Standard format for manuscripts

In keeping with my recent spate of passing along unpleasant truths and as I promised a few days ago — because yours truly is nothing if not a faithful keeper of promises, a trait that agents and editors tend to appreciate — I am coming back to the topic of standard manuscript format. I am going to harp upon this topic a bit, because it touches on an all-too-frequently misunderstood matter that affects the professional presentation prospects of non-fiction and fiction writers both. In fact, the misconceptions on this point run so deep that professional editors and the better-informed members of writing groups are often told quite huffily that they are wrong on the subject.

A manuscript, dearly beloved, is NOT an exact replica of a published book. It differs in many small, important ways — and to editorial eyes, these difference are screaming fire sirens about the experience level of the author.

A manuscript that apes the conventions of published books does not, contrary to popular belief, make the author look more professional, at least not to truly professional eyes. Instead, to an agent or editor, those very ostensibly expert touches brand a manuscript irrevocably as the work of an amateur.

Harsh? You bet, especially given that by definition, all first-time authors are amateurs. Yet in an environment where agents and editors receive 500 or more unsolicited submissions per week, being able to weed out the less experienced authors who do not adhere to standard format speeds up going through the mail considerably. Look on the bright side: if your manuscript is in standard format, it has already cleared the most pervasive hurdle on the way to publication.

To be absolutely honest, most of the conventions of standard format are seriously outdated. For instance, in standard format, all numbers under 100 are written out in full. The original reason for this was simple: to prevent the typesetter from making a mistake; in longhand, a 3 can look a great deal like an 8, but a three is pretty hard to mistake for an eight. Similarly, all dashes in manuscripts should be doubled, to prevent the typesetter from mistaking them for hyphens. Now that manuscripts are transmitted whole and entire via computer program, the risk of this type of mistake is significantly lower, yet the traditions of standard format remain intact.

I find it helps to think of the rigors of standard format as the manners of the publishing world. You would not stumble into a group of foreigners whom you wanted to impress and deliberately hurt their sensibilities by refusing to comply with their rituals, would you? If you met the Queen of England, would you seize the opportunity to insult her taste in hats, or would you curtsey and murmur a few polite words, like everyone else in the receiving line?

I imagine that your mother would like think that she brought you up well enough to choose the latter. Pet the corgis, and get out of the palace with your head on straight.

Agents and editors may not have the power to chop off your head if you displease them, but they do have the authority to pronounce your manuscript dead on arrival. So the prudent course for those new to the publishing world is to learn its manners and traditions. Honoring these traditions may not guarantee your work a sympathetic reading – but on a bad day, when an agent is trying to plow through her seventieth submission in an hour, you bet your boots that deviations from standard format provide an easy excuse to toss that manuscript aside and move onto the next.

Sorry, I don’t make the rules. But here they are:

All manuscripts must be typed and double-spaced, with at least one-inch margins on all sides of the page. No exceptions.

All manuscripts are printed on ONE side of the page.

Yes, this is wasteful of paper. Deal with it.

The text should be left justified ONLY.

Yes, books feature text that runs in straight vertical lines along the margins, and yes, your word processing program will replicate that. But don’t: the straight margin should be the left one.

The typeface should be 12-point, preferably in Times, Times New Roman, or Courier. (If you write screenplays, you may only use Courier.)

There is a very good reason for utilizing a standardized font: in Times or Times New Roman, one double-spaced page is 250 words, rendering word count estimation easy.

No matter how cool your desired typeface looks, or how great the title page looks with 14-point type, keep the entire manuscript in the same font and typeface.

Even if the manuscript features an extensive correspondence in translated Elvish. If it’s in English, it should be in a standard typeface.

Words in foreign languages should be italicized.

Every page in the manuscript should be numbered.

Each page contains a standard slug line in the header, listing AUTHOR’S LAST NAME/ABBREVIATED TITLE/PAGE #.

Thus the third page of my memoir manuscript reads: MINI/A FAMILY DARKLY/3.

The first page of a chapter should begin a third of the way down the page.

That’s twelve single-spaced lines, incidentally.

The beginning of each paragraph should be indented five spaces.

Yes, I know that published books often begin chapters and sections without indentation. Trust me, that was the editor’s choice, not the author’s. Even if every chapter ever printed by your favorite author has used this device, you will not be in a position to explain that to an agent or editor until after he has already noted that your work is not professionally presented.

All numbers under 100 should be written out in full: twenty-five, not 25.

Dashes should be doubled -— hyphens are single, as in self-congratulatory.

Yes, I know that your word processing program will automatically change a doubled dash to a single one. Change it back.

Dashes should have spaces at each end —- rather than—like this.

Yes, yes, I know: books no longer preserve these spaces, for reasons of printing economy. But standard format is invariable upon this point.

The use of ANY brand name should be accompanied by the trademark symbol, as in Kleenex™.

Yes, I know you’ve never seen this in a finished book – that’s because the legal department at some publishing house has meticulously gone through the text of those books with a fine-toothed comb, finding brand names so they can obtain permission from their owners to use them. Save the legal department some time: flag the words.

I can’t tell you how many editing clients and writing friends have fought me on these issues, and I must say, I think they have a point. Since publishing contracts specify that the author must provide the editor with an electronic copy of the text, why are we still writing out numbers so that the crusty old typesetter won’t accidentally misread the number?

Beats me. But we all have to do it, and it will save you time in the long run if you simply incorporate standard formatting from the first instant you sit down to write.

Again, this is yet another of those areas where you can beat yourself bloody, railing against an illogical system, or you can just accept the status quo. I vote for the latter. This is an industry that changes only very, very slowly: believe it or not, most NYC literary agencies still don’t even have an on-site computer wizard. It is not uncommon for e-mail attachments, the transition between Mac and PC, and the linked documents to appear as big, ugly mysteries to people who are otherwise very, very savvy. A polite person, a prudent person, a person who wants these people to like her and her work, will not rub their noses in the fact that you probably know more about computers than they do.

Trust me on this one: it’s a paper-based industry, and one that likes to see new authors respect its traditions. Flow with it.

I’m just the messenger, signing off now, urging you to keep up the good work!

The shape of things to come

A moment of silence, please: my editor is moving on from my publishing house. He will be a mere wistful memory long before my memoir hits bookshelves near you. In fact, in all likelihood, he’ll be gone before the book is print-ready.

“Wait a minute,” I hear you cry, insightful and empathetic creatures that you are. “Does that mean the book deal is broken?”

A fine, fine question, and one that richly deserves an answer: no. The contract is with the publishing house, not the editor — even though the author’s primary personal contact at the publishing house is the editor. In fact, other than a single rushed howdy-do with the head of the publishing house at a writers’ conference several years ago (we argued over cocktails about whether women have jowls, as I recall: he said we don’t, the dictionary and I say we do), my editor has been my ONLY contact so far with my publishing house.

Which renders his departure slightly nerve-wracking.

In practical terms, his taking a powder means that rather than a single editor’s carrying my book all the way through the publication process, I may be dealing with several. Or — and this prospect frightens me even more than being ruled by committee — none at all. Since the book is already available for presale on Amazon (at a SIGNIFICANT discount, I might add.) It is possible that as of now, it’s the marketing department’s baby.

Just so you know, I have not been singled out by the gods for special punishment: editors move around so much these days that it is not uncommon for several editors to have say over the same book. Not to mention the marketing department (who picked the title for me, but that’s the subject of a whole other blog) and money folks. Gone are the days when a single editor guided a writer’s entire career.

Now that I have broken this news to you, I hear discontented noises out there — and no wonder, if you’re one of the many who have screwed up your courage to pitch to an overworked editor at a conference. “We expend all of this energy,” I hear you murmuring, “trying to blandish a particular editor to fall in love with our books. And then, just as soon as I’ve found someone who will treat our babies with respect, she disappears, and I’m left with someone I’ve never met before? AAAAAAAAAH!”

This is not how you were told it was going to be, is it?

The writers’ world has been surprisingly slow in adjusting to the realities of the ever-changing publishing market. You can hardly throw a piece of bread at the average writers’ conference without hitting some publishing professional who will tell you that he is looking to form long-term working relationships with talented writers; you can hardly pick up any publication designed for the edification of aspiring writers without seeing a list of tips on how to target and appeal to the perfect editor for your work, one who will bring out the best in your prose, as if every editor were Maxwell Perkins.

Good writing, we have all been told a million times, will always find a home.

This view is charming, but rather dated. I think it reflects writers’ desires for editors who will cherish their work more than publishing realities. Of course, we all want an editor who will adore our every semicolon — writers tend to be shy people who take umbrage when someone tells them to hack their work apart and reconstruct it, so ideally, the editor-author relationship should be based upon implicit trust. A truly fine editor becomes steeped in her authors’ style, lives it, breathes it, loves it – and believes in it too fiercely to allow the author to get away with the kind of shortcuts, clichés, and lazinesses to which even the best of us can fall prey from time to time.

What writer worth her salt wouldn’t walk across the continent barefoot to embrace an editor like that?

While this Platonic editor was always, I’m afraid, more prevalent in authors’ imaginations than in practice, in earlier days, such symbiotic relationships were not uncommon. Thirty years ago, if a respected editor moved to another press, he often took his authors with him; once established, editor-author relationships sometimes lasted for decades. Obviously, it wasn’t always idyllic — you have only to read anything written by any member of the Algonquin Round Table about their relationships with their publishers to realize that it wasn’t all cocktails and urbane chatter — but often, the relationship was pleasingly symbiotic, the proverbial well-oiled machine, with each party playing his necessary and indispensable role in the publication process.

Nowadays, however, the process resembles one of those Rube Goldberg machines where toast is made by a squirrel eating a nut on a string, the string in turn yanking the doormat out from under the bowling ball, the bowling ball falling on the teeter-totter, sending the fat lady flying into the air…you get the picture. Now, the individual parts of the publishing machine are so autonomous that, from where the author is sitting, they sometimes seem unrelated.

Realizing this can help you market your writing more efficiently. Now, instead of an editor’s falling in love with your novel or NF book and snapping it up as his personal project, a rather large group of people, all performing different functions within the Rube Goldberg machine, need to agree that the world needs your book badly enough for them to publish it.

Here’s how it works. In order to be acquired, your work needs to appeal first to the editor, who then takes it to the editorial meeting. Everyone at the editorial meeting, however, will also have a pet project which he wants to acquire; squabbling ensues, and the competition can get pretty vicious. (I have been assured by a reliable source that a novel of mine once engendered so much controversy at an editorial meeting that a chair was thrown. The publishing house decided to pass on the book, for reasons of furniture preservation.)

Once your book has cleared this significant hurdle, it also has to be approved by the finance department, the marketing department, the legal department, and all of the other cogs in the publishing house’s machine. The input of these non-artistic entities, in case you are interested, is the primary reason that the formerly common advice to “revise and resubmit” has more or less fallen out of editorial vocabularies; editorial tastes are now not the only ones being consulted.

Thus the relative ease with which high-concept books pass through the publishing process: as my learned father used to say, complex people tend not to be popular. The same is true, alas, for books. The market appeal of MEMOIRS OF A MONKEE! can be grasped far more readily by a disparate group of people than a tender novel full of gentle symbolism about growing up in rural Washington, even if the novel’s writing deserves the Pulitzer Prize.

This structural shift is both very good and very bad for the first-time author. Good, insofar as a multiplicity of enthusiasts within the publishing house helps protect an author whose editor leaves mid-project – if your book bounces from one desk to another, the probability is much higher than in previous years that the eyes it falls under will be sympathetic. Now, once a book is acquired, it does not have a single cheerleader, but a squad complete with pom-pom girls and school administration. It’s bad, however, insofar as many more people need to fall in love with your writing, your story, your platform, your target demographics, etc. before you see a book contract.

And, as you may have noticed, it’s significantly harder for a new author to get published than it was even twenty years ago. So when an agent you’ve queried says, “Gee, I could have sold your book in the ‘80s, but now, I’ll have to pass,” she’s not just being nice. The way publishing decisions are made really has changed radically, and in ways that pose a significant disadvantage to the non-celebrity author trying to break into the biz.

If it makes you feel any better, the current environment is harder on editors, too. The average tenure of junior editors at major publishing houses is quite short, and, as those of you who read Publishers Weekly are no doubt already aware, editorial staffs are constantly being rearranged and streamlined. It’s not a job where you unpack your storage boxes before you have a corner office.

Occasionally, the editorial cast at a publishing house changes radically enough between when a book is acquired and when it is published that the cheering squad is rooting for another book. We’ve all heard horror stories about the hot new novelist who gets a big advance, only to find at the last minute that the publicity budget for his work has been shifted to another project. Believe it or not, the promotional budget is seldom specified in the book contract, so the author is very much subject to publishing house whim.

Now, all of us have a choice about how to respond to this change in publishing. We can sit around and sigh for those good old past times when writers formed lifetime working friendships with their editors, or we can eschew romanticism for the present and try to adapt ourselves to current conditions. Personally, I have only so much energy – given the choice between expending it in resentment, however well-founded, and in getting my words and ideas out before the public, my strategic sense tells me that I don’t have the luxury of sitting around and wishing I had F. Scott Fitzgerald’s editor. (Well, okay, not to sit around for more than a few minutes at a time…) I am a working writer, and it is my job to be realistic about the challenges I face.

We are traveling down an arduous road, my friends, one replete with fresh pitfalls every few feet; don’t let the tireless romantics of the conference and writers’ guide circuits convince you otherwise, or you’ll end up screaming in the night, wondering where you went wrong in a kindly world that’s eager for your work. Make your work as perfect as possible, by all means, but do be aware that the more people who are involved in the acquisition process, the less control — and even knowledge — you will have over how your book fares at even your dream publishing house.

We can all learn from the example of Louisa May Alcott, the author of that perennial YA favorite, LITTLE WOMEN, who struggled for seventeen years before she got her big break. Louisa wrote every day, mostly for ill-paying newspapers, primarily under pseudonyms, because she needed the money to support her 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 like girls much, 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.”

Now that I have depressed you all into a stupor, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

How to Write a Book Proposal, Part V: The rest of it

Here at last is the final segment of my ongoing series on how to avoid the most common pitfalls menacing the first-time NF book proposer. I have just spent the weekend running a garage sale, which is an apt metaphor for today’s set of advice: it is well worth the effort to take the time to set out your book’s wares thoughtfully and attractively. If you don’t set the sweaters and old plates out where prospective buyers can see them, but instead leave them in poorly-marked crates, buyers will have to expend a lot of energy to dig through the dross and packing material to get to your treasures.

If, however, you polish your silver vases and arrange Great-Aunt Matilda’s rhinestone jewelry where it can glint in the sun, even a prospective buyer casing your wares at a dead run will notice them. Heck, once we had our goodies displayed beautifully, one sharp-eyed woman bought our chest of drawers by the simple method of slamming on her SUV’s breaks and shouting a bid for it out the driver’s side window. Marketing is marketing.

Agents and editors, alas, tend not to have the time to dig through the boxes at the back of your garage, intellectually speaking — you need to make sure your book’s top selling points are not buried in the middle of 27 pages of exposition. Even if your book is the best marketing idea since THE PETER PRINCIPLE, if the presentation is not competent and professional (not synonyms, in this instance), chances are the ultra-fast skim most proposals are given will not make the market potential so obvious to you leap out at an editor.

I bring this up now, because by the time most newbie proposers reach table of contents section of the book proposal, they are so exhausted that they put the barest minimum effort into it. Please don’t make the pervasive mistake of simply reproducing the table of contents you expect to see in the finished book, where only the titles of each chapter are listed, with perhaps some impression of corresponding page numbers. All such a submission tells an agent or an editor is whether you are talented at coming up with chapter titles, which misses the point of this section: your goal here is to give a chapter-by-chapter overview of what will be in the finished book.

The key phrase to keep in mind here is ANNOTATED table of contents. Each chapter heading should be accompanied by a 2 – 3 sentence description of what will be in that chapter. Keep it concise, but do provide enough detail that a reader can see how one chapter’s argument leads naturally to the next. Yes, you will have already presented the overall argument in the overview section, but here you are showing what plank of your platform, so to speak, falls in each chapter.

In accordance with the advice of my marvelous agent, I am honor-bound to add here: don’t go to town. Limit yourself to a couple of sentences per chapter, and try not to have the whole table of contents run longer than two pages.

The next piece of the book proposal is the sample chapter (s). The rule here is simple: it should be absolutely your best writing, polished to the nines. If the chapter is less than about 20 pages, consider submitting a second sample chapter as well.

Contrary to popular belief, the chapter submitted need not be Chapter 1 – and that should come as a relief to you. In most NF books, the first chapter carries the heavy burden of summarizing the rest of the book, and thus is often the most difficult to write. If you have an interior chapter that is already in apple-pie order, include that instead. Don’t bother to provide an explanation for why you chose that chapter – everyone concerned will understand that you felt it was your best work.

In selecting your sample chapter, bear in mind that the object here is to show that you can execute in elegant, readable prose the promises you made in the overview and annotated table of contents – and do so in a style that will appeal to the target market you have identified. If your favorite chapter does not meet ALL of these criteria, consider choosing another that does.

And please, please promise me that the chapter will be in standard manuscript format, in the same typeface as the rest of the book proposal. No fancy fonts, no funky spacing, nothing that will make your work seem anything but rock-solid professional. (For those of you not familiar with precisely how standard manuscript format differs from the format one sees printed in books, hang onto your proposal for a few more days. I’ll do a write-up on standard format later.)

After your chapter, include an author bio. Basically, this is a slightly longer version of the biographical blurb we’ve all seen on the back inside dust jacket of hardcover books. No need to start with your birth or go into superlative detail — your bio should be 250 words, max, so you will only have room for the high points.

I know that it may seem a trifle redundant to include in the book proposal, given that you will have just written extensively in the overview about who you are and why you should be hired to write this book, but you need to include a one-page summary of your life. This isn’t like P.E., where you could fake massive cramps to get out of playing volleyball — yes, this is an annoying requirement, but there’s no getting out of it. Sorry.

If you prefer, you may write a single-spaced half-page, and include an author photo on the top third of the page. (The expense of this is less massive than it sounds: a good color copier will enable you to reproduce the photo page en masse for the 20 or so copies of your book proposal that your agent will eventually want you to produce.) I would highly recommend this route if you have a nifty recent photo of yourself engaged in an activity related to the topic of the book: if you are writing about firefighting, by all means let the photo show you in a firefighter’s uniform or surrounded by flames.

The tone of the bio should echo the tone of the book, if possible – not all bios are deadly serious. Mention in the last sentence what your next project is (you should ALWAYS say you are working on your next book; it brands you as a professional writer, not a one-shot author.)

In our bio, make sure to include your educational background, any awards won (ever, for anything), what you do for a living, etc., even if you think these aspects are neither representative of who you are as a writer or even remotely relevant to your topic. Don’t be afraid you will sound pompous if you list your credentials at length here — potentially, they are all selling points. Personally, like many graduates of Ivy League colleges, I tend not to mention in casual conversation where I went to school: as the old Radcliffe joke goes, the fastest way to get rid of a lecherous man in a bar is to tell him you went to Harvard. But is it prominent in my bio? You bet.

Also prominent in my bio is the fact that I grew up on the top floor of a Napa Valley winery, literally in the middle of a vineyard. Zinfandel, to be precise. Is that relevant to my book? Only marginally, but it is undeniably memorable — and part of the object of the bio game is to make darned sure that some aspect of your personality sticks firmly in the mind of everyone who reads it. I’m pragmatic: I don’t mind editors referring to me as the winery girl, as long as they are passing my proposal from hand to hand while they are doing it.

Make yourself sound interesting; you wouldn’t believe how dull and businesslike most bios are. If you have a wacky hobby, definitely mention it. Part of the point of the bio is let agents and editors know that you are a fascinating person with whom they might like to have a conversation in future. Remember, you are not just marketing the book you are proposing; you are marketing yourself as a contract employee of the publishing house.

“Yeah, right,” I can hear you scoffing. “Like they’re interested in me as a human being.

Bite your tongue, oh ye of little faith, for I have an anecdote to share. The bio in my book proposal presented me, if I do say so myself, as a pretty darned interesting human being. I am one of the world’s leading authorities on a minor political theorist, for instance, a fact appreciated by about five worthy souls scattered around the planet, and I once spent a summer running away from wild animals whilst researching for an impecunious travel guide. Oh, and I mentioned that I was working on my next book, a humorous novel about the adult lives of kids who had grown up on a hippie commune, because I went through grammar school with quite a few commune kids.

None of this had even the vaguest relationship with my memoir, which is about my relationship with a science fiction writer in my youth. Scarcely a grapevine mentioned. Yet when my agent was shopping my proposal around, an editor who passed on my memoir called her up and asked to see my novel. Why? Because, the editor said, she had liked the voice in my sample chapter –and my bio had intrigued her.

I just mention.

At the end of your proposal, include a sampling of your clippings, if you have any. If you have ever written anything for a magazine, especially a nationally-distributed one, photocopy it and include it here, even if the topic and tone have absolutely nothing to do with the proposed book. Ditto with any credited newspaper articles, short stories, and book excerpts.

This is a stumbling block for a lot of new authors, and rightly so. If your book is about thermonuclear war and your most recent clipping is about rose husbandry, it may seem disproportionate. After all, having written a few newspaper or magazine articles doesn’t necessarily mean that you can write a book, any more than having written a good short story means that you can instantly write the Great American Novel. However, including clippings tells an editor two things: you can meet a deadline, and someone else has taken a chance on you before (if you have been trying to find an agent for any length of time, you may already have noticed that nobody in the publishing industry likes to be the first person to recognize a new author’s work — but they love being the second).

If you don’t have any clippings, don’t worry about it. A good proposal will speak for itself. But you might want to consider, for the sake of your future projects, volunteering to write a book review or two for your community paper, or offering to write an article gratis on some item of local interest, so you have clippings later on. Even a small venue is worthwhile, and it doesn’t matter a particle whether you were paid to write the piece in question: what matters is that it saw print.

Are you rolling with laughter yet at the picture of me trying to scrabble all of this together in under three weeks? I believe I speak for my family, my friends, my neighbors, and my pets when I say: for everybody’s sake, take a little more time.

One last thing: proposals are not bound in any way, so do not stick yours in the kind of three-hole punched folder you used for reports in high school. Use a folder with pockets, and nestle your work inside. And make sure the folder is either black (the safest) or dark blue.

Yes, your work will stand out more on a cluttered desk if it is in a tiger-striped magenta and silver folder. But in the conservative publishing industry, which equates standardized presentation with professionalism, standing out in that way is a drawback. Believe it or not, a non-standard proposal folder will seldom even get opened.

Please feel free to ask me follow-up questions about any of this, via the COMMENTS feature. And keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

How to Write a Book Proposal, Part III: The Marketing Plan

I have already gone through the overview and the target market in previous postings. Now on to the marketing plan, the part of the book proposal that both strikes the greatest fear into the hearts of first-time proposers, as well as the part that most often gets a cursory treatment. Agents and editors see a LOT of rather lame marketing plans, ones that make it absolutely clear that the author deeply resents having to do this vital research at all.

In practical terms, this is a mistake, because today, even a very enthusiastic reception from an editor and a big advance do not necessarily equal a publisher’s commitment to promote a book. Most potential authors still assume that their publishing houses will set up personal appearances and readings for them. Many small houses still do, but nowadays, most large houses only set up tours for their top sellers. So you need to demonstrate that you are perfectly capable of marketing this book yourself, if they cannot spare you any publicity resources.

So what is a marketing plan? At its most basic level, it is a few pages that explain how the target audience of readers could be reached. For most first-time proposers, this section is largely guesswork, but you need to do it anyway. Don’t think of it as yet another instance of telling publishing professionals how to do what they already do so well: think of it as your single best opportunity to demonstrate to prospective agents and editors how VERY committed you are to this project.

The most direct way to demonstrate that commitment is to fill your marketing plan with activities that YOU intend to perform just before and just after the book comes out. Yes, you want the publisher to book you into speaking engagements and book signings, but what will you do on your own? Editors love writers who will commit to spending serious time on book promotion. Are you a member of any large organizations that might allow you to send promotional postcards to their mailing lists, or allow you to write a piece on your topic in their newsletters? Are there magazines that you could query with articles broken out of book chapters? If so, which chapters? Does your college alumni magazine publish book reviews? Remember, every clipping counts toward sales, in the long run.

Some standard means that don’t get mentioned much in proposals are:

• — Contacting regional independent bookstores yourself to arrange readings and signings.

• — Giving seminars at regional writers’ conferences or other gatherings devoted to either writing or your subject matter.

• — Creating a column for a magazine or newspaper (tell them this is already in the works; it sounds better). Even if you do this gratis, it’s good promotion.

• — Meeting with book groups to discuss your work.

• — Establishing a website to promote your work.

• — Creating a professional press kit and sending it to potentially interested news sources.

Make sure that in addition to standard marketing techniques (such as author readings and signings), you list at least a couple of means of reaching your target group specifically. Mention any regional or national groups to which members of your demographic belong. If you are pushing a book on bass fishing, will you speak at organizations of bass fisherfolk? Name these organizations, and say how many members they have. Will you haunt independent bookstores, accosting anyone who smells of fish? Tote copies of your opus to fishing holes, and give away free flies with every copy?

Think broadly and creatively. Don’t be afraid to be a little wacky; ideally, you would like your dream editor to chuckle while reading this section, murmuring, “Wow, that’s a great idea.”
Do be aware that the publishing house will actually expect you to perform what you promise here, however, and whatever you do, don’t make the common rookie mistake of limiting your marketing plan to pointing out to publishers the astonishing fact that bookstores occasionally allow authors to give readings. I promise you, they are already aware of that phenomenon. Tell them something they don’t already know, such as the fact that you have been a teacher for the past 26 years, so you have a wealth of public speaking experience, or that you belong to an organization where the members lunch together every Thursday nationwide, listening to speakers like you.

Be creative: what do you have to offer as a marketer? This is the place to mention, for instance, if you have given a magnificently successful reading at one of the PNWA’s The Word Is Out events. (Plug, plug.) You’d be astonished at how few prospective authors are bold enough to read their work in public – it’s invaluable experience that will serve you well at book signings down the road.

If you feel that this section looks a little thin, pull out the stops and tell them you are willing to hire a professional publicist yourself, if necessary. This is becoming a more common practice than you may think. And even if you ultimately decide not to hire a professional, remember, paying a high school student to stuff envelopes for you on a Saturday is technically hiring promotional help, if push comes to shove.

Tomorrow, we move on the comparative market analysis. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

How to write a book proposal, part II: identifying your target audience

Okay, today I have a fan trained in the direction of my feverish brow, my feet up on a big block of ice, and a bevy of maidens singing softly in the background, to calm my mind as I recall the hectic proposal-writing process of last summer. Today, I am going to talk about the second part of the book proposal: a discussion of whom you expect to buy your book and why.

It is very, very common for book proposals to skip this step entirely, moving directly from the overview to the marketing plan. In fact, a significant minority of books and articles out there on how to write a proposal either advise limiting this information to a line or two in the marketing section, or ignore the issue entirely. If an idea is good enough, everyone will want to buy the book, right? No need to descend to the sordid mention of submarkets and demographics.

Certainly, the proposal is less work if you omit this section, and it’s definitely easier on the writer’s ego not to wonder about who is going to buy the book in the future. Let’s face it, quite a lot of us writers truly want to believe that there are charming people out there who will rush out to buy a book simply because we have written it. I’ve met many an aspiring writer who has actually become angry when I asked who their target market was, as though the very question implied that their work has something less than universal appeal, or as if pausing to consider market forces for even an instant somehow compromises that quality of the writing as Art.

Let me let you in on a secret: this is not a question that troubles career writers. I have literally never met a successfully published writer of either fiction or nonfiction who didn’t have an awfully good grasp on who buys her work and why. Marketing a book is simply too hard for a prudent person to leave to random, uniformed chance.

And, frankly, to professional eyes, the omission of a specific section on the target audience can look like fear that there might not BE an audience for the proposed book; agents and editors tend not to be too impressed by prospective writers who haven’t done their homework. Even the artiest editor, even the least worldly agent keeps a very close eye on market demographics. This is just common sense: otherwise, they would go out of business rather quickly.

If you do not identify the target market, your agent will have to, in order to sell the book to the editor, just as the editor will have to explain your book’s market appeal at editorial and sales meetings prior to buying it. If you have given a lucid, well-researched presentation of your target market in your proposal, both the agent’s and editor’s job become substantially easier.

So don’t listen to the seductive calls of self-love, laziness, or fear: there are very good reasons to take some time to picture the people who will be reading your book. Think of it as an act of respect to your reader: how will your book improve this reader’s life? Will it add pleasure, knowledge, practical tips on how to do something? The target audience section is the place to demonstrate how the book will accomplish this.

But first, you will need to identify your target reader. Oftentimes, it is someone very like the writer herself: in a pinch, you can always identify your own demographic, or the demographics that apply to the people in your case studies.

Allow me to use my own book as a practical example. For my memoir about my adolescent relationship with SF author Philip K. Dick, it was significant that there were 44,800 websites devoted to him and his work, and that between 5 and 12% of the U.S. population suffers from agoraphobia, as Philip did: naturally, these startling statistics made it into my book proposal. However, it is also significant that I am a Gen Xer: there are 47 million Americans in my age group, 40% of whom have divorced parents. Obviously, not all of them will be interested in Philip’s work, but almost 19 million people in my demographic have watched their parents deal with their exes. Since my memoir deals in part with the unusually cordial post-divorce relationship between Philip and my mother, I could legitimately identify these people as potentially interested readers.

Do include statistics if you possibly can, just in case your target agent and editor haven’t done a book on your subject recently. Yes, I know: you’re a writer, not a demographer. However, the average agent or editor isn’t a demographer, either; you do not want to run the risk that an uninformed guess at an editorial meeting will underestimate your audience. You’re better off telling stating the facts outright, so the dream editor for your bass fishing opus can say to her colleagues, “Wow! Who knew there were that many people reading books whilst standing thigh-deep in rivers?”

If you can’t find the statistical information you need on the Internet, most large-city public libraries have a research librarian who can tell you where to start looking. Be very polite to this person: she may well help you so much that you will want to name your first child after her.

When you are hunting up your statistics, give some thought to not merely the ideal reader, who is already out there buying books on your topic, but also the more casual reader, whose interests may abut your topic. While my memoir is not primarily about mourning, it does discuss several important deaths of people close to me that occurred during my adolescence. By dint of doing a bit of research, I learned that in 2004, 8 million people in the US suffered deaths in the immediate family; of those, 400,000 of the survivors were under the age of 25. Before they are old enough to vote, more than 2% of Americans have lost at least one parent. Didn’t these people have life experience that might lead them to be interested in my book?

Keep brainstorming until you come up with several categories of reader. Even if your book is primarily geared to a genuinely huge demographic (the kind politicians target, such as soccer moms or NASCAR dads), including a few smaller groups in your target market discussion will demonstrate that you have given the matter thoughtful consideration. Quite simply, it will make your proposal look more professional than those that identify a single demographic group.

Once you have identified a few market segments, you will need to show many of these fine people are there out there, and how they may best be reached. If there has been a major bestseller that targeted any of your target markets, mention its sales here.

Yes, if you are writing on a common topic, pretty much any editor who specializes in the type of book you want to produce will have a clearer idea than you do of how many sales a particular bestseller racked up. However, part of the point of the book proposal is to demonstrate to potential agents and editors that YOU have taken the time to do your homework – and thus are not going into the book-writing process without some idea of how the industry works. You, by implication, will be a well-informed joy to work with throughout the whole process.

(And yes, Virginia, part of the way the industry works is that people tell one another things everyone concerned already knows.)

Tomorrow, I shall delve into that bugbear of proposers everywhere, the marketing plan, but for now, my ice is melting. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

— Anne Mini

Doing your homework

I received an excellent question from a blog reader the other day:

I’d be interested in how you went about doing your research for any background, setting for your work. I’ve had some essays published on family stories and in addition to talking to family members (sometimes the stories are different POV), I made sure that any historical or political and culture matters were also correct. What do you do?

First, good for you for being brave enough to write up your versions of your family stories. Too many of us think of family history as set in stone, doubtless due to the frequent repetition of family lore around the holiday dinner table. Sometimes, it feels as though Uncle Ernie has told the story of how he got his first job as a longshoreman so many times that everyone in North America must have heard it by now, right?

Actually, family stories are far more ephemeral than even the most fleeting joke bouncing its way via e-mail from workstation to workstation. At least the jokes are written down. Uncle Ernie may well have told that same story every day for the last thirty years, but the very fact that he has told it so often probably means that no one in the family has ever taken the time to write it. Thus, when Uncle Ernie is no longer able to tell it, the story may well pass out of family lore.

If you are hesitating about writing about your family, consider this: some day, it may be the only record left. Those telling little details of yesteryear may survive in your work alone.

Even academics now recognize that there is distinct historical value in personal and familial historical accounts. It has gone out of fashion to thank Marxists for anything, but in the 1960s, a group of Marxist social historians revolutionized the way scholars studied history: instead of concentrating upon monarchs, presidents, and huge social and economic movements, they started paying attention to how the ordinary person lived. Before, the day-to-day details were left to newspapers and novels to record, but now, your Uncle Ernie’s timeworn story might be just the piece of oral history evidence that allows a social historian to piece together the early days of the longshore union.

My questioner is already doing the most important thing: listening to her family members. Even if you have heard any given family anecdote five hundred times before, it is worth asking to hear it again —- and, taking a page from the new social historian’s rulebook, asking pertinent questions.
It is also worth asking other members of the family and family friends to give their renditions of the story; you may be surprised at how different Aunt Rose’s view of events actually was.

To give those of you new to interviewing fair warning: Uncle Ernie may be thrilled at first that you are so interested in his life story, but he may well appreciate it less when you interrupt the flow of his story to ask follow-up questions. He may think you are doubting his word, especially when he learns you have also asked Aunt Rose for her version.

Here again, use the social historian’s methods, and treat your interview subject with care, for an angry Uncle Ernie may not only refuse to talk to you again, but also take some steps to dissuade Aunt Rose. Once the rumor is afoot in your family that you are going around shaking closets to dislodge well-concealed ghosts, you may find it rather hard to get the people you want to interview to talk to you, out of fear of offending the complaining relative. Tread with care.

The simplest way to sidestep issues of belief is to allow Uncle Ernie to tell the story uninterrupted once, making appreciative noises and taking copious notes on questions you would like to ask. Then tell him, “I love this story, but I’m going to be writing it for people who have never met you. I want to make sure that I capture your wonderful wit/incisive analysis/technique for loading boxes onto a ship accurately. Do you mind if I ask a bunch of very nit-picky questions?”

Few interviewees will respond with hostility to being told they are fascinating, but if Uncle Ernie says no, let it drop. Pay him the courtesy of asking if you can talk to him again later, even if you think he has told you every detail of his life in excruciating detail. Remember, by providing you with background information for your writing, he is doing you a favor. Respond accordingly, and make it clear that you are enjoying listening to him.

It would also be polite to ask him to recommend any other family members or old cronies who might be able to tell you more stories about the period or the event. Volunteer to take him to visit an old coworker he hasn’t seen since 1962, or for a walk along his old waterfront stomping grounds, so he can tell you stories as familiar environments prompt his memory. The more you can make your interviewee your partner in the research process, rather than merely a passive subject for your pen, the less likely you are to provoke a negative reaction to your snoopiness.

Try grouping together different combinations of speakers —- and make sure you give each interviewee an opportunity to speak when no one else is listening but you. Aunt Rose may well have kept her opinions about certain aspects of the event you are researching to herself for the last fifty years; she probably will not just blurt out her reserved views in front of others.

If your interviewees will allow it, consider tape-recording these conversations. This may seem a tad professional for an informal family chat, but believe me, you will be happier if you do not rely upon your memory or your notes alone. First, you may not remember accurately: the shock of ever-quiet Aunt Rose’s revelation that she was a steamy chanteuse in a speakeasy may well throw your listening skills for a loop.

Second, the most important detail revealed in any given conversation may not be immediately apparent. With a recording, you can always go back through the conversation again.

Third, and most important for the sake of intra-family tranquility, you will have an easy, non-judgmental way to defend yourself if Aunt Rose later denies ever having told you about her days as a gangster’s moll. (Contrary to a certain ilk of TV movie may have led us to expect, interesting people of the past were not necessarily all that prone to meticulously documenting every last aspect of their exploits, tucking the evidence away for decades until some enterprising relative stumbles upon it hidden just behind some everyday object.)

Before you launch on your interviews, it is a good idea to read up on the period your writing will cover, both for background and so you can ask intelligent questions. Please don’t assume that you already know, even if the period was relatively recent. Pop culture has a way of distorting the life of the times.

You know how annoying it is when a movie about a period you know well fills the screen with nothing but clichés? As someone who was a teenager in the 1980s, it drives me nuts when crowd scenes set then (particularly when those scenes are set in high schools) will show Izod-shirted preppies chatting with guys with safety pins through their noses and mohawks: those two groups would have studiously avoided each other. Similarly, most films about the 1950s feature the same ten songs and every woman decked out in poodle skirts or Chanel couture; all to often, films purporting to depict Vietnam protests depict Abbie Hoffman arm-in-arm with Timothy Leary and flanked by Black Panthers, feminists, and, if it’s an Oliver Stone film, a few pointlessly topless young women to signify bacchanalia. It is not how people who were there remember it.

It is equally annoying to someone being interviewed about his experiences when the interviewer’s notions of what life was like is primarily based upon the big movements and fads. Not everyone who lived in the 1920s had a raccoon coat, Charlestoned, or got drunk with Scott Fitzgerald; do be sensitive about implying that you interview subject should have. Traditionally, most fashions and the bulk of the fads have been beyond the financial reach of most people: I, for one, could not have afforded a pet rock when those were the rage.

Try to keep in mind that life during any period of history was complex, hard to reduce to universally-shared experiences. Be open to stories that buck the prevailing views. Grace Metalious’ PEYTON PLACE (1956) and William S. Burroughs’ NAKED LUNCH (1959) were written within a few years of each other, but no one could argue that they showed the same aspects of the 1950s.

My point is, your sense of any period will be better if you do not rely upon a single source to learn about it. Generally speaking, I would advise reading four or five history books and/or well-researched novels written during the period you are writing about (not just books SET in that period) for background. My long-ago academic training was as a political scientist, though, so my instinct is to research to the hilt. If you want to be really thorough, read books from the period with opposite political slants —- what each side considered appalling should provide you with a wealth of socio-political detail. Ask Aunt Rose and Uncle Ernie what their favorite books were back then, and read them.

Of course, you should always check facts, particularly dates, which often become confused in the memory. A good history textbook or encyclopedia will help you here. I know many people swear that the Internet is the best and fastest way to gain information, but I would advise against relying upon it exclusively. There are very few controls, and even fewer truth monitors, governing who can post what. You do not know if the person who posted that very informative timeline on Abraham Lincoln (born 1242, died 1968?) was a genuinely credible history buff or someone with an oddly historically-based sense of humor. Double-check the facts, and keep records on where you obtained pertinent information.

If you are looking to check an obscure fact or are having trouble confirming a date, call your public library and ask the reference librarian for research guidance. The Seattle Public Library boasts a terrific Quick Information Line, where the nice operator will either look up odd facts for you or refer you to someone who can. I love this service —- when I was writing a novel about a scholar who specialized in Eastern European studies, the Quick Information people found me (for free) an expert who happily talked to me for half an hour about common linguistic mistakes made by people in the early stages of learning Latvian, Lithuanian, and Estonian. It would have taken me months to find comparable information on my own —- but there was my beloved city, stepping up to provide me with exactly what I needed.

This may seem like an awful lot of work for the sake of a few family anecdotes, but doing solid background research will help elevate your writing from the all-too-common temporal truisms and into the realm of the real. To a writer, there can be a more important praise from someone who lived through the incident she’s written than, “Oh, my, that feels so true!”

Thanks for the great question —- and keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

The great leap of faith… and some practical advice on writing a synopsis

After I pulled together a winning entry for a contest within the course of a single working day, a number of writing friends asked me, in tones raging from outrage to wonder, some version of “How the hell did you pull THAT off?” Two matters seemed to strike these querants especially: how did I win a prize for a book when all I had written was a chapter, and how did I manage to create a synopsis – that legendary bugbear of writers everywhere – without agonizing over it for weeks?

Allow me to address the book vs. entry issue first. It is a peculiarity of literary contests that the entry requirements for NF books and novels tend to specify short page limits, sometimes even shorter than the requirements for the short-story entries. Often, only a chapter or 10-25 pages carry the burden of representing the entire work.

While this is especially frustrating to novelists – who, after all, are certainly entitled to stretch a story out, there is an excellent practical reason to limit the length of the entries: in any large contest, literally thousands of hours are devoted to the reading all the entries. The more pages the rules allow, the more reading time is required.

To stick close to home, the PNWA’s fine volunteers thoughtfully read and comment upon hundreds of entries every year, bless their warm and furry hearts; there is no way that they would have time to plow through that many full manuscripts. The entry deadline for next year’s contest would need to be ten minutes after the winners of this year’s contest were announced.

You do the math: at least two judges have to read every entry in the first round alone, every additional page the guidelines allow raises the cost in volunteer-hours (or in some contests, the paid staff hours) of hosting a contest. Not to mention the hours put in by the section chairs, who read the entries AND the extensive commentary by the first-round judges, or the judges of each category, who read the finalists’ entries, the first-round judges’ commentary, and the section chair’s commentary.

That’s thousands of reader-hours devoted to your entries, my friends. (In case you didn’t know, in the PNWA contest, the final judges of each category tend to be drawn from the pool of editors and agents attending the conference each year – so the finalists get a thoroughly professional final evaluation.)

While coordinating all of this effort has left many a torn-out hair on many conference-organizer’s office floor, from the entrants’ perspective, there is a definite upside to the need to limit the length of entries. In all my years of entering contests, applying for residencies, and assisting my editing clients to do the same, I have never ONCE seen an application that asked point-blank if the book in question were actually finished.

You might want to consider jumping through this loophole, if you are halfway through a book whose early chapters really sing. There is often half a year or more between contest entry deadlines and when the winners are announced – if you are proud of your opening chapters, and there is the remotest chance you will be finished by the awards ceremony, I say go for it.

Especially if you are a novelist. As you probably already know, if you go the normal fiction route, your fiction needs to be 100% complete and, if possible, print-ready before you can legitimately query an agent, but if you win a major award, you’re a Promising Young Talent (whether you are actually young or not). If you are completely honest with the agents who approach you after you win — NEVER say you have completed a work that you haven’t; this is a business that operates on tight deadlines – you could end up signing with the agent of your dreams BEFORE you finish your magnum opus.

Or, if taking such a large leap of faith rubs your risk-averse soul the wrong way, you can learn from my experience, and consider writing your marketing materials BEFORE you get into writing the meat of the book. Then, when the magic moment arrives when you feel ready to launch your manuscript on its maiden voyage, you will not suddenly find yourself in the annoying position of having to summarize the work you have just completed – at exactly the moment when you are most aware of your invention’s startling complexity. All too often, writers become frustrated at this crucial moment, and just throw together a query letter, a pitch, and a synopsis in a fatal rush, unsure of what they are doing, and dash their work off to agents.

Trust me, if you listen to any agent talk for more than a couple of minutes about the 500-800 queries he or she receives per week, one moral will come through loud and clear: having a terrific manuscript is not enough to land an agent, for the very simple reason that the vast majority of manuscripts are rejected long before they are ever seen by anyone in an agency. The problem that leads to most first-round rejections is a lack of professionalism in the query letter and synopsis.

These are marketing materials, and should be taken as seriously as anything else you write. Take some time to make them gorgeous; Miss America may be beautiful au naturale, for all any of us know, but you can bet your last pair of socks that at even the earliest stage of going for the title, she takes the time to put on her makeup with care.

But maybe you are a writer in the other camp, one of the many who agonize for months or even years over getting your marketing materials letter-perfect. Good for you for being well-informed about the vast importance of these seemingly cursory summaries of your work to your eventual success. For you, writing at least the rough draft of your materials early in the creation process makes even more sense; you’ll have more time to tweak later on, and in the long run, if you multi-task, your work will hit the agent market faster.

What are the advantages to creating the synopsis in advance? Synopses, like pitches, are often easier to write for a book that has not yet come to life. At the beginning of the writing process, it is easy to be succinct: there are not plot details and marvelous twists to get in the way of talking about the premise.

Everyone who has ever sighed in response to the ubiquitous question, “Gee, what is your book about?” knows this to be true. I sympathize with that telling sigh, truly I do: yes, compression is a marketing necessity, but frankly, it’s a little insulting to be expected to smash multi-layered complexity into just a few pages of text, or sacre bleu! the much-dreaded three-sentence pitch, isn’t it?

If you resent this necessity for brevity, you are not alone. I met a marvelous writer at a conference in New Orleans last year; naturally, as conference etiquette demands, I asked her over crawfish etouffée what her first novel was about.

Forty-three minutes and two courses later, she came to the last scene.

“That sounds like a great novel,” I said, waving away a waiter bent upon stuffing me with cream sauces until I burst. “And for a change, an easy one to pitch: two women, misfits by personality and disability within their own families and communities, use their unlikely friendship to forge new bonds of identity in a lonely world.”

The author stared at me, as round-eyed as if I had just sprouted a second head. “How did you do that? I’ve been trying to come up with a one-sentence summary for two years!”

Of course it was easier for me than for her: I have years of experience crafting pitches; it’s a learned skill. Still more importantly, I did not know the subtle character nuances that filled her pages. I could have no knowledge of how she had woven perspective with perspective in order to tease the reader into coming to know the situation fully. I was not yet aware of the complex ways in which she made language dance. All I knew was the premise and the plot – which put me in an ideal position to come up with a pithy, ready-for-the-conference-floor pitch.

This is why, I explained to her, I always write the pitch before I write the piece. Less distracting that way. You can always tweak it down the road, but why not get the basic constituent parts on paper first, while the plot elements are still painted in broad strokes in your head?

Ditto for synopses. Naturally, they will evolve as the book develops and the plot thickens in writing, but I’ve never known a writer who could not easily give a one-page synopsis of her book when she was two weeks into writing it – and have seldom known the same author to be able to do so without agony a year later. You can always change the synopsis later on, but for a concise summary of the major themes of the book, I think you’re better off writing it well in advance.

In the unlikely event that I have been too subtle about my views in earlier postings, I am a great fan of anything that helps writers get their work out to agents and editors swiftly. Good writers have to toil hard enough, and wait patiently more than enough, to deserve to learn a few shortcuts. In the weeks to come, I shall be passing along as many tips as I can for streamlining the submission process without compromising the quality of the work. Keep your eye out for them: in the long haul, they may save you a lot of time.

And in the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

At the risk of repeating myself…

Given how very many PNWA members are or soon will be nibbling their fingernails down to the quick, waiting for replies from those nice agents and editors met at the conference, I want to reiterate something I mentioned last week: A HUGE PERCENTAGE OF THE PEOPLE WHO WORK IN THE PUBLISHING INDUSTRY TAKE SOME OR ALL OF AUGUST 1 – LABOR DAY OFF. With most of the editors off on holiday, many agents either take vacations, too, or work shortened summer hours.

Don’t ask me why they do this; it has something to do with the humidity, slow-dying Victorian vacation habits, or other mysteries that we in our fresher Pacific climate cannot even begin to fathom. I suspect the custom dates back to the days when NYC offices did not have air conditioning, and gentleman editors would lounge the late summer away with Edith Wharton characters on breezy verandahs in Newport.

Lemonade, I have no doubt, was sipped. Whatever the reason, a substantial proportion of the folks you want to be reading your stuff are simply not available at the moment.

Stop for a moment, take a deep breath, and consider what lengthy hiatus might mean for work you submitted during this vacation-heavy time. It argues against your hearing back before Labor Day, absolutely regardless of the actual quality of your work. You will be happier, and probably saner, if you make a conscious effort NOT to take the time lapse as a reflection on your worth as a writer, a human being, or anything else.

Think about it. Even if your dream agent’s typical turn-around time is unusually short (and most published agent guides include some estimate in the listing, if only so you can laugh at it with incredulity later), August is going to make the pile she needs to go through substantially thicker than at other points in the year. Even if she herself is not on vacation, she may well be covering for someone in her office who is. For similar reasons, your stop-your-heart-with-rapture editor’s turn-around clock may well not start ticking until 9 a.m. on September 6.

Come Labor Day, there will doubtless be an immense, slippery pile of manuscripts on the agent/editor’s desk. In all probability, your precious packet in the middle of it. Realistically, even with the best will in the world, it is going to take weeks to get through that pile of backlog – and new manuscripts, solicited and unsolicited, will keep coming in with each passing day. It is enough to make even the stoutest-hearted agent quail before the task before her.

Please try to bear this in mind if you have not heard back for a month longer than you anticipated. And please, please do not torture yourself with delay scenarios where your work is being passed from hand to hand, garnering feedback from everybody in the building from the janitor to the head of the agency. (Yes, that happened to Jacqueline Susann, but that was decades ago. Try to live in the now.) 99% of the time, if you have not heard back about your submission, it is because no one at the other end has yet read it.

If you are planning to submit to an agent or editor within the next couple of months, I cannot over-stress the importance of making sure that your good work does not get lost in that awe-inspiring pile of post-holiday hopeful solicitation. At the risk of repeating myself: if an agent or editor asked to see your work, write REQUESTED MATERIALS – PNWA on the outside of the envelope, so that your work will end up in a different, more privileged pile. You probably still will not hear back until Halloween, but at least you will have done all you can to move yourself up in the queue.

Please write on the outside of the envelope, even if the agent or editor in question fell down upon her knees, declared your premise the most exciting thing she’s heard since she first learned to comprehend spoken language, and begged you to overnight your manuscript to her. The average agent or editor meets literally hundreds of aspiring writers during conference season: it is in fact possible that for reasons that have NOTHING to do with your work, your name will slip her mind, or not be passed along to the junior agency folks who actually open the mail and, in most cases, are actually the first readers for submissions.

(Yes, I know what I just said: the agent with whom you had that oh-so-promising meeting at the conference may not actually be the person who reads your submission. Take a deep breath, calm down, and realize that good work gets passed up the reading chain quickly. The assistants are there so that the agent you want is freed of the necessity of reading 600 submissions per week – and thus has time to represent his clients’ work. When you are the client, you will be very, very glad about this arrangement.)

While I already have you in shock, perhaps this would be a good time to mention other points in the year when submissions tend to pile up, so you can avoid sending unsolicited queries then. You already know about the quaint summer custom; December, too, tends to see most of the industry off work, leading to a huge back-up to deal with in January. Two additional factors slow agencies just after the new year: they must produce tax documents for all of their sales, royalties, etc., for the previous year by the end of January — and half the writers in the known universe make New Year’s resolutions to send out queries immediately. Oh, and many agents and editors spend October preparing for, going to, or recovering from the Frankfort Book Fair. And conference season starts in the late spring.

Those of you with fast-calculating fingers may have noticed that these out-of-the-office moments could conceivably cover a full quarter of the calendar year. This, added to hundreds of unsolicited submissions per week AND the necessity of serving the clients already signed, means that from the agent’s point of view, the envelope that means the world to you is yet another demand upon already-stretched time.

And there is absolutely nothing you can do about that, other than understand these factors, try to be patient, and give exclusive peeks of your work only when directly asked for them.

So in the next couple of months, I beg you to try not to read a critique of your work into sometimes agonizingly slow turn-around times. None of these purely structural arrangements have ANYTHING to do with the content or quality of your submission; they are merely conditions of the industry, to which the working writer must adapt – or gnaw her fingers to the bone, wondering what she did in her manuscript to bring this on herself.

Try to be patient. And in the meantime, keep up the good work!

–Anne Mini

Swimming in the agent sea

When I heard my name announced as the winner of the NF/memoir category at the PNWA conference last year, my first conscious feeling was naturally elation. My second conscious feeling was complete and utter doom. Yes, I know that sounds ungrateful, but it’s true. What had I done to myself? To recap, I had just won a major book award for a book I had not yet written. There was a slight possibility, I felt, that people would now start asking to see the book.

Let me backtrack a little and talk about what it is like sporting a rainbow-hued finalist’s ribbon at a conference. First, everyone stares at your stomach, all day, every day, because that’s where the ribbon tends to waggle. A lot of sweet people will come up and congratulate you, which is very nice indeed; a significant minority will edge away from you, scowling. And the agents and editors will notice you in a crowd. When you stop an agent who is walking down the hall in order to try out your pitch, she will generally act as though she is pleased to meet you. It’s a revolution in manners for all concerned.

(Have I said enough yet to convince you to try your luck in next year’s contest? Read on.)

When you win one of the top three awards in a category, and you are issued a blue, red, or white ribbon to tickle your stomach, all of the attention paid to your abdomen roughly triples. And if you win the first place award (along with the snazzy gold Zola pin), it’s like walking around all day in the glow of a very hot spotlight. Suddenly, agents and editors can recognize you from across the room – and often will come over to talk to you, just as if you were a person.

There is a good reason that they recognize the first-place winners – and since so few of my PNWA friends seem to know about these perqs, I’m going to talk about them here. The primary benefit is the winners’ breakfast at the ungodly hour of 7 a.m. on Saturday, the morning after the award ceremony’s late-night partying. Basically, they throw all of the winners into a room with some croissants and all of the agents and editors for an hour or two.

If you happen to be good at giving your pitch while choking on a stray piece of pineapple, this is the venue for you. Otherwise, it’s rather like giving a press conference while being mauled by affectionate lions. The moral: eat before you get there. In fact, eat heartily before the awards ceremony on Friday, because trust me, once you win and for the next two days, every time you try to stave off starvation, some perky soul will appear in front of you and ask to hear all about your book. Pleasant, of course, but hell on the blood sugar.

My memory of the event may be skewed, of course, because I had only slept about two hours the night before – Cindy Willis, the wonderfully talented winner of the novel category, and I had been whisked off to a party with such precipitation after the award ceremony that I had to give my mother the big news on a cell phone while dashing down a hotel hallway. At the party, our significant others were mysteriously kidnapped and held outside our range of vision, and Cindy and I were each asked to give our pitch about 45 times while people kept handing us food and drink that we were never allowed to consume. We were both so stunned that we clung to each other like the Gish sisters in ORPHANS OF THE STORM.

This is what I remember best about the aftermath of winning: sleep deprivation and being asked to repeat my pitch anytime food came within half a foot of my mouth. Fortunately, I’d had friends who had won these awards before, so I just kept repeating like a mantra: “Of course you can see my book proposal. But not exclusively.”

Even through my haze, I could recall what had happened to my friends who had promised exclusives to the first agents who approached them after they’d won contests. It’s not true every year or at every conference, but there is often a certain amount of rivalry amongst the agents about who is going to carry off the major category winners. The rivalry over one friend’s brilliant humorous novel reached such a pitch that one of the agents started crying because she had granted a faster agent the first exclusive. Other winning friends were asked to overnight an entire manuscript to New York, only not to hear back for a month; to rush home, print out a copy of the manuscript, and deliver it to an agent’s hotel room in the dead of night, only to learn weeks later that the agent in question did not even represent that genre, and to promise to refuse to talk to other agents at the conference, lest the writer be blandished away. And these instances were all at PNWA, which is known as one of the more genial conferences nationally.

Being sought-after by a gaggle of agents sounds like an odd situation to fear, I know, but the inter-agent competition does not necessarily work to the benefit of the author – and actually, these competitive foibles underscore a problem most writers have at conferences: judging how sincere an agent or editor’s interest is in your work. How can you tell from a fifteen-minute conversation with a total stranger if this is the right agent for you? What is the difference between liking an agent personally and seeing in her an instinctive connection to your work? Your gut, hopped up on adrenaline (and possibly operating without other sustenance), may not be the best barometer in the moment.

So I just kept repeating my pitch and my mantra, parrot-like, collecting cards from agents and editors and scribbling notes about what each wanted to see on the back. Cindy did the same, once I was able to fill her in on the strange stories of yore. All the while, our significant others lurked in a far corner of the room, waiting to carry us off to grab a couple of hours’ sleep before the 7 a.m. lion-mauling.

The advice of my formerly winning friends turned out to be right on the money: about half of the agents asked for exclusives. Because we had declined, Cindy and I both ended up sending our work to a broad array of agents simultaneously, which truly worked to our advantage. Not every agent asked to represent it, of course – put their initial interest down to competition-induced hysteria – but enough of them did that both of us had the wonderful luxury of choice. And that, in a world where it’s so hard to get an agent that good writers often search for years to hook up with the right agent, is luxury indeed.

So I have good reason to have infinite respect for the writers’ network word-of-mouth wisdom. Let’s all help one another in every way we can.

Your day will come. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

–Anne Mini

Chance favors the prepared mind

The great thing about getting serious about being a writer – and yes, there ARE upsides to struggling for years on end – is that you can add so many nifty gadgets to your bag of writing tools, ones that will allow you to produce work quickly and revise it with dispatch. And how do you acquire these tools? Not merely by sitting in front of your computer every day, typing feverishly in an otherwise empty room, but by sending your writing out, sharing it with other writers, workshopping it with people you trust. Through getting feedback and applying it to your work, you not only improve your manuscript, but also to add skills to your repertoire.

Once you have those tools assembled, you can move rapidly from one writing project to another – Edith Wharton, for instance, claimed that once she became a professional, she never went more than a week between projects. Ideally, you want to hone your craft (to use a phrase I hate, but it does convey the message) to the point that if you were handed a brilliant story idea by the Muses today, you would be at work on it by tomorrow morning.

That’s how ordinary mortals make livings as writers, generally speaking, not by producing one or two works per decade – or per lifetime. I once met a brilliant writer at an artists’ colony, a short story specialist who squirreled herself away in a corner to sob after she gave a reading. The praise for her story, which was honestly excellent, had been tempered with constructive criticism from the writers in the audience. I tried to comfort her by pointing out that the feedback had been overwhelmingly positive; averted eyes and “Gee, that was great” commentary is generally reserved for public readings of books that aren’t that good. Couldn’t she see that by offering her substantive feedback, her fellow writers were showing respect for her work?

She shook her head as violently as if I had suggested that she throw herself off the nearest bridge. “You don’t understand. I worked on that story for eight years! I thought it was perfect!” She looked crushed. “Now I’ll have to revise it again before I send it out.”

I sympathized with her, but privately, I found myself thinking that she might have better spent those eight years acquiring, in addition to an honestly lyrical writing style, a thicker skin and a more rapid revision pen. Had she launched this story on its professional trajectory, say, six years sooner, via readings or a writers’ group or a contest, she might well have gotten the necessary feedback to perfect it many years before.

Everyone’s writing cycles run within different timeframes, of course, but professionals produce work, get it out the door, and move on to the next, yet most struggling writers will hang their hopes on a single piece. All too often, the piece in question is one that has not been seen by human eyes before the query letter is sent or the pitch is made, or at any rate, by human eyes that do not belong to oneself, one’s mother, one’s partner, or one’s best friend. As marvelous as these first readers may be, they are unlikely to give one unbiased feedback – and a hunger for unbiased feedback is one of the most important tools in the writer’s kit.

You have only to talk to a random selection of people standing around in the hallway at any writers’ conference to see for yourself how important this particular tool is. Secretly, most aspirants walk away from their first writers’ conference crushed that their single pieces were not instantly pounced upon by the perfect agent and carried off like trophies to New York, where they naturally would sell instantly. Despite the fact that this scenario almost never happens, most of us expect it, and question our talent when it doesn’t occur, not our professional readiness.

Yet scratch the rare overnight success, and there’s usually a decade of preparation lying underneath it. You have probably heard the story of the PNWA’s own Jean Auel: walked into the PNWA conference, met the perfect agent, and CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR was sold at auction for what was at the time the highest advance ever paid a first-time novelist.

An overnight success story, right? Unless you count the years she spent polishing her writing skills and essentially home-schooling herself into a doctorate-level understanding of anthropology. Never was an overnight success more earned by years and years of hard work.

Contrary to the unfortunately pervasive myth of the writing genius who sits down at a keyboard for the first time and instantly produces, on his first draft, a work of such staggering genius that agents fall down and weep before it and editors cannot touch it with a critical pen, most good books, and pretty much all great ones, started life as a first draft that needed work. Crucial tools that a writer needs in his kit are the flexibility to recognize that, the courage to go out and find feedback he can trust, and the tenacity to revise accordingly.

“Yeah, right,” I hear you saying. “Anne’s a fine one to talk – she won a contest, and BOOM, she found an agent and sold her memoir before her FINALIST ribbon had time to wrinkle. What could she possibly know about waiting for results of her hard work?”

Oh, how I would have loved it if that were the sum total of my writing life, but it wasn’t like that. I published my first piece when I was ten – and I have been adding tools to my kit ever since, under very unglamorous circumstances. I have written everything from travel guide entries (I like to think that my LET’S GO piece on recognizing and avoiding poison oak in Pacific forests is a minor classic) to wine tasting guides (the trick is recognizing that there are only a few adjectives that can legitimately be applied to any given varietal) to political platforms (where so much as a comma in the wrong place can misrepresent an entire policy). Most of my writing experience for publication was on very, very dull topics – but it taught me to write economically and quickly, to be open to critique, and to meet my deadlines, all invaluable tools in the writer’s toolbag.

Having these tools was the key to the swift progression of my post-award life – and, if you must know, to my winning the award in the first place. All right, I am going to be honest with you: when I won the Zola Award last year for my memoir, IS THAT YOU, PUMPKIN? LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK, I had not actually written the book. To be precise, all I had written were what the contest required for entry: the first chapter, the synopsis, and the title page.

I hope all of you out there who have been waiting until your book is perfect before you enter it in a contest find this encouraging. Consider entering contests — especially those like the PNWA, where entrants are guaranteed significant amounts of written feedback — before your work is completely polished. Get your work out there where it can be seen, if only for the experience.

So when a writing friend dared me in February to prepare an entry with only eight hours to go before the contest deadline, I looked upon it as an interesting challenge, one from which I might learn something new. Since I was used to writing on a tight deadline, the chapter tumbled off my fingertips in six hours, the synopsis in half an hour. A quick spell-check (you’d be surprised at how few contest entrants remember to do that), and I was off to the post office.

I want to point out something very important here. I certainly would not have been able to do this if I had not spent YEARS preparing for that day professionally: years sharpening my writing skills so that I was confident that I could write with speed and accuracy; years going to conferences and getting tips on what contest judges like to see in a manuscript; years meeting writing deadlines, and years being brave enough to show my work not only to prospective agents and editors, but also my writing peers, people I knew would give me honest, unsentimental feedback. In a way, I had spent my entire adult life preparing for that day.

So believe me when I tell you: chance favors the prepared mind. Cram that bag of tools as full as you can.

I really did intend to write the book someday, honest I did. There aren’t that many books that show positive relationships between young girls and men in their fifties, and so many of the biographies and articles that have been written about Philip K. Dick are filled with myths about his life – myths, I should add, that he often originated himself. I knew that someday, I was going to have to write a book to set the records straight at last.

But since there was no chance that I was going to win the contest, I figured I had years. I looked upon it as a wonderful opportunity to gain experience I would need later on, when I launched the project for real. Pitch the book, test the waters, and garner some names of agents for down the road. In the meantime, I had a novel that I wanted to finish and ship off to my writing group before I pitched it at the conference.

I had just wrapped up BUDDHA in June when I received the notification that PUMPKIN was a finalist in the PNWA contest. I was pleased to win the five dollars from my friend, but still, I wasn’t too nervous. I had a pitch ready, in the unlikely event that anyone would want to hear about my memoir, and being a finalist could only help me promote my novel. There was no way I was going to win, right?

Except that in this case, chance did indeed favor the prepared mind. Hooray for a well-stuffed bag of tools – and the effort I expended acquiring them. Every last socket wrench helps.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini