Time after time

Hello, readers –

Happy Walt Whitman’s birthday, everybody!

I’ve just been out having a lovely confab with my friend Suzanne Brahm, a wonderful YA writer who signed recently with a great agent and is just on the point of having her work sent out to editors. Well done, Suzanne!

Our talk got me thinking about all of the delays inherent in the publishing game, and how little control the writer has over the timing of her own work being seen. As is the case for most newly-agented writers in the current market, Suzanne spent months revising her (already very good) book to her agent’s specifications before the agent was ready to send it out. I went through the same type of delay with the book proposal for my memoir, A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK (and no, it has not been released yet; here again, the timing is beyond the author’s control). When you’re in the midst of it, those periods of pre-submission preparation seem endless.

I hate to be the one to tell you this, but you will be a substantially happier human being in the long run if you just accept that this process is going to take one heck of a long time, even after you find the perfect agent.

I’m speaking from experience here – yes, even me, whose memoir was snapped up by a publisher after only a month on the market. Not to frighten those of you who have been paying attention, but does anyone happen to remember my Novel Project, first mentioned in the blog of February 23rd? In case you don’t recall, that was the day I spent frantically scrabbling together the requisite perfect copies of my novel, THE BUDDHA IN THE HOT TUB, to send in a box the size of a Labrador retriever to my agent. The Lab has been sitting in a corner of my agent’s office ever since, occasionally thumping its tail impatiently, waiting to be taken out for a walk. My agent is sending the individual copies to editors this week.

Brace yourself: this is not an usually long lag time between a manuscript’s leaving the author’s printer and the agent’s passing it along to editors.

Okay, take a deep breath and let that sink in, because most aspiring writers assume, wrongly, that the only lengthy part of the road to publication is the seemingly interminable search for the right agent. If you’re in it for the long haul, though, it’s important to be prepared for the waits AFTER signing: the revisions, the time to convince editors to read the book, the time for editors to get around to reading it.

And then, once it is finally sold, there is typically at least a year between contract signing and release, often more. Knowing that is important, not merely for the sake of pacing yourself (hey, worrying takes energy), but so you do not make immediate plans for spending the advance: under most publishing contracts, the author does NOT get the entire advance all at once. Usually, the payments are broken into thirds: one-third upon signing, one-third upon manuscript delivery, and one-third upon publication.

Why, you may be wondering, am I making such a point of telling you all this just as we are heading into writers’ conference season, when you will be talking to agents and editors? To try to scare away the fainthearted? To diss agents? To convince you to start buying five-year calendars to track your writing career?

Not at all. I want you to be aware of all this before you sit down and have a conversation with an agent about your work, so your expectations about what that agent can and cannot do for you are realistic. Too many writers look at agents and editors with dollar signs in their eyes, which can blind them to the fact that there is a great deal more than money at stake here. You will be committing irreplaceable time to these people if they pick up your book, years of it, and they to you.

Being aware that you will be committing time, as well as talent and pages of text, to any agent or editor with whom you sign is useful, as will prompt you to listen differently to what they have to say. If the agent you ranked as your first choice for an appointment strikes you, when he speaks at the agents’ forum at the conference, as someone with whom you could not happily have conversations several times per month over the next few years, run, don’t walk, to try to switch your appointment to someone you like.

I’m serious about this.

The best way to avoid having to switch at the last minute, of course, is to find out as much as possible about the scheduled attendees BEFORE you make your appointments. If you want to know more about the agents coming to the conference, check out my archived blogs for April 26 – May 12; for the editors, May 18 – 26.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Getting the balance right

Hello, readers –

I don’t want to disturb you, if you are one of the countless many rushing to get your tax forms postmarked by the time the post office closes, so I shan’t burden you today with a description of what tax time is like for the full-time writer. There will be time enough for that tomorrow, after everyone’s had a good night’s sleep.

In the meantime, please be extra-nice to postal employees today, because this is one of their most stressful workdays of the year — would you want hundreds of panicked last-minute filers rushing up to your workstation all day? — and I shall devote today’s posting to a writing insight I had over the weekend.

As many of you know, I have a memoir in press and a novel on the cusp of making the rounds of editors. In my freelance editing business, I regularly edit both, as well as doctoring NF books, so I consider myself pretty savvy about the tricks of the trade. This weekend, as if to remind me that I should always keep an open mind, a deceptively simple but undeniably useful rule of thumb popped into my mind while I was editing (drum roll, please):

The weight a given fact or scene should have in a manuscript is best determined by its emotional impact upon the book’s protagonist, rather than by its intrinsic or causative value.

Is that too technical? In other words, just because an event is important in real life doesn’t mean that it deserves heavy emphasis in a story. In a memoir, events are only relevant as they affect the central character(s); in a first-person novel, this is also true. Even in a third-person narrative told from a distant perspective, not every fact or event is equally important, and thus the author needs to apply some standard to determine what to emphasize and what merely to mention in passing.

To put this in practical terms: if you were writing about characters who lived New York in September of 2001, obviously, it would be appropriate to deal with the attacks on the World Trade Center, because it affected everyone who lived there. To some extent, the attacks affected everyone in the country, and in the long term, people in other countries as well. However, not everyone was affected equally, so not every book written about New Yorkers, Americans, or world citizens during that period needs to rehash the entire 9/11 report.

This may seem obvious on its face, but in practice, writers very often misjudge the balance between personal and public information in their manuscripts, as well as between historical backstory (both impersonal and personal) and what their protagonists are experiencing in the moment. In fact, it is a notorious megaproblem of memoirists and first-time novelists alike.

Sometimes, balance issues arise from a genuinely laudable desire to ground the story believably in a given time period. Memoirs about the late 1960s and early 1970s, for example, tend to include extensive disquisitions on both the Vietnam War and hippie culture, the writerly equivalent of director Oliver Stone’s amusing habit of decorating crowd scenes from that period with a visible representative of every group in the news at the time, regardless of whether members of those groups would ever have attended the same event in real life: a protest march including Abbie Hoffman flanked by Gloria Steinem and several Black Panthers, for instance, with perhaps a Rastafarian, two of the Supremes, and Cat Stevens thrown in for good measure.

I bring up movie-style time markers advisedly, because, as I have pointed out before, how movies and television tell stories has seeped into books. On a big screen, stereotypical images are easier to get away with, I think, because they pass so quickly: have you noticed, for example, that virtually every film set in a particular year will include only that year’s top ten singles on the soundtrack, as though no one ever listened to anything else?

Frankly, I think this is a lost opportunity for character development, in both movies and books. Music choice could tell the reader a lot about a character: the character who was listening primarily to Smokey Robinson in 1968 probably thought rather differently than the character who was listening to the Mamas and the Papas or Mantovani, right? Even if they were smoking the same things at the time.

To use an example closer to home, in high school, if my cousin Janie and I walked into a record store at the same time, she would have headed straight to the top 40 hits, probably zeroing in rather quickly on big ballad-generating groups like Chicago. She was always a pushover for whoever used to warble the “I’m all out of love/I’m so lost without you” equivalent du jour. I, on the other hand, would have headed straight for the razor-cut British bands with attitude problems, your Elvis Costellos and Joe Jacksons. I am quite sure that I was the only 7th-grader in my school who was upset when Sid Vicious died.

Quick, which one of us was the cheerleader, me or Janie? And which one of us brought a copy of THE TIN DRUM to read on the bleachers when the football game got dull? (Hey, it was a small town; there was little to do but go to the Friday night high school football game.)

Such details are very useful in setting up a believable backdrop for a story, but all too often, writers spend too much page space conveying information that might apply to anyone of a particular age or socioeconomic group at the time. It’s generic, and thus not very character-revealing.

If I told you, for instance, that Janie and I both occupied risers in the first soprano section of our elementary school choir, belting out numbers from FREE TO BE YOU AND ME, much of the Simon & Garfunkel songbook, and, heaven help us, tunes originally interpreted by John Denver, the Carpenters, and Woody Guthrie, does this really tell you anything but roughly when the two of us were born?
Okay, the Woody Guthrie part might have tipped you off that we grew up in Northern California, but otherwise?

When books spend too much time on generic historical details, the personal details of the characters’ lives tend to get shortchanged. (And, honestly, can’t we all assume at this point that most readers are already aware that the 1960s were turbulent, that people discoed in the 1970s, and that it was not unknown for yuppies to take the occasional sniff of cocaine in the Reagan years?) It’s a matter of balance, and in general, if larger sociopolitical phenomena did not have a great impact upon the protagonist’s life, I don’t think those events deserve much page space.

I think this is also true of minutiae of family history, which have a nasty habit of multiplying like weeds and choking the narrative of a memoir. Just because the narrator’s family did historically tell certain stories over and over doesn’t mean that it will be interesting for the reader to hear them, right?

You would be amazed at how often memoirists forget this. Or so agents and editors tell me.

This is particularly true of anecdotes about far-past family members. If your great-grandmother’s struggle to establish a potato farm in Idaho in the 1880s has had a strong residual impact upon you and your immediate family, it might be worth devoting many pages of your memoir or autobiographical novel to her story. However, if there is not an identifiable payoff for it from the reader’s POV — say, the lessons she learned in tilling the recalcitrant soil resulting a hundred years later in a certain fatalism or horror of root vegetables in her descendents — the reader may well feel that the story strays from the point of the book. James Michener be damned — consider telling Great-Grandma’s story in its own book, not tacking on a 200-page digression.

I think we all know that the earth cooled after the Big Bang, Mr. Michener. Let’s move on.

Because, you see, in a memoir (or any first-person narrative), the point of reference is always the narrator. Within the context of the book, events are only important insofar as they affect the protagonist. So even if the story of how the narrator’s parents met is a lulu, if it doesn’t carry resonance into the rest of the family dynamic, it might not be important enough to include.

In my memoir, I do in fact include the story of how my parents met — not because it’s an amusing story (which it is, as it happens), but because it is illustrative of how my family tends to treat its collective past primarily as malleable raw material for good anecdotes, rather than as an unalterable collection of hard facts. “History,” Voltaire tells us, and my family believed it, “is a series of fictions of varying degrees of plausibility.”

I don’t say whether this is actually true or not; as a memoirist, my role is not to make absolute pronouncements on the nature of truth or history, but to present my own imperfect life story in a compelling way. So in my memoir, I reproduce the three different versions of the story of how my parents met that I heard most often growing up, with indications of the other dozen or so that showed up occasionally at the dinner table during my most impressionable years. I include them, ultimately, because my family’s relationship to its own past was a terrific environment for a child who would grow up to be a novelist.

Most of us are pretty darned interesting to ourselves: it’s hard not to have a strong reaction to your own family dynamics, whether it be amusement, acceptance, or disgust. That’s human; it’s understandable. But as a writer dealing with true events, you have a higher obligation than merely consulting your own preferences: you have a responsibility — and, yes, a financial interest, too, in the long run — to tell that story in such a way that the reader can identify with it.

Remember, fascinating people are not the only people who find themselves and their loved ones interesting; many a boring one does as well. And if you doubt this, I can only conclude that you have never taken a cross-country trip sitting next to a talkative hobbyist, a fond grandmother, or a man who claims his wife does not understand him.

Quoth D.H. Lawrence in SONS AND LOVERS: “So it pleased him to talk to her about himself, like the simplest egoist. Very soon the conversation drifted to his own doings. It flattered him immensely that he was of such supreme interest.”

So if you are writing about your kith and kin, either as fiction or nonfiction, take a step back from time to time and ask yourself: have I gotten the balance right?

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Practical exercises in keeping the faith. Hypothetically.

Hello, readers –

Well, after spending all week writing about ways for writers to keep their spirits up while slogging their way through the long path to publication, I got a perfect opportunity today to put it into use. Surprise, surprise, once again, all is not well with my book on its meandering path to publication. Not because of the book itself this time, but how it is being marketed.

PLEASE NOTE: due to the many complex and contentious issues swirling around the publication of my memoir, I must tell you that the story that follows is ONLY HYPOTHETICAL. It is merely the type of thing that might happen to any memoirist with a book headed for publication, and thus of educational interest to my readership. Any similarities between this scenario and my actual life are purely coincidental, and should not be taken as indicative of the really very interesting behind-the-scenes story that I’m dying to tell you. Really.

Everybody got that straight? Okay, then, on with the story. Hypothetically:

Picture me this morning, groggily making tea after a late night spent working on the new novel. Yes, I already have a novel at my agent’s, ready to be sprung upon editors everywhere, but hey, I’m not one to allow grass to grow under my creative feet, as it were. I keep moving forward from project to project — thus staying up until 4 a.m. writing on the new project.

So there I am at 11 a.m., peacefully trying to decide between orange blossom oolong and lavender Earl Grey, when my phone rings. It’s my agent, asking me excitedly if I have received her e-mail. Well, no: I’ve just gotten up, but as East Coast people always seem astonished that folks out in our time zone aren’t up early enough to catch the sunrise and witness the opening of the NY Stock Exchange, I don’t admit that. I just tell her I was writing — she knows by now that writing time means I’m oblivious to the world around me, anyway.

Well, she says (hypothetically), she has bad news. After 6 full months of silence, the fine folks who spent the summer threatening to sue my publisher over my memoir have abruptly sent another letter. Still no list of what they want changed in the book, of course; instead, this threat complains about — brace yourselves, because this part really is going to read like utter fiction — the marketing blurb on my publisher’s website (which has appeared there in its current form since July, 2005, I believe, with scarce a hypothetical murmur from the current complainers) and a picture used on the cover (ditto).

I am beginning to wonder if I am still asleep. I gulp my ultra-hot tea with unwise haste, to try to wake myself up. “Wait,” I say with hypothetically scalded tongue, “I didn’t write the blurb, and I had absolutely no say over the jacket design. Why is this my problem?”

Alas, it is, my agent explains, because in the post-James Frey environment, even the hint of a problem with a memoir can send a publisher running for cover. Memoir sales in bookstores remain strong, but just try selling a memoir to an editor at a major publishing house these days. He’ll look at you as though you have asked him to stick his hand in a vise.

So once again, my project is, in theory, on hold. Picture my hypothetical anguish.

I’ve told you about my memoir, right? A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK was first supposed to come out this month, and then got pushed back to May, due to a threatened lawsuit. Hypothetically, the people who are suing, the estate of the late lamented gentleman of the title, have never specified what in the text they want changed; or rather, they did specify about a dozen minor changes they wanted, but immediately AFTER I had made them, they threatened to sue my publisher. Go figure.

To this day, I am (hypothetically) not sure what they hate so about the book, since up to the point when they started threatening (and thus we had no further direct contact), they had never breathed a word about not believing I was telling the truth. (If you would like a bit more background on this saga, check out the one and only interview I have given about it. If you want to hear the other side’s version, you could also go to the estate-owned fansite; hypothetically, I am told, one of the claims there is that I have given many interviews on the subject – and written extensively on this blog about it. You could also, in theory, see there the claim that this blog is not even vaguely useful to aspiring writers. Or so I am told.)

Like so many memoirs out there, mine for virtually the entirety of the writing process ostensibly had the full support of the very people who are trying to block it now. (Shortly after I sold the book, they sent me a lovely bouquet of hypothetical flowers, in fact.) I am writing about my own experiences with someone who is no longer living, so technically, I did not need anyone’s permission to write it, legally — especially as in this case, all of the still-living people concerned have been yakking their heads off to biographers and reporters for over two decades now. I’m actually the only one who has held her tongue to date. Hypothetically.

It’s not as though the prospective suers haven’t had a chance to tell their side of the story, or indeed, haven’t been telling it pretty industriously. If you’re giving interviews to national and international magazines, chances are that you are a public figure, and thus available for scrutiny by other writers. You can’t write a book about your relationship with a celebrity, or give extensive interviews on that relationship, or maintain a website that presents yourself as the public spokesperson for that celebrity, and then claim that your privacy has been violated if someone mentions your existence in passing. Or so I’m told by people who follow the law.

That’s part of what gives this situation its rich, ironic hypothetical undertones: to the best of my knowledge, the Philip-related part of my storyline has been written about in at least a dozen books, including ones by Philip himself AND a memoir by one of the currently complaining parties’ mothers. The continents positively ring with versions of stories about my kith and kin.

I guess I didn’t get the memo that said I was the only person on earth not entitled to write about it — or about my own life story. The funny thing is, hypothetically, I DID have permission from the two primary complaining parties to write this book. In writing. Which might be difficult for them to explain should this eventually come to court. (Of course, I speak only of theoretical possibilities here.)

Of course, anybody’s statements are open to interpretation. Let’s try a little exercise, to sharpen your wits for the practical application of the theory we have been discussing here. Hypothetically, let’s say after you had told some affected parties that you had a book contract, they sent you an e-mail that said something like:

…we both really appreciate your offer for our thoughts on “challenging embroideries in print” in your PKD bio. However, both of us feel that this should be your PKD story and that we should not influence your creative efforts in any way. We believe you need to be as free as your predecessor biographers to approach your project in your own way. That’s not to say that we don’t care because we do of course, but it wouldn’t be fair to you for us to in any way hobble your efforts.

Would you:

(a) take this statement at its face value, and believe your book had the senders’ support?

(b) instantly stop writing the book, because a lawsuit is clearly imminent?

(c) thank the senders for the sentiment, but make many copies of the e-mail and cling to it like a leech, in case the senders later changed their minds about the value of freedom and creative efforts?

If you chose (c), you are better prepared than most to write nonfiction; alas, it is only in theory that such promises provide protection. It is a myth that releases from people mentioned in a book will protect the writer; they are only a deterrent as long as the signers believe them to be. There is absolutely no way that anyone can legitimately promise never to change his mind. Most of the sued memoirists of my acquaintance (and many published memoirs generate at least one lawsuit threat on their way to publication) had obtained such releases; the paper those releases were written upon later made useful handkerchiefs and kindling.

Hypothetically, more or less until the moment now-condemners started threatening my publisher, they were overtly supportive of the project — volunteering material for inclusion in it, even, and praising the only draft they ever read — but ultimately, all of that comradely vim did not make any difference in the long term. Because this is the post-James Frey environment, where anyone who wants to derail a book project need not produce any actual proof that the author is not telling the truth, or even any legally-demonstrable reason that the complainer would be harmed by the book’s being published. They need only threaten; they need only have money enough in their pockets to make that threat credible. And publishers quail.

Hypothetically, however, truth is an absolute defense against slander and libel. Hypothetically, any writer has the right to tell her own life story, the complete freedom — how did they put it? — “to approach the project in your own way.” And hypothetically, a publisher who has tangible proof that a writer is telling the truth will stand by her book.

I have no idea at this point how this theoretical tale of publishing stop-and-start will turn out. Maybe the hypothetical publishers will stand by the author; maybe the hypothetical complainers will remember that they sent the author a whole lot of e-mails, confirming the truth of quite a bit of what’s in the book. And maybe the author will turn the whole thing into a novel, where she can tell the absolute truth without fear of reprisals. That’s the trouble with hypothetical people: you never can predict to a certainty what they will do.

Oh, dear, I am looking forward to the non-hypothetical day when I can fill you in on what is really going on with my book. It really is quite a story; perhaps some day, I shall write about it.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Time is not on our side

Hello, readers –

I’m posting a little bit late today; I’ve been spending the afternoon wrestling with a doozy of an editing problem. Seems one of my clients’ publishers has moved up her revision deadline by a few months. Not weeks, months. As in it’s practically now.

She was informed of it blithely, in the context of an e-mail about something else entirely, as though the news weren’t of completely-rearrange-several-people’s-foreseeable-futures importance. And, like so many writers, the author thought that the fact that she and I were going to have to drop everything and work like demented fiends for the next few weeks changing the book from front to back was HER fault. HER plans were disrupted, and she apologized to ME.

As I’ve said before, writers tend to be very sweet people.

But isn’t it lucky that the publication date on MY book has been pushed back to May? If everything had gone as planned with my memoir, A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK, I would have started a book tour in February. (It most emphatically did NOT go as planned: the acquiring editor was laid off at the end of August; my publisher and I spent months living under threat of a groundless lawsuit – long story, but the short version is that it’s perfectly legal to tell the truth – and the release of the movie version of Philip’s wonderful novel A SCANNER DARKLY was pushed back from winter to summer, throwing off marketing schedules entirely.) The mind boggles at how I would have managed to be promoting one book and crash-editing another simultaneously.

But that’s the reality of the publishing world. The writer is left to wait in nail-gnawing suspense for weeks or months at a time, while decisions are made behind closed doors that are usually, from the point of view of those of us writers who call the PNW home, 3000 miles away. Then, BANG! All of a sudden, the writer is presented with a short deadline, and panic reigns supreme until the need of the moment is met. Then that eerie silence returns, until a few days before the next deadline.

I wish I were making this up. I also wish that more aspiring writers knew just how different the sense of time is in Manhattan-based publishing houses and agencies than it is, well, here. Agents and editors’ attitudes and beliefs necessarily affect writers’ lives profoundly; when a fledgling writer doesn’t know what is common practice in her new-found profession and what is not, it is all too easy for her to blame herself, her book, the market, anything but an alternative sense of time for the fact that she’s either ignored or badgered, with little in between.

The Manhattanites themselves would be the last to explain it to you. It just wouldn’t occur to them. Constant rush, being too busy to attend to anything but the most pressing matters on their desks, and living in constant danger of falling behind schedule are all normal; what calls for elucidation?

So if the hapless West Coast writer asks why, for instance, a revision assignment could not have been given a reasonable amount of time in advance, rather than a week before the book goes to press (yes, it happens; I once had a client whose work was actually yanked out of the print queue at the last moment for because her editor decided that the running order needed to be changed, a snap decision that ended up delaying the release of the book by six full months), agents and editors will just repeat the question, puzzled. “Why don’t we plan things in advance?” they echo. “We don’t have time for that.”

Now, this is frankly foreign to most of us PNW-based writers, isn’t it? 150 years ago, Seattle did not even exist; the pioneer spirit still lingers in the air enough for us to appreciate starting a project from scratch and staying with it for the long haul. After all, you don’t chop down a huge tree with a single stroke of an axe (don’t worry; I’m picturing a farmed one, not old-growth), any more than you write a whole book in a single week. We have long, languid, misty winters: for half the year, staying inside to revise makes a lot of sense. What’s the rush?

Try to explain this to your NYC-based agent or editor, and she’ll instantly picture you laden with love beads, dancing around with a tambourine to some old Cat Stevens tune at a love-in. Or possibly on a beach, playing hackysack or tossing a Frisbee to a golden retriever with a blue bandana tied rakishly around his neck while your friends sing “Sunshine On My Shoulders” from atop their surfboards.

It’s not going to be pretty, that image, and it’s not going to make you look like a professional – which is to say, like a New Yorker.

But we’re adaptable people, we Pacific Northwesterners – another legacy of the pioneer days – and when in Rome, we keep time as the Romans do. So most of us try very hard to adapt ourselves to NYC-based agents and editors’ hyped-up senses of time. Presented with their expressions of urgency, we overnight manuscripts – then wait, perplexed, while they gather dust in agency mailrooms. We will lose sleep for days on end in order to complete the chapters that editor at a conference asked to see – and then convince ourselves, when the editor doesn’t respond for months, that something about the chapters caused the delay. We will use up all of our sick leave at our day jobs to revise our novels radically in accordance with our new agents’ requests – and then, the following season, talk ourselves out of calling the agency to ask why the revised version has not been submitted to any editors yet. We don’t want to seem pushy.

All of these are real examples, by the way, the actual experiences of good writers I know. And all occurred within the last six months.

I think there’s a translation problem here, frankly. In our neck of the woods, when someone says he needs something now, he generally means NOW. It’s considered a little rude to demand instant responses when there’s no imminent threat. Perhaps this is another pioneer holdover: when confronted by a hungry coyote, for instance, or a surly mountain lion snarling in one’s back forty, one’s sense of urgency in requesting assistance tends to be genuine. Vigilante “justice” tended to be rather prompt, and “Timber!” implied the hope that the hearer would, as the expression went, hightail it out of the path of that tree. Otherwise, our forebears, like us, preferred to take their time.

From the POV of those who inhabit the NYC publishing industry, however, such attitudes imply a certain lack of vim. Laid-back tends to translate, in their eyes, to “I really don’t care about what’s going on.” Because on their own turf, expressions of temporal urgency tend to be indicative of either eagerness or general stress levels, rather than actual imminence of disaster.

In short, “Timber!” there means that a tree might fall eventually.

So that agent who asked you at last year’s conference to overnight your entire manuscript (at a cost that, if it did not make you mortgage your home, at least made you reconsider your children’s college prospects), she actually meant it as a COMPLIMENT. “I am excited about your work,” this request said, “and because I, like my compatriots, believe that anything worth having is the object of fierce competition, I need to impress you with the intensity of my enthusiasm. Thus, while I do not plan to clear my schedule tomorrow – nor, indeed, any time soon – in order to read the work I am asking you to overnight to me, I am conveying that I am serious about wanting to see it.”

This is why I – and my clients, when they listen to me – never, ever overnight anything to NYC agents or editors unless THEY pay for it. There have literally never been any negative ramifications for this stand. Priority Mail always works just fine, at a fraction of the cost. Plus, USPS’ standard small boxes – which the post office will give you for free! – provide lovely protection for tender manuscript pages.

This is not to say that I ignore last-minute editorial deadlines, or advise others to do so – I don’t, and you shouldn’t. I am in fact a regular user of my publishing house’s FedEx account. But I do try to negotiate, to make the deadlines a trifle more reasonable – and whenever I have an opportunity to set my own deadlines, as does happen occasionally, I automatically add anywhere from two days to two weeks to my estimate, just to ward off last-minute nagging while I’m polishing off the piece. (Trust me, no one ever objects to receiving work BEFORE a deadline.)

And I do keep in mind that the sense of urgency I am hearing over the phone or reading via e-mail may or may not have ANYTHING to do with the project at hand. Instead, I try to remember that the “I need it NOW!” being barked at me may well be a function of the stress levels of an underpaid assistant’s being yelled at by an overcommitted boss working in a building of similarly rushed people in an environment where a state of constant deadline panic is considered normal. In a town where being ultra-busy is considered an indicator of success, I tell myself, the people demanding that I drop everything are just paying me the compliment of assuming I have a life successful enough to disrupt.

So I take a deep breath, look out the window, and remind myself that from my studio, I can see more trees than there are in the entirety of Central Park. I center myself, think what a privilege it is to be asked to share my thoughts (or, as today, to midwife my clients’) for publication, and feel grateful that I had the foresight to invest in a good ergonomic set-up.

Then I punch a sofa pillow viciously seventeen times, clear my schedule, and meet the damned deadline.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

What’s in a name?

Hello, dear readers —

I’ve been holding a client’s hand (she says hello, by the way) for the last two days while she struggles to come to terms with her publisher’s throwing out her (quite good) title for her novel. Yes, I know that the subject of the week is agents, but her plight reminded me to pass along something I have been meaning to tell you about the post-contract world: contrary to popular belief and writerly preference, authors seldom get to name their own works; we’re seldom even invited to the baby’s christening, metaphorically speaking. And for the author, the shock of seeing her own work branded with a new title can be very keen.

Since some of you are, I hope, going to be picked up by agents and sell your books to editors this fall, I think the time is now ripe to speak of titles, and the author’s relationship to them in the current publishing environment. Simply speaking, they’re like the names given to a newborn kitten: the tyke may have been a perfect Cuddles in her infancy, but as an adult, she is probably going to transmogrify at some point into a Chelsea.

As we all know, titles are crucially important to the success of a book. A good title intrigues potential readers: it has good meter, isn’t a cliché (and don’t we all wish the people who title movies understood THAT?), and feels good in the mouth. It is memorable, catchy, and ideally, has something to do with the content and/or tone of the book. Knowing this, if you are like most authors, you have probably spent months or even years agonizing over whether the title you have selected for your baby is the right one.

Please do not be too disappointed if the title you picked is not be the one that ends up on the published book cover. The author’s choice seldom is.

This is not, I’m told, a reflection upon writers’ ability to tell readers succinctly what their books are about so much as a practical demonstration that marketers control many ostensibly creative decisions. Even great titles hit the dust all the time, because they are too similar to other books currently on the market or don’t contain catchphrases that will resonate with the target market or even just don’t please the people who happen to be sitting in the room when the titling decision is made.

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.

I’ve seen it happen too many times.

My memoir was originally titled IS THAT YOU, PUMPKIN?, but I certainly did not expect it to stick. As a freelance editor and friend of literally hundreds of aspiring writers, I have held a lot of weeping authors’ hands in the aftermath of their titles being ruthlessly changed from above. I was expecting my title 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, then, to be humble and bow to the inevitable. I was prepared to be spectacularly reasonable.

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

As it happens, outside forces intervened, sealing my fate. Philip’s work is, as you may already be aware, currently popular with moviemakers: one of the selling points of my memoir was that two movies based upon his works were scheduled to come out within the next year and a half: A SCANNER DARKLY in the fall of 2005 and THE GOLDEN MAN in the summer of 2006. Only, movie schedules being what they are and animation being time-consuming, A SCANNER DARKLY’s release date got pushed back to March, 2006. And THE GOLDEN MAN (retitled NEXT) was pushed back to 2007

This could not have been better news to the folks sitting in marketing meetings, talking about my book. IS THAT YOU, PUMPKIN? was already scheduled to be published in the winter of 2006. In the blink of an eye, my nebulous publication date gelled into almost instantaneous firmness, and the marketing department decided within the course of a single meeting to change the title of my book to A FAMILY DARKLY, presumably to make it reminiscent of SCANNER.

“Interesting,” I said cautiously when my editor first told me that my baby had been rechristened while I was looking the other way. “Um, do you mind if I ask what A FAMILY DARKLY means?”

Thereupon followed much scintillating discussion – and no, I still haven’t found out what it 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.

“Why,” I hear my generous and empathetic readers asking, “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 skyward repeatedly after their titles were summarily changed by their publishers. I believe that the answer lies in the field of psychology. 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: 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.

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?) 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 the handicap of postgraduate degrees.

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: you’re an uncooperative, unrealistic, market-ignorant mule to your publishers, and you’re a self-centered, quibbling deal-blower to your friends. All anyone can agree about is that you are ungrateful beyond human example.

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. For my next book, I’m going to give it my SECOND-best title, and reserve my first for the inevitable discussion with the marketing folks.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Trying to speak through a gag is hard

I’m absolutely livid today, over developments with my memoir that I am not allowed to tell you about, for legal reasons that make absolutely no sense to me. In fact, I’m so angry that I’ve just spent the last hour writing version after version of what’s happened as a hypothetical rumination on the implications of the First Amendment, as an allegory set in Roman antiquity, and as an 8-line poem ostensibly about flowers. There was even one version peopled entirely by goblins and werewolves. Yet even in these formats, as distanced from real-world events as it is possible to be, what I had to say was still so pointed, so scurrilous, that people who love me and who possess good legal reasoning skills have convinced me not to post any of them. Even the haiku was deemed too pertinent to what is actually going on, more’s the pity.

Sorry – I can’t compose something new with all of these people sitting on me.

I’ll fill you in the second I can figure out how to do so without violating any of the restrictions my publisher has placed upon my freedom of speech. I may be reduced to interpretive dance soon.

Mmmmph mmmmph mmm.

— Mmmm Mmmm

Still more terms every writer should know, but many are afraid to ask

Here are the rest of the industry glossary terms; every fiber of my being wants to call for a pop quiz now, but I am resisting the temptation with all of my might. Just a flashback to my former incarnation as an academic. It’ll pass.

Once again, if there is a term that you were waiting breathlessly for me to define that did not make the list, feel free to drop me a line via the COMMENTS function, below, and ask about it in the days and weeks ahead. It’s going to be a long, cold, dark winter, my friends (at least up here in Seattle, where the days start getting AWFULLY short after Halloween, and where already the squirrels and raccoons in my backyard are displaying a suspicious plumpness of fur), and nothing lights up a dreary day like a good industry-speak definition.

(Okay, okay — it’s possible I’m mistaken about that. But through the magic of self-delusion, I shall attempt to act as though I believe it all the same.)

Here are more definitions:

Rookie mistake, n.: An error in a manuscript or finished book that a pro would be unlikely to make, which betrays the fact that the writer (or sometimes, the editor) is new to the publishing industry. The classic rookie mistake is submitting a manuscript that is not in STANDARD FORMAT.

Shameless friend, n.: A writer’s buddy who appoints him/herself part time publicist for the writer’s work. A shameless friend does everything from gushing to everyone who will listen (“This is the best book in the world! You’ve got to read it now!”) to posting flattering reviews on Amazon to downright guerrilla marketing, such as picking up the friend’s book off the shelves at Barnes & Noble, walking around with it prominently displayed under her arm, and then setting it down casually on the bestseller table. (My standard shameless friend activity is to find my friends’ books and turn them face-out on the shelf, rather than spine-out, so they are more likely to sell.) The more shameless friends you can recruit before your book hits print, the better off you will be; other writers make terrific shameless friends. Treat them very well: they are worth many times their weight in gold.

Shelf life, n.: The length of time any given book will remain on a bookseller’s sales floor before being returned to the publisher or — stuff a pillow in your mouth, because this is horrible — being pulped. In some major bookselling chains that shall remain nameless, this time can be as short as three weeks, which leaves little time for word of mouth to develop. The moral: it really behooves an author to be out there plugging his book for the first few weeks after publication.

Ship date, n.: The date upon which actual copies of your book will be sent to booksellers (and those fine folks who pre-order my memoir on Amazon!), as opposed to the publication date, which is when bookstores may begin selling the tomes. You may have heard about this differential with respect to the latest HARRY POTTER book: bookstores had the books from the SHIP DATE, and thus were responsible for implementing security measures that would have made J. Edgar Hoover writhe with envy in order to prevent any copies from being leaked prior to the publication date. (Those of us who have friends who write book reviews have heard about this endlessly, because Scholastic has not sent out REVIEW COPIES for the last two HARRY POTTER books – so I know several book reviewers for major newspapers who were forced to buy the books at midnight like everybody else, read it overnight, and write the review before the next day’s deadline. Somehow, I suspect that sleep deprivation does not render a reviewer kindly.)

Simultaneous submission, v. (also known as MULTIPLE SUBMISSION): (1) The practice of querying more than one agent at the same time. Contrary to rumor amongst writers, most agents are more than willing to accept that the querying process is too time-consuming if the writer sends out only one submission at a time. If a given agent objects to the practice, the agency will say so explicitly in the standard agenting guides, so do check. (2) When agents send out a book (or book proposal) to several editors at once, in the hope of engendering competitive bidding. Not all agents favor this practice, particularly for fiction. (3) Being involved with more than one dominatrix at once.

SLUG LINE, n.: (1) The line in the top margin (either right or left-justified) of every page of a standard manuscript, bearing the following information in caps: author’s last name, abbreviated title, page #. Thus, every page of my memoir has MINI/A FAMILY DARKLY/# on it. (2) The trail left by a Pacific Northwest invertebrate.

SLUSH PILE, n.: The holding pen in a publishing house or agency where UNSOLICITED MANUSCRIPTS await Judgment Day or for someone to have time to read them; basically, these books are on indefinite hold. In the bad old days, senior editors would buy pizza and beer for the junior editors one night per month, and everyone would sit around and go through the slush pile. Now, most of the major publishing houses will NEVER keep an unsolicited novel in the slush pile; it will simply be returned unread. A few still hold pizza parties for NF, but the practice has become exceptionally rare. The moral: bypassing the rules of submission is not very likely to work in your favor.

STANDARD FORMAT, n.: The way everyone in the publishing industry expects a manuscript to look. Manuscripts not in standard format are often discarded unread. (If you want to learn the rules of standard format, check out my posting of August 31.)

SUBSIDY PUBLISHING, v.: The act of printing and distributing a book with a press that purports to share the production expenses with the author. In fact, most subsidy presses charge authors significantly more than the actual cost of publication, as these presses’ profits tend to be derived from author contributions, rather than book sales. As a result, subsidy publishing is usually quite a bit more expensive for the author than SELF-PUBLISHING. Most of the time, the authors end up distributing the books themselves, and the vast majority of reviewing publications have hard-and-fast rules against reviewing books produced by subsidy presses.

SUBSTANTIVE EDITING, v.: Giving content feedback on a manuscript, as opposed to COPY EDITING or LINE EDITING, which is concerned with grammar and clarity. Increasingly, editors at major publishing houses have time to do neither kind of editing, which leaves the author in the uncomfortable position of editing her own book. (As soon as the final editing of my memoir is complete, I shall be blogging EXTENSIVELY about my experience with this phenomenon.)

SYNOPSIS, n.: A brief exposition in the present tense of the plot of a novel or the argument of a book. (See my blog of Sept. 9 for tips how to write a stellar synopsis.)

TABLE OF CONTENTS, n.: A list of chapter titles and the corresponding page numbers where those chapters begin in the book. Not to be confused with an Annotated Table of Contents, which is the 2-3 page section in the nonfiction book PROPOSAL which gives the title of each chapter, accompanied by a 2-3 sentence description of what is in each chapter; including a simple TABLE OF CONTENTS in a book proposal is one of the most common ROOKIE MISTAKES. The Annotated Table of Contents does not include projected page numbers. (For guidance on how to create an Annotated Table of Contents, or indeed any part of a NF book proposal, see my posting of August 29.)

TITLE PAGE, n.: (1) The page of a manuscript that contains the title (obviously), the author’s pen name, the author’s actual name, contact info for the author (or the author’s agent), book category, and WORD COUNT. (If you are in the throes of formatting a TITLE PAGE, check out my posting of Sept. 9 for tips.) (2) The page of a published book that contains the title, author’s name, and name of the publishing house. To format a manuscript’s title page like a published title page is a ROOKIE MISTAKE.

TRADE DISCOUNT, n.: The percentage off the cover price of a book granted by publishers to booksellers; generally, the trade discount is in the 40-50% range. Most PUBLICATION CONTRACTS specify that the author may purchase an unlimited number of books at the TRADE DISCOUNT, but let the author beware: books so purchased do not count toward the author’s sales totals.

TRADE LIST, n.: A publisher’s catalogue of all books currently in print. (If you want to see a real, live example, here is the link to my listing in my publisher’s catalogue: http://www.pgw.com/catalog/catalog.monthly.asp?ShipMonth=22006&Action=View&Index=Title&Book=344556&Order=43. You might want to check it out soon, because I suspect that a ROOKIE MISTAKE was made regarding the cover, and it may be changed soon.) The purpose of listing the ISBN and other publication data is to make it as easy as possible for booksellers and private citizens to order the book in question.

TRADE PAPER, n.: The level of print quality between hardcover and mass-market paperback; a book with high print standards, but no glossy dust jacket. Increasingly, publishers are releasing serious fiction and memoir in trade paper, bypassing the hardback stage entirely, because hardbacks are so very expensive to print.

TRANSLATION RIGHTS, pl. n.: The publication rights to an English-language book printed in any other language, sold on a by-language basis. (Perversely, books sold in English in Great Britain are considered to be foreign-language books for contractual purposes.) These are sold usually separately from the RIGHTS, which refers to first North American rights, minus Mexico. However, occasionally an American publisher will try to score a sweet deal and try to get the WORLD RIGHTS as part of the initial deal, but if the book is expected to have LEGS abroad, this generally does not work out well for the author: typically, if a book is reprinted in a second language and a North American house owns the foreign rights, the domestic publisher scrapes an automatic 20% off the top of any foreign-language royalties accrued by the author. (If this seems a trifle technical, it’s because I had rather a struggle to retain my memoir’s foreign rights; my publisher wanted ‘em, big time. But they’re mine, I tell you, all mine!)

UNSOLICITED MANUSCRIPT, n.: (1) The doorstop of the publishing world. (2) Any book excerpts, up to and including entire manuscripts, sent to agents who have not asked for them. I tremble to tell you this, but often, these are sent INSTEAD of query letters, and thus end up as definition (1). (3) Any manuscript sent to a publishing house without the author’s first ascertaining that a specific editor there would like to see it. At best, these manuscripts end up in the SLUSH PILE; at worst, they are thrown out. (As nearly as I can tell, few publishing offices are serious about recycling, alas.)

VANITY PRESS, n.: (1) The more virulent version of a press that specializes in SUBSIDY PUBLISHING. Vanity presses often woo aspiring authors with misleading promises, in order to tempt writers into plunking down hard cash to see their words in print. (2) A SUBSIDY PUBLISHING press that produces extremely expensive, coffee-table quality books for its clients. (3) What almost everyone in the publishing industry calls a press that specializes in SUBSIDY PUBLISHING; a term of insult.

WOMEN’S FICTION, n.: A category of prose whose definition varies depending upon whom you ask. The more old-fashioned use it as a synonym for romance novel, often with a slight sneer, but these same people virtually never refer to thrillers as Men’s Fiction, although the actual purchase rates would indicate that this would be an apt moniker. Currently, the term is used to denote novels whose readership is expected to be overwhelmingly female. However, this is less descriptive than one might think: over 80% of the fiction purchased in North America is bought by women, including the vast majority of literary fiction. So there.

WORD COUNT, n.: Not, as one might imagine, the ACTUAL number of words in a document; no, that would be too easy. Rather, the actual number or words rounded to nearest 100 OR the number of manuscript pages in Times or Times New Roman multiplied by 250. The latter is the standard by which the publishing world operates.

WORLD RIGHTS, n.: First North American rights + all foreign rights = world rights.

WRITING RESUME, n.: A list of an author’s writing and speaking credentials. You should be maintaining one of these on an ongoing basis, and no, you don’t have to have been paid for a publication to include it here. Ideally, to keep your writing resume up to date, you should try to add at least one item to it per year: placing in a contest, giving a public reading of your work, publishing an article or story (no matter how small the publication…The idea here is to show that you have been spending your time while you wait to be discovered wisely, adding tools to your writer’s bag of tricks, so you will be ready when your big break comes.

YA (Young Adult), n. and adj.: The moniker attached to novels intended for readers from the ages of 12 to 17, despite the fact that literally no country in the world considers 12-year-olds to be adults. Created, as I understand it, by those who felt that “Children’s books” had a pejorative ring to it.

That’s the end of the alphabet — hurrah! Starting tomorrow, I shall be alternating between the kind of practical advice that I’ve been giving for most of the past month and blow-by-blow accounts of my memoir’s rather amusing and totally counterintuitive adventures traveling from contract to print. Follow my book’s hilarious journey from first book proposal to sale to traumatic lawsuit; look on in awe as I struggle to obtain ANY feedback from my editor, who has apparently taken a vow of silence; marvel at the bizarre sense of timing (wait three months, rush around for two days, wait two months, demand results overnight…) that renders it a perpetual miracle that any books are ever published at all!

And in the meantime, keep up the good work!

— Anne Mini

P.S.: For all of you kind souls who have tuned in because you heard on the grapevine about the threatened lawsuit against my memoir: while the legal folderol is going on, I’m actually not allowed to talk about it here in any amount of juicy detail, as much as I would LOVE to do so. In fact, some earlier discussions have required trimming, alas. Since it’s all very interesting — the question of who owns memories is certainly one that would have fascinated Philip K. Dick, and whether I can publish my own memories of him is the crux of the current case — I would love to be able to share the ins and outs on a daily basis, but my typing hands are tied, so to speak. I hope to be able to fill you in soon, though, in vivid Technicolor, so watch this space.

Even more terms every aspiring writer should know (but most don’t)

Well, I had thought that I could get through the rest of the alphabet today, but it turns out that people in the publishing industry favor words ending in N and beyond. Go figure.

And, to be perfectly honest, blogs full of definitions are a trifle easier on me. I write this free, gratis, and without pay, out of my great love for the PNWA and its members, and I have a HUGE deadline coming up this Saturday. As in BOOK deadline.

Thus, I’m a little strapped for time. Since Friday is my birthday, I would like to have enough done so I could sneak away from my computer for a couple of hours to celebrate. It’s my 39th, and since there’s a lawsuit pending over my memoir (A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK, available for presale now on Amazon! The more often I repeat this information, the happier my agent is.), I may well not have any worldly possessions remaining by my 40th. This year, then, would seem to be the year to whoop it up.

And if you would like to give me a birthday present, loyal reader, do me a favor: READ YOUR ENTIRE MANUSCRIPT IN HARD COPY AND OUT LOUD BEFORE YOU SEND IT OUT TO ANY AGENTS AND EDITORS. It would make me very, very happy.

Okay, here are the definitions du jour:

LEGS, n.: A book’s capacity to keep selling over a long period of time, as in, “My, that book has legs!” This is one of the few advantages that books by unknowns have over books by celebrities: celebrity books, even the ones that sell magnificently at first, almost never have legs.

OPTION CLAUSE, n. (also known as RIGHT OF FIRST REFUSAL): In a PUBLICATION CONTRACT, the section that specifies that the publisher gets the first look at the author’s next book (or sometimes, the next book in the same genre), before it is shown to other publishers. The option clause does not guarantee publication of the next book. Basically, this is the standard clause that came into fashion when two-and three-book contracts, which used to be the norm, fell out of favor. (There were too many second books that did not live up to the promise of the first. Judith Guest’s ORDINARY PEOPLE was brilliant, but did anyone but me read her next? Not enough of us, apparently.)

PROPOSAL, n.: An array of materials about a NF book or article not yet written, designed to sell the book in question to editors. If you are interested in writing a nonfiction book, check out my earlier blogs (August 23–29) discussing the ins and outs of this difficult task.

PUBLICATION CONTRACT, n.: The formal agreement between the publisher, the author, and the agent (if any) that specifies that timing and terms of publication. This is the document that will spell out the ADVANCE, ROYALTY rates, etc., all of which your agent will negotiate for you. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read it over very carefully before you sign it, however.

PUBLICIST, n.: A person who sets up readings and interviews for book; often also the person who prepares the PRESS KIT. In the past, publishing houses had in-house publicists; now, it is not unusual to expect the author to be her own publicist. (And lest you think that sending out your own media kit is a waste of time, recall this: well over half of the stories in any given newspaper are either placed by publicists and/or are the direct result of material provided by press kits.)

QUERY, v.: To send a cover letter and synopsis out to an agent or editor in the hope of exciting professional interest. Do keep that in mind: the SOLE purpose of the query is to engender interest; make sure you are marketing your work effectively. If you are gearing up to send out a query, do yourself a favor and read my earlier posts (circa Sept. 7-8) to get tips seldom seen in writers’ guides.

QUERY LETTER, n.: A polite, formal introduction of the author to the agent or editor.

READING, n.: Any opportunity to read your work aloud in public, to be listed on your WRITERS’ RESUME. It’s definitely worth your while to give readings periodically before you have a book out, both for the experience (it’s not as easy as it looks to read aloud well, especially if you are nervous) and as a SELLING POINT for you as an author: editors like authors who have experience presenting their own work.

REQUESTED MATERIALS, n.: What you should write on the outside of the envelope containing chapters an agent or editor has asked to see. This phrase will help keep your work out of the SLUSH PILE.

RETURNS, pl. n.: Unsold books that the bookseller sends back to the publisher for credit. Publishers, understandably, do not like these.

REVIEW COPIES, pl. n.: BOUND GALLEYS sent to book reviewers and other opinion-makers in advance of publication. Very often with plain or unattractive covers, the major publications get literally hundreds of these per week.

RIGHT OF FIRST REFUSAL, n.: See OPTION CLAUSE.

RIGHTS, n.: Generally, refers to the ability to be the first press in North America to print a piece of writing. The foreign rights (also known as TRANSLATION RIGHTS) are usually sold separately.

ROYALTIES, n.: The author’s share of the cover price of a book; as these are not standardized, first-time authors generally receive a lower rate than established ones. Hardcovers, TRADE PAPER, and paperbacks usually yield different rates of royalties for the author. Often, contracts will specify that the author’s percentage rises with the number of books sold (e.g., 10% for the first 10,000 copies, 12.5 for the second 10,000…). The PUBLICATION CONTRACT will specify these rates, as well as the rates for serialization rights, etc.

SASE, n.: Acronym for Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope. What you should send with EVERY submission to an agent. Use actual stamps, rather than metered postage.

SELF-PUBLISHING, v.: When the author pays for every aspect of publication, handles distribution herself, and keeps all of the profits. Often confused — erroneously — with SUBSIDY PUBLISHING. A risky venture, but occasionally very lucrative. (Kevin Trudeau’s controversial NATURAL CURES ‘THEY’ DON’T WANT YOU TO KNOW ABOUT, for instance, has been immensely profitable, but then, he had an immense promotional budget that permitted lengthy infomercials.) A big caveat, however: most newspapers and periodicals have hard-and-fast rules that prevent self-published books from being reviewed.

SELLING POINT, n.: Any attribute that makes you and your book stand out from the mass of other books. Too many writers assume that their books should be published simply because they have written them. To a publishing professional, the question is not so much WHETHER a particular book should be published as “WHY should I publish it?” The selling points form the answer to this question. I have discussed selling points within the context of my earlier postings on how to write a book proposal, but if you missed that, I shall be writing about how to determine what your book’s selling points are again soon. Same bat time, same bat channel.

I shall stop here for today – Ss are inordinately popular in the industry, so there isn’t a convenient stopping-place nearby. Remember, if you have a term you would like to see me define that I have not covered here, drop me a note via the COMMENTS function, below. Always glad to be of service.

And in the meantime, keep up the good work!

— Anne Mini

The questions to ask about your work before you send it out

Let’s assume for the moment that you have done everything I spoke about in yesterday’s post: found a sterling feedback-giver or two (and actually listened to them!), and you feel that your manuscript is good to go. Then, mirabile dictu, after an admirable query, you have been asked to send a few chapters (or even the whole book!) to your dream agent.

First, take few minutes to feel hugely, immensely, magnificently proud of yourself. It is no small achievement to have stood out in the crowd enough to be asked to send material, and don’t let your anxiety over the ultimate goals — in the short run, to get an agent; in the long run, to sell your book — convince you to under-celebrate the fact that you have reached a legitimate milestone. Dance and sing in the streets a little.

Then, get down to work. “It is time to smooth the hair,” as Emily Dickinson wrote, “and get the dimples ready.” Read every page that you are sending OUT LOUD and IN HARD COPY, to weed out any lingering errors, then sit down and ask yourself some hard questions:

(1) Am I sending what the agent asked to see, no more, no less?

A surprisingly high number of aspiring authors blow their chances by failing the first test an agent sets them: demonstrating that they know how to follow directions. I know that it is tempting, when asked to send the first 50 pages, to round it up a little, to round out the chapter.

Don’t. Leave ‘em in mid-sentence – your goal here is to make them clamor to see more.

(2) Is my manuscript in standard format?

See my earlier posting on the rules of standard format, if you’re not sure. If it’s in a fancy typeface, change it to 12-point Times, Times New Roman, or Courier immediately. Make sure that your margins are at least one inch on all sides, and double-check your slug line (the line in the header that reads AUTHOR’S LAST NAME/TITLE OF WORK/#).

Yes, these are purely cosmetic matters, and they have nothing to do with the actual quality of your writing. But if you do not use standard format, I assure you, your work will not be taken as seriously — basically, your writing will have to be twice as good to capture an agent’s attention. (The standard rejection-letter euphemism for this is “Consider taking some classes on marketing your work.”)

And think about it: would you show up for a job interview at a Fortune 500 company dressed in a clown suit? (Okay, I have to admit, if you actually would, I have a certain fondness for you already. However, you probably would not get the job.)

(3) Do I have a great opening line, or is my real killer buried a few pages in?

This may seem like an odd question, but it is my editorial experience that most good writers tend to put their zinger first lines somewhere on pages three to six. What comes before tends to be set-up or preamble.

Read your submission carefully to see if you have done this. Once you find your killer first line, reconsider what comes before it: could it go? Could the information it gives come more gradually?

(4) If I took away everything in my packet except for the first page of my submission, would the agent be desperate to learn what happens on the subsequent pages? What about if I took away everything but the first paragraph?

If the answer to both questions is not yes, you should probably perform a few revisions.

Writers know their own work so well that it sometimes becomes very hard to see it from a new reader’s perspective. Getting a reader to continue past the first few lines, and definitely past the first page, is an act of seduction, my friends. Those first few bits really have to count.

The best way to test for this is to hand the first page to someone who doesn’t know the plot of your book, have him read it, and then ask him to speculate on what comes next. If his guess is too dead-on, you might want to incorporate a bit more quirkiness into your opening.

If your reader looks puzzled and says, “I honestly have no idea where this is going,” take a good look at your opening. Does it actually fit your book?

(5) Would I buy this book, based upon these short excerpts?

This is a tough question for you to answer about your own work, but a necessary one. You’re your best writing is not in your first chapter or two, consider presenting the parts you deem best AS the first chapter. I know this sounds wacky, but you can always say later that you’ve rethought the running order of the book. Remember, both fiction and nonfiction often changes considerably after an agent takes it on – and often even more after an editor acquires the book. Your first pages as they currently stand will probably be revised at some point in the future.

And the sole purpose of your first chapter when you submit it to an agent is to get the agent to want to read more of your writing. Period. It needs to be your very best writing, even if the chapter in question will ultimately be in the middle of the book. If it sings, and you can legitimately present it as a first chapter, consider presenting it as such.

If this seems a bit draconian to you, try rearranging the chapter so that your favorite passage appears on page one. Don’t think of this page one as the opening to your long dreamt-of book. Instead, think of it as your very first opportunity to show this agent that you can write up a storm.

(6) Is there sufficient action in the first five pages, or is it mostly build-up? (Check this, even if you are writing nonfiction.) If I do not currently begin with action, could I?

It is also very common for first novels not to get going for awhile. In Britain, this is actually considered rather stylish: I keep reading acclaimed British novels where almost nothing happens for the first 50 pages! And as much as I enjoy them, I invariably shake my head and think, “This author would never be able to land an agent in the U.S.”

Remember how busy I said agents and their assistants were in my earlier postings about query letters? Guess what: they’ll still be extraordinarily busy when the time comes to read your chapters. In fact, it’s not at all uncommon for agents to reserve a new author’s manuscript to read at home, in their spare time: I think the theory here is that if they like your style enough to keep reading when they could be doing something else, you must be really talented! It means, however, that your chapters may well be competing with the agent’s children, spouse, aikido class, rottweiler, favorite TV show, and many other claims upon her attention.

So keep it exciting. In a submission, even the most literary of literary novels has to keep moving.

(7) Does the material I am sending stand alone, or would I be happier if I could be standing over the agent’s shoulder, explaining?

This is no joke: it is a serious question. If your answer was the latter, read through again: if there is so much as a parenthetical aside that you feel will not be utterly clear from what is actually said on paper, go back and clarify it.

(8) Read every syllable of your submission out loud, preferably to another person. Does it make sense? Have you left out a word here or there? (A very common mistake that computer screens render difficult to catch.) Are there logical leaps?

Aha, you thought you could get away with ignoring this sterling piece of advice when I suggested it above, didn’t you? There is no excuse for not doing this, even if the agent asked you to send your materials right away. Don’t blow your big chance on a simple error or two.

Tinker accordingly. Once you are happy with your responses to all of these questions, send it out — and see if you don’t get better responses.

Oh, and for heaven’s sake, don’t forget to take a great big marker and write REQUESTED MATERIALS on the outside of your envelope, so your marvelous submission doesn’t get tossed into the unsolicited manuscript pile for a few months. It’s a good idea, too, to mention that these are requested materials in your HUGELY POLITE cover letter that you enclose with the manuscript: “Thank you for asking to see the first three chapters of my novel…”

Always, always include a SASE — a stamped, self-addressed envelope – with enough postage (stamps, not metered) for your manuscript’s safe return, and MENTION the SASE in your cover letter. This marks you as a polite writer who will be easy to work with and a joy to help. If you want to move your reputation up into the “peachy” range, include a business-size SASE as well, to render it a snap to ask you to see the rest of the manuscript. Make it as easy as possible for them to get ahold of you to tell you that they love your book.

One last thing, another golden oldie from my broken-record collection: do not overnight your manuscript, unless you have specifically been asked to do so; priority mail, or even regular mail, is fine. You may be the next John Grisham, but honey, it is unlikely that the agent’s office is holding its collective breath, doing nothing until it receives your manuscript. Hurrying on your end will not speed their reaction time.

And since turn-around times tend to be long (a safe bet is to double what the agent tells you; call or e-mail after that, for they may have genuinely lost your manuscript), do not stop sending out queries just because you have an agent looking at your chapters or your book proposal. If the agent turns you down (perish the thought!), you will be much, much happier if you have other options already in motion.

The only circumstance under which you should NOT continue querying is if the agent has asked for an exclusive – which, incidentally, you are under no obligation to grant. However, politeness generally dictates agreement. If you do agree to an exclusive (here comes another golden oldie), specify for how long. Three weeks is ample. Then, if the agent does not get back to you within the stated time, you will be well within your rights to keep searching while she tries to free enough time from her kids, her spouse, her Rottweiler, etc. to read your submission.

And the best of luck!

Before I sign off, I’d like to thank all of you who have been sending me such wonderful, supportive messages about my memoir’s stormy publication process, both through the Comments function and (for those of you who already knew me) by e-mail. I really do appreciate it.

The saga is going to go on hiatus for a little while, however, as I’ve been asked by my publisher not to talk about it directly. So, if, for instance, something exciting happened to occur, I would perhaps have to present it as a hypothetical, if there were in some alternate universe any development that might conceivably be of interest or help to you. But for now, ix-nay on the awsuit-lay.

Keep up the good work!

— Anne Mini

So they’ve asked you to send chapters – and a request for your help

Once you have sent off a great query letter, or made a fabulous pitch at a conference, you hit the jackpot: an agent asks to see your work. And you’ve got it made, right?

Well, not necessarily, if your writing is not in apple-pie order. (And no, I don’t know where I picked up that particular homey phrase. Probably in my wayward youth, from someone like Louisa May Alcott’s Jo March or Carol Ryrie Brink’s Caddie Woodlawn. It has a 19th-century ring to it.) Just as your marketing materials should be so impeccably put together that they can travel by themselves with no excuses, even in the most literate circles, just as your title page has to be a paragon of professionalism, your initial chapters need to be in well-nigh perfect shape before you send them out.

I tremble to report this, but it is very, very common for writers to send off the first chapter or three of their novels WITHOUT EVER HAVING ANYONE ELSE READ THEM. Thus, for many writers, the agent’s feedback, which is often quite minimal, is the first time many writers EVER get an outside opinion of their work.

Or at least without having been read by anyone at all likely to be able to give an objective opinion; as I have discussed before, the feedback of your best friend, your mother, your siblings, and/or your lover (s), however charming it may be, is unlikely to yield the kind of concrete, tangible feedback every writer needs. No offense to your kith and kin, but it’s true. Even if your mother runs a major publishing house for a living, your brother is a high-flying agent, and your lover reviews major novelists regularly for THE WASHINGTON POST, they are unlikely to have the perspective necessary to give you objective feedback. Nor should they have to. It’s their job to make you feel better about yourself – or to make you feel worse about yourself, depending upon your taste in relationships and familial patterns. Ties of affection do not necessarily good readers make.

If you haven’t shown your writing to another trustworthy soul — be it through sharing it with a writers’ group, workshopping it, having it edited professionally, or asking a great reader whom you know will tell you the absolute truth — you haven’t gotten an adequate level of objective feedback. I know it seems as though I’m harping on this point, but I regularly meet aspiring writers who have sent out what they thought was beautifully-polished work to an agent without having run it by anyone else — only to be devastated to realize that the manuscript contained some very basic mistake that objective eyes would have caught easily.

At that point, trust me, wailing, “But my husband/wife/second cousin just loved it!” will not help you.

I can’t tell you what a high percentage of my clients come to me after years of following the advice of people who, while well-meaning and sharp-eyed, could only identify problems in the text, but had no idea how to fix them. I want to save you, dear readers, as much disappointment as possible. Out comes my broken record again: good writing is a necessary condition for getting published, but not sufficient alone. Good writing needs to be presented professionally, or it tends not to find a home.

And emotionally, what are you doing when you send out virgin material to a stranger who can change your life? It’s the equivalent of bypassing everyone you know in getting an opinion on your fancy new hairdo and going straight to the head of a modeling agency. Professionals have no reason to pull their punches; very often, the criticism comes back absolutely unvarnished. Even when rejection is tactful, naturally, with the stakes so high for the author, any negative criticism feels like being whacked on the head with a great big rock.

I’m trying to save you some headaches here.

But even as I write this, I know there are some ultra-shy or ultra-independent Emily Dickinson types out there who prefer to write in absolute solitude — then cast their work upon the world, to make its way as best it can on its own merits. No matter what I say, I know you hardy souls would rather be drawn and quartered than to join a writers’ group, wouldn’t you? (Despite the fact that the PNWA provides contacts for those who are interested in joining one within its geographic confines. For free, no less.) You are going to persist in deciding that you, and only you, are the best judge of when your work is finished.

And maybe you are right.

I am not saying that a writer can’t be a good judge of her own work — she can, if she has a good eye. I would be the last person to trot out that tired old axiom about killing your darlings; hands up, everyone who has attended a writers’ workshop and seen a promising piece that needed work darling-chopped into a piece of consistent mediocrity. CONSIDERING killing your pet phrases is often good advice, but for a writer with talent, the writer’s pet phrases are often genuinely the best part of the work.

However, I would argue that until you get an objective opinion, you cannot know for sure how good your own eye is — and I would suggest that it is a trifle masochistic to use your big shot at catching an agent’s attention as your litmus test for whether you are right about your own editing skills. Even if you find only one person whom you can trust to tell you the absolute truth, your writing will benefit from your bravery if you ask for honestly locally first.

Dear me, I have gotten so carried away with my topic that I shall have to defer my actual tips until tomorrow’s posting! (For those of you who haven’t been following my saga over the last 6 weeks, I am in the midst of fighting off a lawsuit against my forthcoming memoir AND have a deadline for getting a book to a publisher by the end of next week – by my birthday, as it happens. So my time is a LITTLE tight these days.)

For those of you who have been following my saga of triumph and woe, may I presume to ask a favor? This is National Banned Books Week (September 19-23); in celebration, would you consider logging on to one of the Philip K. Dick fan sites (www.philipkdickfans.com would be an admirable choice) and weighing in on the subject of the Dick estate’s continuing attempts to censor my book, A FAMILY DARKLY? It would only take a couple of minutes, and it would help both me and all future writers of memoirs. The issue here is actually very simple: is it or is it not fair to tell an author what she can and can’t write about her own life?

Normally, I would not ask, but after all, this is the week to speak up.

And if you are writing or know of other books that have been stymied at the point of publication by pernicious lawsuits, please fill me in via the Comments function, below. At the moment, I’m in a pretty good position to pass along links and resources that might be useful to silenced authors.

As always, keep up the good work! And happy National Banned Books Week!

– Anne Mini