Conference-gleaned wisdom, Part X: Let’s have a little chat

Pardon my missing a post yesterday, please — things are a trifle hectic chez Mini at the moment. I’m being interviewed for a Latin American documentary about Philip K. Dick at the end of this week. I’m told that the Dick estate has refused to allow the documentarians access to even photographs of Philip, much less interviews. Since documentaries, like other movies, rely heavily upon visual stimuli, there has been a last-minute scramble to try to find filmable objects. Complicating the process: literally everyone affiliated with my family is and was camera-shy, and PKD biographers, biographer-wannabes, and fans have been filching snapshots from the family albums throughout my entire lifetime.

So to those of you who are planning on being famous after your deaths: document, document, document. Then seal the evidence someplace safe. Your biographers will thank you, and so will your documentarians.

Now, you’d think that, given that I wrote an entire memoir about my relationship with Philip (and no, still no news from my publisher about whether he’s made a final decision about going through with publishing it or not. I honestly haven’t been kidding when I’ve said that decisions within the industry are often made at a rate that would make an evolutionary biologist wildly impatient), I would be used to be interviewed on the subject, but actually, for most of my life, I have been actively avoiding being interviewed by Philophiles.

So this will be the first time I have ever spoken on camera about him, believe it or not. It’s a tad intimidating to talk in public, even in Spanish (okay, so I’ll be dubbed), on my personal experience: as long-term readers of this blog will recall, when I tried to write about it, the Dick estate’s attorneys threatened my publisher. Early and often.

So think good thoughts for me between now and Monday, please. I’ll try to log on and pass along details from the front, of course, but I’m not sure how often I’ll be able to get away to post. Therefore, I’m going to be covering a LOT of conceptual ground today, to give you lots to think about while I’m on hiatus.

Dialogue came in for quite a lot of lambasting on the Idol first-page rejection reasons list, didn’t it? (If you’re unfamiliar with this list, please see my post of October 31.) To refresh your memory, here are all of the dialogue-related quibbles:

17. The characters talk about something (a photo, a person, the kitchen table) for more than a line without describing it, creating false suspense.
25. The first lines were dialogue. (To be fair, only one of the agents, Daniel Lazar, seemed to have a problem with this.)
26. When the first lines are dialogue, the speaker is not identified.
30. Overuse of dialogue, in the name of realism.
51. What I call Hollywood narration — when characters tell one another things they already know. (They don’t call it by my term for it, but they don’t like it, either.)
52. The tag lines are more revealing than the dialogue. (The example used: “She squawked.”)

I’ve dealt with the first three objections in previous posts, but it’s worth noting that a full 8.1% — roughly an eighth — of the Idol objections were dialogue-based, more than on any other single technical aspect. The moral, I think: be very, very sure that any dialogue you use on page 1 is flawlessly executed, scintillating in content, and absolutely necessary. Because, as we may see, agents seem to be a trifle touchy about it.

Actually, while I’m at it, I’m going to add a quibble of my own: too many tag lines. For those of you who don’t know, a tag line is the “he said” part of the dialogue, and a healthy percentage of the industry was trained to believe that in good writing, (a) in two-person dialogue, tag lines are usually disposable, thus (b) writing with fewer tag lines tends to be better than writing with more, and (c) the vast majority of the time, “said” is a perfectly adequate word to describe a human being speaking.

(c), obviously, underlies the critique of “she squawked.”

While, equally obviously, the degree to which a particular speaking verb is problematic varies from reader to reader, #52 (the tag lines are more revealing than the dialogue), is a fairly industry-wide objection. Most of us have had English teachers who subscribe to this school of thought, the type who rapped us on the knuckles if we dared to use an adverb in a tag line, because, well, Hemingway never would have done it, and if the dialogue itself were descriptive enough, no one would need to know that Charles said it laconically.

I’ve posted enough, I think, on the issue of dialogue-only scenes, where the reader isn’t given one iota of hint about how certain things are said or what is going on in the room, for my regular readers to know my opinion on bare-bones dialogue. But over-used tag lines are something different: trust me, if your job were reading hundreds of pages of prose every single day, unnecessary verbiage would be likely to start to annoy you FAST. To try to show you why you might want to go a little light on the tag lines (and on the squawking, while we’re at it) on page 1, here’s a fairly average chunk of dialogue:

“It’s about time you got home,” Andrew said snappishly. “Your soup is ice-cold.”

Joanna sighed, “I told you that I was going to have to work late. It’s inventory time at Poultryco, honey, and as you know, I am the barnyard manager. Who is going to count the geese, if not me?”

“Like that’s hard work,” Andrew snorted. “The dumb clucks just sit there.”

“No, actually,” Joanna said priggishly. “Geese are quite aggressive. They’re territorial, in fact. Why, don’t you remember just last year, when young Jeremy Faulkner was pecked to death in the granary?”

“Yes, of course, I remember,” Andrew huffed. “I sang the Ave Maria at his funeral, right? You know I’m the only tenor in the local Methodist church choir who can hit that top C. But that doesn’t explain why you need to stay out until eleven p.m.”

“We have to wait until after dark,” Joanna moaned, “until the birds are asleep.”

“We?” Andrew pounced. “Don’t tell me that good-looking ruffian Dario Blaine is working for you again. Why, every husband here in Karaoke City knows his reputation with the ladies. He’s the Don Juan of chicken pluckers.”

Now, this excerpt would be especially annoying to a tag line minimalist, as it is reflects a quite common writerly misconception, that the mere fact of enclosing phrases within quotation marks is not signal enough to the reader that a character is speaking the words out loud, rather than just thinking them. To adherents of this theory, the mere idea of not both identifying every speaker and stating specifically that he is, in fact, saying these words out loud is a one-way ticket to anarchy.

However, to most folks in the industry, it just seems repetitive — or, to put it in the language of the biz, time-wasting. Remember, our over-worked and under-dated agency screener has to write a summary of the story of any submission she recommends her superior reads; she wants you to cut to the chase.

So what’s the writer to do, just cut out all but the absolutely essential tag lines, in order that her first page would read 42 seconds faster? Let’s take a gander at what would happen:

“It’s about time you got home,” Andrew snapped. “Your soup is ice-cold.”

Joanna sighed. “I told you that I was going to have to work late. It’s inventory time at Poultryco, honey, and as you know, I am the barnyard manager. Who is going to count the geese, if not me?”

“Like that’s hard work. The dumb clucks just sit there.”

“No, actually, geese are quite aggressive. They’re territorial, in fact. Why, don’t you remember just last year, when young Jeremy Faulkner was pecked to death in the granary?”

“Yes, of course I remember. I sang the Ave Maria at his funeral, right? You know I’m the only tenor in the local Methodist church choir who can hit that top C. But that doesn’t explain why you need to stay out until eleven p.m.”

“We have to wait until after dark, until the birds are asleep.”

“We? Don’t tell me that good-looking ruffian Dario Blaine is working for you again. Why, every husband here in Karaoke City knows his reputation with the ladies. He’s the Don Juan of chicken pluckers.”

A trifle sparse, admittedly, but there isn’t any serious question about who is speaking when, is there? Personally, I would opt for breaking up the dialogue a bit by adding a few character-revealing descriptive elements that are not speech-related, such as the facts that Andrew is wearing a giant panda costume and the soup is cream of bamboo. (Rather changes your view of Joanna’s tardiness, doesn’t it? Would you rush home to that, particularly if you knew that every Thursday’s dessert was Pinecone Flambé?)

Do I hear some of you whimpering impatiently out there, hands in the air, to tell me what else is wrong with this chunk of dialogue? The de-tag lined version made it even more apparent, didn’t it?

Sorry, the Idol agents beat you to it: #51. when characters tell one another things they already know, so that the reader will be filled in on necessary background. Those of you familiar with this blog already have a name for this phenomenon, Hollywood narration; in the science fiction/fantasy community, it also has a name, “So as I was telling you, Bob…”

Either way, it is logically indefensible. It is absurd to the point of impossibility that Andrew does not know his wife’s job title or where she works, just as it is exceptionally improbable that he would have forgotten Jeremy Faulkner’s traumatic death, or that Joanna would have forgotten either the funeral or her husband’s participation in the church choir. And don’t even get me started on ol’ Dario’s local reputation.

More importantly for our purposes here, Hollywood narration tends to annoy the dickens out of your garden-variety agency screener. Not merely because it is so common — and believe me, it is: TV and movie scripts abound with this sort of dialogue, which in turn influences both how people speak and what writers hear — but because it’s kind of an underhanded way of introducing backstory. In a script, it’s understandable, as film has only sound and sight to tell a story. But a book has all kinds of narrative possibilities, right?

There was a sterling example of a VERY common subgenus of Hollywood narration read at the Idol session. It was apparently a mystery that opened with the mother of a recently-recovered kidnap victim badgering the detective who was handling the case to find the kidnapper, pronto. My, but Mom was informative: within the course of roughly ten lines of back-and-forth dialogue, she filled in the detective on the entire background of the case. Because, naturally, as the primary investigator, he would have no recollection of anything associated with it. (Maybe he was suffering from amnesia; having heard only the first page, I couldn’t tell you.) And, equally naturally, she insisted upon being brought in to collaborate on the investigation.

The Idol panelists’ reaction to this piece was fascinating, because every time one of them started to wind down his or her critique of it, another found yet more reason to object to it. Among the objections:

*The characters are telling one another things they already know.
*The opening scene was almost entirely dialogue, without giving the reader a sense of place or character.
*This scene has been in a LOT of books and movies. (Hey, blame Dashiell Hammett.)
*”I’ve never understood why third parties in mysteries always want to investigate the crimes themselves.” (I’m guessing that the agent who said this doesn’t represent a whole lot of cozy mysteries.)
*(After a slight lull in the bloodbath.) “If the kid is back safely after the kidnapping, why should we care?”

Brutal, eh, for less than a single page of dialogue? If you learn nothing else from this series, please take away this one thing: agency screeners virtually never cut any writer any slack. That opening page needs to SCREAM excellence. So it would really behoove you to check your dialogue-based opening scenes very, very carefully to make sure that they are saying PRECISELY what you want them to say about you as a writer.

Where this becomes most problematic, of course, is in very realistic dialogue — which brings me to #30, over-use of dialogue, in the name of realism. We writers pride ourselves on our ears for dialogue, don’t we? A gift for reproducing on the page what people really sound like is highly revered, in our circles. It’s an important part of characterization, right?

So why do some of our best, most true-to-life dialogue scenes make agency screeners yawn? Well, most real-life dialogue is pretty boring when reproduced on a page. Think about it: when was the last time you read a trial transcript for FUN?

If you doubt this, try a little experiment. Take a pad and paper to a public venue — a crowded bus, a busy restaurant, that tedious holiday potluck your boss always insists will boost company morale, but only makes it apparent that the company is too cheap to spring for caterers — pick a couple of conversers, and jot down everything they say for a couple of minutes. No fair eavesdropping on a couple having an illicit affair or a duo plotting the overthrow of the city council, now — pick an ordinary conversation.

Then go home and type it up — dialogue only, mind you, not your embellishment upon it. Just as you would in a novel, take out any references to current TV shows, movies, or political events, because that would date the manuscript. (In many cases, this will eliminate the entire conversation.) With a straight a face as you can, hand the result to one of your trusted first readers. Say that you are trying out a new style of dialogue, and ask if the scene works.

99.9% of the time, it won’t.

Why? Well, real-life dialogue tends to be very repetitious, self-referential, and, frankly, not something that would tend to move a plot along. If you’re in conversation with someone with whom you speak quite frequently, you will use shared metaphors that might not make sense to an outside observer, but you’re not very likely to be discussing anything crucial to the plot of your life over coffee with a coworker.

And even if you ARE, unlike a conversation in a book, where much matter can be compressed into a single exchange, there’s just not a whole lot of incentive in real life for the stakes to be high enough to settle major life decisions within just a couple of minutes’ worth of highly relevant dialogue. Nor are you likely to import lovely language or trenchant symbolism that enlightens the reader about the human condition. It’s not even all that likely to be entertaining to a third party. It’s just talk, usually, something people do to lubricate relationships and fill time.

I’m all for relationship-lubrication on the page, but time-filling can be deadly, especially on page 1 of a book. Remember: move it along. Remember, too, that no writer in the world gets to stand next to a screener, agent, or editor during a first read, saying, “But it really happened that way!”

In a submission, it’s always good to bear in mind that even the readers of the most serious books in the world are generally interested in being entertained. So entertain them.

And, naturally, keep up the good work!

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!

Assumptions, assumptions

Remember how I told you that it is ALWAYS a strategic mistake assume that the readers of your queries and submissions know ANYTHING about the subject matter of your book prior to reading your work? No? Well, allow me to refresh your memory.

As I pointed out in my August series on manuscript revision with an eye to how an agency screener tends to read, authorial assumptions of readerly understanding can water down the intended impact of a manuscript. Obviously, this is true when the assumptions in question are inherently offensive to the reader — stereotyping, for instance, has taken down many a promising submission — but it is also the case where the text proceeds on the assumption that the reader has certain specialized knowledge of the underlying subject matter of the book.

In other words: it’s never a good idea to assume that an agent, screener, or even lay reader has ANY background that would free you from the necessity of explanation. (True of editors, too. But of that, more later, when I get to the part about ME, ME, ME.) Again, the question recurs: how sure are you about who will be reading YOUR submission?

You cannot always rely upon an agent’s background knowledge — even, amazingly enough, when the phenomenon in question is fairly well known. Just as you can’t get away with presuming that any given reader (again, read: agent, editor, or contest judge) will share your political or social beliefs, you cannot legitimately assume that the agent you covet WASN’T brought up in a cardboard box at the base of a mineshaft in an unusually warm part of Antarctica.

So while it’s already a poor idea to include too many pop culture references because they date your book, it’s also not strategically wise because your reader may not recognize them.

Partially, it’s a poor idea because you can’t be sure that the person reading your manuscript will be in your age group (or ethnic group, or sex group — that sounds racier than it is, doesn’t it? — or bridge club, for that matter). Your submission may as easily be read by a 23-year-old recent Columbia graduate with a nose piercing, eight tattoos, and an immoderate admiration for Benito Mussolini as by a 50-year-old Democrat in Armani.

At many agencies, in fact, the screening process would entail your work being approved by both. (In case you’re not aware of it, at a major agency, the agent herself is almost NEVER the first person to read a submission. Yes, even if she requested it from someone she met at a conference. It’s not at all uncommon for a manuscript to need to garner two or even three positive reviews from the screening pool before landing on the agent’s desk.)

Obviously, then, it would not be the best strategic move to make your work inaccessible to a reader outside your own age group — yes, even if you are writing a book SPECIFICALLY for readers in your age group. Screeners and editorial assistants tend to be young, so they might well need an explanation of, say, the quotidian effects of menopause.

How young, you ask? I don’t mean to scare those of you on Social Security, but practically the only editorial feedback I received on my memoir from the callow stripling assigned to it by my publishing house was flagged cultural references. The two that stick in my mind: next to Dacron, he had scrawled, “What is this?” and next to Aristotle, he had written, “Who?”

I’m just saying.

I know I’ve mentioned this before, but for the benefit of those of you new to this blog, allow me to emphasize that age assumptions can be especially disastrous in contest entries: I can’t tell you how many entries I’ve screened as a judge that automatically assumed that every reader would be a Baby Boomer, with that set of life experiences. As a Gen Xer with parents born long before the Baby Boom (my father had first-hand memories of hometown doughboys marching off to World War I; my mother’s elementary school best friend was carted off to a Japanese-American internment camp during World War II), I obviously read these entries differently than an older (or younger) person would.

More to the point, as would a judge in her late 60s — or 70s, or 80s, as often they are. Being a contest judge takes TIME, especially for those stalwart souls who are first round readers. They need to be able to read and comment upon dozens of entries within a short window of time, so contest judges tend to be either extraordinarily dedicated volunteers who are willing to forego sleep in order to help out, people like me who have extremely flexible schedules, or —  and this is far and away the largest potential group of volunteers — retired people.

Thus, like the Academy Awards, the average age of a first-round contest judge tends to fall in the charmingly graying range. Which — I hate to say it, but it’s often true — tends to place those who write for Gen Xers or Gen Yers at a competitive disadvantage in the average contest. Yet another reason it’s a pretty good idea to make sure that any piece you enter would read well for ANY English-reading demographic.

Just as with your submissions to agencies, you never know how old your readers will be.

Ditto for concepts, cultural phenomena, professions, etc. — and ditto fifty times over for phenomena that do not routinely occur on the Eastern seaboard. Many things are beyond the average Manhattanite’s ken. So if your protagonist is an Alaskan fisherwoman, it’s probably a fairly safe bet that an agent in NYC will have little to no idea what such a person’s day-to-day life would entail, other than that there is probably a boat involved. Possibly a net as well.

However, it’s not always as simple as that: for all you know, the agent of your dreams’ older brother spent half a decade on just such a fishing boat (it was right after our Jimmy ran off to follow the Grateful Dead for a couple of years, but the family doesn’t talk about that, unless someone asks about his missing pinkie finger.) And, wouldn’t you know it, Jimmy was an unusually prolific writer of letters home. While he was on the high seas, he was clinging to a miniscule desk below deck, scribbling away like Mme. de Staël, giving your agent a crash course in all things fishery.

And this presents a genuine dilemma for the writer, doesn’t it? You have to be prepared for both complete ignorance and intimate familiarity with your subject matter. The trouble is, of course, is that before you submit, you have absolutely no idea which.

In order to succeed in this business, of course, you will need to accept that you cannot control who will read your work after you mail it to an agency. If your romance novel about cruise line captain happens to fall onto the desk of someone who has recently experienced food poisoning mid-cruise (just before the mambo tournament, too!) and resented it, there’s really nothing you can do to assuage her dislike. Similarly, if your self-help book on resolving intrafamily discord is screened by a reader in the midst of a three-year fight with her siblings over Grandma’s estate (she promised the figurines to everybody, apparently), no efforts on your part can assure a non-cynical read. And, as long-term readers of this blog already know, a tongue just burned on a latté often spells disaster for the next manuscript its owner reads.

All you can do is concentrate on what you can control: clarity, aptness of references, and making your story or argument appeal to as broad an audience as possible.

That being said, I have another truth to spring on you, so brace yourselves: everything I have just told you about dealing with agencies and contests is roughly 47 times more pertinent — and more important — when dealing with an editor at a publishing house. But of that (ME, ME, ME!), more tomorrow.

In the meantime, 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 best birthday present EVER

Today is my birthday, and I have been holding off on sharing some exceptionally good news for the past few days, so I could announce it today.

Remember yesterday, when I mentioned the industry’s patented last-minute revision deadlines? And remember how I told you in the dim past that editors almost never ask authors to revise and resubmit anymore? Well…

A major publishing house has asked me to make certain revisions in my novel, THE BUDDHA IN THE HOT TUB. It’s not an offer yet, mind you, but it’s the first step.

Not a bad birthday present, is it?

To add icing to the birthday cake, the editor — it practically makes me tear up even to write about it, because it’s SO uncommon — took the time to read my manuscript TWICE before she made any suggestions at all. And the requested changes, while not what I would have chosen to do left to my own devices, are all quite reasonable and doable.

Yes, that’s right — she gave me THOUGHTFUL feedback. I know; pinch me, because this seldom happens to writers outside dreams.

I am both tickled the proverbial pink and a bit panicked, of course: said revisions need to be done in about a month. (See earlier comment about deadlines.) So you may safely expect two things between now and Halloween: my blogs will probably be a tad shorter, on average, and I will have a LOT to say about the art of revision.

But wait! There’s more!

I have a birthday present for you, my loyal readers: as of today, every single blog I have ever written is now available on this site, all the way back to my first PNWA post in August, 2005. And, unlike my old PNWA blog, these are both arranged by category, so you may quickly find the general area you need in a crisis, AND you can comment upon them. (The fact that my readers could not leave comments on my old blog was a source of constant debate; suffice it to say that it wasn’t my idea.)

That’s 1567 pages (in standard format, of course) of bloggy goodness for you, roughly 391,750 words. (If you don’t know how I was able to translate from one to the other, go back and read the earlier blogs on word count. See how easy it is?)

Why am I giving you a present for my birthday? Well, this is a major birthday for me, my friends, not only due to the Best Birthday Present Ever, but because my birthday last year was marked by a singularly unpleasant event: it was the day that my publisher first mentioned the possibility of canceling my contract for my memoir, A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK.

Yes, my agent felt bad about the timing, too.

As you may have noticed, the book is not yet out, nor can I tell you when it will be, due to repeated groundless lawsuit threats from the Dick estate. Since they first began threatening, they have never specified anything that they wanted changed in the actual text of the book (the closest they came to specificity was objecting to the photo used on the cover, which was naturally beyond my control), there was no way to revise the text in order to appease them. Evidently, they believed that the mere fact that I, of all the writers in the world, had written a book about my relationship with Philip was in itself actionable.

It’s not, as far as I know, but these folks have a LOT of money.

This state of affairs has prevailed since mid-July, 2005, shortly before I began writing the PNWA Resident Writer blog. There have been days when literally the only positive thing that happened was that I sat down and posted advice here that might help other writers. The blog has been absolutely essential to keeping me sane and balanced throughout this ordeal — and for that, I thank you, my readers, from the bottom of my heart.

Unfortunately, I can give you no update on the publication prospects of my memoir: my publisher has in fact reached a decision about it, but until the legalities are settled, I cannot fill you in on what happened and why. Many, many thanks to those of you who preordered the book, and I hope some day, I can publish the truth as I know it.

I can’t worry about that now, however: I have a revision to perform. And a birthday to celebrate.

I feel pretty good about my life, all in all. Whenever my faith starts to waver, I remind myself of Louisa May Alcott, who struggled for seventeen years before she got her big break.

Louisa should be the patron saint of writerly persistence. She wrote every day, mostly for ill-paying newspapers, primarily under pseudonyms, because she needed the money to support her shabby genteel family. Her first two books were, to put it kindly, great big flops, and she flailed about from genre to genre, trying to find her market. In a rejection letter, a publisher who declined her romance novel (which was, incidentally, quite good) mentioned that they would be willing to take a look at a book for girls. Louisa, by her own admission, didn’t much like girls, but as a writing professional, she gave it the old college try.

LITTLE WOMEN has never been out of print since. In the midst of her struggle to find her voice, she wrote, “I shall make a battering-ram of my head, and make my way through this rough-and-tumble world.”

May we all have her tenacity and permanent in-print status, my friends — although perhaps with swifter guardian angels, ones willing to whisper in the ears of the small army of people who need to approve each acquisition: “Buy this book. You need this book. The world needs this book.”

But while our angels are in training, let’s all keep up the good work.

Titles that are, um, catchy

Yesterday, I started to answer a multi-part question from loyal reader and excellent question-asker MooCrazy, but I ran out of time before I could get to one of its constituent parts. To wit: “Anne – Would you please address the topics of 1) choosing a title before querying..?” Today, I would like to tackle this good question, and the issue of title malleability in general, at my characteristic great length.

As anyone in the industry will tell you, a good, eye-catching title can be a real selling point for a book. Rather like a Hollywood hook in a verbal pitch, it can grab the query-reader’s attention memorably in a very short space of time. Not to mention the fact that an interesting title indicates the author’s inherent creativity far better than, “I hope you will be interested in my as-yet-unnamed novel…”

Someone might mention the latter point to the fine people who title movies for a living. Stealing the title of a pop song from thirty years ago (I’m looking at YOU, PRETTY WOMAN) doesn’t exactly scream out Macarthur genius-grant levels of creativity, does it?

There are plenty of formulae out there for constructing a good title — gerund + name, as in JUDGING AMY (or CHASING AMY, come to think of it) has been popular for far too long, in my opinion — but to be absolutely honest with you, this is yet another of those areas where most industry insiders cannot give you any clearer direction than anyone you might meet browsing in your neighborhood bookstore. Like the famous Supreme Court dictum about pornography, almost no one in the industry can define precisely what a good title is, but they all know it when they see it.

Personally, I favor arresting titles over merely descriptive ones or puns: given the choice amongst Bob Tarte’s titles, for instance, I would go for ENSLAVED BY DUCKS over FOWL WEATHER every time. Why? Well, I dare you: just try to forget ENSLAVED BY DUCKS.

In fact, an excellent test of a good title is to tell it (ONCE) to a non-literary friend, then ask her to repeat it back to you an hour later. Better still, tell her all of the titles you have brainstormed for your book, and see which she remembers an hour later. Because — and this is a HUGE difference between how writers think of titles and how the rest of the industry does — from an agent or editor’s point of view, THE TITLE’S PURPOSE IS MARKETING, NOT BOOK DESCRIPTION.

Pause for a moment and let that one sink in. In the minds of the industry, the title exists solely to cajole readers into buying it. I hate to be the one to break this to you, but they don’t consider naming a book an art.

So the more memorable your working title, the better. If you can work an apparent paradox into your title, for instance, it is more likely to be remembered. THE POISONWOOD BIBLE is catchy, because of the contrast between a scary word (poison) and a comforting one (Bible); THE MALTESE FALCON, by contrast, is merely descriptive — something you would remember about the plot after you read the book, certainly, but not an arresting enough image to make you snatch the book from a shelf.

I know it’s counter-intuitive to think of a title as external to the book, but when you’re querying, marketing your book needs to be your top priority, alas. A title that requires further explanation, as most that are content-specific do, will probably not catch an agent’s eye as well as one that does not. Thus, while CATCH-22 is actually an extraordinarily apt title for the novel — the concept repeated at least a hundred times throughout the course of the book — in order to query the book in the current publisher’s market, you would have to EXPLAIN what a Catch-22 was before the title seemed apt. And poof! There goes a paragraph of your query letter.

In fact, now that I come to think about it, I notice that every single one of that list I have run before, the five immense bestsellers that were each rejected by many, many publishers before finding a home, all had titles that required further explanation! Lookee:

Dr. Seuss, And To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (rejected by 23 publishers)
Richard Hooker, M*A*S*H (21)
Thor Heyerdahl, Kon-Tiki (20)
Richard Bach, Jonathan Livingston Seagull (18)
Patrick Dennis, Auntie Mame (17)

You can just hear an agency screener muttering, “Who the heck is Auntie Mame?” can’t you?

So if you go for a descriptive title, make sure it conjures up some pretty powerful mental images in the observer. You might not know instantly from the title what SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS was about, but it evokes a lovely mental picture, doesn’t it?

Inserting a strong image also hedges your bets. If you go for image, rather than just the rhythm of the words, you can sometimes make your book stick in the head of an agent or editor who does not remember the title per se: not everyone necessarily remembers the entirety of the title of my novel, THE BUDDHA IN THE HOT TUB, as such, but trust me, they do remember that both a Buddha and water are involved.

All that being said, as most authors who have seen a first book of theirs go through the wringer of a publishing house know to their sorry, the title the author picks at the manuscript stage is almost NEVER the title that ends up on the published book. Often, an agent will switch a title to something more likely to catch a particular editor’s eye, but in general, it is the publishing house’s marketing department who gets to title the book — and if that happens, the author is usually contractually barred from changing it back.

Sorry to be the one to tell you that.

In fact, editorial rumor has it that many marketing departments will automatically reject any title offered by the author, on general principle, no matter how good or how apt it may be, in order to put the publishing house’s stamp upon the book. I don’t know how true this rumor is, but I can tell you for an absolute certainty that if your publisher retitles your book, literally everyone at the publishing house will think you are unreasonable to mind at all. Knowing this in advance can help you keep your equilibrium when the inevitable happens, and not fall so in love with your title that it’s a deal-breaker.

Allow me to share my own tale of woe on the subject. As a freelance editor and friend of literally hundreds of aspiring writers, I have held more than my share of weeping authors’ hands in the aftermath of their titles being ruthlessly changed, so although I was fond of the original title of my memoir — IS THAT YOU, PUMPKIN?, I certainly did not expect it to stick. I knew that my title likely to be changed, and frankly, I was not expecting to be consulted about it. I am, after all, not a person with a marketing degree, but a writer and editor. I know a good title when I see one, but I cannot legitimately claim to know why one book will make its way up to the cash register while the one next to it won’t. I was prepared, in short, to be spectacularly reasonable.

This compliant attitude, I am sorry to report, was not even vaguely adequate to deal with the situation when my publisher decided to change the title of my book. I could have been as chipper as Shirley Temple in tap-dancing shoes and as willing to alter my habits as a first-time dieter, and it still would not have been enough.

So how did I end up with a title I positively hated? Well, my memoir is about my relationship with science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, and at two distinct points, my publisher planned to release my book to coincide with the filmed version of one of his books, A SCANNER DARKLY. The instant that decision was made, my fate was sealed: the marketing department decided within the course of a single closed-door meeting to change the title of my book to A FAMILY DARKLY, presumably to make it reminiscent of the movie.

“Interesting,” I said cautiously when my editor first told me that my baby had been rechristened while I had been looking the other way. “Um, do you mind if I ask what A FAMILY DARKLY means? Yes, it deals with dark issues, but it’s a funny book. And, if you don’t mind my mentioning it, an adverb can’t be used to modify a noun.”

My editor was unsympathetic to my concerns. “It was the marketing department’s idea. They think it’s, um, catchy.”

The succeeding scintillating discussion on matters logical and grammatical lasted over six months — and no, I still haven’t found out what the title means, or why it was deemed necessary to throw the rules of grammar to the winds. Suffice it to say that both sides set forth their arguments; mine were deemed too “academic” (meaning that I hold an earned doctorate from a major research university, which apparently renders my opinion on what motivates book buyers, if not actually valueless, at any rate very amusing indeed to marketing types), and the title remained changed. Even after the movie had been released, and the book still had not, I was stuck with a title that I could not possibly justify if somebody asked me about it at a book reading.

And at no point in the process did anyone affiliated with the process every give even passing consideration to what I think would be ANY author’s main complaint in the situation: the title had nothing to do with the content of the book. The marketing department would never know that, however, because to the best of my knowledge (avert your eyes, if you are easily shocked), no one involved in the titling decision ever read so much as a page of the book.

Welcome to the big leagues, boys and girls.

“Why,” I hear my generous and empathetic readers asking, bless them, “did they bother to discuss it with you at all, if they had already made up their minds?”

An excellent question, and one that richly deserves an answer; half the published writers I know have wailed this very question heavenward repeatedly after their titles were summarily changed by their publishers. I believe that the answer lies in the field of psychology, rather than marketing. Because, you see, when a brand-new title is imposed upon a book, the publishers don’t just want the author to go along with it without overt protest: they want the author to LIKE it. And if the title goes through several permutations, they want the author to be more enthusiastic about the final change than about the first one.

In other words: get out those tap-dancing shoes, Shirley.

Furthermore, your enthusiasm is, if you please, to be instantaneous, despite the fact that if the marketing department (who, in all probability, will not have read your book by the time the title decision is made) is mistaken about the market value of the new title, the author is invariably blamed. (Think about it: haven’t you always held your favorite writers responsible if their new books have silly monikers? And didn’t you wonder why I had such a weird title for my memoir?) Oh, and unless your contract states specifically that you have veto power over the title, you’re going to lose the fight hands down, even if you don’t suffer my ostensible handicap of postgraduate degrees.

Let me tell you, this is not the kind of frustration you can complain about to your writing friends, either. You will see it in their eyes, even if they are too polite to say it out loud: you have a publishing contract, and you’re COMPLAINING?

Thus, the hapless author gets it from both sides: an author who doesn’t like the title imposed upon her book is an uncooperative, unrealistic, market-ignorant mule to her publishers, and a self-centered, quibbling deal-blower to her friends. All anyone can agree about is that she is ungrateful beyond human example. Sorry about that.

I wish I could report that I had found a clever way to navigate past this Scylla and Charybdis, but I have not, nor has any author I know. The best you can hope to be, when your time comes, is polite and professional. And a damned good tap-dancer.

I guess, in the end, all the writer can do is accept that some things, like the weather and the titles of her own books, are simply beyond her control, now and forever, amen. At the querying stage, pick an eye-catching title, but try not to fall too in love with it. Maybe you should hold your actual favorite in reserve, for the inevitable discussion with the marketing folks, when they ask you in belligerent tones, “Well, do you have a better idea?”

Something tells me that you do — but don’t worry; I won’t say a word about it to your prospective publishers. Keep up the good work!

Expanding your query list, Part IV: spotting an agent in the wild

I bring you glad tidings for a second day in a row, my friends: one of our very own long-term readers, the ever-fabulous Phoebe Kitanidis, just signed with agent Jim McCarthy of Dystel & Goderich Literary Management yesterday! She writes both adult and YA fiction and, to add to her many virtues, was one of the marvelous Pitch Palace volunteers at this summer’s PNWA conference.

So everyone join me, please, in great big foot-stomping hurrahs for Phoebe, and brilliant prognostications of her continued success!

I have a double reason to rejoice: DGLM is the agency that represents yours truly, so this is a win for two of my communities, as far as I’m concerned. I gather from my agent’s perpetual astonishment at my enthusiasm for other writers’ work (I’m notorious for pitching my friends’ books at conferences — particularly conferences where the friend in question is a couple of time zones away), not everyone regards publication as a team sport.

But hey, we writers can use all the mutual support we can get, right?

To paraphrase everyone’s favorite writing auntie, Jane Austen (I grew up surrounded by writers and artists, but not everyone did. I say, if you don’t have literary relatives, adopt ‘em), we writers are an oppressed class: we need to stick together. Heck, I’ll just go ahead and quote that wonderful passage from her NORTHANGER ABBEY — the novel, if you’ll recall, that her publisher bought and sat upon for years and years without publishing, just like a certain memoir I could mention — so it’s safe to say that she knew a little something about writerly frustration. The quaint punctuation, for those of you new to Aunt Jane’s style, is hers:

“Yes, novels; — for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding — joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust. Alas! if the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it. Let us leave it to the Reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body. Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers. And while the abilities of the nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior, with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from Sterne, are eulogized by a thousand pens — there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them.”

Amazing how modern Aunt Jane remains, isn’t it? If you substituted “the 900th interpreter of the Middle East conflict” for the bit about the History of England, and changed the anthologer mentioned into a reference to CHICKEN SOUP FOR THE SOUL (or indeed, to most of the textbooks currently used in English and American literature classes), the critique is still valid now. Heck, throw in a hostile word or two about James Frey’s A MILLION LITTLE PIECES (because it’s not as though Random House originally saw it as a novel or anything) or Kaavya Viswanathan’s HOW OPAL MEHTA GOT KISSED, GOT WILD, AND GOT A LIFE (because the average 17-year-old is more than capable of dictating ethics to her publishers), this passage could have appeared in a trade journal within the last year.

So let’s commit to being mutually supportive — and keep that good news rolling in, everyone. Send in your triumphs, everybody, big and small, so we can celebrate them together. And thanks, Phoebe, for reminding us that it IS possible for the writer to win playing against the stacked deck of the publishing industry.

Okay, back to my topic of the week (which looks as though it will be the topic of next week, too) — and fasten your seatbelts, everybody, because it’s going to be a lengthy ride. Today, I am going to take you through how to find out who represents whom, so that you can query the agents of authors whose work resembles yours. (For a discussion of why this is a good idea, see the earlier segments of this series.)

Isn’t it astonishing that this most basic information — who represented any given book — should be SO difficult to come by? There’s no good reason for it; since all publishing deals in the U.S. are matters of public record (not the specifics, perhaps, but definitely the players), gathering this data should be the proverbial walk in the park. But it undoubtedly isn’t, at least without paying for access to an industry database.

Yes, the standard agents’ guides do usually ask the agency to list a few of their best-known clients in the blurbs. Best-known is the operative phrase here: yes, it’s nice to see names that you recognize, but an agency’s big sellers are often neither their most recent sales nor a particularly good indicator of that they are looking for in a NEW client. Agents’ preferences change all the time; I always concentrate on what the agent has sold within the last three years as the most reliable indicator of what s/he would like to see in a query.

And even in the rare instances where the blurbs do provide up-to-date titles, few of the guides include the authors’ names in the index, so the aspiring writer is reduced to skimming the entire book, looking for familiar writers. Not terribly efficient, is it?

Sometimes, you can learn who represents an author via a simple web search, but this, too, can be very time-consuming. A standard search under the author’s name will generally pull up every review ever published about her work, every article in which she is mentioned, and prompts to buy her book at Amazon AND B & N — not in that order — as well as the author’s own website, which often does not include representation information, surprisingly enough. Wading through all of this information can be very frustrating, and does not always lead to what you need.

So what’s a querier to do?

If you are searching for the agent who represented a specific book, it is worthwhile to check out the industry reviews excerpted on the booksellers’ sites. Actually, Amazon, B&N, and Powell’s all often post industry reviews, too. Occasionally, the agent’s name is listed at the end of these reviews.

(Why would these reviews list such an arcane detail? Well, the industry reviews are the advance press — Kirkus, Library Journal, Publishers Weekly — reviews written primarily for the benefit of retailers who are considering stocking the book. They appear considerably before the release date; it is not unheard-of for editors to pull a book from the print queue that has received a less-positive-than-anticipated advance reviews, so that the book may be re-revised prior to release. Print reviews, by contrast, tend to coincide with the book’s release, and are aimed at the general reading public. Thus, they seldom contain information of interest only to people in the industry.)

As I mentioned earlier in this series, writers-conference wisdom dictates that the best means of finding out who represents an author is to check the book itself for acknowledgments. Often, authors will thank their agents — and if not, the common cant goes, maybe you should think twice about that agent, anyway. (The notion that perhaps the author might merely be rude does not come up much in conference discussions, I notice.)

In fact, I cannot even count the number of times that I’ve heard conference speakers advise aspiring writers to walk into a major bookstore, plop down in front of the genre-appropriate shelves, and start making a list of every agent thanked in every well-packaged book. That way, these speakers assure us, you know that you will be dealing with agents who have made sales recently, and thus must have fairly up-to-date connections amongst editors, who are notorious for moving from one publishing house to another at the drop of the proverbial chapeau.

Remember how I was ranting earlier in this series about how a lot of the standard marketing advice writers get is quite out of date? Well…

It’s definitely worth checking a few books, but don’t be surprised if a couple of hours at Borders yields only a few names of queriable agents. The fact is, acknowledgements are simply a lot less common than they used to be — and it’s not because writers have become less grateful as a group. With the rise of trade paper as a first-printing medium for novels (as opposed to hardback, paperback, and pulp), fewer and fewer first-time authors are being allowed to include acknowledgments at all. One less page per book saves publishers money.

And if no one else is willing to say it, I will: just because an author thanks an agent does not necessarily mean that the agent has been overwhelmingly helpful — selling the book is the agent’s JOB, after all. While the author is thanking everyone else, it would look a little funny not to thank even the least helpful agent, wouldn’t it? Most of the professional acknowledgements you do see are fairly compulsory — this is not a business where it pays to burn bridges, after all.

(Nor is this expectation of blanket thanks limited to mainstream publishing, by the way. Back in my bad old university days, I was STUNNED to discover that in academic work, acknowledgments are more or less mandatory. I actually could not have gotten my dissertation accepted without the requisite page of thanks to the professors in my department who kept telling me to write about something else. Go figure.)

Then, too, some agents who aren’t particularly interested in attracting new clients will actually ask their authors NOT to mention their names on acknowledgement pages. Or to mention only their first names. Or at least not to identify them as agents. This is why, in case you were wondering, you so often see a list of a dozen names loosely identified as helpers in the publishing process, rather than that standby of former days, “I’d like to thank my wonderful agent, Jan White…”

This practice, naturally, makes it significantly harder to track down who represented what. Wondering why they would want to do this to nice people like us?

You know how I keep telling you that the vast majority of hurtful things agents do in the course of rejecting writers aren’t actually aimed at hurting writers or making our lives more difficult? Usually, our annoyance is merely a side effect, not the explicit goal: sending out form rejection letter, for instance, saves agencies boatloads of time; the fact that such rejections convey no actual feedback to writers is, from their point of view, incidental.

Well, as nearly as I can tell, this one IS specifically intended to make our lives more difficult. But don’t blame the agents (or at any rate, don’t blame ONLY the agents); blame the unscrupulous aspiring writers I was telling you about a couple of days ago, because such actions are in self-defense.

They do it, my friends, because they have heard the same advice at conferences as we all have. Agents are increasingly hip to the fact that people who are neither buying nor reading their clients’ work (i.e., those lingerers in front of shelves at B&N) are still sending them letters beginning, “Since you so ably represented Author X, I am sure you will be interested in my book…”

All of which is to say: the acknowledgments route is not a bad way to come up with a few names, but like so much else in the agent-attracting process, it’s considerably harder to do successfully than it was even five or ten years ago. So, realistically, since you will probably only be able to glean enough for one round of simultaneous queries, you should try to minimize how much time you invest in this method.

On Monday, I shall talk about how to spread your net wider — I’ve been struck by an inspiration upon which I simply must ruminate blogistically (hey, this is a new field; I’m entitled to make up new words to describe it) over the weekend. So tune in tomorrow, campers, and keep up the good work!

Memoir update: Yes, I got one, too.

I shall post a more substantial message later in the day, but I did want to leave hanging those of you who have been contacting me about having received a message from Amazon, canceling your preorders for my memoir, A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK: yes, I got one, too.

Since I have not been able to extract any new information from my publisher on the subject (pretty much everyone in the industry is on vacation until after Labor Day), I’m not sure what to tell you — and given that there is a remote possibility that this situation will land me, my publisher, and the Dick estate in court, I am severely limited in what I can say here about what is going on — or why there are people so desperate to suppress this book.

Someday, I promise, I WILL tell you the story of what has been going on for the past 14 months. But it may have to be in novel form.

Suffice it to say for now: I have NOT been informed that Carroll & Graf does NOT intend to publish the book; the contract could not be canceled without informing the author. I have presented them with enough corroborating evidence that there is not, I think, any question of the book’s not coming to publication for reasons of disbelief. It is my understanding that 100% of the publisher’s reservations are based upon fear of a lawsuit. But they might well tell you different if you asked them directly.

Since the Dick estate’s allegations have changed in each subsequent threat, I am not sure what they would like changed in the book. Apparently, they announced a while back on the estate-owned fan forum that they gave a list of demanded changes to my publisher, but to the best of my knowledge, no such list was ever received. If you are curious about what they want, I can only suggest that you ask them.

As far as I know, the estate only ever made one attempt to suggest actual textual changes (rather than preventing the book from coming out at all): in June, 2005, Philip’s eldest daughter sent me a list of, if memory serves, 22 extremely minor requested changes; I made all that I was able to verify were true. This request included an insistence that I not mention my very serious ethical reservations about the Philip android.

Other than that, it is my understanding that the estate’s objections are not based upon matters in the book that they believe to be untrue, but whether I have the right to publish my views of matters that unquestionably ARE true — or whether Philip’s fans have a right to know certain things about him. I believe they do, and furthermore, I believe that many of his hardcore fans have been aware for years that…okay, I’m running into legally tricky ground again here…that not everything they have been told about Philip, or that he told them himself, was necessarily accurate. I am morally certain that Philip himself cared enough about his fans to want them to be told the truth at last.

This is, of course, only my opinion.

So where does this leave us? Given the lawsuit threats, I cannot tell you either why the book is so controversial or whether there is any reasonable prospect of its coming out this year in any form this year. It is my understanding that the Dick estate would object to this book in any form, simply because of my unique relationship with Philip, and that since they have anointed Larry Sutin’s DIVINE INVASIONS as the “official” PKD biography (and the basis of the forthcoming biopic, evidently), they would prefer that no one ever write a book about Philip again. However, these impressions are derived from statements the estateniks made last year; they may since have changed their minds. Who can say?

As soon as I know for sure what else, if anything, I may say on the subject, I shall establish a page on this site to fill you in further and provide you with regular updates. Many, many thanks to those of you who pre-ordered the book, as well as to all of you out there who have been sending me messages of support over the last year. I know this has been frustrating; I know that this must all seem very confusing from the outside, not to mention disheartening for other writers to see.

Trust me: I will find a way to tell this story, as well as the genuinely fascinating and complex corollary saga of why the book is not yet gracing the shelves of your local bookstore. It just may take a while.

Manuscript revision IV: I’m running as fast as I can

Hey, good news, readers: as of today, ALL of my 2006 blogs are now available on this site! That includes the old ones from the PNWA Guest Writer series, as well as the new — and on this site, they’re sorted by topic! That’s 892 pages of bloggy goodness all ready for you, my friends. Quick, how many words is that in standard format, Times New Roman?

“Why, 223,000 words, of course,” I hear those of you who have been visiting my blog for a while say. “What else would it be?”

My heart swells with pride. See, we’ve all been learning. (And if the calculation above is mystifying you, you might want to go back and check the blogs under SUBMISSION and FORMATTING A MANUSCRIPT, to learn how the pros calculate word count.) I’m adding a few more every day, traveling back in time, so eventually, my whole magnum opus will be available here. Hooray!

Back to business. I have been writing over the last few days about how to make your submissions more compelling to agents and editors. Today, I would like to talk about running order.

Ask two-thirds of the querying writers in North America if they have considered rearranging their running orders to make their books easier to market, and they will stare at you as though you suggested including a small live piglet in their submission packets. Sure, it COULD be done, but who in his right mind would want to do such a thing? Naturally, the story needs to be told in its current order.

But know this, submitters near and far: professional readers, as a general rule, do NOT consider a submitted book’s running order inviolate. In fact, while they are reading, they frequently question the wisdom of authorial choices on the subject with wild abandon. Would the story have been more compelling told in a different order? they ask the pages in front of them. Did the narrative stop dead because of the insertion of a paragraph of background information? Is the author telling too much, or too little?

You may, in short, be asked to rearrange the whole darned thing, even if they like it.

And when I say MAY, I am perhaps understating the probability. Switching the running order of a book is one of the most common of editorial requests, right up there with “lose the feminist best friend,” “cut the gay brother,” and “does this character really have to die?” I know it is horrible to contemplate slicing up your baby and rearranging its bits for the amusement of people in New York, but in the long run, you will probably be happier if you start considering the reshuffling possibilities of your novel as early in the composition process as possible. It will help you respond more quickly — and less angrily — when the call comes.

And that will earn you a reputation as a professional writer who can take serious criticism. (As opposed to that other kind, who ends up serving 5-7 for going after her agent with a hammer after the 47th revision request.)

Oh, the stories I could tell you about editorial revision requests… but I’m fond of you people; I don’t want to induce nightmares. I shall limit myself to one. A good friend of mine — let’s call her Sheila — had her first novel bought by a major press as part of a package deal with one of her agency’s major clients (yes, Virginia, this does happen from time to time). But as the minor player in the deal, she did not have a very strong bargaining position; in fact, I strongly suspect that the first set of editorial advice that she received from the publisher was intended to make her curl up in a ball and disappear forever. It amounted to this: lose the first third of the book, beef up the familial relationships, and while you’re at it, cut the rape.

Well, naturally, Sheila called me in tears; she had been working on this book for years. I was a good person to call, as it turned out, because being an editor, I think like one: when I had read the first version, I was already thinking of the possibility of changing the running order in order to strengthen the essential plot line. So, as soon as she stopped sniffling, I told her the five rather simple changes that I thought she could make to transform the book into what the editor at the publishing house wanted.

She was absolutely silent for a full 45 seconds. “But that could WORK!”

Why was Sheila so incredulous? Because, like most novelists, she had never seriously considered the possibility of rearranging the running order of her plot. In her mind, as in so many writers’, the book WAS its running order. But novels — good ones, anyway — have a whole lot of elements; if the characters are strong, they can move in different directions. Not that a plot is a stack of Legos, precisely, that could be put together in a million different ways, but some modification is usually possible.

Well, Sheila took my advice, and rearranged the book. The editor was pleased, and the book moved closer to publication. Happy ending, right?

No — it turned out that the book’s flexibility (and Sheila’s) was even more important to its survival. Shortly after Sheila completed rewrites, her editor moved to another publishing house. (Don’t gasp too sharply; it happens all the time. My memoir’s editor was laid off three months after I delivered the manuscript.) In comes a new editor, with a brand-new set of expectations — and none too pleased to have inherited this particular book. Sheila was asked to change the running order again.

“But how is that possible?” I hear some of you cry. “Wasn’t there a contract? Weren’t there limits to how often the author could be forced to revise?”

Publishing contracts are notoriously flexible — at least, where impositions on the writer are concerned. The editor in charge of the book is the editor in charge of the book — unless she is no longer employed there. Then it’s a totally new ballgame. You know how I have been hammering on the fact that agents and editors are not a group of people with monolithic tastes? Well, nowhere is it more evident than in a situation like this.

So what could Sheila do? She revamped the book.

Just before it was scheduled to go to press — you can see this coming, can’t you? — a higher-up at the publishing house decided that the ending wasn’t happy enough. And was that interracial marriage really necessary?

All and all, Sheila changed the running order of the book four times, at the behest of different people at her publishing house. (They also changed her title, just for good measure.) And when I saw the final version of the book, it bore so little resemblance to the draft I had originally read that I, for one, have often wondered if Sheila could have her agent shop around the first version, as a totally different book.

Now, naturally, this does not happen with every novel; this many editorial turn-overs on a single book is rare. However, please note: there was a point where if Sheila hadn’t been able to think about her running order creatively, she would have lost an already-signed book deal. And that point was when the first editor first suggested changing it.

Cultivate flexibility now; you’re less likely to break in two when you really need to stretch.

And this kind of editorial request is not limited to novels, I tremble to report. In a nonfiction piece, running order is even more important than for fiction. The questions for NF are slightly different, but tend to the same end: are the planks of the argument presented in an order that makes sense, where each one builds on the one before, leading up to a convincing conclusion? Are the examples frequent and appropriate enough? Did the author slow down the argument by over-emphasizing points that could have been glossed over quickly, to move on to more important material?

And so forth. It’s important for you to know in advance that agents and editors read this way, so you won’t be shocked to find half a chapter of your manuscript marked in red link, with a barely-legible scrawl in the margin, “Move to X, three chapters back.”

At the risk of sounding like your 9th-grade English teacher, if you are in ANY doubt about the running order of your NF argument, take a blank sheet of paper and sit down with your manuscript. Read it straight through. As you make each major point in the text, write a summary sentence on the piece of paper, in order. After you finish reading, go back over that list: from the list alone, does the argument make sense?

In a fiction piece, it is significantly more difficult to ferret out problems for yourself, because after all, YOU know all of the backstory on all of your characters, right? An extra pair of eyes — in your writing group, from a trusted first reader, from a freelance editor — can be very helpful in catching logical leaps and running order problems.

However, if you are left to your own devices, try outlining the plot, just as you would for a NF argument. On a blank piece of paper, not dissimilar to the one described above, write down all of the major plot points in order. Not the subplots, mind you — just the major scenes. After you have a complete list, go back and ask yourself about each, “Why did this happen?”

If the answer is along the lines of, “Because the plot required it,” rather than for reasons of characterization, you might want to recheck the running order. Something is probably amiss. Would the plot make MORE sense if you switched Point 8 and Point 22?

Now you’re thinking like an editor.

You may also use this technique to edit for length and relevance. After you have ascertained that your plot’s order makes sense, place your list in front of you, close your eyes (best not to do this while driving or operating heavy machinery, obviously), and bring your finger down on a plot point. No peeking, now.

Cover that plot point, and read through the list again. Does the plot make sense without the listed point?

If the answer is yes, you might want to spend some time pondering whether that particular plot point is necessary — or whether your perception of what is integral to the plot is absolutely accurate. If you’ve stuck to the major plot points, the summary SHOULDN’T entirely make sense with a plank missing, should it?

Editors spend a LOT of time knocking extraneous scenes out of books. If you can save them the trouble, you’re already one step ahead of the game. Oh, and your submission will look better to them, and to agents.

Keep up the good work!