Let’s talk about this: what do you wish you had known before you entered your first contest?

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Personal business first — hey, narcissism is the blogger’s privilege, right? — a quick update for those of you who were thinking (seriously, I hope) of coming to my talk this coming Saturday, January 26th, at Vericon, the Harvard-Radcliffe Science Fiction Association’s annual SF convention. Admission to an entire day’s events runs from $10 – $20, depending upon when you register, and kids under 14 get in free, so I hope to see many of you there.

There will also be some pretty terrific SF, fantasy, YA, and graphic novel writers in attendance, including Orson Scott Card (the keynote speaker), M.T. Anderson, Cassandra Clare, Marie Brennan, Elizabeth Haydon, Jim Kelly, Kelly Link, Lois Lowry, Randall Munroe, Donna Jo Napoli, Sharyn November, and William Sleator. Most of them seem to e speaking/signing at several events (judging from the schedule, I don’t think you’ll be able to throw a piece of bread at the conference without hitting the aforementioned OSC), so your opportunities to ask probing questions about improving your craft should be vast. Actually, a quite good events geared for SF/fantasy writers appears to be happening during my talk — and if that’s not a recipe for convention richness, I should like to know what is.

If you’re in the area, why not stop on by? As incentive, let’s take another look at that stunning logo, shall we?

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Okay, that should be enough of a dragon fix for anyone for one day. Back to business.

As I have been hinting for the last few weeks, I am going to be launching tomorrow into a fairly hefty series on contest entry preparation. As an author who landed her agent partially as a result of having won a literary contest of some repute (with an early draft of the memoir about which I shall be lecturing on Saturday, as a matter of fact), I am, as my long-time readers already know, a tireless proponent for this brand of eye-catching query letter candy.

(That deserves an acronym of its own, doesn’t it? Now and forever after, it shall be known on this site as ECQLC; pronounce it if you dare.)

To that end, I concentrated fairly hard on a single contest’s requirements last year (and if you’re interested in entering the contest sponsored by the Organization-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named, last year’s tips have been carefully preserved under the CONTEST ENTRY PREP category at right). In perhaps unrelated news, that contest’s entry pool evidently reached unprecedented proportions, thus creating greater competition for those who entered.

Great for the sponsoring organization, of course, but not necessarily a good thing for my readers who entered. Except, perhaps, for the one member of our little Author! Author! community who won, and the several others who placed and made finalist. (Toot, toot goes the horn.)

This year, I’m going to make every effort to be impartial about which contest’s rules I use for examples, to avoid even the appearance of favoring one over another. Since I know that not all of my readers are interested in entering contests, I shall also be gearing this year’s discussions of reliable contest judges’ pet peeves toward those that are also notorious agency screener pet peeves.

It’s going to be a pet peeve-a-thon! I can hardly wait.

To start us off on the right foot — and to get a better sense of what kinds of contests you’ve been considering entering — I’m going to turn the floor over to you for the day. Those of you who have entered contests in the past, what do you wish someone had told you before you entered for the first time?

For those of you who have not entered contests, but considered it: what are you looking for in a literary contest? What would you like winning it to do for you — and how difficult have you found it to track down a contest that offers those benefits?

And, as always: is there any aspect of contest entry that you find particularly puzzling, so I know to include discussion of it in posts to come?

To get the ball rolling, I’ll start: I wish that I had realized prior to my first contest entry how heavily the potential marketability of the book tends to weigh in the judging. Oh, I knew to check lists of past winners of broadly-defined categories in order to see if certain types of books had traditionally won. (In the contest where my memoir won, for instance, the nonfiction book winner has rarely been anything but a memoir, bad luck for writers of other NF books.) But it had not occurred to me before my first entry that contest judges might be using the same criteria as agencies. Or at any rate, what they believed to be the criteria used at agencies.

Instead, I had thought — possibly because the contests I was entering said as much on their promotional materials — that the only things that mattered were the beauty of the writing, how professionally it was presented, and how compelling the story was. The first time I received contest feedback that said, “Great story, well told — too bad that there isn’t a market for it,” I was crushed.

But I did learn from that experience: the next time I entered a contest, I sent not my best writing, but my most marketable idea. And I won. So I suppose I should be grateful to that curmudgeonly contest judge, in retrospect.

Your turn. As always, keep up the good work!

But don’t I already have a date to the prom? part II

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Nifty logo, eh? It’s my ever-so-subtle way of reminding those of you in the greater Boston area about my upcoming talk at Harvard next Saturday, January 26th. I shall be speaking on the Multiple Myths of Philip K. Dick, along with David Gill of TotalDickHead.com — and since this will be my first public speech on the subject of my legally embattled memoir, I think it may be a tad on the exciting side.

Come to meet me, stay to hear Orson Scott Card or play Scrabble with a Harvardian. Vericon, the Harvard-Radcliffe Science Fiction Association’s annual SF convention, is typically a hoot, so it’s well worth the (quite inexpensive, and even less so for students) price of admission. I have been a bit quieter on the subject than I should have, I realize, considering that preregistration is less expensive than paying at the door.

I shall be plugging this event shamelessly over the next week, of course. I always like meeting my readers, and it really is about time that I started talking about the memoir, threats or no. (In case any of you were wondering, despite what Amazon says, my memoir never actually came out, due to the aforementioned lawsuit threats; my publisher apparently never changed the release information. So thank you to those of you who have asked, but I’m afraid that I can’t score a stray copy for anyone, because they were never actually printed. Sorry about that.)

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Like that little red picket fence separating the plug for my talk from today’s business? As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve been spending the week going through my ever-expanding gee, I need to blog on that someday list, the place where I keep track of all of the murky issues writers have asked me to clarify at some point.

Our murk du jour — actually, I began talking about it yesterday, as those of you who tuned in yesterday already know, so I suppose it is now the murk des deux jours — concerns submission to an agent who has asked for an exclusive look at the manuscript or an agency that will, as a matter of policy, will only accept exclusive submissions.

At the end of yesterday’s post on the different kinds of exclusives, I was positive that I heard some polite hemming out there in the ether, “Um, Anne?” some of you would-be submitters piped, “I’m a trifle confused. If, as you say, agencies that have an exclusives-only policy are so upfront about it, why do you keep getting questions from writers about how to deal with them AFTER the query has already gone out? Surely, the asking writers knew about the policy before they queried, right?”

Point well taken, but I’m not here to judge; I come bearing advice. The fact is, some aspiring writers do find themselves caught with a submission or two already out when the request for an exclusive submission comes in, and today, I’m going to talk about how they should handle it.

Hey, it can happen. Perhaps the writer (let’s call her Mehitabel) suddenly won a contest entered months before, and thus is suddenly a hot commodity, prompting an agent (let’s call him Quentin) to want to snap her up before others can woo her. Or maybe Mehitabel is sought-after because she abruptly snagged an Oscar, rescued a child fallen down a well, or declared a run for the presidency.

Why wouldn’t Quentin just rush up to her and offer a representation contract on the spot, if Mehitabel is such a hot ticket? Because the industry just doesn’t work that way; he’s going to want to see if he likes her writing first, not just her premise or her personally. More importantly, he needs to determine whether he thinks he can sell her writing easily to his already-existing contacts.

Either of which would be tough to pull off without reading the book in question.

Actually, these questions are not only at the top of the consideration list with a hot ticket — contrary to the expectations of many a pitcher at many a literary conference, agents literally never offer representation on an idea or prestige alone.

Did those first couple of examples seem a trifle far-fetched? Well, try a more common scenario on for size: perhaps other agents had been sitting on Mehitabel’s manuscript so long that she honestly wasn’t sure if her work was still under consideration when she queried Quentin, who works at an exclusives-only agency.

Or, still more common, perhaps she betting that she would hear back from Quentin before she received responses to any of the other two dozen queries she sent out three weeks ago along with the one to him.

Or perhaps — and I say this not to criticize our Mehitabel, who goodness knows has been working hard for years, but to prompt second thoughts amongst those who might be placing themselves in this position — she went ahead and included Quentin on her query list because she didn’t read his agency’s website closely enough.

However Mehitabel has ended up in the frankly rather enviable position of having several agents, one of whom is exclusive-happy, wanting to take a gander at her work, the fact remains that she now has a genuine dilemma on her hands. Since she already has submissions with agents, what is she to do about Quentin’s request for an exclusive?

Actually, before I answer that, why don’t you take a stab at it? Should Mehitabel:

(a) Wait in impatient silence until she hears back from the agents who already have it before sending it out — and then, if they do not offer representation, send out to Quentin along with a cover letter agreeing to an exclusive?

(b) Pretend that she doesn’t have submissions at other agencies, and just go ahead and send the requested materials to Quentin, trusting to Providence that not all of the agents will ask to represent her work?

(c) Call or e-mail Quentin, explain the situation, and ask if she should submit anyway?

(d) Contact the agents who already have the work, explain the situation, and ask them to hurry their decision to accept or reject her, so that she may get back to Quentin in a timely manner?

(e) Curse the day that she listened to that darned fool on the Internet who told her that it was more efficient to query many agents at once, rather than one at a time?

Scratching your head over this one? Before you commit to your final answer, let’s run through the pros and cons of each path:

If Mehitabel goes with option (a), she will be taking the moral high road (particularly if she sends Quentin an e-mail explaining why she can’t send off the requested materials right away). However, she will not have any control over how long it will take for the others to get back to her, so she will risk Quentin’s interest in her book cooling off.

How so? Well, in case you haven’t been submitting long enough to have first-hand experience of the phenomenon, it is far from uncommon for agents not to respond either positively or negatively to a submission for several months, for the exceedingly simple reason that they haven’t gotten around to reading it yet. Basically, by being too shy to check in with any of the agents involved, Mehitabel is dooming herself — and Quentin — to a possibly protracted wait.

If Mehitabel sets karmic considerations to one side and chooses option (b), however, she can get all of her requested materials mailed off toute suite. If only one of the agents offers representation, no one ever need know that she’s been a shade duplicitous.

If, on the other hand, more than one agent offers to sign her, or if (and this is the more common outcome) one agent offers before the others have responded, Mehitabel is going to be placed in the unpleasant position of having to ‘fess up to having simultaneously submitted. This would tend to burn her bridges with Quentin — and possibly with the others, if she hadn’t told any of them that there were other agents looking at her manuscript.

Quentins tend to hate that — as, actually, do most agents. And that can lead to a whole lot of unnecessary stress later on — because, really, there is no graceful way to explain to an agent who thinks he is the only one looking at it that if you don’t hear back from him within two weeks, you’re going to sign with someone else.

Not all that happy with option (b)? Does option (c) look like the most polite route — or at any rate, the one least likely to get Mehitabel in trouble with Quentin?

Actually, it isn’t, but it will take some of our favorite pastime, translating between points of view, to see why. Let’s take a gander at the probable e-mail exchange between Mehitabel and Quentin:

Dear Mehitabel:
Thank you for querying me with your novel, TERMINAL INDECISIVENESS. Please send the first fifty pages.
As you may already know, our agency will accept only exclusive submissions. Please enclose a SASE.
Quentin

Dear Quentin:
Thank you for your interest in my novel. I would be happy to give you an exclusive, but the fact is, two other agents already have partial manuscripts, and I don’t know when I shall be hearing back from them. I’m really impressed with your agency, though, and I certainly don’t want to knock it out of consideration.
Since it would obviously be impossible for me to give you an exclusive on material that’s already elsewhere, is it okay if I just go ahead and send you what I’ve sent the others?
Mehitabel

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

Notice what happened here? Mehitabel tried to shift responsibility for solving her dilemma onto Quentin’s shoulders. From her POV, this made perfect sense: his request had caused a problem, so she asked him to modify his request.

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

Mehitabel has thus inadvertently fallen into a very, very common trap for those new to submission: she is acting as though she has a personal relationship with Quentin, one that might make it permissible for her to ask a fairly big favor.

Essentially, she forgot that this is a business transaction — and in this, she is certainly not alone. Contrary to what many aspiring writers (especially those new to in-person pitching) believe, agents don’t ask to see pages because they are nice or because they instantly took a liking to a writer; they want to see work that they believe they can sell.

Remember, Quentin is not just looking for a talented writer — he’s looking for his dream client. ln that relationship, liking each other is icing on the cake, not a necessary precondition. Being a dream client is largely about professionalism. So in any pre-signing exchange, Quentin would be trying to assess how reliable she is likely to be as a client, whether she is likely to be able to meet deadlines or whether she will be profuse with excuses, how good she is at following directions…

Based upon those criteria, do you think Mehitabel went up or down in his estimation by sending that e-mail? Uh-huh.

Which brings us to option (d), contacting the agents who already have the work (i.e., not Quentin), explaining the situation, and asking them to hurry their decision to accept or reject her, so that she may get back to Quentin in a timely manner. While this might appear at first blush to be brazen or even rude, it is actually the best course for Mehitabel.

(I assume, of course, that you rejected option [e] on sight, as it would have cast some slight doubt upon your faith in yours truly. Which, naturally, you’re perfectly at liberty to do. I’ve said it before, and I’ll no doubt say it again: it’s up to you whether to take my advice or not, but I do expend great effort to give you my logic at length so you may make an informed choice. However, in this case, writers have contacted me to ask for my opinion on this particular subject, so I am giving it.)

Why is (d) the best course? Because it doesn’t involve either lying to Quentin (a poor idea) or dithering at him (also not good) — in fact, it places the question of timing squarely where it belongs, upon the agents who are already considering the book in question, not making demands upon someone who is not yet doing so.

Obviously, Mehitabel should not be brusque in making the request — and in her shaky shoes, I would probably wait until the other agents had the manuscript for at least a couple of weeks before sending something like the following:

Dear Jessica:
I am sorry to have to disturb you while you are considering my novel, TERMINAL INDECISIVENESS, but I thought you would like to be aware that another agent has requested the manuscript. As he has asked for an exclusive, however, I would need to hear back from you before I could legitimately submit it to him.
I hate to rush you, as I know that you are very busy indeed, but if you decide you are not interested, I would like to get it into his hands as soon as possible. Could you possibly arrange to make a decision within the next three weeks?
Thank you so much — and again, I am sorry to have to rush you.
Mehitabel

Now, Jessica could always say no, of course, as could the other agent who is reading Mehitabel’s work. But 95% of the time, they won’t — especially if, as is often the case in situations like Mehitabel’s, they’ve already had the manuscript for a month or two. (Or five.)

Note, please, that Mehitabel has been too smart to take Jessica to task for how long it has been; she is merely filling an interested agent in on what’s going on with the book. Far more likely to get a positive response than a whine about how an illiterate three-year-old could have managed to decipher the manuscript by now, I assure you.

If they say yes, or if they do not respond at all — more common than you might think — Mehitabel has at least made a good-faith effort to play fair in a difficult situation. Since she has already told Jessica that she will be granting an exclusive in three weeks’ time, she may go ahead and submit to Quentin then with a clear conscience. If he does make an offer, great; if he doesn’t, she may always go back to the first two.

Is that muttering I hear out there indicative of some confusion? “But Anne,” the mutterers murmur, “What happens if Jessica comes back AFTER that three-week period and offers representation?”

Great question, background mutterers — but it’s one for another day. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

So you’re considering self-publishing, part V: a few more practical details

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I’ve taken the last couple of days off, not so much in recognition of the holiday associated with the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver (a.k.a. Santa) as in response to the fact that in these dark days, long-term illness is apparently not generally regarded as sufficient excuse to absent oneself from festivities. At least, not if one has established a reputation as a good cook.

In other words, there’s no place like home for the hollandaise. (If you decided to co-opt that groaner, please give me credit. I’m rather fond of it.)

But now I’m back in the saddle, eager to polish off our special holiday treat, a discussion about self-publishing with two authors who have taken the plunge this year, fellow blogger and memoirist Beren deMotier and novelist Mary Hutchings Reed. Today, we’re going to dig our teeth into the meaty issues of inspiration, promotion, and just what happens after an author commits to bringing out her own work.

So please join me in welcoming back both. To begin, let’s remind ourselves what they have published and where an interested party might conceivably go to buy it.

marys-photo-jpeg.jpgMary Hutchings Reed, if you’ll recall, is the author of COURTING KATHLEEN HANNIGAN, which is being described as the ONE L for women lawyers. It is available on Amazon or directly from the author herself on her website.

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Courting Kathleen Hannigan tells the story of an ambitious woman lawyer, one of the first to join a male-dominated national law firm in the late seventies, whose rise to the top is threatened by a sex discrimination suit brought against the firm by a junior woman lawyer who is passed over for partnership because she doesn’t wear make-up or jewelry. When Kathleen Hannigan is called to testify, she is faced with a choice between her feminist principles and her own career success. Courting Kathleen Hannigan is a story for women and minorities everywhere who are curious about the social history of women in law, business and the professions, institutional firm cultures, and the sexual politics of businesses and law firms.

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Beren deMotier is the author of THE BRIDES OF MARCH. It’s available on Amazon, of course, but because I always like to plug a good independent bookstore, here’s a link to the book’s page at Powell’s, too.

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The Brides of March: Memoir of a Same-Sex Marriage is a lesbian bride’s eye view of marriage at a moment’s notice, with a bevy of brides, their coterie of children, donuts, newspaper reporters, screaming protesters, mothers of the brides who never thought they’d see the day, white wedding cake, and a houseful of happy heterosexuals toasting the marriage. But that was only the beginning as these private declarations of love became public fodder, fueling social commentary, letters to the editor, and the fires of political debate, when all the brides wanted was the opportunity to say “I do” in this candid, poignant, and frequently funny tale of lesbian moms getting to the church on time in Multnomah County.

Anne: One of the aspects of self-publishing — or private publishing, as you like to call it, Mary — that most appeals to aspiring writers is not having to compromise one’s artistic vision (or political vision, or style, etc.) in order to adhere to someone else’s standards. The other, I think, is the comparative speed with which a writer can see one’s work in print. After you committed to your press, how long was it before you actually held your book in your hand?

Mary: I was in the hands of a pro. (Suzie Isaacs at Ampersand.) The process was fast and smooth — I think less than 75 days.

Anne: I remember being stunned at how quickly the book showed up on my doorstep — and how spiffy the production values were. What about you, Beren? From how well put-together the book is, I would have assumed a lengthy turn-around time.

Beren: It was really fast. I think I submitted it on about March 2nd, and it was listed online on April 25th.

Anne: Criminy! Is that a normal turn-around rate for iUniverse?

Beren: I’d asked for an expedited schedule so that I could submit it to the Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards, and iUniverse worked with me to make it happen. Of course, that meant that I had to do my part of the bargain quickly, too; if there were proofs to check, I did them right away.

Mary: There’s no reason, in private publishing, for there to be any delays. Suzie believed in the book and that it should be published, and she kept my spirits up. Every time you write a check—and my total, including 2000 copies, bookmarks, cards, advertisements, posters, etc. was around $20,000 — I needed her affirmations!!

Anne: That sound you just heard was half of my readers’ jaws hitting the floor, I suspect. How close to the actual printing date were you able to make changes?

Mary: On the galleys…I think I had the books two weeks later.

Beren: For me, it was about ten days. I was waiting for a blurb from a famous comedian and hoped it would come before publication. It did, and was able to be fitted on the cover with days to spare.

Anne: Oh, the very idea of that makes me drool. I’m used to dealing with traditional publishing houses, where it’s a year, minimum, between commitment and being able to put one’s hand upon a physical book — after weeks, and often months of discussion between departments on everything from the title (which, for a first book, the writer rarely gets to set) to structure to content. It was especially weird with my memoir, where I kept receiving editorial memos telling me that this or that part wasn’t important enough to include, but that I should add a lengthy section on something that didn’t particularly interest me. It felt as though my life were being edited, not just my book.

What was the editorial process like for you? Were the decisions entirely yours?

Beren: Ultimately, the decision is mine, but they have the right to not brand it as one of their better books should they choose. If I wasn’t able to get positive book reviews, the book wouldn’t be eligible for becoming an Editor’s Choice or Reader’s Choice book, which leads to standard wholesale terms.

Anne: That’s interesting. So if they like it enough, it’s more like going with a traditional publishing house.

Beren: So either it has to be darned good, or you have to pay them big bucks to edit it for you, which takes weeks.

Anne: What about you, Mary? Who got to decide on the book cover, typeface, final edits, et cetera?

Mary: All decisions were mine, but I’m glad that she engaged a top-notch designer who proposed several appropriate options. As to the cover—she did ask what concept I had in mind, and I was a little stuck. My husband came up with dressing up the Lady Justice statue in heels and pearls—the first draft was a bit Betty Boopish, and the graphic designer responded with the modern, sleek image that now is the cover.

I have to say I love the cover, and it does help to sell the book. Yes, people judge the book by its cover, and in this case I really hope they do!

Beren: I’m happy with the outcome, too.I did a lot in creating the look of the book. My spouse took the photo on the cover, and I was able to influence the design, font and colors used in the final product. It became a group project when we shared the photo and necessary copy with friends who all had an opinion on how it should look.

Anne: Did you find having so much control over the final product more empowering or stressful? Or did it depend upon what day it was?

Beren: Hmmm, how about both empowering and stressful?

Certainly knowing that the book would rise or fall based on my work and almost solely my work was a lot of pressure, but I went into it knowing what to expect and had educated myself about the expectations. I feared that the final copy would look photocopied and kind of pathetic, but that didn’t happen.

It seems like it would be nice to hand over a manuscript to a publisher and get a lovely book in return, but I know it isn’t that simple. However, that is my goal—I do want to have a traditional publisher for subsequent books so that there is immediate distribution potential to brick and mortar stores. I consider this my “spec” book, one that I can point to as an accomplished work, as well as eventually sell to a traditional publisher.

Mary: It’s a bit stressful. Even on the galleys, I found a place where I think I had the character approaching the court twice in the same scene.

Anne: But that happens in traditional publishing, too.

Mary: How many people over the years had read these couple of pages, including professional editors, and not noted that? It could drive you crazy. You do need to adopt a certain tolerance for imperfection—we call it being human.

What was the most stressful, however, was the worry that in my acknowledgements I may have failed to mention someone who thought they were important to the work. (I think I did get everyone—at least no one has complained yet.)

For me, the other stress factor is the “autobiographical” accusation: naturally, the book draws on my life experience, but there is no one-to-one correspondence between me and Kathleen Hannigan or any other character and any of my present or former partners or associates.

Anne: And then when you write a memoir, people want to believe that you made things up. It’s as though the fiction and nonfiction labels get mixed up.

Let’s move on to the next stage of the process. Most of us have heard that the biggest hurdles a self-published book has to overcome lie in distribution and promotion. Is that true?

Beren: Yes, I’d say those are the toughest parts. While most self-publishing companies have wholesale channels like Baker & Taylor and Ingram, bookstores are much less likely to buy the book if it isn’t returnable or on standard discounts.

Online, however, the book was readily available fast. It was on Amazon three days after being published, and more online bookstores keep adding it.

Mary: Ampersand set up the Amazon.com, Borders.com and Barnesandnoble.com distribution. I joined the National Association of Women’s Studies Programs in order to have the book listed on their website (and their click-through to Amazon, which benefits the Association if someone buys through that portal.) I also fulfill orders through my website.

Anne: How widely are your books available in bookstores, and how hard was it to set up those venues?

Beren: Locally, I was able to get about six bookstores to carry it, which is a good beginning. The local library bought 13 copies and it has been getting multiple holds.

Anne: Oh, just in case some of my readers are not aware of it, librarians will often order a book if it is requested often enough. I grew up around many, many well-respected authors who would recruit their kith and kin to call their local libraries using different voices to request their books.

I just mention. It also really, really helps authors if enthusiastic readers write reviews and post them on Amazon and B&N. Or in bookstores, to turn the books face-outward, rather than spine-out; a browser is far more likely to pick it up.

Now that traditional presses have shifted so much of the responsibility for promotion onto the author, I’ve been wondering how much more work you’ve had to put into promotion than an author of a similar work at a traditional press.

Mary: I put a fair amount of work into it. I’ve taken charge of sending out free copies to “opinion makers”—something which maybe a traditional publisher would do. I set up speaking engagements, with some help from my publisher.

I have a friend at the Star magazine, and he helped me get listed as the HOT BOOK in one of the October issues. That was a great boost to sales!

Anne: Are you solely responsible for the promotion of your book, or has your press helped you?

Beren: I am solely responsible for the promotion, though occasionally I get offers to pay for co-op advertising through iUniverse, or for them to feature my book at an event. So far, I’ve turned the offers down.

Luckily, my book does have current event appeal, so I’ve been able to get reviews online and in newspapers and magazines. (Gaywired, Mombian, About.com, Just Out), plus a couple of interviews in print and on the radio.

Anne: I’m glad you brought up reviews, Beren, because that’s something that agents and editors always bring up as a serious drawback to self-publishing: most print periodicals in the US, including the vast majority of daily newspapers, have policies that preclude reviewing privately published books. The Internet has really been a boon in terms of getting the word out there.

Your book has also been reviewed, hasn’t it, Mary?

Mary: I was featured in an article in the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin, and will be featured in a special Leading Lawyers publication of women lawyers in Illinois.

Anne: Have you come up with clever ways to promote your book that you
might want to share with us? No matter what press produces your book, ingenious marketing always helps.

Mary: Every time I sell a book, I include 3 postage-paid postcards (of the cover of the book) with a little sell copy on the message side, and ask readers to sign them and send them to 3 friends who might be interested. It’s my version of a viral marketing campaign.

I’d love a couple things: for Hillary or Michelle to carry it around (and I’ve put it in their hands through friends); for women’s studies programs to pick it up for a course on women in the professions—I sent it to Anita Hill and proposed a reading for the National Association of Women’s Studies Programs; for law schools to do the same.

I’ve sent it to some book club leaders, hoping they would recommend it. And a friend is working on the movie option. I sent it to the abovethelaw.com blogger, hoping he’d get interested (he’s a Yalie also). I’ve volunteered to speak at a Brown colloquium at my 35th reunion in May.

Anne: So you’ve been very proactive. What have been your clever promotion schemes, Beren?

Beren: Gosh, well, getting to know cool writers like Anne Mini is always helpful!

Anne: Shameless friends who love one’s writing belong in every writer’s toolkit. I’m constantly being asked by bookstore staff to stop moving my friends’ books to the bestseller tables. But seriously, what else?

Beren: I think contests and awards are a good bet for many writers. I’ve entered about nine for this book, so we’ll see in the spring if it turns out to be a good investment of time and money. With the contests, it involved a lot of copies sent to judges; I just have to trust that they will pay off eventually through wins, word of mouth, getting on the used bookshelves or sheer karma.

I sought out every review I got. I aimed for the specific markets that I knew would be interested in my book, and sent review copies out first thing when I got my 30 free copies. I used every single one for promotion. Eighty percent of those will never be reviewed (and there is a thriving used copy market thanks to me), but enough have that it has helped establish creds for the book, and jumping-off points for other avenues.

I also did a reading and talk at the local library, which was heavily advertised by the county library—there’s nothing like walking in looking for a book on tape and seeing your face in front of you on a poster. I also send out regular e-mails to friends about events and readings.

I did get contacted by an OPB radio interviewer and that was a thrill—she tried to find me!

I could do a lot more, but I’m also balancing freelance work, portrait painting, and raising three kids (two teens and a preschooler with special needs), so I’m kind of busy, though I count my blessings that I’m not also digging ditches eight hours a day on top of it all. I suspect that with a traditional publisher I’d have to do just as much, if not more, but that there would be more tools in place for contacts.

Anne: I’m perpetually in awe of writers who can be productive while caring for small children — possibly because I was for many years a small child being cared for by writers.

Beren: I’ve read several books on finding time to write as a mom, but one of them should address how to stay sane and really write when you’ve got a kid who can’t be out of your sight for a second, really can’t “play quietly” while you type away, and takes every ounce of creative energy to keep growing up uninjured! I’ve yet to read one that recommended a daily dose of Nyquil for the active, irrational tot. Maybe that’s my third book.

Anne: So you don’t have time to have writer’s block? Rats — I was going to ask about your strategies for overcoming it.

Beren: Oh boy, writer’s block — and I just gave up Diet Coke, too, so I can’t recommend guzzling it while at the keyboard. (Have you ever seen a room full of screenwriters at a conference? They all have a can of Diet Coke at their elbow.)

I helped myself get over writer’s block by creating a column with a deadline. It was great training. You have to edit yourself down and cut out your darlings, and you can’t just wait for inspiration to strike.

I do have a fair amount of discipline because I have to to be a writer. Choosing to have three kids and be a writer means jumping in whenever you have the time, or getting a lot done in a short time or taking opportunities as they arrive. These days I sit in my car and write while our youngest is in preschool for 2 hours four days a week, and get up at five for an hour or two before the mob is up.

Admittedly, I’m ready to collapse at eight o’clock at night, but that is how it has to be to get anything done. I’m hoping to have a social life in about five years.

Anne: At the risk of swerving into trite interview territory, what gives you the most inspiration as a writer?

Beren: Well, it is inspiring to know that my grandfather, David Duncan (best known for his screenplay for the 1960 The Time Machine), supported his family of five as a writer.

Anne: That’s a real advantage to being from a family of writers: knowing first-hand that it IS possible to make a living at it. It’s just rare. (And that was a very good screenplay, too, I thought.)

Beren: I also think of author Alice Bloch, who gives herself half an hour a day before working as a technical writer, and got a memoir done that way. I’ve read (Anne Lamott’s) Bird By Bird several times, and love Writing the Memoir, From Truth to Art by Judith Barrington.

Sometimes you care about something so much you have to write about it, and other times (like after walking through a bookstore full of other writers’ work) pride keeps me going: “If they can do it, so can I!” I also keep a file full of nice comments about my writing so that I can look them over if I’m feeling like chucking it in. Every positive thing about my writing that comes my way I grasp onto, to keep me swimming until the next buoy.

Mary: There are, of course, writers I love, but the best resource for me is life itself. I love being active, encountering new experiences, meeting new people, sharing with other writers. I think I actually get the most inspiration from my fellow writers—people like you, Anne, and my friends Julie Weary, Patricia McMillen, Lucia Blinn…the list goes on—all of us next to make it big in the commercial world.

Anne: Oh, I agree 100%: having writer friends in whose work you believe is SO important to keeping yourself going. You can get an incredible boost from a friend’s progress, and you can talk about the hard parts with people who honestly understand. If you don’t share your hopes and fears, they can so easily turn into the demons of self-doubt.

Which leads me to ask a totally unfair question that I think will be wildly interesting other writers: what was your biggest fear in embarking upon self-publishing, and did it actually come to pass?

Beren: That bookstores would laugh in my face if I came in with my book to sell on consignment. It only happened once (she didn’t actually laugh, but the condescending note was very present), though after talking about it with her, she admitted it might be a book they wanted to carry and took one new copy. Since then, they’ve sold several used copies, and carry it online.

Anne: I love it when the fears turn into triumphs. What about you, Mary?

Mary: My biggest fear is that I would end up with a living room full of boxes of books—that my friends would each buy one and that would be it.

I never expected that at a reading someone I’ve never met would march up to the table and buy 10 copies for her friends—and be sending them to friends in India and Pakistan and England! I do have a few boxes in my living room, but sales have been brisk.

Anne: So your demon of fear mutated into a triumph, too. That’s great.

Mary: I was also afraid that people would assume that because it was self-published, it wasn’t any good. But people don’t “get” that it is self-published. They just know it IS published.

Anne: That fascinates me, because we’re so often heard the opposite asserted at writers’ conferences. But then, I suppose agents and editors at traditional publishing houses don’t often have much contact with self-published authors — or at any rate, didn’t until fairly recently. I’ve keep meeting authors who published their own first books and were picked up on their next because the first sold so well.

Okay, I’ve been holding off on this next question, because I try not to deal in superlatives; life’s all about the gray areas, after all. But here it goes anyway: so far, what has been the best thing about the self-publishing
process for you?

Mary: It’s been fun! I’ve heard from people I’ve lost touch with—like I hadn’t spoken to them in 12 or 13 years, and they’d write and call and thank me for writing the book and say that they could totally relate to it.

Beren: The best thing was that it was fast, and I learned a lot about book creation and publishing. The more I know about the artistic and business aspects of writing, the better I will be (I trust), and no effort was wasted.

Anne: What has been the worst part?

Mary: The worst — sorry, N/A.

Anne: I’m really pleased to hear that.

Mary: My own worry, my own bruised ego.

Anne: Which are endemic to the querying and submission process, too. What do you think, Beren?

Beren: The worst part is that there are limitations to a self-published book in terms of wider wholesale distribution unless you self-publish yourself as a small press, or sell a certain amount of copies already (as in the case of iUniverse). Getting books in bookstores on a big scale is challenging.

Anne: I already asked Mary this last time, but if you had only a minute to give advice to someone who was thinking of self-publishing, what would you say?

Beren: Do your research, know your goals for publication and work very very hard at making your manuscript the best it can possibly be. On one writing weekend, after the book was essentially finished, I worked at making it the very best it could be, sentence by sentence, word by word, and in two long days I got forty pages done. But they were much better pages.

Work with the editor at the press or hire an editor, take your work seriously. It is important work.

Mary: Yes, invest in a manuscript editor so that you will have the confidence that your work is ready and deserving of being in print.

Anne: To sound like an agent for a moment, congratulations on your current success — what’s your next project?

Beren: I am currently gathering a collection of humorous stories about life in the lesbian mom trenches, reworking some old favorites and putting them together as a book I’m calling Maggots Before Breakfast, and other Interesting Adventures in a Cozy Liberal Enclave.

Anne: Literal maggots or figurative ones?

Beren: There is a story about maggots, and the original piece is on my website. I plan on pitching it to traditional publishers, using the kudos The Brides of March has garnered, as well as the platform I’m building through appearances, blogging, and articles.

Mary: I have a shopping bag full of novels. My most recent was a short-list finalist for the William Wisdom/William Faulkner Prize, and I am actively looking for an agent for that one. I do think it would be harder to self-publish a novel that is “just a literary novel” which is less directed to a particular audience. I would self-publish again, if it comes to that.

My most immediate “next writing project” is the made-for-television version of my musical Fairways, which will require some rewriting for the pilot (to be filmed in April/May), and finishing the script for my next musical, “We’re Cruising Now, Babe!”

Anne: Well, please come back and tell us all about these projects down the line.

I can’t thank you enough for sharing your insights with us — I’ve truly enjoyed hearing aobut your experiences. Best of luck with your books, and as we like to say here at Author! Author!, keep up the good work!

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Beren deMotier has written humor/social commentary for Curve, And Baby, Pride Parenting, Greenlight.com, www.ehow.com, as well as for GLBT newspapers across the nation. She’s written about same-sex marriage for over a decade, and couldn’t resist writing the bride’s eye view after marrying in Multnomah County. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her spouse of twenty-one years, their three children, and a Labrador the size of a small horse.

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Ever since turning 40 a few years ago, Mary Hutchings Reed Mary has been trying to become harder to introduce, and, at 56, she finds she’s been succeeding. Her conventional resume includes both a bachelor’s and master’s degree from Brown University (both completed within the same four years, and she still graduated Phi Beta Kappa), a law degree from Yale, and thirty-one years of practicing law, first with Sidley & Austin and then with Winston & Strawn, two of the largest firms in Chicago. She was a partner at both in the advertising, trademark, copyright, entertainment and sports law areas, and now is Of counsel to Winston, which gives her time to write, do community service and pursue hobbies such as golf, sailing, tennis, and bridge.

For many years, she has served on the boards of various nonprofit organizations, including American Civil Liberties
Union of Illinois, YWCA of Metropolitan Chicago, Off the Street Club and the Chicago Bar Foundation. She currently serves on the board of the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago (and chair of its fundraising committee); Steel Beam Theatre, and her longest-standing service involvement, Lawyers for the Creative Arts.

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Book marketing 101: the logic — and illogic — of the SASE

Sharp-eyed reader Melospiza wrote in the other day with a very good series of questions about SASEs. Because these are questions I suspect a lot of writers have, especially those new to submissions, and because not everyone follows the comment streams), I wanted to address them here, as soon as humanly possible. Quoth Melospiza:

Why on earth would you want your manuscript back (after it has been rejected)? It won’t be pristine enough to send out again. Why spend the money? And any parcel over one pound can’t be dropped in a mailbox, but must be taken to the post office, not something an agent will appreciate. Let the agent recycle the paper and enclose a (business-size) SASE only.

I’m SO glad you brought this up, because this is one of those secret handshake things — you know, a practices that the industry just assumes that any writer who is serious about getting published will magically know all about without being told.

There’s a rather basic reason to include the SASE for safe return of the manuscript: NOT including one leads to automatic rejection at most agencies. And the vast majority of agents are perfectly up front about the fact that they train their screeners accordingly.

Yes, you read that correctly: leaving it out of the packet can, and often does, result in a submission’s being rejected unread. In the publishing industry, it’s considered downright rude for a writer not to include a SASE both large enough and loaded down with enough pre-paid postage to send EVERYTHING enclosed back to the sender. The result, even if the submitter sends a business-sized SASE, is generally a form-letter rejection.

I implore you, no matter how little you want to see that manuscript again, do NOT omit the SASE for the return of the manuscript — UNLESS the agency’s website or listing in one of the standard agency guides says specifically that they will recycle rejected manuscripts. (Practically none of them do.)

Okay, before the disgruntled muttering out there gets too deafening, let’s voice it: “But surely,” I hear you say, “by the time an agency or publishing house is sufficiently interested in you to want to see actual chapters of your book, you aren’t running the risk of having your submission tossed aside unread because you didn’t include a SASE, are you? I mean, really, what purpose would that serve?”

A fairly tangible one, actually: it would be one less manuscript to read.

Admittedly, a good argument could be made, though (and hey, why don’t I go ahead and make it now, and save you the trouble?), that a SASE with a submission is only going to be used if the news is bad — and why should the writer subsidize his own rejection? If the agency likes the MS, they’re going to ask to see the rest of the manuscript — which means your initial submission will get filed, you will send another packet (with another SASE), and your first SASE may well end up in the trash.

Which is, as Melospiza rightly points out, a big ol’ waste of money, not to mention trees.

If they don’t like it, all you are doing by providing the postage is paying to get the news that they’re turning you down in a way that will make your postal carrier’s back ache, rather than via a nice, light #10 envelope. So why not just send the manuscript along with a business-size SASE, and be done with it?

Because that’s not how the industry works, that’s why. (See commentary above about secret handshakes.) Originally, believe it or not, it was set up this way in order to PROTECT writers. The sad thing is, though, the logic behind this one is so pre-computer — heck, it’s pre-recycling — that it’s likely to be counterintuitive to many people new to the biz.

Return with me now to those thrilling days of yesteryear, when books were widely read, writers didn’t need agents, and the photocopier had not yet been invented. Prior to personal computers (and nice laser printers in workplaces that might be accessible after the boss goes home for the day), you could not print out spare copies of your precious manuscript to submit to every Tom, Dick, and Random House in the biz; equally obviously, no sane human being would send out his only copy.

So how did writers reproduce their work to submit to several publishing houses? They retyped it, that’s how. Every single page.

Think those hardy souls wanted to get their rejected manuscripts back? Darned tootin’. It might save them weeks of retyping time.

I don’t even have to go outside my immediate family to find a concrete example of how these returned manuscripts helped writers. Back in the far-away 1950s, my mother, Kleo, was married to an at-the-time-unknown science fiction writer named Philip K. Dick. (You may have heard of him since.) While she toiled away at work and went to school, Philip spent his days composing short stories. Dozens of them. Type, type, type, week in, week out.

As writers did in the days prior to e-mail, Philip and Kleo stuffed each of those short stories into a gray Manila envelope with a second envelope folded up inside as a SASE and sent them off to any magazine that had evinced even the remotest interest in SF or fantasy. (Kleo was also taking both his writing and her own to be critiqued by other writers and editors at the time, which is actually how Philip got his first story published. But that’s another story — and part of the memoir that the Dick estate stopped from being published last year. Amazing how persuasive people with millions of dollars can be, in the lawsuit-shy post-A MILLION LITTLE PIECES environment. But I digress.)

When a short story was rejected — as, in the beginning, all of Philip’s and Kleo’s were — and landed once again in their mailbox with the accuracy of a well-flung boomerang, they acted as professional writers should act: they submitted the rejected story to another magazine immediately. To minimize retyping, they would iron any pages that had gotten bent in the mail, slip the manuscript into a fresh envelope (yes, with a fresh SASE), and pop it in the mail.

Since there were not very many magazines that accepted SF or fantasy back then, they had to keep impeccable records, to avoid sending a rejected story back to a magazine that had already refused it. But Philip kept typing away, and kept as many stories in circulation at once as possible.

How many? Well, no one knows for sure anymore (since occasionally the only copy of a story got sent by mistake, some inevitably got lost), but one day, the young couple opened their front door to find 17 rejected manuscripts spread all over their miniscule front porch.

Their tiny mailbox apparently hadn’t been able to hold that many emphatic expressions of “No!”

I have it on pretty good authority that one of those stories was THE MINORITY REPORT. Which a director who shall remain nameless (because he changed the ending in a way that would have caused any author’s resentful spectre to dive-bomb LA, howling) made into a rather lucrative movie, decades later.

So what did the aspiring writer of yesteryear do when faced with 17 rejections on the same day? Did he toss all of that paper into the recycling bins that had not yet been invented? Did he rend his garments and give up writing forever? Did he poison his mail carrier for bringing so much bad news all at once? All of the above?

No, he did what professional writers did back then: had his wife iron the pages so they could be sent out again and resubmitted.

And this, my friends, is the reality toward which the request for continual SASEs is geared. No photocopying machines, no computers, and no guarantee that the copy you sent would ever be retrievable if it went astray in some publisher’s office.

Yes, as hard as it to believe, in the beginning, the SASE was intended to save the author money.

While you’re still choking on that one, I’m going to sign off for today. More on SASE tradition follows tomorrow, if you can stomach it, and then next week, we’re on to author bios, query letters, and perhaps a few self-editing tips. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Entr’acte: Lights, camera…

Okay, I promised that I was going to send you all news from the front while I was being interviewed for the documentary, and it doesn’t get any closer to the front than this: they’re setting up the light and sound equipment right now.

To be precise, I’m sitting in a hotel room designed for one person to be able to walk around in relative comfort, surrounded by two technicians and the director, who are arranging and rearranging furniture and lighting equipment in an effort to create the illusion that I am alone in an extremely well-lit room, narrating my own past to myself. As one does.

I am writing this partially to stay out of their way. I distracted them earlier by asking them to tell me the names of Argentine novelists I should be reading (other than Borges, of course; I already knew him), and apparently, in this context, asking questions that prompt people to sit down and think is not the most helpful activity. Remember this, please, when you are famous: it’s frowned-upon for interviewees to interview the interviewers. I can never help myself.

Now that I have released them from bibliographic duty, they all seem to be talking at once; a tad disconcerting, as I understand about four words of Spanish (non-consecutive). Normally, it’s only your imagination that people who are speaking in foreign tongues around you are talking about you, but when there is a boom mike, monitor, and three light poles within grabbing distance, you may be fairly sure that they ARE talking about you, at least indirectly. The sound guy keeps saying, “Hola, hola,” into various little black items, the lighting guy seems determined to rearrange every object in the room seventeen times, and never has a hotel room been this brightly lit.

Apparently, someone intends to do surgery here sometime soon. It is not conducive to interview subject relaxation.

All of you out there who are ever planning to interview living, breathing individuals for your books: do be aware that being an interview subject is quite nerve-wracking. Most people (at least the ones who are not indicted for or witness to a felony) are not expected to be able to blurt out coherent accounts of the most trying moments of their lives on a moment’s notice. Nor is it reasonable for interviewers to expect interviewees to read their minds, to search through a lifetime of complex memories to pull up precisely the anecdote that corresponds most exactly to the interviewer’s preconceived notion of an event.

Yet 99% of the time, this is what interviewers do expect. And an interview subject is very likely to notice this, because it’s not as though any question in the process is asked only once. Everything is asked four or five times, sometimes in different background environments, so they can later piece together the answer they want. From the subject’s POV, this is rather like being cross-examined. From the documentarian’s POV, I suspect it is rather like editing a novel: cutting away the extraneous in order to create plausible characters.

Oh, come on: you didn’t think those reality shows weren’t edited to create a storyline, did you?

I ask the director about editing for character creation. Since it’s the only English that’s been heard in the room for a quarter of an hour, my voice startles everyone. He laughs, then talks about the difficulties and joys of trying to be an observant spectator of a range of people whose views of events differ rather wildly. It’s hard, he says, to ask questions that will provoke revealing responses without appearing to take sides.

“That’s just what a novelist does,” I tell him, “in constructing a narrative.” This is translated into Spanish, so everyone can enjoy the irony.

Having just lived through exhaustive pre-interviews and seemingly miles of let’s-walk-around-Berkeley shots (we seriously spent an hour today following my mother as she drove familiar streets, blasting Puccini, with the cameraman hanging dangerously out of the side of the production van), I have gleaned what I hope will be a useful tip for all of you would-be interviewers out there: it might not be the best idea to tell your interview subject what all of your other interview subjects have said about her. It taints what is, after all, a meeting with an inquisitive stranger with the annoying air of a visit from unpleasant relatives.

Not that I’d be saying this from personal experience or anything. It’s not as though, for instance, people who live off the proceeds of the late Philip K. Dick’s writing have been going around making sweeping statements about a memoir they haven’t read. Since you, my fine readers, are actually implicated as co-conspirators in some of these sweeping statements, I feel that I should let you know about one of them: certain sources who are not speaking to me have been telling third parties with recording devices that I have been posting large parts of my memoir here, on this very blog, for well over a year now.

I ask you, the people who would know this best: have I?

Actually, I couldn’t have, legally: once a publisher buys the rights to a book, the contract tends to be pretty darned specific about what the author can do with the contents. Amazingly enough, publishers seem to be under the impression that what they are buying when they acquire a book is the right to disseminate its contents. And if I had not retained the film rights to A FAMILY DARKLY, I would not be able to give this interview without explicit permission from my press.

I still own the film rights, though. And the foreign language rights. As I think I have explained before, what publishers usually buy from first-time authors on our continent (actually, it’s not my first NF book; I wrote a couple of travel guides years ago, but let’s say it’s my first, for purposes of illustration) are the first-time North American English-language rights only. Most of the time, if a book comes out first in hardcover, the paperback rights are sold separately; typically, a novel would need to sell in the neighborhood of 10,000 copies before a press would be interested in the paperback rights.

I have only just realized that the cameraman has been filming me writing this for the last couple of minutes, the observer of the observers being observed observing. (Try to wrap your brain around THAT one.) The sound guy has just lowered what looks like a space probe to eight inches in front of my nose, nine inches up. If I don’t stare either dead ahead or down at my computer screen, it will be very distracting.

I’m getting indications that it’s time for me to start strolling down memory lane, to recall some of the most painful and joyous moments of my life. Due to the lights and proximity of bodies in a too-small space, it is now thirty degrees hotter in the room than it was when we began. I am advised not to sweat. And to relax.

And we begin.

The return of the Point-of-View Nazis, part II: let’s see you try that with Jane Austen, buddy

As a follow-up to my series on differentiating between absolute rules of the trade (e.g., double-spaced, single-sided manuscript submissions) and stylistic advice (e.g., ideally, dialogue should be revealing enough that littering the text with adverb-heavy tag lines should be unnecessary), I was discussing Point-of-View Nazis yesterday. I’m eager to move along to my much-anticipated series on what new wisdom I gleaned at the two conferences I attended this month, but POVNs are such a beautiful example of writing advice-givers who apparently do not make the smallest distinction between Thou Shalt Do This dicta and style tips that I wanted to spend today giving you a concrete look at what a difference taking such advice as absolute can do.

For those of you coming to the discussion late, POVNs are those fine folks who go around telling other writers that there are, in effect, only two possibilities for narrative voice: the first person singular and a tight third person singular, where the narration remains rigidly from the point of view of a single actor in the drama, usually the protagonist. Philosophically, I have to admit, I find the idea that these are the only ways to tell a story troubling. In my experience, there are few real-life dramatic situations where everyone in the room absolutely agrees upon what occurred, and even fewer conversations where all parties would report identically upon every nuance. (Watch a few randomly-chosen days’ worth of Court TV, if you doubt this.) I think that interpretive disagreement is the norm amongst human beings, not the exception.

And the disagreement amongst writing experts on this point tends to support my argument, doesn’t it?

I also believe that there are very, very few people who appear to be exactly the same from the POV of everyone who knows them. Most people act, speak, and even think rather differently around their children than around their adult friends, just as they often have slightly (or even wildly) different personalities at home and at work. If anyone can find me a real, live person who acts exactly the same in front of his three-year-old daughter, his boss’ boss, the President of the United States, and a stripper at a bachelor party, I would be quite surprised.

I would also suggest that either the person in question has serious social adjustment problems (on the order of Forrest Gump’s), or that perhaps the person who THINKS this guy is always the same in every context is lacking in imagination. Or simply doesn’t know the guy very well. My point is, almost nobody can be completely portrayed from only a single point of view — which is why sometimes narratives that permit the protagonist to be seen from the POV of other characters can be most illuminating.

Admittedly, my own experience trying to get a truthful memoir onto shelves near you has undoubtedly sharpened my sense that points of view vary. As some of you know, my memoir has been in press for the last year and a half, held hostage by a (the last I heard) $2 million lawsuit threat. At no point has anyone concerned suggested I was lying about the events in my book: the threatened lawsuit has been purely about whether I have the right to present the story of my family from my point of view, rather than someone else’s – like, say, the people who want the $2 million.

So I have seriously been forced to spend the last year and a half defending the notion that a rather well-known neurotic might have acted differently around his long-term friends than he did around, say, his own seldom-seen children or interviewers he barely knew. Why, the next thing you know, the POVNs huff, writers like me might start implying that people act differently when they’re on drugs than when they’re sober! Or that perhaps celebrities and their press agents do not always tell the absolute truth when promoting their work!

I can only refer you to your own experience interacting with other human beings for the most probable answers to these troubling questions. I only ask — and it’s a little request; it won’t hurt anybody — that those who believe that there is only a single way of looking at any person, situation, or institution occasionally admit the possibility that the whole complex, wonderful world is not reducible to a single point of view, that they would not try to silence those who do not see the world as merely a reflection of their own minds. Or at least that they would not insist that anyone who sees something from a different perspective should be hounded.

Enough about me and my books, however — let’s get back to how POVNs can affect you and yours.

Regardless of your own POV preferences, it’s important that you know that there are people out there who will want to impose their stylistic preferences upon yours, because they turn up with some fair frequency in agencies, as contest judges, as editors, and as critics. They are statistically more likely to be Baby Boomers than Gen Xers or Gen Yers, however, so they are less likely to be agency screeners than in years past. (Being a manuscript screener is generally someone’s first job in the business, not one kept for decades.) Nevertheless, they do turn up, sometimes in agents’ chairs and behind editorial desks, so it’s best to be prepared for them.

To make it clear what the stakes are, I would guess that roughly 2/3rds of fiction submissions are written in the third person, so obviously, the question of POV choice in third person narrative is thrust upon agents and editors on a practically hourly basis. Of those 2/3rds, a hefty majority will include more than one POV in the narration. So, really, a POVN reader has a significant advantage in rejecting the day’s submissions speedily: if you were willing to stop reading the moment a second character’s impressions show up, you could reject most manuscripts before the middle of page 2.

This is not to say that you should abandon multiple perspectives if you love them, or that you should systematically strip your submissions of any insights but the protagonist’s, out of fear of rejection by a POVN. Again, personally, I don’t believe that a single POV does most characters or situations justice, so I tend toward a broader narrative view, particularly for comedy.

Call me wacky, but if I want to hear a single POV, I reach for a first-person narrative.

These are merely my personal preferences, however; I am perfectly willing to listen to those who disagree with me. And there I differ from the POVN, who wishes to impose his views upon everyone within the sound of his voice, or reach of his editorial pen. To put it in terms of my posts of the last few days, the POVN wants all of us to regard his preferences as hard-and-fast rules.

When your work is attacked with phrases like, “well, it’s more or less impossible to pull off an omniscient narrator,” resist the temptation to throw the entire Great Books fiction shelf at the speaker. Recognize that you are dealing with a POVN, and take everything he says with a gargantuan grain of salt. You can’t convince a true believer; you’ll only wear yourself out with trying. Cut your losses and move on.

But before you do, consider the possibility that the critique may be useful to apply to your manuscript of the moment.

You’re surprised I said that, aren’t you? But really, POVNs do occasionally have a point: too-frequent POV switches can be perplexing for the reader to follow. One of the more common first-novel megaproblems is POV switching in mid-paragraph, or even mid-sentence — and therein lies the POVN’s primary justification for dismissing all multiple POV narratives as poor writing.

But heck, that’s what the RETURN key is for, to clear up that sort of confusion, isn’t it? When in doubt, give each perspective its own paragraph. It won’t protect you from a POVN’s rage, of course, but it will make your scene easier for your reader to follow.

Let’s take a look at how the POVN works in practice, so you may recognize him in the wild, to decide whether you want to join forces with him or not. Suppose that Jane Austen took the following paragraph from PRIDE AND PREJUDICE to her writing group, which contained a cabal of POVNs:

“Elizabeth, having rather expected to affront him, was amazed at his gallantry; but there was a mixture of sweetness and archness in her manner which made it difficult for her to affront anybody; and Darcy had never been so bewitched by a woman as he was by her. He really believed, were it not for the inferiority of her connections, he should be in some danger.”

As an editor, I might quibble about Austen’s use of semicolons here, but it’s not too difficult to follow whose perspective is whose, right? Yet, as the POVNs in her group would be the first to point out, there are actually THREE perspectives rolling around promiscuously together in this single brief paragraph, although there are only two people involved:

“Elizabeth, having rather expected to affront him, was amazed at his gallantry…” (Elizabeth’s POV)

“but there was a mixture of sweetness and archness in her manner which made it difficult for her to affront anybody” (the POV of an external observer)

“Darcy had never been so bewitched by a woman as he was by her…” (Darcy’s POV)

Now, a POVN in our Jane’s writing group would undoubtedly urge her to pick a single perspective (Elizabeth’s would be the logical choice) and stick to it consistently throughout the book; a POVN agent would probably reject PRIDE AND PREJUDICE outright, and a POVN editor would pick a perspective and edit accordingly — or, more commonly, send out an editorial memo saying that he MIGHT consider buying the book, but only if Jane revised it so all of the action is seen from Elizabeth’s perspective only).

Let’s say that Jane was cowed by the vehemence of the POVNs and scuttled home to take their advice. The resultant passage would necessarily be significantly different from her original intention. It would probably ending up reading rather like this:

“Elizabeth, having rather expected to affront him, was amazed at his gallantry; but there was a mixture of sweetness and archness in her manner which made it difficult for her to affront anybody. Darcy remained silent.”

My gut feeling is that Jane would not be particularly satisfied with this revision, both because some characterization has been lost and for plotting reasons. At this rate, the reader is not going to know how Darcy feels until Elizabeth learns it herself, many chapters later. This would, of course, mean that his proposal would be a greater plot twist, coming out of the blue, but the reader would also end up with absolutely no idea how, beginning from initial indifference, Elizabeth charms began to steal over Darcy, over his own objections. Which would mean, really, that the title of the book should be changed to just PREJUDICE.

(I’m assuming for the purposes of my argument here that every single one of you has read PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, which is perhaps not a warranted assumption. However, if you are even vaguely interested in writing humorous scenes in the English language, you really should do yourself a favor and check Aunt Jane’s work out of the library.)

Yet if I may pull up a chair in Jane’s writing group for a moment (oh, like this whole exercise wouldn’t require time travel), allow me to point out how easily a single stroke of a space bar clears up even the most remote possibility of confusion about who is thinking what:

“Elizabeth, having rather expected to affront him, was amazed at his gallantry; but there was a mixture of sweetness and archness in her manner which made it difficult for her to affront anybody.

“Darcy had never been so bewitched by a woman as he was by her. He really believed, were it not for the inferiority of her connections, he should be in some danger.”

The moral here, my friends, is once again that you should examine writerly truisms very carefully before you accept them as invariably true in every case. Grab that gift horse and stare into its mouth for a good, long while. You may find, after serious consideration, that you want to embrace being a POVN, at least for the duration of a particular project; there are many scenes and books where the rigidity of this treatment works beautifully. But for the sake of your own growth as a writer, make sure that the choice is your own, and not imposed upon you by the beliefs of others.

To paraphrase the late Mae West, if you copy other people’s style, you’re one of a crowd, but if you are an honest-to-goodness original, no one will ever mistake you for a copy.

Keep up the good work!

The agency contract, Part IV: Show me the money

Did you think I was going to sign off on my series on contract explanation without addressing the issue most on the average agent-seeking writer’s mind? Perish the thought.

Yes, Virginia, the agency contract will specify the percentage of your advances and royalties your agent will get. And no, abiding by this is not left up to the goodness of your heart: if you are represented by an agent, your publication contract will specify that the publisher will send your checks to your agent, not directly to you. This means that any money you see will automatically have the agents’ percentage deducted from it.

Typically, in literary agencies, this percentage for is 15% for English-language North American sales. Script agents generally get 10%. In either case, the contract may either be on a yearly (or longer) basis or a per-project basis: find out which, so you are aware of the terms of renewal. If you are planning to write more than one thing, do be sure before you sign that your agent will want to represent everything you want to write.

These percentages are non-negotiable in virtually every agency on earth, so the point of examining your contract is not to gain haggling ammunition: it’s to prepare you for the day when a check arrives with fewer zeroes on it than your advance led you to expect. And no, a lower percentage does not usually mean a better deal for the author – it’s usually an indication that the agency is new, and is trying to attract high-ticket clients.

Pretty much every agency in the country takes a significantly higher cut of foreign sales: 20% or more is the norm. (For reasons I have not been able to fathom, my agency takes 23% of sales in the Baltic republics, so they’ll really score if my memoir takes off in Lithuanian.)

The higher price tag abroad is for a very practical reason: unless an agency has an outpost in a foreign country (as some of the larger agencies do) it willsubcontract their foreign rights sales to agencies in other countries, who take their cut as well. So if you suspect that your book will have a high market appeal in Turkey or Outer Mongolia, you might want to check up front whether your prospective agency has a branch there, or is subcontracting. The differential in commission percentage can be substantial.

“Um, Anne?” I hear a small, confused chorus out there piping. “Was the bit about English-language North American sales just a really complicated typo? Aren’t there other people in the world who read English — like, say, the people in England? Why aren’t all of the English-language sales lumped together, and the foreign ones together?”

Ah, because that would make sense, my friends. The industry likes to keep all of us guessing by throwing a cognitive curve ball every now and again, so this is going to require a fairly extensive and rather convolutedexplanation. Before I launch into it, you might want to pop into the kitchen and make yourself some tea, or fluff up the pillows on your ottoman. I’ll wait.

Okay, everybody comfortable? Here goes: from the point of view of your garden-variety US publisher, books published in the English language fall into three categories: those sold in North America, those sold in Great Britain, and those sold in other countries. Of the three, only those in the first category are considered English-language sales, for contractual purposes. The last two are considered foreign-language sales.

There — and you thought it wasn’t going to make sense…

So, perversely, if EXACTLY the same English-language book by a US author was sold in Canada and Great Britain, the author’s US agent would take 15% of the royalties on the first and 20% on the second. (This situation is not at all beyond belief: HARRY POTTER is, I am told sold in a slightly different form in the former Commonwealth than in the U.S. Why? Well, chips mean one thing to a kid in London and another to a kid in LA, and while apparently the industry has faith that a kid in Saskatchewan could figure that out, it despairs of the cultural translation skills of a kid in Poughkeepsie.)

This is why, in case you were curious, you will see the notation NA in industry discussions of book sales – it refers to first North American rights, minus Mexico. Rights to sell books south of the border, in any language, fall under foreign language rights, which are typically sold on a by-country basis.

However, occasionally an American publisher will try to score a sweet deal on a book expected to be a bestseller and try to get the world rights as part of the initial deal, but this generally does not work out well for the author. Why? Well, if a book is reprinted in a second language and a North American publisher owns the foreign rights, the domestic house scrapes an automatic 20% off the top of any foreign-language royalties accrued by the author. (If this seems a trifle technical, chalk it up to the rather extended struggle I had to retain my memoir’s foreign rights; back in the day, my now-gun-shy publisher wanted ‘em, big time. But they’re mine, I tell you, all mine!)

Be very wary of an agent who is not willing to offer you a written contract. Contrary to popular belief, verbal contracts may be binding (if some consideration has changed hands as a result of it, as I understand it; if you handed someone a $50 bill and the keys to your car after the two of you had discussed his painting a mural on the passenger-side door, I’m told that could be construed as a contract, even with nothing in writing), but as I MAY have pointed out, oh, 1800 times in the last 6 months, this is an industry where the power differential tends not to fall in the writer’s favor until after she is pretty darned well established. Protect yourself.

Do not assume, however, that you will ever see another copy of the contract again after you sign it. Make yourself a photocopy – yes, even before the agent has countersigned it – so you may refer to it later.

I know that this series has occasionally read as if agents are evil trolls, waiting under every bridge into Manhattan in the hope of defrauding innocent authors, but I am only trying to get you to put up your antennae when dealing with them. The vast majority of agents honestly are good people who love good writing and want to help writers – but as in every profession, not all of them are scrupulous about fulfilling their obligations toward their clients. It behooves us to be cautious.

Please, when the time comes: don’t be so flattered by an agent’s attention that you just agree to everything you are asked. That’s how good writers get hurt, and I don’t want to see it happen to you.

On to cheerier topics tomorrow, thank goodness! Keep up the good work!

The agency contract, Part II

Yesterday, I started talking about the importance of understanding an agency contract before you sign it — and, indeed, of learning as much as you can about an agency before getting involved with it. Yes, I know: this reads as though I am talking about dating, and in a sense, I am. During the querying process, you are sending your book out on a series of close-to-blind dates, hoping to it will attract an agent. But not every agent is marriage material, if you catch my drift; writer-agent divorces are more common than you might think, usually on the grounds of irreconcilable differences.

Unagented writers don’t seem to talk, or even think, about this possibility much — after so much rejection, anyone who says yes to you can start to look pretty darned good — but let me assure you, amongst agented writers, the differentials between what we had expected our agents to do for us (send our work out promptly, for instance, or return phone calls within a month) and what they have actually done is a CONSTANT source of animated discussion.

My agent, of course, is a treat and a joy and a pleasure. Seriously, she is — and when a client writer can say that with such assurance in the middle of a fairly hair-raising revision on a tight deadline, it may safely be believed. Maybe I just have an unusually affectionate disposition toward people who make efforts on my books’ behalf, but I have to say, amongst the agents of my kith and kin (who are legion and literarily prolific, I am happy to report), my experience with my agent does seem to be a bit, well, anomalous.

I attribute this partially to the fact that writers are very often isolated from one another. If you don’t know another agented writer to ask, how are you going to know what is and isn’t normal in writer-agent relations? (Yet another terrific reason to join a writer’s group, eh?) For instance, it is not at all uncommon for an agent to be very slow — as in months — in getting a contract to a new client. I’ve known writers to be represented contract-less for a year or more.

Is this an indication that the agent who was wild to represent them a few months ago has cooled off? Not usually — but that is of course the first conclusion the writer tends to draw. Most of the time, agents who do this are just disorganized about something which is to them a rather low priority; from their point of view, all that’s important is that you have given them the right to represent your work, and that they have a signed contract with you before you sign a contract with a publisher. Since the signing with agent to signing with publisher time is often lengthy, what’s the rush?

Yet again, we see proof that writers’ sense of urgency (“I must overnight my manuscript!” or “I must make all of the revisions my agent wants by a week from Tuesday!”) does not always correspond with their agents’ (“I’ll send out that contract today…What do you mean, I said that five weeks ago?”) Moral of the story: try not to jump to the worst possible conclusions right away.

The result of this difference in urgency perception is often, alas, some pretty slow agency contract delivery times. Should this happen to you, go ahead and ask for it, if necessary once per month: believe it or not, agents sometimes think it’s been mailed out when it hasn’t.

The other reason that writers end up dissatisfied with their agents, I suspect, is that writers often do not have a firm grasp of either their new agencies’ policies, their agent’s expectations, and/or the provisions of their contracts before they sign. In the white heat of excitement over SOMEONE in the biz loving one’s work, it’s often hard to come up with good questions to ask.

Especially if you have not yet seen the agency contract. It’s in the mail, really.

This is definitely an arena where it is ENTIRELY appropriate to ask what-if questions, ESPECIALLY if you do not have a contract in hand. You will want to know about the normal MO of the agency — commission percentages, length of contract, how they submit to publishers, etc. — but try to work in a question or two about who your contact person will be OTHER than your agent. An assistant? The agency’s principal? The office tabby cat?

Why is this important? Well, if something happens to your agent — a leave of absence, an accident, a move to another agency, or even just not being in the office when a crucial call from an editor comes — the agency will be handling your interests. So you don’t just need to trust your agent — you need to trust your agency as well.

How might this affect you and your work? Well, put on your jammies, boys and girls: it’s story time.

I had been signed with my wonderful, amazing, devoted agent for less than six months when she had a baby. Miracle that she is, she managed to sell my book AND another client’s practically as they wheeled her off to the delivery room, but for some months, it looked very likely that the contract negotiations for my memoir might end up being handled by another agent. As it turned out, another agent held my hand during the rather nerve-wracking period between contract-signing and book delivery — which, in my case, was only about two months.

I think it’s safe to say that I was not always perfectly happy and level-headed during that intensely stressful period. I was lucky that I had been temporarily reassigned by my agency to a delightfully patient and kind listener.

More seriously, I was also still under the care of my interim agent when the first lawsuit threat came. (It came in waves, one in early July, followed by much silence, then another in early September, and a third the following March. Different allegations about the book each time, I might add, and none textually-based.) If my agency were not full of very competent, very supportive people, I might have been left to face the threat unadvised. Having known other writers who have had to deal with lawsuits over their memoirs (hey, I get around) without the help of an agent, I feel very, very fortunate.

And VERY glad that that I read my agency contract very well before I signed it, so I felt secure about the agency that would be taking care of me. Because, as it turns out, this was not a one-time phenomenon: I have a novel teetering on the brink of a sale now (see my post for September 30th, if you missed the big news), and my agent’s second child is due in roughly two and a half months. She and I seem to be on a similarly prolific timetable.

What might have happened, had my agency not been well prepared for this contingency? Let me tell you the story of my friend Lois, a writer of literary fiction. After a year and a half of quite cordial interactions, Lois’ agent just stopped answering her e-mails one day; returned phone calls became a thing of the past. And because Lois was, like so many writers, long trained in assuming that any silence must have something to do with the quality of the book, she naturally fell into hyper-revising mode. Yet when she meekly submitted a new version of her novel, she STILL heard nothing.

“Have I offended my agent somehow?” Lois wondered. After wondering about it for a couple of weeks, she concluded that she must have. She sent a formal (if vague) apology. Still no word.

Weeks dragged on into months, and after three, Lois had had enough. She called the main number for the agency, and demanded to know how she could terminate her contract with the agent. (She had not read her contract closely enough to have that information already, you see. But you know better than that.)

“Wait,” the astonished receptionist told her, “didn’t anybody tell you? She had to have emergency surgery. Poor thing, she’s been in physical therapy for months.”

Of course, Lois felt really small, but actually, I think that the agency should have been the ones apologizing. That many months sans agent, and the agency hadn’t thought to notify her CLIENTS? A quarter of a year can feel like a lifetime to an author whose book is being circulated.

Dear me, I got so carried away with my examples that I haven’t left room to write about contract specifics, so that will be the task of another day. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

The Building Blocks of the Pitch, Part VII: Your Elevator Speech

Hello, readers –

Welcome back to my ongoing series on the constituent parts of an effective pitch. Since I’ve been at it for a while now, if you’re just tuning in, you may have to dip back into the archives to catch the earliest installments. And for those of you faithful weekday readers who took the holiday weekend off, and are wondering what is going on: yes, I don’t usually post on weekends and holidays, but with the conference so close, I wanted to plough ahead at top speed.

A quick personal aside before I return my hand to the plow, however: as some of you may have already noticed, Amazon is saying that my memoir, A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK, will be shipping on July 17th, less than two weeks from today. Since my publisher has not yet informed me of a firm release date — the author is always the last to know, alas — I can neither confirm nor deny this rumor. Not that it is a state secret or anything; for legal reasons, I’m not supposed to be talking about it with any specificity here. (For as much detail as I am allowed to give about what’s been going on with the book, please see my post for March 30th. Contrary to the claims on the Dick estate-owned fan forum, I have given a grand total of one published interview on the subject: http://www.toobeautiful.org/waywo_annemini.html ) All I can tell you at the moment is that while the book is still in presale mode, Amazon is offering it at a substantial discount.

I promise that I’ll tell you the release date proper the instant I know it myself.

All right, we’re cooking with gas now. So far in this series, I’ve discussed building blocks of a great pitch: your book’s category (blogs of June 29 and 30), identifying your target market (July 1), coming up with several selling points (July 2), inventing a snappy keynote statement (July 3), and pulling all of these elements together into the magic first 100 words (yesterday). Today, I am going to talk about what was considered the height of pitching elegance five or ten years ago, the 3-sentence elevator speech.

Simply put, an elevator speech is a 3 – 4 sentence description (a longish paragraph) of the protagonist and central conflict of your book. If the book is a novel, the elevator speech should be IN THE PRESENT TENSE. It is not a plot summary, but an introduction to the main character(s) BY NAME and an invitation to the listener to ask for more details.

How is the elevator speech different from the keynote, you ask? Well, it’s longer, for one thing, and although the purpose of both is to whet the literary appetite of the hearer, to get her to ask for more information about the book, the keynote can hit only one major theme. In the elevator speech, however, your job is to show that your book is about an interesting protagonist in a fascinating situation. You don’t have room here to tell how the plot’s major conflicts are resolved, just enough to identify them and raise interest in your hearer’s mind about how you will resolve them in the book.

I know it’s hard in such a short space, but try to steer clear of generalities — and definitely avoid clichés. Neither show off your creativity as a plot-deviser or your talent for unique phraseology, do they? Show your protagonist being as active as possible (you wouldn’t believe how many pitches portray characters who only have things happen TO them, rather than characters who DO things to deal with challenging situations), and enliven your account with concrete, juicy details that only you could invent. Include at least one MEMORABLE unique image.

What kind of images you ask? Since elevator speeches vary as much as books do, it’s a trifle hard to show what makes a good one without showing a few examples, so here is a pitch for PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (note to those of you who took my pitching class: I am not going to post the pitch for my own novel, for exactly the reason that I advised you not to send your chapters out electronically, if you can help it: there is absolutely no way of knowing where anything posted on the web is going to end up.):

”19th-century 19-year-old Elizabeth Bennet has a whole host of problems: a socially inattentive father, an endlessly chattering mother, a sister who spouts aphorisms as she pounds deafeningly on the piano in front of company, two other sisters who swoon whenever an Army officer walks into the room, and her own quick tongue, any one of which might deprive Elizabeth or her lovely older sister Jane of the rich husband necessary to save them from being thrown out of their house when their father dies. When wealthy humanity-lover Mr. Bingley and disdainful Mr. Darcy rent a nearby manor house, Elizabeth’s mother goes crazy with matchmaking fever, jeopardizing Jane’s romance with Bingley and insisting that Elizabeth marry the first man who proposes to her, her unctuous cousin Mr. Collins, a clergyman who has known her for less than a week. After the family’s reputation is ruined by her youngest sister’s seduction by a dashing army officer, can Elizabeth make her way in the adult world, holding true to her principles and marrying the man she passionately loves, or will her family’s prejudices doom her and Jane to an impecunious and regretful spinsterhood?”

Tell me — would you read this book?

At the risk of tooting my own horn, why is this a good elevator speech? It establishes right away a few important things about the protagonist: she is facing internal conflicts (should she embrace her family’s prejudices, or reject them?); she is pursuing a definite goal (making a good marriage without latching herself for life to the first man who finds her attractive), and she faces an array of substantial barriers to achieving that goal (her family members and their many issues). It also hints that instead of riding the billows of the plot, letting things happen to her, Elizabeth is actively struggling to determine her own destiny.

Don’t underestimate the importance of establishing your protagonist as active: believe me, every agent and editor in the biz has heard thousands of pitches about protagonists who are buffeted about by fate, who are pushed almost unconsciously from event to event not by some interior drive or conflict, but because the plot demands it. (Long-time readers of this blog, chant with me now: “Because the plot requires it” is NEVER a sufficient answer to “Why did that character do that?”) The books being pitched may not actually have passive protagonists — but honestly, it’s very easy to get so involved in setting up the premise of the book in an elevator speech that the protagonist can come across as passive, merely caught in the jaws of the plot.

There are a few code words that will let an industry-savvy listener know that your protagonist is fully engaged and passionately pursing the goals assigned to her in the book. They are, in no particular order: love, passion, desire, dream, fate (kismet will do, in a pinch), struggle, loss, and happiness. Any form of these words will do; a gerund or two is fine.

The other reason that this is a good elevator speech is that it alerts the reader to the fact that, despite some pretty serious subject matter, this is a book with strong comic elements (the big give-aways: the absurdity of Mr. Collins’ proposing after only a week, her family members’ odd predilections). Do make sure that the tone of your elevator speech matches the tone of your book; it’s more compelling as a sales tool that way.

You’d be surprised at how often this basic, common-sense advice is overlooked by your garden-variety pitcher. Most elevator speeches and pitches come across as deadly serious — usually more a reflection of the tension of the pitching situation than the voice of the book. This undersells the book, frankly. If the book is a steamy romance, let the telling details you include be delightfully sensual; if it is a comic fantasy, show your elves doing something funny. Just make sure that what you give is an accurate taste of what a reader can expect the book as a whole to provide.

If you really find yourself stumped, there is a standard (if old-fashioned) formula that tends to work well. Borrowing a trick from the Hollywood Hook, you can compare your book to a VERY well-known book or movie:

“For readers who loved SCHINDLER’S LIST, here is a story about gutsy individuals triumphing against the Nazis. + (sentence about who the protagonist is, and what is oppressing her) + But how can she pursue her passion to (secondary goal), when every aspect of the world she has known is being swept away before her eyes?”

This works for an elevator speech (better than in a pitch proper), because citing another well-known story automatically conjures a backdrop for yours; you don’t need to fill in as many details. What you do need to do in this sort of elevator speech is establish your protagonist firmly as an individual in FRONT of that backdrop, in order to be memorable. To do that, you will need to pepper the elevator speech with specific ways in which YOUR protagonist is different from the one in the old warhorse. As in:

”In the tradition of GONE WITH THE WIND, DEVOURED BY THE BREEZE is a stirring epic of one woman’s struggle to keep her family together in a time of war. Woman-Who-Is-Not-Scarlett loves Man X, and he loves her, but when half of her family is killed in the battle of Nearby Field, she can no longer be the air-headed girl he’s known since childhood. But will starting her own business to save her family home alienate the only man she has ever loved?”

Tomorrow, I shall delve into how to construct an elevator speech for a NF book, as well as explaining when to give your elevator speech and when your pitch — because yes, Virginia, they are not the same thing, at least in my lexicon.

In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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

Hello, readers –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exactly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Anne Mini