. So here is how we see it. Several months before the book is released, the in-house publicist sends out review copies of the book to influential reviewers in the various media. This list is often compiled in collaboration with the authors, who may have insights into niche areas. If you have a publisher like HarperCollins, this can amount to well over a hundred books.

Then the publicist works with the authors to map out a book-tour itinerary. The extent of this depends on the publisher’s budget, which was zero for our first book, A Carrion Death, and small but significant for the second book, as well as how much the author is willing to contribute. For both books, we chipped in a sizeable amount of our advance to fund our tours.

Then the publicist contacts the bookstores or other organizations, such as libraries, and coordinates everything with them, including providing publicity materials if available, ensuring they have enough books to sell, helping to publicize the event, and so on. The publicist also coordinates the travel and accommodation arrangements. We try to stay with friends whenever possible, not only because it reduces costs, but is also much more fun.

Finally, the in-house publicist works with the external publicist to ensure that their efforts are coordinated. For example, Heather from HarperCollins worked with Susan (an external publicist whom we hired) to support her efforts to find radio and TV spots. She did this by supplying additional review copies of the book, providing book reviews as they came out, and coordinating the sale of books if appropriate.

We have heard stories of the in-house and external publicists competing. This is not a good situation! Before you hire an external publicist, you should coordinate with your in-house publicist so that you are building a team not a pair of competitors. In our case, Heather and Susan worked together wonderfully.

So what is our perspective on our book tour, looking back two months later?

Michael and Stanley answering questions at Once Upon A Crime

Michael and Stanley answering questions at Once Upon A Crime

From the moment we launched The Second Death of Goodluck Tinubu, it was great fun. We talked to people who enjoy our books and had read both or intended to do so. We met booksellers who care about mystery books and have an intimidating knowledge of them and their authors. And we spent a lot of time together, enjoying the travel, sharing the experiences, and talking about our third book.

Second, we learned a lot. We discovered that people really care about the ongoing characters in the book, particularly our protagonist, Botswana police detective David Bengu (known as Kubu) and his family. Interestingly, few questions or comments related to Kubu himself, other than whether he was based on a real person (he isn’t). Perhaps people have already formed their own mental pictures of him and where he is going.

Readers really like his wife Joy and wonder what is happening with the relationship between Joy’s sister, Pleasant, and an occasional suitor, Bongani. We also heard a lot of positive comments about Kubu’s aging parents (Wilmon and Amantle). We were told they added to an understanding of the Botswana culture. This was very satisfying as we had decided early on in our writing to purposefully deal with the physical and cultural attributes of Botswana. We realized that doing so would slow the pace of the mystery a little, but hoped what it added would compensate. Our tour and the reviews we have received tell us that most readers like the style.

Michael and Stanley being pleased at readers' reactions to A Carrion Death

Michael and Stanley being pleased at readers’ reactions to A Carrion Death

Third, the tour was hard work. We did the Midwest, travelling by car from Chicago; there are long distances involved and the June weather was — to be polite — variable. We had plenty of good dinners with old friends, who turned out across the country to support us, but we had a few twists and turns along the way. One pit-stop restaurant we could only find sugared pop, other than tap water, and fried food. We were caught up in a demonstration in Los Angeles urging democracy in Iran. We were becalmed on the LA freeway. We had sessions with standing room only, and an event to which no one showed up.

We suspect that it is every writer’s nightmare to stand expectantly at the front of a room, and wait, and wait. Look at your watch. How long should we wait? Fifteen minutes? Thirty minutes. Feel embarrassed, awkward. Not sure what to say to the bookstore manager. She’s not sure what to say to you. It happened to us on a Sunday lunchtime on the city’s first nice summer day of the year. “Sundays are always busy,” she told us apologetically. But the first sight of the sun tempted even the most ardent readers and every chair was vacant.

In some ways, we were quite pleased it happened. We had got it out of the way — the nagging fear of an empty room. More importantly, we survived! And our egos were still intact. People on the street didn’t point at us surreptitiously and snigger. And it gave us something to write about in this blog.

All we can say is that it is going to happen. We are lucky to tour together, so at least we have each other to talk to. And maybe there is a lesson to be learned. Perhaps new authors should consider doing events in tandem with another author. At least then, when there is no audience, you have a companion with whom to share the disappointment.

Stan making the most of a book signing

Stan making the most of a book signing

At a more practical level, one can ask what these book tours achieve. Certainly we find it of value to learn in person what readers think and feel about our writing, even though we get similar feedback by email and over our website. We think the readers enjoy the events and find them interesting. In addition, bookstore owners and managers now have a personal experience of us to link to the books when they sell them.

But our feeling is that this sort of discussion is irrelevant for most people in the publishing industry, especially in the current weak economic environment. Their question would be: does the time and money spent on a book tour improve book sales?

It’s a difficult question to answer. One publicist told us that they know that only half of their marketing has any impact on sales — they just don’t know which half.

The same goes for us. We are both scientists and have a constant discomfort that there are no data about the effectiveness of what we do for publicity. In reality, we believe that book tours and so on are valuable, but don’t ask us to prove it.

Then there is the 90:10 rule – ninety percent of the marketing budget goes on the ten percent of authors who are best known, best sellers, and who need marketing the least. Since we are not in that ten percent, we are grateful for the slice we got of the other ten percent. We work hard and spend a considerable amount of our advances on marketing and touring. It is reassuring that HarperCollins is willing to support us in this.

Book tours outside North America seem to be uncommon except for well-known authors. We have done no more than a few signings in other countries. Declining to organize a function in Johannesburg for our second book, our South African publicist told us that launches don’t sell books; publicity sells books. We pointed out that the launch of A Carrion Death in Johannesburg sold over a hundred copies and attracted at least twice that number of people. Her response was: “Yes, it was an excellent launch. You have a lot of friends in Johannesburg.” So we threw our own party to which 100 or so people came, and we sold seventy books.

Would the same number of books have been sold anyway? We don’t know.

So how would we sum up our feelings about the book tour? Let’s put it this way. If we’re asked to do one next year for our third book, we’ll dip into our pockets and start buying the plane tickets.

carrion-death-us-small.jpgcarrion-death-us-small.jpgcarrion-death-us-small.jpg
Michael Stanley smiling with catMichael Stanley is the writing team of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip.

Both are retired professors who have worked in academia and business. They were both born in South Africa. Michael is a mathematician, specializing in geological remote sensing. He lives in Johannesburg, South Africa, and is a tournament bridge player. Stanley is an educational psychologist, specializing in the application of computers to teaching and learning, and a pilot. He splits his time between Knysna, South Africa, and Minneapolis in the United States. He is an avid golfer.

Their first novel, A CARRION DEATH, featuring Detective David “Kubu” Bengu, was published in 2008 and received critical acclaim. The Los Angeles Times listed it as one of its top ten crime novels of 2008. It is a nominee for the Minnesota Book Award, Strand Magazine’s Critics Award for Best First Novel, and Mystery Readers International Macavity Award for Best First Novel.

Pitching 101, part IX: getting all conceptual, or, Anne Frank meets Godzilla at the Eiffel Tower and love blooms!

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Did you enjoy your weekend, readers, or were you too busy racking your brains, trying to come up with a list of your book’s selling points? Here in Seattle, where a writers’ organization to which I used to donate a tremendous amount of time is gearing up for its annual Conference That Shall Remain Nameless, aspiring writers are walking into walls, muttering to themselves, the sure sign that they’ve embraced the antiquated pitching method so favored by conference organizers, and so hated by everyone else: trying to cram the entire plot of a book into three sentences, memorizing them (thus the muttering and wall-battery), and spitting them out in one long breath at the pitch meeting.

As some of the brighter wits among you MAY have figured out by this point in the series, I eschew this approach. In my experience, it’s far, far better pitching strategy for a writer to learn to talk about her book effectively and in professional terms than to swallow a pre-fab speech whole, hoping to God that the agent or editor at whom she plans to spit it won’t do anything disorienting like ask follow-up questions.

News flash to those who adhere to the three-line approach: asking follow-up question is what agents and editors do when they hear a pitch they like. It’s the happy outcome — so why not prepare for it?

With that laudable goal in mind, I sent you off last Thursday with some homework. So I ask again: how is coming up with a list of why your book will appeal to your target audience going?

If you find you’re getting stuck, here’s a great way to jump-start your brainstorming process: hie ye hence to the nearest well-stocked bookstore (preferably an air-conditioned one, if you happen to reside in the northern hemisphere right now), stand in front of the shelves holding your chosen book category, and start taking a gander at how those books are marketed to readers.

Don’t try this at your local library — the idea is to discover at whom new releases in your field are being aimed, and how. The front and back covers are a fabulous place to start, since every syllable that appears on either will have been specifically crafted by the publisher’s marketing department to reach the book’s target demographic.

That last term, for those of you tuning in late, refers to the people who have already demonstrated interest in buying similar books. How, you ask? Generally, by that most straightforward means of fan self-identification: by actually plunking down the cash for a book in that category.

I don’t mean to alarm any of you with my psychic powers, but here’s a modest prediction: once you’ve made a small pile of books aimed at a specific group of readers, you may well notice that they all have something in common. In all probability, several somethings: back jacket blurbs aimed at a particular readership often repeat key words.

That’s not only true of book marketing, by the way. In the late 1980s, I got a job writing back labels for wine bottles. (Oh, you thought those colorless little quips just wrote themselves?) Since I was new to the game, I wrote lengthy, adjective-heavy descriptions for each and every wine, in the apparently mistaken impression that my job was to describe to the potential buyer what the wine within might taste like.

After a week or two, the marketing manager called me into his office. “You’re making this harder on yourself than it needs to be — and you’re going to make it harder for the buyer.”

I was flabbergasted. Hadn’t I been tying myself in knots, to assure an accurate description?

He waved away my objection. “Sweetie, the people who would understand your descriptions don’t buy wine based on the label copy; they buy it based upon knowledge of the winery, the year, the soil conditions, and every other piece of information you’re cramming onto the back label. But the back label is for people who don’t know much about wine, who want to know what the varietal is like. Every varietal has five or six adjectives already associated with it: oaky, for instance, or vanilla undertones. If you’re writing a description of a Chardonnay, haul out the Chardonnay adjectives and make sure you use most of them somewhere on the back label. Got it?”

As a writer, I was crushed, but I must admit, it was great marketing advice: I had mistaken the target market for my wine descriptions. To those readers, an overly-technical description was off-putting.

The same logic holds true for the language of a pitch or a query letter: since agents and editors think of manuscripts in terms of target demographics, book categories, and what has already proven successful in selling to a particular market, not speaking of your work in those terms isn’t the most effective way to present your book. An overly -detailed description, not matter how accurately it represents the book, is not what they’re hoping to hear.

So let’s turn our attention to pith, shall we? Shout hallelujah, citizens, for we are finally ready to tackle reducing your book to a single quip of bon mot-iness that would make Oscar Wilde blush furiously, if discreetly, with envy. Today, I am going to talk about coming up with your book’s KEYNOTE, also known colloquially as a BOOK CONCEPT.

(Did you know that when Wilde gave public readings, he NEVER read the published versions of his own work? Ditto with Mark Twain, another writer known to wow ‘em with great readings, and I’m quite sure I’ve never heard David Sedaris read the same story the same way twice. Sedaris seems — wisely — to use audience feedback to judge what jokes do and do not work, but Wilde and Twain apparently deliberately added extra laugh lines, so that even audience members very familiar with their published writing would be surprised and delighted. But I digress)

Brevity is the soul of the keynote. It is the initial, wow-me-now concept statement that introduces your book to someone with the attention span of an unusually preoccupied three-year-old.

Why assume you’ve got that little time? Because if you can impress someone that distrait, my friends, you can certainly catch the ear of a perpetually rushed agent — or the eye of Millicent the exhausted agency screener.

Before you pooh-pooh the idea of WANTING to discuss your marvelously complex book with someone whose attention span precludes sitting through even an average-length TV commercial, let me remind you: sometimes, you have only a minute or so to make a pitch. After a very popular class, for instance, or when your dream agent happens to be trying to attract the bartender’s attention at the same time as you are.

I ask you: since any reasonably polite hello will take up at least half a minute, wouldn’t you like to be READY to take advantage of the remaining 30 seconds, if the opportunity presents itself?

I know, I know: it’s not very glamorous to approach the agent of your dreams in the parking lot below the conference center, but the market-savvy writer takes advantage of chance meetings to pitch, where politeness doesn’t preclude it. (Just so you know: it’s considered extremely gauche to pitch in the bathroom line, but at most conferences, pretty much any other line is fair game.) You’re not going to want to shout your keynote at her the instant you spot an agent, of course, but a keynote is a great third sentence after, “I enjoyed your talk earlier. Do you have a moment for me to run my book concept by you?”

Here’s a thought that might make you feel a whole lot better about doing this: if you have a keynote prepared, you honestly ARE going to take up only a few seconds of her time. (Hey, you didn’t think I was just going to urge you to buttonhole agents in conference hallways without showing you how to do it politely, did you?)

But there I go, digressing again. Back to the business at hand.

The keynote’s goal is to pique your listener’s interest as quickly as possible, so s/he will ask to hear more. Like the pitch as a whole, the keynote’s purpose is not to sell the book unread, but to intrigue the hearer into wanting to read your manuscript — and to act upon that feeling by asking the writer to submit the manuscript.

Often by way of asking those pesky follow-up questions I mentioned earlier.

How do you arouse this level of interest without drowning the hearer in details? By providing a MEMORABLY INTRIGUING PREMISE in a swift single sentence.

Think of it as the amuse-bouche of the publishing world: just a bite, designed to intrigue the hearer into begging to hear the pitch. In your keynote, your job is to fascinate, not to explain — and certainly not to summarize.

Allow me to repeat that, because it’s crucial: the goal of the keynote is NOT to summarize the plot of the book; merely to make its PREMISE sound exciting enough to make a hearer want to know more. Just in case anyone is still confused, I am not suggesting that you routinely utilize only a single sentence to promote your book in person or in print — the keynote is designed to help open doors, not to serve as a substitute for the pitch.

Some of you are becoming a trifle impatient with my vehemence, aren’t you? “Jeez, Anne,” these finger-drummers observe, “don’t you think I’ve been paying attention? Why on earth would I limit myself to a single sentence when I have a ten-minute pitch appointment scheduled?”

Well, it could be because at literally every conference I attend, I see aspiring writers knocking themselves out, trying to come up with a single sentence that summarizes everything good about a book, but that’s really not the point here. The point is that the keynote is NOT a substitute for a full-blown pitch; it is a conversational appetizer to whet the appetite of the hearer so he ASKS to hear the entire pitch.

In that moment, you’re there to tease, not to satisfy. And did I mention that it should be both memorable and brief?

There are two schools of thought on how best to construct a keynote statement. The better-known is the Hollywood Hook, a single sentence utilizing pop culture symbolism to introduce the basic premise of the book. (Note: the Hollywood Hook should not be confused with a hook, the opening paragraph or line of a book or short story that grabs the reader and sucks him into the premise. Unfortunately, conference-going writers get these two terms confused all the time, leading to sometimes-tragic communication lapses.)

Hollywood hooks tend to run a little like this:

“It’s SPIDERMAN meets DRIVING MISS DAISY!”

It’s JAWS, but on dry land and with turtledoves!

“Paris Hilton is suddenly penniless and forced to work in a particle physics lab on the day Martians invade!”

It’s no accident that the example above ends in an exclamation point: you WANT your HH to be just a bit jarring; a spark of the unexpected will make your book concept sound fresh. Logical contradiction provides the shock of a Hollywood Hook, the combination of two icons that one would not generally expect to be found together.

For instance, a Hollywood Hook for:

…a book that teaches children the essentials of the Electoral College system might be, “Bill Clinton teaches Kermit the Frog how to vote!”

…a book on alternative medicine for seniors might be expressed as, “Deepak Chopra takes on the Golden Girls as patients!”

…a novel about sexual harassment in a tap-dancing school could conceivably be pitched as “Anita Hill meets Fred Astaire!”

See all those exclamation points? There’s a certain breathlessness about the Hollywood Hook, a blithe disregard for propriety of example. There’s a reason for this: in order to be effective as an enticement to hear more, the icons cited should not go together automatically in the mind.

Otherwise, where’s the surprise?

The whole point of the exercise is to intrigue the listener, to make him ask to hear more. If someone pitched a book to you as “A private investigator chases a murderer!” wouldn’t you yawn? If, on the other hand, if someone told you her book was “Mickey Mouse goes on a killing spree!” wouldn’t you ask at least one follow-up question?

Again, the point here is not to produce a super-accurate description, but a memorable sound bite.

All that being said, I should mention that I’m not a big fan of the Hollywood Hook method of keynoting. Yes, it can be attention-grabbing, but personally, I would rather use those few seconds talking about MY book, not pop culture.

And that’s not just about ego, honest. Not every storyline is compressible into iconic shorthand, whatever those screenwriting teachers who go around telling everyone who will listen that the only good plotline is a heroic journey.

Use the Force, Luke!

The other school of thought on constructing a keynote statement — and my preferred method — is the rhetorical teaser. The rhetorical teaser presents a thought-provoking question (ideally, posed in the second person, to engage the listener in the premise) that the book will presumably answer.

For example, a friend of mine was prepping to pitch a narrative cookbook aimed at celiacs, people who cannot digest gluten. Now, there are a whole lot of celiacs out there, but (as we should all know after our recent discussion on the helpfulness of statistics) she could not legitimately assume that any agent or editor to whom she pitched the book would either be unable to eat wheat or know someone who couldn’t. (Remember that great rule of thumb from last week: you can’t assume that an agent or editor has ANY knowledge about your topic.)

So she employed a rhetorical tease to grab interest: “What would you do if you suddenly found out you could NEVER eat pizza again?”

Thought-provoking, isn’t it? It may not have been a strictly honest way to present a book proposal that, if memory serves, included a recipe for gluten-free pizza dough, but it does present the problem the book solves vividly to the hearer.

Rhetorical teasers are more versatile than Hollywood Hooks, as they can convey a broader array of moods. They can range from the ultra-serious (“What if you were two weeks away from finishing your master’s degree — and your university said it would throw you out if you wouldn’t testify against your innocent best friend?”) to the super-frivolous (“Have you ever looked into your closet before a big date and wanted to shred everything in there because nothing matched your great new shoes?”).

Remember, you don’t want to give an overview of the plot here — you want to intrigue.

Again, the keynote is NOT a summary of your book; it’s a teaser intended to attract an agent or editor into ASKING to hear your pitch. So you will want to make it — say it with me now — both BRIEF and MEMORABLE.

By now, the mere sight of those two words within the same line is making you squirm a bit, isn’t it? “I understand WHY that might be a good idea,” I hear some of you grumble, “but I’m a writer of BOOKS, not one-liners. How does a novelist accustomed to page-long descriptions pull off being simultaneously brief and memorable?

That’s a great question, disgruntled murmurers, and it deserves a direct answer: don’t be afraid to use strong imagery, particularly strong sensual imagery that will stick in the hearer’s mind for hours to come.

If you’re ever going to use adjectives, this is the time. “What would you do if you suddenly found yourself knee-deep in moss everywhere you went?” is not as strong a keynote as “The earth will be covered thirty feet deep in musty grey lichen in three days — and no one believes the only scientist who can stop it.”

Notice how effective it was to bring in the element of conflict? Your keynote should make your book sound dramatically exciting — even if it isn’t. You shouldn’t lie, obviously, but this is the time to emphasize lack of harmony.

I’m quite serious about this. If I were pitching a book set in a convent where nuns spent their days in silent contemplation of the perfections of the universe, I would make the keynote sound conflict-ridden.

How? Well, off the top of my head: “What would you do if you’d taken a vow of silence — but the person you worked with every day had a habit that drove you mad?”

Okay, perhaps habit was a bit much. But you get my drift: in a keynote, as in a pitch, being boring is the original sin.

Thou shalt not bore on my watch.

I would advise emphasizing conflict, incidentally, even if the intent of the book were to soothe. A how-to book on relaxation techniques could accurately be keynoted as, “Wrap your troubles in lavender; this book will teach you how to sleep better,” but that’s hardly a grabber, is it? Isn’t “What would you do if you hadn’t slept in four nights?” is actually a better keynote.

Why? Experienced book-promoters, chant it with me now: because the latter encourages the hearer to want to hear more. And that, by definition, is a more successful come-on.

You WERE aware that both pitching and querying were species of seduction, right?

Or, if you prefer, species of storytelling. As Madame de Staël so memorably wrote a couple of centuries ago, “One of the miracles of talent is the ability to tear your listeners or readers out of their own egoism.”

That’s about as poetic a definition of marketing artistic work that you’re going to find. Use the keynote to alert ‘em to the possibility that you’re going to tell them a story they’ve never heard before.

Another effective method for a keynote is to cite a problem — and immediately suggest that your book may offer a plausible solution. This works especially well for NF books on depressing subjects.

A keynote that just emphasizes the negative, as in, “Human activity is poisoning the oceans,” is, unfortunately, more likely to elicit a shudder from an agent or editor than, “Jacques Cousteau said the oceans will die in our lifetimes — and here’s what you can do about it.”

Fact of living in these post-Enlightenment days, I’m afraid: we like all of our problems to have solutions. Preferably ones that don’t require more than thirty seconds to explain.

I can tell you from recent personal experience that the problem/solution keynote can be very effective with dark subject matter: there were two — count ‘em, TWO — dead babies in the sample chapter of the book proposal I sold a couple of years ago, and scores of preventably dying adults. It was a fascinating story, but let me tell you, I really had to sell that to my agents, even though they already had a high opinion of my writing.

If I’d just told them, “There are scores of people dying because of a plant that produces something that’s in every American household,” we all would have collapsed into a festival of sobs, but by casting it as, “There are scores of people dying because of a plant that produces something that’s in every American household — and this is the story of a woman who has been fighting to change that,” the book sounds like a beacon of hope.

Or it would have been, if I hadn’t caught mono and pneumonia simultaneously, forcing me to cancel the book contract. These things happen.

My point is, if I had stubbornly insisted upon trying to pique everyone’s interest with only the sad part of the story, I doubt the proposal would have gotten out of the starting gate. My agents, you see, harbor an absurd prejudice for my writing books that they believe they can sell.

They were right to be concerned, you know. Heads up for those of you who deal with weighty realities in your work: even if a book is politically or socially important, heavy subject matter tends to be harder to sell, regardless of whether you are pitching it verbally or querying it.

Particularly if the downer subject matter hasn’t gotten much press attention. This is true whether the book is fiction or nonfiction, interestingly enough.

Why? Well, think about it: an agent or editor who picks up a book is committing to live with it on a fairly intensive basis for at least a year, often more. Even with the best intentions and working with the best writing, that can get pretty depressing.

So it’s a very good idea to accentuate the positive, even in the first few words you say to the pros about your book. And avoid clichés like the proverbial plague, unless you put a clever and ABSOLUTELY original spin on them.

Actually, steering clear of the hackneyed is a good rule of thumb for every stage of book marketing: you’re trying to convince an agent or editor that your book is UNIQUE, after all. Reproducing clichés without adding to them artistically just shows that you’re a good listener, not a good creator.

If you can provoke a laugh or a gasp with your keynote, all the better.

Remember, though, even if you pull off the best one-liner since Socrates was wowing ‘em at the Athenian agora, if your quip doesn’t make your BOOK memorable, rather than you being remembered as a funny or thought-provoking person, the keynote has not succeeded.

Let me repeat that, because it’s a subtle distinction: the goal of the keynote is not to make you sound like a great person, or even a great writer — it’s to make them interested in your BOOK.

I’m continually meeting would-be pitchers who don’t seem to realize that. Instead, they act as though an agent or editor who did not ask to see pages following a pitch must have based his decision on either (a) whether he liked the pitcher personally or (b) some magically intuition that the manuscript in question is poorly written. Logically, neither could be true.

Okay, so that’s a bit of an exaggeration: if a pitcher is extremely rude to the pitchee, the latter usually won’t ask to see pages. But logically, no assessment of a VERBAL pitch could possibly be construed as a MANUSCRIPT critique.

In other words, they can’t possibly learn that you’re a fabulous writer until they read some of your prose, and while I’m morally certain that to know, know, know my readers is to love, love, love them, that too is something the industry is going to have to learn over time.

And remember, good delivery is not the same thing as book memorability. I once went to a poetry reading at conference that STILL haunts my nightmares. A fairly well-known poet, who may or may not come from a former Soviet bloc country closely associated in the public mind with vampire activity, stalked in and read, to everyone’s surprise, a prose piece. I don’t remember what it was about, except that part of the premise was that he and his girlfriend exchanged genitals for the weekend.

And then, as I recall, didn’t do anything interesting with them. (Speaking of the downsides of not adding artistically to a well-worn concept.)

Now, this guy is a wonderful public reader, a long-time NPR favorite and inveterate showman. To make his (rather tame) sexual tale appear more salacious, every time he used an Anglo-Saxon word relating to a body part or physical act, he would lift his eyes from the page and stare hard at the nearest woman under 40. I’ll spare you the list of words aimed at me, lest my webmaster wash my keyboard out with soap; suffice it to say, some of them would have made a pirate blush.

By the end of his piece, everyone was distinctly uncomfortable — and to this day, almost a decade later, everyone there remembers his performance. But when I get together with writer friends who were there to laugh about it now, can any of us recall the basic storyline of his piece? No.

Not even those of us who happened to be under 40 at the time.

What went wrong, you ask? He made his PERFORMANCE memorable by good delivery, rather than his writing. Sure, I remember who he is — I’m hardly likely to forget a man who read an ode to his own genitalia, am I? (I suspect all of us would have been substantially more impressed if someone ELSE had written an ode to his genitalia, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Did his flashy showmanship make me rush out and buy his books of poetry? No. Did it make me avoid him at future conferences like the aforementioned proverbial plague? You bet.

Exaggerated showmanship is a problem shared by a LOT of pitches, and even more Hollywood Hooks: they tend to be merely about delivery, rather than promoting the book in question. Please don’t make this mistake; unlike other sales situations, it’s pretty difficult to sell a book concept on charm alone.

Even if you’re the next Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain, or strange Eastern European sex fiend/poet.

Drama, conflict, vivid imagery, shock, cause for hope — these are the elements that will render your keynote memorable. And that’s extremely important, when you will be talking to someone who will have had 150 pitches thrown at him already that day.

Next time, I shall show you how to transform what you’ve already learned into a great opening gambit for striking up a conversation with anyone — and I do mean ANYONE — you might meet at a writers’ conference.

Think of it as my midsummer present to the shy. Keep up the good work!

Pitching 101, part VIII: you’ve gotta have heart, miles and miles and miles of heart — oh, and a professional pitch for your work doesn’t hurt, either

damn-yankees

“A little brains, a little talent — with an emphasis on the latter.”

Welcome back to my fourth annual series on building the toolkit to construct a stellar pitch — or a brilliant query letter, for that matter. While I’m taking my time this year, walking you through the essential elements, if you happen to be in a great big hurry — if, say, you happen to be attending a Conference That Shall Remain Nameless in the greater Seattle area weekend after next — feel free to take the express route. The posts gathered under the HOW TO WRITE A PITCH AT THE LAST MINUTE category on the archive list at right will take you through this process at record speed.

How do I come up with those esoteric category names?

Even if you do not plan on pitching anytime soon — or, indeed, ever — I would strongly encourage you to work through this series as if you were. As I may PERHAPS have intimated before, the essential skills a writer uses for creating a pitch and crafting a query are, if not the same, at least closely related.

Note that I called them skills, and not talents. Contrary to popular belief, success in marketing one’s work is not entirely reliant upon the quality of the writing; it’s also about professional presentation.

Which is, in fact, learned. As in any other business, there are ropes to learn. No shame in that.

Stop shaking your head in disbelief: pitching and querying well require skills that have little to do with writing talent. No baby, no matter how inherently gifted in finding la mot juste, has ever crawled out of the womb already informed by the celestial talent-handlers how to make her work appealing to the publishing industry, I assure you.

I wish this were a more widely-accepted truth on the conference circuit. Writers so often plunge into pitching or querying with sky-high hopes, only to have them dashed by what is in fact a perfectly acceptable response to a pitch: a cautious, “Well, it all depends upon the writing. Send me the first three chapters.”

That’s if everything happened to go well in the pitch, of course. If it didn’t, a polite but firm, “I’m sorry, but that’s just not for my agency/publishing house,” is the usual dream-crusher.

In the stress of pitching or querying, it can be hard to remember that quite apart from any interest (or lack thereof) an agent might have in the story being told, an unprofessionally-presented pitch or query letter is often rejected on that basis alone, not necessarily upon the book concept or the quality of the writing. So until a book has been marketed properly, it’s virtually impossible to glean writing-related feedback from rejections at all.

Onerous as it is, it truly behooves writers to start to think like marketers, at least for the few weeks immediately prior to attending a literary conference or sending out a flotilla of queries.

Okay, that’s enough justification for one day. Back to the business at hand.

Last time, I suggested that a dandy way to prepare for a conversation with a real, live agent or editor was to sit down and come up with a list of selling points for your book. Or, if you’re pitching nonfiction, how to figure out the highlights of your platform.

Not just vague assertions about why an editor at a publishing house would find it an excellent example of its species of book — that much is assumed, right? — but reasons that an actual real-world book customer might want to pluck that book from a shelf at Barnes & Noble and carry it up to the cash register. It may seem like a pain to generate such a list before you pitch or query, but believe me, it is hundreds of times easier to land an agent for a book if YOU know why readers will want to buy it.

Trust me, “But I spent three years writing it!” is not a reason that is going to fly very well with agents and editors.

Why? Well, pretty much everyone who approaches them has expended scads of time, energy, and heart’s blood on his book; contrary to what practically every movie involving a sports competition has implicitly told you, a writer’s WANTING to win more than one’s competitors is not going to impress the people making decisions about who does and doesn’t get published.

I’m bringing this up advisedly — sad to report, a disproportionately high percentage of pitchers (and quite a few queriers as well) make the serious marketing mistake of giving into the impulse to tell the pitchee about how HARD it was to write this particular book, how many agents have rejected it, at how many conferences they’ve pitched it, etc. The more disastrously a pitch meeting is going, the more furiously these pitchers will insist, often with hot tears trembling in their eyes, that this book represents their life’s blood, and so — the implication runs — only the coldest-hearted of monsters would refuse them Their Big Chance. (For some extended examples of this particular species of pitching debacle, please see my earlier post on the subject.)

Sometimes, these pitchers will get so carried away with the passion of describing their suffering that they will forget to pitch the book at all. (Yes, really.) And then they’re surprised when their outburst has precisely the opposite effect of what they intended: rather than sweeping the agent or editor off her feet by their intense love for this manuscript, all they’ve achieved is to convince the pro that these writers have a heck of a lot to learn about why agents and editors pick up books.

Surprised? Don’t be. A writer who melts down the first time he has to talk about his book in a professional context generally sets off flashing neon lights in an agent’s mind: this client will be a heck of a lot of work. Once that thought is triggered, a pitch would have to be awfully good to wipe out that initial impression of time-consuming hyperemotionalism.

Sadly, pitchers who play the emotion card often believe that it’s the best way to make a good impression. Rather than basing their pitch on their books’ legitimate selling points, they fall prey to what I like to call the Great Little League Fantasy: the philosophy so beloved of amateur coaches and those who make movies about them that decrees that all that’s necessary to win in an competitive situation is to believe in oneself.

Or one’s team. Or one’s horse in the Grand National, one’s car in the Big Race, or one’s case before the Supreme Court. You’ve gotta have heart, we’re all urged to believe, miles and miles and miles of heart.

Given the pervasiveness of this dubious philosophy, you can hardly blame the pitchers who embrace it. They believe, apparently, that pitching (or querying) is all about demonstrating just how much their hearts are in their work. Yet as charming as that may be (or pathetic, depending upon the number of tears shed during the description), this approach typically does not work. In fact, what it generally produces is profound embarrassment in both listener and pitcher.

Which is why, counterintuitively, figuring out who will want to read your book and why IS partially about heart: preventing yours from getting broken into 17 million pieces while trying to find a home for your work.

I’m quite serious about this. Whenever I teach pitching classes, I like to ask writers about their books’ selling points before they pitch or query in order to pull the pin gently on a grenade that can be pretty devastating to the self-esteem. A lot of writers mistake professional questions about marketability for critique, hearing the fairly straightforward question, “So, why would someone want to read this book?” as “Why on earth would ANYONE want to read YOUR book? It hasn’t a prayer!”

Faced with what they perceive to be scathing criticism, some writers shrink away from agents and editors who ask this perfectly reasonable question — a reluctance to hear professional feedback which, in turn, can very easily lead to an unwillingness to pitch or query ever again.

“They’re all so mean,” such writers say, firmly keeping their work out of the public eye. “It’s just not worth it.”

This response makes me sad, because the only book that hasn’t a prayer of being published is the one that is never submitted at all. There are niche markets for practically every taste, after all.

Your job in generating selling points is to SHOW (not tell) that there is indeed a market for your book.

Ooh, that hit some nerves, didn’t it? I can practically hear some of you, particularly novelists, tapping your feet impatiently. “Um, Anne?” some of you seem to be saying, with a nervous glance at your calendars, “I can understand why this might be a useful document for querying by letter, or for sending along with my submission, but have you forgotten that I will be giving VERBAL pitches at a conference just a week or so away? Is this really the best time to be spending hours coming up with my book’s selling points?”

My readers are so smart; you always ask the right questions at precisely the right time. So here is a short, short answer: yes.

Before you pitch is EXACTLY when you should devote some serious thought to your book’s selling points. Because, you see, if your book has market appeal over and above its writing style (and the vast majority of books do), YOU SHOULD MENTION IT IN YOUR PITCH.

Not in a general, “Well, I think a lot of readers will like it,” sort of way, but by citing specific, fact-based REASONS that they will clamor to read it. Preferably backed by the kind of verifiable statistics we discussed last time.

Why? Because it will make you look professional in the eyes of the agent or editor sitting in front of you — and, I must say it, better than the seventeen pitchers before you who did not talk about their work in professional terms. Not to mention that dear, pitiful person who wept for the entire ten-minute pitch meeting about how frustrating it was to try to find an agent for a cozy mystery these days.

The more solid reasons you can give for believing that your book concept is marketable, the stronger your pitch will be. Think about it: no agent is going to ask to see a manuscript purely because its author says it is well-written, any more than our old pal Millicent the agency screener would respond to a query that mentioned the author’s mother thought the book was the best thing she had ever read with a phone call demanding that the author overnight the whole thing to her.

“Good enough for your mom? Then it’s good enough for me!” is not, alas, a common sentiment in the industry. (But don’t tell Mom; she’ll be so disappointed.)

So let’s get back to constructing that list of selling points for your manuscript, shall we?

Yesterday, I concentrated on the standard writing résumé bullet points. To recap:

(1) Any experience that makes you an expert on the subject matter of your book.

(2) Any educational credentials you might happen to have, whether they are writing-related or not.

(3) Any honors that might have been bestowed upon you in the course of your long, checkered existence.

(4) Any former publications (paid or unpaid) or public speaking experience.

All of these are legitimate selling points for most books, but try not to get too bogged down in listing the standard prestige points. Naturally, you should include any previous publications and/or writing degrees on your list of selling points, but if you have few or no previous publications, awards, and writing degrees to your credit, do not despair. We shall be going through a long list of potential categories in order that everyone will be able to recognize at least a couple of possibilities to add to her personal list.

Let’s get cracking, shall we?

(5) Relevant life experience.
This is well worth including, if it helped fill in some important background for the book. Is your novel about coal miners based upon your twenty years of experience in the coalmining industry? Is your protagonist’s kid sister’s horrifying trauma at a teen beauty pageant based loosely upon your years as Miss Junior Succotash? Mention it.

And if you are writing about firefighting, and you happen to be a firefighter, you need to be explicit about it. It may seem self-evident to YOU, but remember, the agents and editors to whom you will be pitching will probably not be able to guess whether you have a platform from just looking at you.

There’s a reason that they habitually ask NF writers, “So what’s your platform?” after all.

What you should NOT do under any circumstances, however, is stammer out in a pitch meeting (or say in a query letter) that your novel is “sort of autobiographical.” To an agent or editor, this can translate as, “This book is a memoir with the names changed. Since it is based upon true events, I will be totally unwilling to revise it to your specifications.”

The distinction I am drawing here is a subtle one, admittedly. Having the background experience to write credibly about a particular situation is a legitimate selling point: in interviews, you will be able to speak at length about the real-life situation.

However, industry professionals simply assume that fiction writers draw upon their own backgrounds for material. But to them, a book that recounts true events in its author’s life is a memoir, not a novel. Contrary to the pervasive movie-of-the-week philosophy, the mere fact that a story is true does not make it more appealing; it merely means potential legal problems.

Translation: until folks in the industry have forgotten about the A MILLION LITTLE PIECES fiasco, it’s not going to be a good idea to highlight the fact that a novel is semi-autobiographical in your pitch. Especially since — again, it pains me to be the one to tell you this, but how else are you going to find out? — a good third of fiction pitches include some form of the phrase, “Well, it’s sort of autobiographical…”

Just don’t do it. Trust me on this one.

(6) Associations and affiliations.
If you are writing on a topic that is of interest to some national organization, bring it up here. Also, if you are a member of a group willing to promote (or review) your work, mention it. Some possible examples:

The Harpo Marx Fan Club has 120, 000 members in the U.S. alone, as well as a monthly newsletter, guaranteeing substantial speaking engagement interest.

Angelina Jolie is a well-known graduate of Yale University, which guarantees a mention of her book on tulip cultivation in the alumni newsletter.

Currently, the Yale News reaches over 28 million readers bimonthly.

(Perhaps it goes without mentioning, but I pulled all of the examples I am using in this list out of thin air. Probably not the best idea to quote me on any of ‘em, therefore.)

(7) Trends and recent bestsellers.
If there is a marketing, popular, or research trend that touches on the subject matter of your book, add it to your list. If there has been a recent upsurge in sales of books on your topic, or a television show devoted to it, mention it. (Recent, in industry terms, means within the last five years.)

Even if these trends support a secondary subject in your book, they are still worth including. If you can back your assertion with legitimate numbers (see last weekend’s earlier posts on the joys of statistics), all the better. Some possible examples:

Novels featuring divorced mothers of small children have enjoyed a considerable upswing in popularity in recent years. A July, 2008 search on Amazon.com revealed over 1,200 titles.

Ferret ownership has risen 28% in the last five years, according to the National Rodent-Handlers Association.

Last year’s major bestseller, THAT HORRIBLE GUMBY by Pokey, sold over 97 million copies. It is reasonable to expect that its readers will be anxious to read Gumby’s reply.

(8) Statistics.
At risk of repeating myself, if you are writing about a condition affecting human beings, there are almost certainly statistics available about how many people in the country are affected by it. As we discussed earlier in the week, including the real statistics in your pitch minimizes the probability of the agent or editor’s guess being far too low.

Get your information from the most credible sources possible, and cite them. Some possible examples:

400,000 Americans are diagnosed annually with Inappropriate Giggling Syndrome, creating a large audience potentially eager for this book.

According to a recent study in the Toronto Star, 90% of Canadians have receding hairlines, pointing to an immense potential Canadian market for this book.

(9) Recent press coverage.

I say this lovingly, of course, but people in the publishing industry have a respect for the printed word that borders on the mystical. Minor Greek deities were less revered.

Thus, if you can find recent articles related to your topic, list them as evidence that the public is eager to learn more about it. Possible examples:

So far in 2009, the Chicago Tribune has run 347 articles on mining accidents, pointing to a clear media interest in the safety of mine shafts.

In the last six months, the New York Times has written twelve times about Warren G. Harding; clearly the public is clamoring to hear more about this important president’s love life.

(10) Your book’s relation to current events and future trends.
I hesitate to mention this one, because it’s actually not the current trends that dictate whether a book pitched or queried now will fly off the shelves after it is published: it’s the events that will be happening THEN.

Current events are inherently tricky as selling points, since it takes a long time for a book to move from proposal to bookstand. Ideally, your pitch to an agent should speak to the trends of at least two years from now, when the book will actually be published.

(In response to that loud unspoken “Whaaa?” I just heard out there: after you land an agent, figure one year for you to revise it to your agent’s specifications and for the agent to market it — a conservative estimate, incidentally — and another year between signing the contract and the book’s actually hitting the shelves. If my memoir had been printed according to its original publication timeline, it would have been the fastest agent-signing to bookshelf progression of which anyone I know had ever heard: 16 months, a positively blistering pace.)

However, if you can make a plausible case for the future importance of your book, go ahead and include it on your list. You can also project a current trend forward. Some examples:

At its current rate of progress through the courts, Christopher Robin’s habeas corpus case will be heard by the Supreme Court in late 2009, guaranteeing substantial press coverage for Pooh’s exposé, OUT OF THE TOY CLOSET.

If tooth decay continues at its current rate, by 2012, no Americans will have any teeth at all. Thus, it follows that a book on denture care should be in ever-increasing demand.

(11) Particular strengths of the book.
You’d be surprised at how well a statement like, BREATHING THROUGH YOUR KNEES is the first novel in publishing history to take on the heartbreak of kneecap dysplasia can work in a pitch or a query letter. If it’s true, that is.

So what is your book’s distinguishing characteristic? How is it different and better from other offerings currently available within its book category? How is it different and better than the most recent bestseller on the subject?

One caveat: avoid cutting down other books on the market; try to point out how your book is GOOD, not how another book is bad.

Why? Well, publishing is a small world: you can never be absolutely sure that the person to whom you are pitching DIDN’T go to college with the editor of the book on the negative end of the comparison. Or date the author. Or represented the book himself.

I would STRONGLY urge those of you who write literary fiction to spend a few hours brainstorming on this point. How does your book deal with language differently from anything else currently on the market? How does its dialogue reveal character in a new and startling way? Why might a professor choose to teach it in an English literature class?

Again, remember to stick to the FACTS here, not subjective assessment. It’s perfectly legitimate to say that the writing is very literary, but don’t actually say that the writing is gorgeous.

Even if it undeniably is.

Why not? Well, that’s the kind of assessment that publishing types tend to trust only if it comes from one of three sources: a well-respected contest (in the form of an award), the reviews of previous publications — and the evidence of their own eyes.

Seriously, this is a notorious industry pet peeve: almost universally, agents and editors tend to respond badly when a writer actually SAYS that his book is well-written; they want to make up their minds on that point themselves. It tends to provoke a “Show, don’t tell!” response.

In fact, it’s not at all unusual for agents to tell their screeners to assume that anyone who announces in a query letter that this is the best book in the Western literary canon is a bad writer. Next!

So be careful not to sound as if you are boasting. If you can legitimately say, for instance, that your book features the most sensitive characterization of a dyslexic 2-year-old ever seen in a novel, that will be heard as a statement of fact, not a value judgment.

Stick to what is genuinely one-of-a-kind about your book — and don’t be afraid to draw direct factual comparisons with other books in the category that have sold well recently. For example:

While Jennifer Anniston’s current bestseller, EYESHADOW YOUR WAY TO SUCCESS, deals obliquely with the problem of eyelash loss, my book, EYELASH: THE KEY TO A HAPPY, HEALTHY FUTURE, provides much more detailed guidelines on eyelash care.

(12) Any research or interviews you may have done for the book.
If you have done significant research or extensive interviews, list it here. This is especially important if you are writing a NF book, as any background that makes you an expert on your topic is a legitimate part of your platform. Some possible examples:

Leonardo DiCaprio has spent the past eighteen years studying the problem of hair mousse failure, rendering him one of the world’s foremost authorities.

Bruce Willis interviewed over 600 married women for his book, HOW TO KEEP THE PERFECT MARRIAGE.

(13) Promotion already in place.
Yes, the kind of resources commonly associated with having a strong platform — name recognition, your own television show, owning a newspaper chain, and the like — but more modest promotional efforts are worth listing as well.

Having a website already established that lists an author’s bio, a synopsis of the upcoming book, and future speaking engagements carries a disproportionate weight in the publishing industry — because, frankly, the publishing industry as a whole has been a TRIFLE slow to come alive to the promotional possibilities of the Internet, beyond simply throwing up static websites.

So almost any web-based marketing plan you may have is going to come across as impressive. Consider having your nephew (or some similarly computer-savvy person who is fond enough of you to work for pizza) put together a site for you, if you don’t already have one.

(14) What makes your take on the subject matter of your book fresh.
Remember a few weeks back, when I was talking about the distinction between a fresh book concept and a weird one? Well, this is the time to bring up what makes your work new, exciting, original. (And if you missed that discussion, you might want to check out the FRESHNESS IN MANUSCRIPTS category at right.)

I like to see EVERY list of selling points include at least one bullet’s worth of material addressing this point, because it’s awfully important. If YOU don’t know what makes your book different and better than what’s already on the shelves, how can you expect an agent or editor to guess?

Again, what we’re looking for here are not merely qualitative assessments (“This is the best book on sailboarding since MOBY DICK!”), but content-filled comparisons (“It’s would be the only book on the market that instructs the reader in the fine art of harpooning from a sailboard.”)

Finished brainstorming your way through all of these points? Terrific.

Now go through your list and cull the less impressive points. Ideally, you will want to end up with somewhere between 3 and 10, enough to fit comfortably as bullet points on a double-spaced page.

Then reduce each point to a single sentence. Yes, this is a pain for those of us who spend our lives meticulously crafting beautiful paragraphs, but trust me, when you are consulting a list in a hurry, simpler is better.

When your list is finished, label it MARKETING POINTS, and keep it by your side until your first book signing. Or when you are practicing answering the question, “So, what’s your platform?”

Heck, you might even want to have it handy when you’re giving interviews about your book, because once you’ve come up with a great list of reasons that your book should sell, you’re going to want to bring those reasons up every time you talk about the book, right?

Oh, and keep a copy handy to your writing space. It’s a great pick-me-up for when you start to ask yourself, “Remind me — why I am I putting in all of this work?”

Yes, generating selling points IS a lot of trouble, but believe me, in retrospect, you will be glad to have a few of these reasons written down before you meet with — or query — the agent of your dreams.

Trust me on this one. And remember me kindly when, down the line, your agent or editor raves about how prepared you were to market your work. There’s more to being an agent’s dream client than just showing up with a beautifully-written book, you know: there’s arriving with a fully-stocked writer’s toolkit.

Exhausted? I hope not, because for the next couple of weeks, we’re going to be continuing this series at a pretty blistering pace. Next week, I shall move on to constructing those magic few words that will summarize your book in half a breath’s worth of speech.

But since you’ve all been working so hard, I have a treat in store for you this weekend. Be sure to tune in; it’s going to be a good one. (Hint: those of you who write comedy are going to be really, really happy.)

So prepare yourselves to get pithy, everybody — and, as always, keep up the good work!

Pitching 101, part VII: identifying why precisely the world needs YOUR book, as opposed to any other, or, how to make it plain to even a pitch-fatigued Mr. Magoo what you’re holding out to him

mr-magoo-in-danger

A few hours after I posted yesterday, I ran into a local author who drops by Author! Author! on a fairly regular basis. (Appropriately enough, I bumped into him in a bookstore.) “I loved your blog this morning,” he told me, chuckling. “You really made the poor souls who hear pitches sound out-of-touch with reality.” Since it has been his considered professional opinion for years that the version of reality as understood by the business side of writing and the version in which the rest of us live have little in common but a shared respect for the force of gravity, he was, he said, pretty psyched to forward the link to that post to half of the writers he knew.

Flattering, of course. Except that view of pitch-hearers had not been precisely what I’d been trying to convey yesterday.

For those of you who missed it, I devoted part of yesterday’s post to the concept of a niche market, the publishing industry’s term for a target readership that really isn’t big enough to buy significant numbers of books. Agents tend to be leery of manuscripts that they think will appeal to only a niche market, since the book sales are unlikely to yield much in the way of commission.

And lest we forget, few agencies are non-profit organizations, at least intentionally. Contrary to what far too many aspiring writers believe, the business of selling art is in fact a business, not a charitable enterprise devoted to seeking out and publishing the best writing currently on the planet. An agent or editor at a writers’ conference is looking for projects that he believes he can sell.

So when an agent dismisses a pitch with an airy, “Oh, that will only appeal to a niche market,” she’s not saying that it’s a bad idea for a book; she’s saying that it would be difficult for her to convince an editor at a major publishing house that there are very many readers out there who will spot it on a shelf at Barnes & Noble and carry it to the cash register.

See the difference? I hope so, because understanding that subtle distinction can often mean ending a pitch meeting on a cordial note, rather than with the writer weeping into the hallway, feeling as though he’s just been told his book concept is terrible.

As I mentioned yesterday, though, sometimes agents and editors are wrong about a book concept’s having only niche market appeal. Sometimes, that belief springs from the agent or editor’s having handled a similar project recently that flopped; sometimes, it’s a matter of not being psychic enough to know what will be the hot seller next year. But sometimes, they just aren’t aware of how many potential readers there are for a certain subject.

And sometimes, it must be said, their conceptions of these preferences are years or even decades out of date. “Soccer?” they scoff, wrinkling their collective noses. “Nobody in the United States is interested in that.

Except, of course, for the 18.2 million Americans who played soccer at least once in 1998. (Speaking of outdated statistics; it just happened to be the one I had at my fingertips, but it’s really too old to be of much use in a pitch or query letter. Do as I say, not as I do: try to stick to statistics for the last five years. )

Thus, as I pointed out last time, it’s a really, really good idea to do a bit of homework on your target demographic before walking into a pitch appointment, so you may point out — politely and preemptively — just how immense it actually is.

However, please do not fall into the same trap that my author friend did: don’t automatically assume that any agent or editor unfamiliar with your subject matter is out-of-touch or (as all too many conference-goers are apt to conclude) just not very bright. Actually, the opposite is usually true — both agencies and publishing houses tend to attract genuinely smart people.

Very smart English majors. See why they might not as a group know much about soccer? Or model train-building? Or lion-taming?

As I’ve pointed out before, no agent or editor works with every kind of book. They’re specialists, and once a writer lands a contract with them, that’s good for everybody. However, one side effect of that praiseworthy concentration on a particular type of book can be myopia.

And I’m not just talking about needing to wear glasses because they read too much, if you catch my drift.

But to be fair, let’s put that particular stripe of myopia in perspective: hands up, everyone who is an expert in a whole lot of subjects that don’t interest him. In the world outside the publishing industry, we don’t generally expect a pipelayer to be conversant with the ins and outs of oral surgery, or an oral surgeon to know much about floral arrangement, or a florist to be an expert in particle physics. Yet at conference after conference, year after year, aspiring writers are shocked to discover that agents and editors aren’t all that up on the subject matters of their books.

Go figure. If it makes you feel better about having to go to the trouble to prove just how many potential readers are demonstrably interested in the subject matter of your book, pretend that you are going to be pitching to an optometrist, not an agent. (Unless your book happens to be intimately concerned with the workings of the eye, that is.)

One more reason that it would behoove you to compile a few statistics before you write your pitch or query: any number in the hundreds of thousands or millions will jump out at the hearer, a serious advantage when addressing an agent or editor suffering from pitch fatigue.

Or anyone else, for that matter. After the tenth pitch, even rather dissimilar books can start to sound kind of similar.

Again, I don’t mean to cast any aspersions on the fine folks who inhabit the publishing industry: tired people in any profession tend to be rather poor listeners. Heck, many perfectly alert people are lousy listeners.

So make it as easy as possible for the pitch-fatigued (or, in the case of a query, a bleary-eyed agency screener) to see the huge market appeal of your book concept. Quantify it.

Oh, before I forget, one more tip before I move on: because anything above half a percent of the US population will translate into some pretty significant numbers, you should use the numbers, wherever possible; they will sound more impressive. More to the point, citing the numbers rather than the percentages allows for the possibility that your listener might not be up on the latest headcounts of the citizenry.

Or, to put it another way: quick, what’s the population of the US?

According to the US census’ population clock a moment ago, the answer was 306,972,221. How can you make that number work for you? Well, if you happened to be writing a ghost story, you might be thinking of bringing up in your pitch that oft-cited statistic that 1 in 3 Americans believes in ghosts. You could state it that way, or you could mention that according to that survey (which makes one wonder how the surveyors asked the question, doesn’t it?), 33% of the population might arguably be predisposed to be interested in your subject matter.

Mighty impressive, right? But to a former English major, which is likely to sound larger, a third of the population or 102.3 million people?

Now that I have you all excited about figuring out just how big your target market could be, I suppose I should throw a bucket of cold water on the proceedings by pointing out that nobody in the publishing industry will seriously believe that 102.3 million Americans will actually rush out and buy every ghost book on the market. The last time I checked, the entire Harry Potter series collectively had accounted for only 27.7 million sales in this country.

But your books should be so lucky, right?

You don’t need to argue that all of those people will buy your book — just that they are predisposed to be interested in a ghost story. Trust the intelligence of the pitch hearer to be able to conclude that if even a tiny fraction of the believers in ghosts act upon that initial interest, you could have a runaway bestseller on your hands.

I’m sensing some synapses firing out there in the ether; are those light bulbs I see appearing over my readers’ heads? “But Anne,” some of you newly-eager book marketers exclaim, “how do I get those millions of people to act upon that wholly admirable impulse and buy my book? Or, if that’s jumping the gun at this juncture, how do I convince the agent or editor to whom I pitching that my book has a genuine shot at attracting those readers?

Glad you asked, oh pitchers. Next, I am — surprise, surprise — going to talk about something pitching classes very seldom address, identifying a book’s selling points.

Over the next couple of days, I’m going to be asking you to work on developing a list of selling points for the book to be pitched or queried. Specifically, I’m going to ask you to prepare a page’s worth of single-sentence summaries of attributes (the book’s or yours personally) that make the book the best thing since the proverbial sliced bread.

Why bullet-pointed, rather than paragraphs, you ask? So you can retrieve precisely the piece of information you need at any given moment, without fumbling for it. Even if sweat is pouring down your face into your eyes and your heart is palpitating, you will be able to sound professional.

In other words, so you won’t forget any of the reasons that your book will appeal to readers, even if you should happen — heaven forbid!– to have a panic attack during your pitch appointment.

Already, I can sense that some of you who have attended pitching classes are feeling a trifle skeptical about this suggestion. “Yeah, right, Anne,” these already-instructed few are scoffing, “I should put in still more effort into preparing to prepare to write my pitch. If having selling points at the ready is so darned useful, why doesn’t every pitching teacher out there advise it? Or why isn’t doesn’t that list pop up in every how-to for writing a good query letter? Isn’t this in fact just another manifestation of your overwhelming desire to have all of us over-prepare for approaching agents and editors?”

Frankly, I don’t have any idea why other pitching teachers don’t recommend this, because in my experience, it works very well as a tool for improving pretty much any pitch, query, or book proposal. In fact, I generally recommend to my proposal-writing clients that they include a bulleted list of selling points in their book proposal. True, it’s unusual to include, but both times I’ve sold nonfiction books, the editors have raved about how much they wished every proposer would include a similar page.

A really well-prepared list of selling points is like a really, really tiny press agent that can travel everywhere your manuscript goes. And whose manuscript couldn’t benefit from that?

But to be clear: a list of selling points is not something you absolutely NEED to prepare before you pitch or query, merely a really, really good idea. It’s unlikely to the point of hilarity, though, that an agent is going to look at you expectantly as soon as you walk into a pitch meeting and say, “Well? Where’s your list of selling points?” (Unless, of course, you happen to be pitching to my agent after having identified yourself as one of my blog’s readers.)

Even if you are not planning to pitch anytime soon, it is still worth constructing your list of selling points. Pulling together such a document forces you to come up with SPECIFIC reasons that an agent or editor should be interested in your book.

Other than, of course, the fact that you wrote it.

I’m only partially kidding about that last point. Nonfiction writers accept it as a matter of course that they are going to need to explain explicitly why the book is marketable and why precisely they are the best people in the known universe to write it — that mysterious entity called platform. These are specific elements in a standard NF book proposal, even.

Yet ask a fiction writer why his book will interest readers, let alone the publishing industry, and 9 times out of 10, he will act insulted. Why the discrepancy? Well, as I mentioned earlier in this series, a lot of writers, perhaps even the majority, do not seem to give a great deal of thought to why the publishing industry might be excited about THIS book, as opposed to any other.

Interestingly, though, many do seem to have thought long and hard about why the industry might NOT want to pick up a book. As a long-time pitching coach, I cannot even begin to tote up how many pitches I’ve heard that began with a three-minute description of every rejection the book has ever received.

Not only will constructing a list help you avoid this very common pitfall — it will also aid you in steering clear of the sweeping generalizations writers tend to pull out of their back pockets when agents and editors ask follow-up questions.

Did that gigantic gulping sound I just heard ripping across the cosmos emit from you, dear readers? “Follow-up questions?” the timorous quaver. “You mean that in addition to gasping out a pitch, I have to have enough brain power handy to answer FOLLOW-UP QUESTIONS? I always thought that the agent or editor just listened to the pitch, said yes or no, and that was that.”

Um, no — at least, not if the agent or editor likes what s/he heard you say. As in ordinary conversation, follow-up questions after a pitch are a common indicator of the hearer’s interest in what’s being discussed. One very, very common follow-up question, as it happens, is “Okay, why do you think this story will appeal to readers?”

Stop hyperventilating. It’s a perfectly reasonable question, and by the time we finish this series, you will be prepared — nay, HAPPY — to answer it.

But you will have to prepare, I’m afraid. What most pitchers do when caught off-guard by such a question is EITHER to start making wild assertions like, “This book will appeal to everyone who’s ever had a mother!” or “Every reader of horror will find this a page-turner!” OR to hear the question as a critique of the book they’re pitching. “Oh, I guess you’re right — no one will be interested,” these poor souls mutter, backing away from the bewildered agent.

Neither course will serve you. As I mentioned the other day, agents and editors tend to zone out on inflated claims about a novel’s utility to humanity in general — although if your book actually CAN achieve world peace, by all means mention it — or boasts that it will appeal to every literate person in America (a more common book proposal claim than one might imagine). They also tend, like most people, to equate a writer’s apparent lack of faith in her own work with its not being ready for the slings and arrows of the marketplace.

A writer’s having thought in advance about what REALISTIC claims s/he can legitimately make about why readers might like the book thus enjoys a significant advantage on the pitching floor.

In short, the selling point sheet prevents you from panicking in the moment; think of it as pitch insurance. Even if you draw a blank three sentences into your pitch, all you will have to do is look down, and presto! There is a list of concrete facts about you and your book.

”Yeah, right,” I hear the more cynical out there thinking. “What is this list, a Ginzu knife? Can it rip apart a cardboard box, too, and still remain sharp enough to slice a mushy tomato?”

Doubt if you like, oh scoffers, but his handy little document has more uses than duct tape — which, I’m told, is not particularly good at mending ducts.

How handy, you ask? Well, for starters:

1. You can have it by your side during a pitch, to remind yourself why your book will appeal to its target market. (Hey, even the best of us are prone to last-minute qualms about our own excellence.)

2. You can use it as a guideline for the “Why I am uniquely qualified to write this book” section of your query letter. (If you don’t know why you might want to include this section, please see the HOW TO WRITE A QUERY LETTER category on the list at right before you write your next.)

3. You can add it to a book proposal, to recap its most important elements at a glance. (My memoir agent liked the one I included in my proposal so much that she now has her other clients add them to their packets, too.)

4. You can tuck it into a submission packet, as a door prize for the agency screener charged with the merry task of reading your entire book and figuring it out whether it is marketable.

5. Your agent can have it in her hot little hand when pitching your book on the phone to editors.

6. An editor who wants to acquire your book can use the information on it both to fill out the publishing house’s Title Information Sheet and to present your book’s strengths in editorial meetings.

Okay, let’s assume that I’ve convinced you that pulling together this list is a good idea. (Just ignore the muffled screams in the background. People who can’t wait until the end of a post to register objections deserve to be gagged, don’t you find?) What might you include on it?

Well, for starters, the names of similar books that have sold well (along with some indication of why your book is different, better, and will appeal to the same demographic), your past publications, credentials, trends, statistics, high points in your background — anything that will make it easier to market your book.

Why are you the best person in the universe to tell this story (or to put it as the nonfiction agents do: what’s your platform?), and why will people want to read it?

Those of you wise to the ways of the industry are probably already thinking: oh, she means the items on my writing résumé. (And for those of you who do not know, a writing résumé is the list of professional credentials — publications, speaking experience, relevant degrees, etc. — that career-minded writers carefully accrue over the years in order to make their work more marketable. For tips on how to build one from scratch, please see the aptly named BUILDING YOUR WRITING RESUME category at right.)

Yes, list these points, by all means, but I would like to see your list be broader still. Include any fact that will tend to boost confidence in your ability to write and market this book successfully — and that includes references to major bestsellers on similar topics, to show that there is already public interest in your subject matter.

So it’s time for a good, old-fashioned brainstorming session. Think back to your target market (see the posts of the last two days). Why will your book appeal to that market better than other books? Why does the world NEED this book?

Other than, obviously, the great beauty of the writing. Because absolutely the only way to demonstrate that to the agent or editor is by getting her to read your manuscript, right?

I hear all of you literary fiction writers out there groaning. Yes, it would be in your best interest to give some thought to this point, too. As I’ve said before and will doubtless say again, even the most abstruse literary fiction is about something other than just the writing. So why will the subject matter appeal to readers? How large is the book’s target demographic?

And if you were the publicity person assigned to promote the book, what would you tell the producer of an NPR show in order to convince him to book the author?

No need to write pages and pages of justification on each point — a single sentence on each will serve you best here. Remember, the function of this list is ease of use, both for you and for those who will deal with your book in future. Keep it brief, but do make sure that you make it clear why each point is important.

Possible bullet points include (and please note, none of my examples are true; I feel a little silly pointing that out, but I don’t want to find these little tidbits being reported as scandalous factoids in the years to come):

(1) Experience that makes you an expert on the subject matter of your book.
This is the crux of a NF platform, of course, but it’s worth considering for fiction, too. If you have spent years on activities relating to your topic, that is definitely a selling point. Some possible examples:

Marcello Mastroianni has been a student of Zen Buddhism for thirty-seven years, and brings a wealth of meditative experience to this book.

Clark Gable has been Atlanta’s leading florist for fifteen years, and is famous state-wide for his Scarlett O’Hara wedding bouquets.

Tammy Faye Baker originally came to public attention by performing in a show featuring sock puppets, so she is well identified in the public mind with puppetry.

(Actually, I think this last one is at least partially true. But I should probably state up front that otherwise, my examples will have no existence outside my pretty little head, and should accordingly remain unquoted forever after.)

(2) Educational credentials.
Another favorite from the platform hit parade. Even if your degrees do not relate directly to your topic, any degrees (earned or honorary), certificates, or years of study add to your credibility.

Yes, even if you are a fiction writer: a demonstrated ability to fulfill the requirements of an academic program is, from an agent or editor’s point of view, a pretty clear indicator that you can follow complex sets of directions. (Believe me, the usefulness of a writer’s ability to follow directions well will become abundantly apparent before the ink is dry on the agency contract: deadlines are often too tight for multiple drafts.) Some possible examples:

Audrey Hepburn has a doctorate in particle physics from the University of Bonn, and thus is eminently qualified to write on atomic bombs.

Charlton Heston holds an honorary degree in criminology from the University of Texas, in recognition of his important work in furthering gun usage.

Jane Russell completed a certificate program in neurosurgery at Bellevue Community College, and thus is well equipped to field questions on the subject.

(3) Honors.
If you have been recognized for your work (or volunteer efforts), this is the time to mention it. Finalist in a major contest, in this or any other year, anybody?

Some possible examples:

Myrna Loy was named Teacher of the Year four years running by the schools of Peoria, Kansas.

Keanu Reeves won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1990 for his research on THE MATRIX.

Fatty Arbuckle was named Citizen of the Year of Fairbanks, Alaska. As a result, newspapers in Fairbanks are demonstrably eager to run articles on his work.

(4) Your former publications and public speaking experience.
Another good one from the standard platform list. If you have any previous publication whatsoever, list it, EVEN IF IT IS OFF-TOPIC. If your last book in another genre sold well, or if you were affiliated somehow with a book that sold well, mention it.

If you have ever done any public speaking, mention it, too: it makes you a better bet for book signings and interviews. If you have done a public reading of your work, definitely mention it, because very few first-time authors have any public reading experience at all.

Some possible examples:

Diana Ross writes a regular column on hair care for Sassy magazine.

Twiggy has published over 120 articles on a variety of topics, ranging from deforestation to the rise of hemlines.

Marcel Marceau has a wealth of public speaking experience. His lecture series, “Speak Up!” has drawn crowds for years on eight continents.

I feel some of you tensing up out there, but never fear: if you have few or no previous publications, awards, writing degrees, etc. to your credit, do not panic, even for an instance. There are plenty of other possible selling points for your book — but of that array, more follows next time.

In the meantime, keep brainstorming about your book’s selling points — and keep up the good work!

Where our fiction really lives, by guest blogger Linda Gillard

Linda Gillard author photo II
Hello, all —
Under any circumstances, today’s guest blogger, award-winning romance novelist Linda Gillard, would require little introduction: the good folks who decide which of each year’s new fiction to honor with prizes have already seen to that. However, I have even less temptation to be long-winded this time around, because Linda has a genuinely astonishing story to share about her road to publication.

Even if romance isn’t your proverbial cup of tea, you’re going to want to read this, I suspect. So I’m just going to get out of the way and let her tell her story herself.

Except to say: for the benefit of those of you not already familiar with Linda’s writings — and so those of you new to writing blurbs for your own books may see how the pros pull it off — here is the publisher’s blurb for Linda’s EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY:

emotional-geology cover Gillard smallRose Leonard is on the run from her life. Taking refuge in a remote island community, she cocoons herself in work, silence and solitude in a house by the sea. But she is haunted by her past, by memories and desires she’d hoped were long dead. Rose must decide whether she has in fact chosen a new life or just a different kind of death. Life and love are offered by new friends, her lonely daughter, and most of all Calum, a fragile younger man who has his own demons to exorcise. But does Rose, with her tenuous hold on life and sanity, have the courage to say yes to life and put her past behind her?

Quite the grabber, eh? Here’s the blurb for her second, A LIFETIME BURNING:

A lifetime burning cover gillard‘I think I was damned from birth,’ Flora said, staring vacantly into space. ‘Damned by my birth.’

Greedy for experience but determined to be good, Flora Dunbar spends a lifetime seeking love, trying to build a future out of the wreckage of her past – an eccentric childhood spent in the shadow of her musical twin, Rory; early marriage to Hugh, a clergyman twice her age; motherhood, which brings her Theo, the son she cannot love; middle-age, when she finds brief happiness in a scandalous affair with her nephew, Colin.

‘If you asked my sister-in-law why she hated me, she’d say it was because I seduced her precious firstborn, then tossed him onto the sizeable scrap-heap marked “Flora’s ex-lovers”. But she’d be lying. That isn’t why Grace hated me. Ask my brother Rory…’

That one sounds like a real barn-burner, doesn’t it? Here’s the blurb for STAR GAZING:

star-gazing-cover gillardBlind since birth, widowed in her twenties, now lonely in her forties, Marianne Fraser lives in Edinburgh in elegant, angry anonymity with her sister, Louisa, a successful novelist. Marianne’s passionate nature finds solace and expression in music, a love she finds she shares with Keir, a man she encounters on her doorstep one winter’s night. Keir makes no concession to her condition. He is abrupt to the point of rudeness, and yet oddly kind. But can Marianne trust her feelings for this reclusive stranger who wants to take a blind woman to his island home on Skye, to ‘show’ her the stars?

It just goes to show you: even a short paragraph is enough room to tell a good story, as well as to show off one’s skills as a storyteller. Remember that, please, the next time you’re groaning over the task of compressing your 350-page plot into a two-minute pitch.

Oh, and before I sign off, those of you reading on this side of the pond might want to know that Linda’s books are available through the Book Depository in the UK. Why should that interest US and Canadian romance-lovers? Because the Book Depository ships worldwide for free.

I just mention.

So please make yourself comfortable in order to hear an interesting, informative, and dare I say it, inspirational story of one author’s climb from the Slough of Despair to successful publication. Take it away, Linda!

emotional-geology cover Gillard smallA lifetime burning cover gillardstar-gazing-cover gillardemotional-geology cover Gillard smallA lifetime burning cover gillard
When a disturbed pupil took a swing at me in the middle of a maths lesson, I saw the punch coming. I dodged and the blow landed on my shoulder. While the rest of the class waited, open-mouthed, to see what Miss would do — retaliate with a left hook? — I sent the boy out of the room, re-assembled the remnants of my shattered dignity and finished the lesson.

What I didn’t see coming was that the blow would signal the end of my teaching career and the beginning of a long mental illness. Nor could I ever have imagined that my illness would usher in a new career as a novelist.

I was teaching in a school that served a socially deprived area and I was already struggling to maintain my mental equilibrium. The kids were challenging, but lovable, despite the fact some of the boys (those who could write) would have listed their hobbies as martial arts and drug dealing. Gallows humour kept the teaching staff going, but we taught in a climate of fear — fear of verbal and physical abuse from pupils and their parents — and fear takes its toll.

My doctor signed me off sick, suffering from stress. Stress became profound depression. I was prescribed a series of anti-depressants, none of which seemed to help. My moods fluctuated wildly, from highs that took me on shopping sprees, to lows that had me planning the perfect suicide.

Teaching had been my vocation, but I was too ill to return to my old job or look for a new one. I was 47 and, as far as I was concerned, on the scrap heap. I sat at home, alternately doped and hyper, not getting any better. For some reason — the teacher in me, I suppose — I kept a chart of my mood swings, the black days and the better days. I became convinced there was a pattern and concluded that perhaps what I was suffering from was severe pre-menstrual syndrome, so I asked to be referred to a gynaecologist.

We were no more than ten minutes into the consultation when this wonderful man pronounced the words that would change my life (and possibly saved it.) He said, “You aren’t suffering from PMS. I think you’re suffering from bipolar affective disorder.”

Manic depression.

I knew nothing about this illness that wasn’t seriously bad news. I seemed to be the first person in my family to suffer from it (it runs in families) but as I learned more about the spectrum of behaviour, old tales of temperament and eccentricity took on a new perspective. And so did I. As I stood in a bookshop, poring over a medical textbook, I was appalled to see myself described in forensic detail. What I’d thought was my mercurial personality turned out to be a life-threatening illness. My world fell apart.

But I was a teacher. I’d also been a journalist, so I made it my business to educate myself on the subject of bipolar. I read psychiatrist Kay Redfield Jamison’s memoir, AN UNQUIET MIND. She’s bipolar herself and was the first person to alert me to the idea that there could actually be some positive aspects to the disease. (On my website. you’ll find a Mental Health section and a celebration of famous manic depressives: a long list of high-achieving people, dead and alive, many of them creative artists, some of them geniuses, all known or suspected to have been bipolar.)

My condition is mild and once on the correct medication, I stabilised. With the help of a supportive psychiatrist, I began to rebuild my life. Unemployed, technically disabled, I had a lot of time on my hands, so I read a lot of books and sewed a lot of patchwork quilts.

I read all sorts of fiction but struggled to find any that reflected my life and experience. There was very little that featured women of my age. Romantic heroines over forty simply did not exist. Mature women appeared only as somebody’s mother or somebody’s wife and they never had sex, unless for comic effect. (The publishing world appears to think that, although most books are bought and read by women over 40, they actually like to read about women much younger and thinner than themselves.)

Then one day, when I was reading Louise DeSalvo’s WRITING AS A WAY OF HEALING, I came upon a paragraph that changed my life:

I didn’t know that you could write simply to take care of yourself, even if you have no desire to publish your work. I didn’t know that if you want to become a writer, eventually you’ll learn through writing — and only through writing — all you need to know about your craft. And that while learning, you’re engaging in soul-satisfying, deeply nurturing labour. I didn’t know that if you want to write and don’t, because you don’t feel worthy enough or able enough, not writing will eventually begin to erase who you are.”

That was how I felt. Erased.

I laid the book aside and — as if in a trance — walked over to my PC, sat down and started to type. I wrote about “a woman alone in a light, white room”. I could see the room and sense the atmosphere. I could see the woman and she was writing a letter, but I didn’t know who she was or who she was writing to. With no thought of publication or even of writing well, I just started typing the first page of what was to become my first novel, Emotional Geology.

emotional-geology cover 2 Gillard

I didn’t plan to become a novelist and I didn’t plan my first book. I was a sick woman. On bad days, compiling a shopping list was a challenge, so I just wrote.

To begin with, I wrote lots of short, self-contained pieces that could be read in any order. If they told a story, it would be cumulatively, as a sort of collage. As I wrote, I noticed two things. The pain stopped. All kinds of pain. Writing, it seemed, was morphia for the soul. (And, incidentally, just as addictive.) I also noticed that time passed. I looked up and it was lunchtime. I looked up again and it was midnight. Hooray! I was exhausted and could sleep.

The word count grew, but still I avoided planning. Ducking the issue, I wondered if I could I write a “book-in-a-box,” a non-linear novel that didn’t need to be bound because the pages could be read in any order. (As a teacher I’d been a big fan of those Choose Your Own Adventure books.)

That idea worked for a while, but in the end I realised it did matter — from a dramatic point of view — what order you read the pages in. A final running order had to be established so I had fun carpeting the floor with printed sheets of A4, “designing” my book in much the same way I arranged blocks when assembling my quilts.

storm-at-sea-quilt

Emotional Geology wasn’t autobiography, nor was it fictionalised memoir. I managed to avoid some first novel pitfalls by wanting so very badly to escape. It was bad enough living my life; I certainly didn’t want to write about it. But I did want to tackle the issues.

I didn’t know it then, but what I was did was reject veracity in favour of emotional authenticity. Later, I realised this is an essential digestive process if the raw material of our lives is to be transformed into palatable fiction. Student writers often think a faithful, unflinching account of real-life events and feelings is enough to make something readable, possibly publishable. This is not the case.

As writers we have to accept the difference between something being true and something being convincing. Paradoxically, fiction can tell truer truths. If a reader is to believe (or suspend her disbelief), truth must be edited for fictional purposes and presented in the best form to do the job. This is what good fiction is: true lies.

If you find this idea difficult, think about raising money for charity and the photographs or news footage you might use in your campaign. You wouldn’t use material so upsetting that people would turn the page of the magazine or switch channels. You want to disturb, not repel, so unvarnished truth might not serve your purpose.

This isn’t a cop-out, it’s careful mediation. If we record “undigested” truth in our therapeutic writing, its therapeutic value exists for the author, not the reader. (To be sure, all writing is therapeutic to an extent and probably all writers begin writing therapeutically, but we need to move on from there if we’re to develop our skills, especially if we seek publication.)

When I wrote my first novel, what I wrote — instinctively and therapeutically — was an alternative autobiography, what my life might have been like under very different circumstances. I was married; my heroine was single. I quilted as a hobby; she was a professional textile artist. I lived in a Norwich suburb; she lived on the bleak and remote, Gaelic-speaking Hebridean island of North Uist, which I knew from family holidays on the west coast of Scotland.

I set out to write a thinking-woman’s love story that tackled real issues. I wanted to put a sensitive, creative woman in the spotlight and ignore her age, just look at her heart and mind. I was able to write with passion and paint-stripper honesty because I knew my novel would never be published. (My mentally ill romantic heroine was 47, and so was I. A less commercial proposition would be hard to imagine.) Hooked on writing, in love with both my heroes, I was fascinated to the point of obsession by the technical challenges of my story.

Was it possible to make a bipolar heroine sympathetic?

How could I convey her bouts of “madness”?

Could I depict the dreadful toll manic depression took on carers?

Was it possible to explore the undisputed links between creativity and bipolar without glamorising a potentially lethal illness?

Could I make depression interesting?

Could I, in short, come up with some good news about living, loving and working with bipolar?

I hadn’t the faintest idea, but I needed to do these things if I was to make sense of my own life, so I set about my self-imposed tasks with a will. I was writing for my life. Gradually writing became my life.

Structure was a problem from the start. Emotional Geology is a book in which nothing much happens, but all sorts of tumultuous events have occurred in the past. What the characters are dealing with in the present is fall-out. My heroine, Rose, lives alone but is haunted by her past. At times she’s barely able to distinguish the new man in her life from the one who got away. And that was the point. There is no escape. (My teacher-hero quotes Milton to her: “The mind is its own place, and in itself/Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.”)

I tried to construct a book that was confused, but not confusing. (My working title was SCRAPBOOK.) I came up with a kaleidoscopic structure, moving backwards and forwards in time, sometimes writing in first person, sometimes third. As I wrote, I delved into the layers of Rose’s memory, all of which existed simultaneously, like an archaeological dig. Landscape and particularly geology became the book’s dominant metaphors and so I arrived at my final title: Emotional Geology.

rockstrata

I wanted to take the reader inside my heroine’s troubled mind, so I opted to write in the present tense throughout, to create an “as it happens” feel for all events, past and present, since for Rose, the past was just as vivid as the present. (I discovered the present tense also stops you over-writing. It’s very exposing, like those bright, unforgiving lights in changing rooms. Verbal flab is spotlit.)

But how was I to convey Rose’s manic states? The problem with conveying mania from the inside (i.e. from Rose’s point of view) was that I had to portray a state of mind unfamiliar and alarming to most people. Was there a way to draw a reluctant reader in?

I’d noticed that at moments of drama or emotional stress my prose was straining toward a different, heightened style. Eventually I acknowledged — with considerable surprise — that what I was repressing was an urge to write poetry. (If I’d had any aspiration to publication, the introduction of poems as part of the narrative surely sounded the death knell for my literary hopes.)

The poems seemed to write themselves, even though I’d never written one before. This might have been because I wasn’t trying to write good poetry. (It’s wonderfully liberating when you stop trying to be “a good writer.” I recommend it. Aspiration can be artistically crippling. I never ask myself now if what I’ve written is any good, the question is rather, “Have I said what I wanted to say in the way I wanted to say it?” If I have, then for me it’s good writing. How could it be better?)

Emotional Geology depicted an internal, dislocated world of shifting time and place. The present tense and the poems allowed the book to float in various limbos and the layout of the poems on the page drew useful boundaries: Rose occasionally went off the deep end. When she did, she broke out in poems.

Well, it all made perfect sense to me. That white room was both Rose’s island home and her “cell” in the mental hospital. It was also the deeply medicated blank space of her mind. There was a process going on and, in Zen-like fashion, I just needed to get out of its way.

Even now, working on my fifth novel, I find I don’t always understand what I’ve written, or rather why I’ve written it. I don’t actually think it’s necessary to understand. I do think you need to be able to trust what you’ve written, which means trusting in yourself as a writer. That’s hard.

It’s also hard to trust intelligent readers to complete the process; to bring, as co-creators, their own experience and understanding to your text. It wasn’t until I started getting feedback from readers that I realised a book isn’t just the words we write, it also exists in the spaces in between the words. As authors we have no control over those spaces, but we can (and should) create them. They are where our fiction really lives.

I wrote my first novel just as a treat for myself, but I had a change of heart and decided to try and publish it after I read the results of a Depression Alliance survey in the UK which said 26% of those questioned did not believe mental illness was a genuine illness.

That’s one in four. Clearly, there was work to be done.

Encouraged by my writers’ e-group, I sent my weird but now completed typescript to agents. To my astonishment, one took me on. (I think she fell in love with my hero. Or maybe it was the Hebrides.) Then we struck lucky. A new imprint, Transita, was looking for books written by, for and about mature women. (This is no longer the case, so please don’t send them unsolicited manuscripts.)

Transita bought Emotional Geology and published a wide variety of novels which were a hit with readers of all ages, but were dismissed by the UK media as “HRT Lit” (Anne here: that’s Brit-speak for hormone replacement therapy, i.e., menopause treatments), “Hag Lit” and “Romance for Wrinklies.”

Aged 53, with my first novel published, I concluded that my biggest “disability” as an author was not that I suffered from bipolar affective disorder, but that I was middle-aged, female and had had the temerity to write about a sexually active middle-aged female. (The ageism and misogyny of British culture beggars belief. But hey, they used to burn us as witches! Things are definitely looking up.)

Emotional Geology fared better than some of Transita’s lighter books, perhaps because it defies categorisation. It comforts and confronts. It has appealed to people who have no knowledge of, or particular interest in mental illness and was short-listed for the Waverton Good Read Award, given to the year’s best first British novel. Well received by the mental health press, Emotional Geology was also runner-up in Pure Passion a light-hearted library promotion of romantic reads.

linda-gillard-author-photo

At author events readers complain to me in a good-natured way that they’ve been up till 2.00 am, unable to put the book down. But very little actually happens, so how can it be un-put-downable?

My theory is, since I write my books not knowing what happens next, nor even the final outcome, suspense and “hooks” for the reader are built in. Nobody wants to know what happens more than I do, so I’m writing as fast as I can, to find out. And that’s how readers like to read.

For this reason I’m anti-synopses. Publishers need them, but many writers don’t. Your subconscious — if you let it — will write a better and braver book than your conscious mind. After that, it’s all in the editing.

Planning a novel and writing a synopsis might encourage you to opt for the obvious in character and plot. You won’t arrive at your artistic decisions in an organic way. (E.M. Forster is supposed to have said, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?”) Would I have dared plan poems for Emotional Geology? The idea wouldn’t have occurred to me and, if it had, I would have dismissed it as pretentious. It was only in the writing of the book that poems presented themselves as the solution to a technical problem.

Faced unexpectedly with publication and the inevitable PR, I had to decide whether to be “out” about my own mental health history. Was I going to set myself up to be dismissed as a one-book wonder or an author of fictionalised memoir? (I didn’t realise then grounds for dismissal could just be middle age.)

I’d complicated matters by moving to Skye, another Scottish island, which made my novel look far more autobiographical than it was. (Be careful what you wish for… Writing my alternative life gave me the courage to go and live it.) A double bereavement and both our children leaving home had led to some domestic stock-taking. My husband and I decided to live our dream and move to a big house on a hillside, facing the spectacular Cuillin mountain range on the Isle of Skye.

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So I did what I thought was the only honest thing. I’d written a book in which manic depression was just one aspect of my heroine and secondary to her creativity. That’s how it had to be for me too. So from the start I was “out” about my mental health history. Readers have come forward, in emails and in person, to thank me for the book and for standing up in public to demonstrate that there’s life after breakdown, after diagnosis; that it is never, ever too late to reinvent yourself.

I no longer live on Skye but I live a quiet, creative and productive life. I write, teach workshops and speak to groups about writing and mental health. My third novel, Star Gazing, set on Skye, was short-listed earlier this year for the Romantic Novel of the Year Award, organised by the Romantic Novelists’ Association.

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This time, I created a romantic heroine whom most readers would regard as disabled. Marianne is middle-aged, widowed and congenitally blind. Much of Star Gazing is written in the first person, from Marianne’s blind point of view and this raised a number of technical problems. I learned a lot as I solved them — and not just about writing. I began the book thinking of blindness as a disability, but by the time I was halfway through, I was convinced the blind have other ways of “seeing”. (Or as the sighted hero, Keir says to Marianne, “You have perfectly good eyes, they’re just not in your sockets.”)

As writers we agonise about originality and commercial appeal. The more anxious among us fret about copyrighting our ideas. But Christopher Booker says there are only seven basic plots. (Did you know LORD OF THE RINGS incorporates all of them?)

But what is unique to each of us is our way of seeing the world. That is the commodity writers have to sell, the “story” we have to tell. When we discover our true voice, it’s as unique as our fingerprint. But it might take a long time — and a lot of writing — to find.

In the meantime, aim to say what you want to say, in the way you want to say it. That’s good writing.

How could it be better?
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Linda Gillard author photo IILinda Gillard studied Drama and German at Bristol University, then trained as an actress at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. Whilst under-employed at London’s National Theatre, Linda developed a sideline as a freelance journalist. She ran two careers concurrently for a while, then gave up acting to raise a family and write from home.

Twelve years later, she re-trained as a teacher and taught in Norfolk for some years. She moved to the Isle of Skye where she lived for six years in a house on a hill overlooking the Cuillin mountain range, featured in her first novel, EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY (short-listed for the 2006 Waverton Good Read Award.) Linda now lives near Glasgow.

Her second novel, A LIFETIME BURNING was published by Transita in 2006 and STAR GAZING, set partly on Skye, was published by Piatkus in 2008.