Purging the plague of passivity, part IV: please, please, please, please, please love me. Please?

prosperity cat, swift

I honestly meant to continue this series yesterday, campers, but I was waylaid by my eye doctor. Those of us who read and write for a living tend not to miss our annual check-ups.

“Now, these dilating drops will leave your vision just a bit blurry for the next three or four hours,” he assured me mid-exam. “Six at the most. I’m sure your blog readers won’t begrudge you a few hours for eye health.”

Okay, so I made up that last part. But Dr. H’s estimate was equally fanciful: nine hours passed, and I was still scowling at the world through the silly eye filter you see above, pupils the size of dimes.

And if that’s not a passive protagonist in an anecdote, I’d sure like to see one.

I’m back on the move today, however. I am delighted to report that I no longer look like a startled mole abruptly dragged out of a nice, comfortable dark hole at noon.

Back to business. Last time, I stirred up the deep waters of controversy underlying the placid surface of many a novel, memoir, and creative nonfiction manuscript by suggesting (and rather forcefully, too) that submissions with scene after scene spent amongst the limpid pools of smooth, conflict-free interaction — particularly if that interaction is merely observed by the protagonist (the boat in the metaphor? A passenger in that boat? A passing seagull?), rather than caused by or integrally involving him — might be less successful, in marketing terms, than ones that set the protagonist adrift amid a storm or two. (Okay, so s/he is IN the boat. Glad we got that settled.)

Oh, heck, I’m going to abandon the metaphor (toss it overboard, as it were) and just say it boldly: passive protagonists tend to bore readers, professional and unprofessional alike. After this many posts in a row on protagonist passivity, I would hope that doesn’t come as a big shock to anybody out there.

Yet in general, aspiring writers do tend to be shocked, or even appalled, at the very suggestion that their protagonists aren’t doing enough. All too often, they hear critique of their protagonists as criticism of themselves, believe it or not — as if a dull character’s appearance in a manuscript must by extension mean its creator is…well, let’s just say non-scintillating, shall we?

Surprised by that reaction? Don’t be. It’s really, really common for writers new to the wonderful world of serious feedback to respond to it as though it were, if not precisely a personal attack, at least unkindly motivated.

Many, if not most, writers have difficulty hearing manuscript critique as critique of — wait for it — their MANUSCRIPTS, rather than of themselves, their self-worth, their talent, and/or their right to be expressing themselves in print at all. (A phenomenon I have dissected at great length in the GETTING GOOD AT ACCEPTING FEEDBACK series, conveniently available under the self-named category on the archive list at right, should anybody be interested.)

This response is equally likely, by the way, whether the manuscript is fiction, memoir, or academic book. I suppose this particular logical leap shouldn’t still give me pause at this late date. Over the years, I’ve seen writers draw similar conclusions from feedback that indicates that their work is slow-paced, too long, hard to market, or even poorly punctuated.

“Why me?” they shriek, rending their garments. “What have I done to deserve this torture?”

Okay, so that was a bit of an exaggeration, but just a bit. And that’s a great pity, because a tendency to take feedback personally is unfortunate in the long-term. As personal characteristics go, it’s a difficult one to reconcile with an author’s work life.

Why? Well, being a professional writer pretty much requires not only getting used to hearing such critiques from one’s agent and editor — yes, Virginia, even an agent who adores your writing style will want you to make revisions from time to time — but being able to incorporate feedback into a manuscript. Often very quickly.

How quickly, you ask with fear and trembling? Well, it varies. Let’s just say that I’ve actually heard my agent utter the words, “Oh, you know that editor who liked your manuscript? She’d like you to give it a different ending, and I told her I could have the revised version to her in three weeks. That’s not going to be a problem, is it?” and leave it at that.

Oh, dear — that wee anecdote made some of you unconsciously clutch your chests, didn’t it? “But Anne,” critique fearers across the globe whisper, darting their eyes thither and yon, “I try to take feedback as constructive criticism, but I like my manuscript as it is. So I worry that when faced with professional critique — i.e., the completely honest examination of every last syllable and comma in a manuscript, that agents and editors convey without pulling any punches — my resolve to act like a pro may wilt a trifle.”

I have faith in you, critique fearers. When the time comes, I’m sure you’ll take it on the chin. (Speaking of unpleasant metaphors…) Unless, of course, the first serious feedback you’ve ever gotten on your work comes from your agent or editor.

Why did half of you just turn pale? You weren’t planning to have the first human eyes to have the pleasure of sliding over your manuscript be Millicent the agency screener’s, were you?

A hint to those of you who are hesitating about how to answer that question: we’re talking about Millicent the Merciless here. You know, the one who just stops reading a query at the second typo — and a requested manuscript at the third? The gal that works for the agent who reserves, “Well, you’re just going to have to rewrite this to this ten-point list of specifications,” for manuscripts she likes?

If you’re thin-skinned about feedback on your writing — and what writer who doesn’t have a lot of experience hearing critique isn’t? — it’s an excellent idea to rack up some experience listening to constructive criticism of your work before you expose your baby to professional critique. Like any other muscle, the part of your psyche that enables you to keep a quiver out of your voice as you say, “Oh, lose my protagonist’s best friend and relocate the whole story from Cleveland to Madagascar? No problem!” gets stronger with practice.

Besides, if you’re going to have a meltdown — and I’ve known many relatively stoic writers who’ve suddenly gone ballistic in the face of their first professional feedback, where nothing goes unnoticed — wouldn’t you rather do it in front of your writers’ group or a trusted first reader, rather than, say, on the phone with the agent of your dreams?

Oh, it hadn’t occurred to some of you that sometimes, the response to a successful submission is, “Yes, I’d love to represent this. Let me just dig out my revision list,” followed by the sound of 17 pages shuffling into place?

While that mental image sinks slowly into your brainpan, let’s try a little critique-desensitization exercise. Close your eyes, breathe deeply, and picture yourself sitting at a table in that bar that’s never more than a hundred yards from any writers’ conference in North America. The agent of your dreams is sitting across from you, about to order a second round.

“Oh, by the way,” he says casually, just as you were thanking your lucky starts that since you’ve already landed an agent, you were not at the conference to pitch, “your protagonist isn’t all that active, and it’s slowing down the book. You can pump up the energy in the next revision, right?”

Quick: how does that make you feel? Like getting right back to work on your manuscript, or as if tossing your half-finished club soda with lime into his smiling face might feel pretty darned good?

If it’s the latter, go punch a sofa cushion until that urge goes away. Repeat the visualization as often as necessary until your gut stops seizing up at the very notion of being on the receiving end of such a sweeping critique.

Or join a good writers’ group and participate like mad. Over time, it can have a similar response-numbing effect.

Your protagonist doesn’t do much, does he? seems to be an especially hard critique for many writers to swallow. I suspect that’s because so many first books, fiction and nonfiction alike, tend to be at least partially autobiographical. Not everyone is thrilled to be told that she would be more interesting (or, heaven help us, more likeable) if she were a more active participant in her own life. Or if her life were more interesting in general.

If she were a rhinoceros-wrestler, for instance, instead of sitting at home and writing a book about it.

In answer to that very loud unspoken question all of your minds just shouted at me: yes, I can tell you from personal experience that memoirists actually are very frequently told by their agents and editors that their books’ protagonists could get into the game more. And yes, even if a writer is experienced at handling critique, that can feel quite a bit like a personal attack.”

“Wait,” I found myself thinking as my editor and I worked on my memoir, “my publisher is allowed to edit my LIFE? What am I supposed to do, travel backward in time so I may pick a few more fights or join the Foreign Legion?”

But I’m getting ahead of myself; writing the real to make it more interesting on the page — without, you know, lying — is near the top of my to-blog list at the moment.

Darn — now I’ve gone and ruined the surprise. And I wanted Flag Day to be so special this year.

A slight case of identification with one’s own protagonist is not the only reason that many aspiring writers squirm at the suggestion that s/he might be a tad on the inactive side, though. Even for non-autobiographical fiction, the very notion that something that one wrote oneself could possibly be less than marvelous seems to come as an immense shock.

I’m quite serious about this. I’m perpetually running into writers in my classes, at conferences, and online who seem to believe that the publishing industry should buy their books simply because they have written them.

“Target market?” these well-meaning souls echo, wrinkling their noses at the inference that a true artiste ever considers why someone out there might want to buy his or her art. “That’s the publisher’s job to figure out.”

Um, yes, in the long term, but in the short term, it’s very much the writer’s job to figure out. How can you revise with an eye to pleasing readers if you have no idea who your ideal reader is? Or what she likes about the kind of book you write?

While writing is unquestionably art — some might argue the most inherently creative one, since the writer uses fewer outside materials than other artists to create her effects — if one has any intention of doing it for a living, it just doesn’t make sense not to think about who might buy one’s books and why.

Why not, you ask? Well, would you expect an aspiring doctor to work all the way through medical school without first ascertaining that there were sick people in the world?

Again, perhaps a too-colorful analogy. But you know what I mean.

Yet many, if not most, aspiring writers seem to have genuine trouble seeing their own books as a third party might. That’s a major stumbling-block to marketing one’s book to agents and small presses, because, let’s fact it, no matter how much a writer adores his manuscript, at least a few people other than one’s mother, spouse, and/or best friend will have to admire it at least at much in order for it to get published.

Again, that’s not too great a shock to any of my long-term readers, is it?

So it is perfectly reasonable, and even necessary, to step outside your role as author to try to view your story as an outside reader might. (If you have trouble pulling this off — and the vast majority of writers do — you might want to take a gander at the GETTING GOOD FEEDBACK category at right.) Specifically, to make a valiant attempt to see your protagonist as a reader might — and from a reader’s point of view, an active, decisive character in the driver’s seat of the plot can be a mighty fine thing.

Why, that’s what we’ve been talking about for the last week, isn’t it? Funny how that worked out.

One of the first things a writer needs to accept in order to read from a reader’s perspective is that conflict is not something to be avoided — it’s to be courted, because moving from conflict to conflict is how the protagonist typically moves the plot along. Protagonists who are purely reactive, as popular as they may be in movies (the trailer for half the dramatic films released within the last few years: “Coming soon to a theatre near you: the story of an ORDINARY MAN drawn against his will into EXTRAORDINARY events…”), are frequently frustrating.

“DO SOMETHING!” Millicent is likely to shout in their general direction.

Of course, in most book categories, you don’t want to go overboard in the opposite direction, driving the plot forward so quickly that there’s little time for character development. (Unless, one presumes, you happened to be writing THE DA VINCI CODE.) Non-stop conflict can result in a one-note narrative, one with very few dramatic highs and lows punctuating the story — but in most genres, if a book is going to be consistent, it’s much better to be consistently exciting than consistently low-key.

I’m going to make some of my higher-brow readers cringe by bringing this up, but one of the best recent examples of a protagonist who ostensibly has little control of the forces controlling his life, yet manages to fight back on practically every page is Harry Potter of the self-named series. (Don’t laugh; many of the English-reading adults currently in their twenties grew up on that series, and thus drew their ideas of exciting pacing from it.)

How did JK Rowling keep the tension high in books that are largely about a child with little autonomy going to school in what frankly seems to be an educational system intent upon punishing students? The old-fashioned way: by including some kind of conflict on every page.

But not all of it has to do with fighting He Who Shall Not Be Named. More than half the time (until the last couple of books in the series, at least), Harry is beset not by the forces of ultimate evil, but by teachers who don’t like him, a crush he doesn’t know how to handle, mixed feelings about his elders, and so forth.

All that’s conflict, too, right?

Rowling also tends to have more than one threat looming over her protagonist at any given time, as well as forces buffeting about his friends, and even his enemies. All of this contributes to a complex plot — and plenty of occasion to introduce conflict on any given page.

If you genuinely feel that it’s important to your story that your protagonist is acted-upon (true in virtually every memoir professional readers see, incidentally, as well as most first novel manuscripts), adding subsidiary action can go a long way toward pepping up the pace. Why not add conflict over something very small and not related to the bigger causes of resentment in a plot, for instance?

For example, consider a story set in an office with an intensely sexist boss of the “Hey, good-looking, why don’t you sit on my lap while I discuss our new policy for file-sharing” variety. Now, our heroine and her cronies could type away in resentful silence while their boss leers at one of them for fifty pages on end, obviously.

But what if, in addition to all of that glorious silent passivity, some of the typers happened to be going through menopause — and started responding to their autocratic boss’ systematic harassment by violently quarreling amongst themselves over where the thermostat should be set during their various hot flashes?

Inherently quite a bit more dramatic, isn’t it? Lots of room for ongoing conflict there.

But not everyone out there is comfortable with this strategy, I’m sensing. “But Anne,” some of you passivity-penners cry, “you told us last time that there were a lot of reasons an agent, editor, or contest judge might take a dislike to a protagonist. Even if mine is just one of several coworkers being nasty to one another, won’t they like her even less?”

Ah, that old bugbear: the belief that a character must be a nice person to be likeable on the page.

Likeability tends to be a sore point amongst fiction writers, especially for those of us who write about female protagonists: when we include characters in our work whose political views are a bit challenging, for instance, or have sexual kinks beyond what the mainstream media currently considers normal, or even pursue their goals too straightforwardly, we fear being told that our characters are not likeable enough. So we tend to self-edit for harmony.

Translation: many writers will deliberately make a protagonist passive, on the theory that if she isn’t, this chick might not play in Peoria, according to someone in a New York agency or publishing house.

Frankly, I think the industry tends to underestimate Peorians, but the fact remains, it actually isn’t all that unusual for an agent or editor to ask a writer to tone down a particular character’s quirks. Usually, though, these requests refer to secondary characters (as in, “Does Tony’s sister really have to be a lesbian?” or “Could the Nazi brother be just a little bit right-wing instead?”) or to specific scenes (“Need she tie Bob down?”).

Occasionally, though, the request is not quite so helpfully phrased: “I liked the story, but I didn’t like the protagonist,” an editor will say. “If you fix her in X, Y, and Z ways, maybe I’ll pick up the book.”

You were hoping my earlier example of an editor asking for revisions prior to offering a book contract was just an anecdotal misstep, weren’t you? How shall I break it to you?

Directly is probably the best way: it has become quite common for editors to ask for major revisions prior to making an offer on a novel. Agents will frequent make similar requests prior to being willing to market a novel to editors. Sometimes several rounds of revisions, even, so the writer is essentially performing rewrites on command for free.

That’s how tight the fiction market is right now; ten years ago, most good agents would have laughed outright at such an editorial request before a contract was signed.

Much of the time, though, the author responds to critique about character likability by making the character more passive — a very bad move, strategically.

So why do they do it? As I mentioned, it’s a common writerly misconception to believe that a passive protagonist is automatically a likeable one. An interesting conclusion, isn’t it, given how often first novels and memoirs feature at least semi-autobiographical protagonists?

Which begs the question: is the common writerly obsession with protagonist likeability at some level a cry to the industry: “Love my character — and me!”?

Bears a spot of thinking about, doesn’t it? Psychology aside, it’s understandable that writers might mistake a propensity for avoiding confrontation for likeability.

Passive Paul the protagonist is a courteous fellow, typically, always eager to step aside and let somebody else take the lead. Courteous to a fault, he’s always doing nice things for others, generally thanklessly. A good employee, fine son/husband/potential partner, he is dependable. Almost all of his turmoil is in his head; he tends to be polite verbally, reserving his most pointed barbs for internal monologue.

Why, his boss/friend/wife/arch enemy can taunt him for half the book before he makes a peep — and then, it’s often indirect: he’ll vent at somebody else. His dog, maybe, or a passing motorist.

Romantically, Paul’s a very slow mover, too; he’s the grown-up version of that boy in your fifth-grade class who had a crush upon you that he had no language to express, so he yanked on your pigtails. Or, better still, silently drew amorous cartoons of you in the margins of his notebook, plotting how he’s going to show up at your 10th reunion as a rock star and sweep you off your wee feet. In real life, it might take this guy until the 20th reunion and after his second divorce to work up the nerve to tell you that he ever had a crush on you at all.

On the manuscript page, Paul’s been known to yearn at the love of his life for two-thirds of a book without saying word one to her. Perhaps, his subconscious figures, she will spontaneously decide she likes me with no effort on my part.

And astonishingly, half the time, his subconscious ends up being right about this! Go figure, eh?

A delightful person to encounter in real life, in short; the kind of person you might like to see serving on your city council, library board, or living next door to you in a time of natural disaster. But think of Paul from a reader’s point of view: he makes so few moves that he’s practically inert.

So why, if you’ll pardon my asking, would someone pay $25 to read a book in which he is the central figure — other than the beauty of the writing, of course?

That may sound like a cruel or dismissive question, but actually, it isn’t — it’s precisely the question that Millicent is going to need to be able to answer if she’s going to recommend that her boss, the agent of your dreams, should read it, right? It’s also the question the agent of your dreams is going to have to make to the editor of your fantasies in order to get her to acquire it.

And isn’t it, ultimately, a question your target reader will, at the very least, find of interest between the shelf and the cash register?

Next time, I shall talk a bit more about Passive Paul — and what, short of challenging him to a duel (for which he would probably not show up, we can only assume), his creator can do to get him into the game of his own life a bit more. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

The mysteriously mysterious strictures of standard format, part XIII: letters, diary entries, and what on earth is this hotel’s wifi doing to my coding?

the places youll go cover

That was an unusually long break between posts, wasn’t it? By my hyper-communicative standards, at least. Honestly, I didn’t mean for it to be. I’ve been on business trip to someplace small, and, as often seems to be the case when conducting novel research, getting there required several airplanes each way. While you intrepid readers have been twiddling your thumbs, breathlessly awaiting another discussion of standard format, I’ve been busily tapping away at my keyboard, wedged between a window and a man who claimed his wife didn’t understand him.

Yes, on every leg of the flight. Either air flight is the haven of the misunderstood husband, or these guys’ wives understand only too well how they act while traveling.

So why, given how hard I was trying to ignore the small army of fellow flyers wishing to discuss their failing marriages with me, was I not posting constantly throughout the trip? Oddly, my hotel’s wifi seemed to have a penchant for scrambling the coding on such blogging decorations as photographs and italics; when I tried to post, the result looked as though it had been designed by Dr. Seuss.

And not in a good way, I’m afraid.

Not posting seemed to be the better part of valor, then, yet since my typing speed was directly proportional to just how much those fellows wanted to tell me about their wives (does that ever work as a pick-up technique, by the way?), I returned to Seattle up to my ears in post material. Seldom has so much been written on formatting in so short a time.

So fasten your seatbelts and extinguish all smoking materials, everybody — it’s going to be an extra-long post. As will tomorrow’s, and probably the day after’s, because frankly, the misunderstood men weren’t the only irritant spurring my fingers to fly.

As someone who travels a lot (I teach all over the place, should anyone be interested in flying me someplace to hear me talk about, say, querying or pitching), I’ve become accustomed, if not precisely resigned, to the fact that pretty much every airport in the country has slightly different security regulations. Even within any given airport, enforcement is variable. What is required in, say, Los Angeles will sometimes get you scolded in Duluth — and sometimes even in Los Angeles, if a new manager happens to come on shift.

Seriously, I’ve seen lipstick confiscated as a potential liquid in Seattle (yes, really), but been chided in Newark for cluttering my requisite 1-quart bag of carried-on liquids with Perky Passion. New Orleans seems to harbor an antipathy against pointy tweezers, a fear apparently reserved in Boston for the smallest gauge of knitting needles. In Chicago, I heard a lady screamed at because it hadn’t occurred to her to place her asthma inhaler in the plastic bag with her carried-on liquids; in Newark, the same poor woman was permitted to retain her inhaler, but was grilled mercilessly about the glass jar of seasoned salt that she was taking to her sister. And if there is any sort of national standard about whether shoes should be placed in a box or directly upon the conveyor belt, it must change at least twice weekly.

Like all of us, I try to be flexible, open-minded, cooperative, reminding myself that the person chiding me for doing precisely what the official in the last airport told me to do four hours ago is merely enforcing the rules as she understands them, and that alerting her to the fact that she is apparently the only security officer in the continental U.S. that genuinely believes that socks, as well as shoes, need to be removed and run through the scanner is unlikely to improve the situation. Chances are, she’ll only get miffed, and I’ll still end up strolling through the metal detector barefooted except for the Perky Passion on my toes.

Coming home this time, however, I received an instruction that left me dumbfounded. After I scurried, shoeless, through the metal detector, the security officer made a grab at my skirt. “I have to pat it down,” she told me when I snatched it back. “New regulation.”

New, as in it had apparently been made up on the spot; even as she said it, beskirted women were passing unmolested through the three other security stations. As were men in baggy pants, priests in vestments, and bagpipers in kilts. “I flew wearing this skirt two days ago,” I told her politely, “and nobody ran his hands over it. Is the regulation new as of today?”

She looked at me blankly. “I suppose,” she said after a moment’s thought, “I could have you turn around while I did it, to make it less embarrassing.”

A brief, enlightening chat with her very apologetic supervisor later, she still apparently didn’t understand just how she had misinterpreted the latest instructions. “But the skirt’s below her knee,” she kept saying, as if a strumpet in a miniskirt on this 27° day would have been substantially less suspect than a lady dressed for the weather. “I have to pat her down, don’t I?”

As I reclaimed my hem from her grasp, I thought of you, my friends. Honestly, I did. There’s a moral here, one’s that’s highly applicable to any aspiring writer’s attempt to navigate all of the many conflicting pieces of formatting advice out there: while the rules themselves do not change, interpretations do vary. In situations where the deciding party holds all the power, it’s best not to quibble over even the wackiest interpretations.

Or, to put it in the terms we use here at Author! Author!: if the agent of your dreams has just tweeted angrily that she just HATES seeing a second space after a period, don’t waste your time pointing out that those spaces are in fact proper in English. You’d be right, of course, but if she’s sure enough of her interpretation to devote 140 words to it, you’re not going to win the fight.

Give her what she wants — yes, even if finding out what she wants involves checking her agency’s website, guide listing, and her Twitter account. (I know, I know — that’s pretty time-consuming, but remember, it has probably never occurred to her that the good writers querying her are probably also trying to discover similar information for twenty or thirty other agents. She’s just trying to come up with something interesting to tweet.)

But don’t, whatever you do, assume that particular agent’s pet peeve is shared by everyone else in the industry. As we’ve seen earlier in this series, not only are some of the newer standards far from standard — adhering to some of them might actually alienate more traditional agents and editors.

In fact, when trying to decide whether to follow any new guideline, it’s always prudent to consider the source. Someone new to the rules — who, for instance, is simply passing along a list he discovered somewhere — is far more likely to apply offbeat interpretations than someone who has had a great deal of practical experience with professional manuscripts, and advice heard first-hand from an agent or editor at a conference may alter considerably by the time it becomes fourth- or fifth-hand news. All it takes to skew the message is one link in the chain to get a tiny detail wrong in the retelling, after all.

Or, as with my would-be groper, to misunderstand a key word or phrase in the original instructions. One person’s suspiciously bulging fabric below the waistband is another person’s skirt.

Unfortunately, offbeat interpretations of the rules of standard format are not the exclusive province of fourth-hand advice-givers. Sometimes, newly-minted contest judges and even freshly-trained Millicents can give a tried-and-true rules a mighty original twist. In a contest that gives entrants critique or an agency that permits its screeners to scrawl individual observations in the margins of its form-letter rejections (as some do), even a small misunderstanding on the reader’s end has resulted in perplexing feedback for many an aspiring writer.

Even more unfortunately, the Mehitabels and Millicents producing this feedback seldom think to phrase their understanding of the relevant rule tactfully. To them, the rule’s the rule, just as calf-length skirts were security threats to my airport guard; why not just bark it?

The cumulative result of all of that barking of all of those interpretations of all of those rules: writers often end up feeling scolded, if not actually yelled at and shamed. Hands up, if this has ever happened to you.

My hand is raised, by the way. I’ve received snarling admonitions from contest judges for formatting that my agency flatly requires all of its clients to follow. Then, too, back in my querying days, a West Coast Millicent once huffily informed me that he’d hated my premise when he’d first read my query three months before at his previous job in an East Coast agency. Evidently, I should have been following his movements closely enough not to have run my query under the same person’s eye twice.

Shame on me for not having read his mind correctly.

But realistically, what good would it have done my manuscript to argue with him? It was indeed absurd of a faceless, anonymous Millicent to expect any aspiring writer to know anything about who is working behind the scenes at any agency, much less who is moving from one agency to another and when. It was also misguided of the contest judge to tell me that I should put my chapter heading where the title of a short story should be — a common judge’s misconception, by the way, since those with the publication credentials to be literary judges are more often successful short story writers than novelists. (And if that last sentence was mystifying to you, run, don’t walk to the discussion earlier in this series on the dos and don’ts of chapter openings.)

But do you know what would have been even more absurd and misguided? My automatically assuming that these barkers were right, simply because they were speaking from an apparent position of authority and with vehemence.

Contrary to popular opinion, being right and sounding insistent have no necessary relationship to each other. Had I automatically followed their advice without double-checking its soundness, I simply would have been compounding their interpretive missteps. (And my current agent would have been pretty annoyed with me about my chapter headings, because as it happens, I was already constructing them in the manner my agency prefers.)

I’m bringing this up not because it is integral to understanding today’s foray into the complexities of formatting — it isn’t, especially — but to reiterate the importance of not simply adopting every formatting and writing tip you hear. Look those gift horses very closely in the mouth before you ride any of ‘em home.

Yes, even the ones grazing in my pasture. Many a soi-disant writing guru has ultimately proven to be factually wrong, and when that happens, it’s not the guru that gets hurt; it’s the aspiring writers who blithely follow his advice because it sounds authoritative. Ditto, unfortunately, when aspiring writers misinterpret agents’ pronouncements of their personal preferences as iron-clad rules of the industry.

Remember: when in doubt, the smart thing to do is ask follow-up questions; many an aspiring writer has run afoul of Millicent simply because he didn’t fully understand Rule #10 on an under-explained list of 27.

I hear some of you tittering. Okay, so by my exhaustive standards, practically all of the advice out there is under-explained — but that’s precisely why it’s important not to accept any one interpretation blindly. If an advice-giver can’t (or won’t) answer questions, don’t just get a second opinion (or third or fourth or eighteenth); keep asking until you find an explanation that makes sense to you.

Isn’t that a better use of your energies than feeling crushed because some yahoo contest judge barked at you? Or fighting with an agent who cares enough about her personal hatred of italics to tweet about it every other month?

Personally, I love it when readers post questions; it helps everyone learn. For instance, here’s a terrific formatting question inveterate commenter Dave posted some time back:

While I have your attention, it seems that some time ago you were going to mention something about manuscript format. To be exact, I think you were going to tell us how to format longer passages that a character is voicing or reading, those that in published form are often printed with wider margins, in italics, or even with a different font. As a more concrete example, I’m thinking of a letter the protagonist might receive that is presented to the reader in its entirety.

The short answer is, as it so often is in this game, it depends.

Upon what, you ask? Well, upon the length of the letter one wants to include, for one thing. Also, if we want to get technical about it (and the masses cry, We do! We do!), it depends upon whether the manuscript in question is an academic work or not — or is a nonfiction work of the type often produced by academics.

That last declaration left some of you scratching your heads, didn’t it? And like sensible writers, you formulate a follow-up question: “Why on earth would it make a difference whether a professor — or someone else who aspired to that level of expertise — wrote the darned thing? Standard format is standard format, isn’t it?”

Well, it is and it isn’t. Long-time readers, chant it with me now: what is proper in a book manuscript is not necessarily what’s proper in a short story manuscript; what’s expected in a book proposal is not precisely what’s expected in a novel submission; contests often have specific rules that run contrary to the prevailing rules of standard format. And as we have so often discussed, if an individual agent or editor publicly expresses a personal preference, anyone who submits to him should honor it. It’s the writer’s responsibility to check what’s appropriate for the submission at hand.

In other words, sometimes a skirt is just a skirt. And maybe the guy in seat 27D’s wife actually doesn’t understand him. Exceptions do exist.

As much as aspiring writers would love it if all written materials were subject to the same standards, assuming that any writing, anywhere, anytime should be formatted identically, or that any stack of papers called a manuscript will look the same, is simply wishful thinking. True, life would be a whole lot easier for writers everywhere if that particular wish came true, but in case you hadn’t yet noticed, the publishing world isn’t really set up with an eye to making things more convenient for those just breaking into the biz.

So how might a scholar handle this problem? A university press — or college professor reading a thesis, for that matter — would expect any quotation longer than 3 lines of text to be offset, devoid of quotation marks, and single-spaced, provided that the quote in question is not longer than a page; quotes less than three full lines long are simply placed within quotation marks. Offsetting, for the benefit of those intrepid readers who did not automatically skip the rest of this paragraph immediately after the words university press, is achieved by skipping a line, then indenting the quoted material five spaces (or half an inch, using Word’s standard tabs) on both the left and right margins. After the quote comes another blank line, then the text resumes normally.

In practice, then, a page featuring quotations in an academic manuscript might look a little something like this:

academic example

Why do scholars mark quotes from other works so VERY well? That way, there can be absolutely no question about when a professor is borrowing material from somebody else’s published or unpublished work. (There tends to be a lot of unpublished work floating around the average university at any given time, after all.)

In a book proposal or nonfiction manuscript that isn’t a memoir, it’s perfectly permissible to present long quotes tend to be in this manner — although in non-academic nonfiction, the quote would be double-spaced. It’s clear, it’s direct, and most important of all, Millicents who work for NF-representing agents will get it. (Although most ultimately published memoirs begin life as book proposals, at least in the U.S., memoir manuscripts follow the formatting conventions of novels. Hey, I don’t make the rules; I just tell you about ‘em.)

“That’s all very well and good,” enough of you to get together and raise a barn are probably muttering, “but this doesn’t really address Dave’s question, does it? You’ve told us that a letter in a novel or memoir manuscript should not be treated like a quote one academic lifted from another and stuffed wholesale into her dissertation, but you don’t tell us how it should be handled. And how about showing us a practical example of that double-spaced offset quote you mentioned above?”

Don’t worry: a concrete NF example follows below. (Hey, I wasn’t kidding about the length of this post!) On the other front, patience, my friends, patience — because, again, it depends.

If the letter in question is short (or the excerpt being reproduced in the narrative is), there’s no need to treat it as anything but a regular old quote, like any other in the novel:

novel-letter-example1

Perfectly obvious what’s going on here, isn’t it? It doesn’t require special formatting for the reader to understand that this is an excerpt from a letter.

For short letters — say, under a page — some writers prefer to use italics (probably because, as Dave pointed out, they’ve seen them used that way in published books), but frankly, I wouldn’t recommend it in a novel or a memoir manuscript; it implies an ignorance of the fact that the editor, not the author, is always the one who makes decisions about how text will appear in a published version.

You don’t want to induce barking on the subject, do you?

However, since some of you are undoubtedly not going to listen to me on this one, here is how to use italics properly in this context:

novel-letter-example2

I sense some of you shaking your heads. “But Anne,” epistle-lovers everywhere cry in protest, “that doesn’t LOOK like a letter. I like a letter to look like a letter on the page; that’s part of its charm. So how do I convey that without seeming as though I’m usurping editorial authority?”

I had a feeling I would be hearing from you folks: there’s no shortage of writers who feel very strongly that every single syllable of every note passed between characters must be reproduced faithfully and its entirety in the text, as if the average reader had never seen a letter before and thus could not even begin to imagine what one might look like.

Frankly, it’s seldom actually necessary to a plot to include the parts of a letter that would be hard to squeeze within the strictures of standard format: the letterhead, if any; the date; the salutation; the signature. Within the context of a novel (or memoir), some or all of these are often self-evident — honestly, if the heroine is addressing her long-lost lover by, say, his given name and signs with her own, what additional insight could even the most imaginative reader derive from reproducing those salutations and signatures for each and every letter they right? Or even just one?

Even if she habitually opened with, “Dear Snotnose,” and signed off with, “Your affectionate bedbug,” that would only be character-revealing the first time she did it, right?

But you head-shakers are not convinced by that, are you? And I’m not going to be able to blandish you into believing that the 15-page letter starting on pg. 82 might work better simply broken off into its own chapter entitled The Letter, am I? (A fabulous solution with very long letters, by the way.)

Okay, here are the two acceptable ways of formatting a letter like a letter in a manuscript — which, not entirely coincidentally, will also work beautifully for letters that go on for pages and pages. First, unsurprisingly, it may be presented like dialogue, within quotes:

novel-letter-example-long

As with any other multi-paragraph quote, quotation marks do not appear at the end of a paragraph if the opening of the next paragraph is still part of the letter. They do, however, show up at the beginning of each paragraph within the letter, to alert the reader that this is not normal text.

The other option — and this will work with long quotes in nonfiction as well — is to offset the letter text, as one would with a long quote in an academic work. In a non-academic manuscript, however, the offset quote should be double-spaced, like the rest of the text:

novel-letter-example-long2

See? I told you that I’d give you a practical example.

Although this format does work well for long quotes, I’m not a huge fan for letters in fiction or memoir, I must admit. To my eye, it’s not as distinctive as the first option, and there’s always the off chance that a rapidly-skimming reader (like, say, Millicent) might not realize that the salutation is the opening of an offset section.

Don’t laugh; it happens, and not for reasons that necessarily reflect negatively upon the average Millicent’s intelligence. She’s got hundreds of pages to get through in any given day, and skimming eyes can miss details. Don’t fall into the extremely common aspiring writer’s trap of believing that every reader will read — and more importantly, absorb — every single syllable on every page of your entire manuscript.

Sometimes, being obvious is a really, really good idea, especially in a situation where a part of the text is deliberately in a different voice than the rest of the narrative, as is almost always the case with a letter. Bear in mind that the goal here is not to reproduce the letter exactly as it appeared in the story, or as you would like to see it in the published book — it’s to make it absolutely clear when the text is an excerpt from a letter and when it is not.

Like academic publishers, Millicents don’t like to leave such things open for interpretation; it tends to make her bark-prone. Don’t make her guess where a letter — or any other long quote — begins or ends.

That last format would also work for a diary entry — and that’s fortuitous, as it happens, because intrepid commenter Icy was asking about how to format a diary entry just the other day. Again, though, if all the reader needs to know could be summed up in a few short sentences, why not quote the diary entry within the regular text, just as you would an excerpt from a letter?

“But Anne!” diary-lovers exclaim. “I like to see entire diary entries in novels or memoirs! Even if some of the material in the entry is off-topic or even a trifle dull, that just adds to the sense of realism!”

Okay, okay — I know an idée fixe when I hear one; I’m not even going to try to talk you out of that one. (Except to remind you: Millicent’s threshold of boredom is quite a bit lower than the average reader’s. So’s Mehitabel’s; edit accordingly.) Let’s take a gander at all four types of diary entry format on the manuscript page.

Yes, I did indeed say four — because, again, it depends on the type of manuscript in which the diary entry appears. In a scholarly work, it would look like this:

academic diary entry

That’s not a tremendous surprise, right? In a nonfiction book on the subject not aimed at the academic market, however, Nellie’s diary would look like this on the page:

NF diary entry 1

No chance of Millicent’s not spotting the difference between the academic version and the standard format version, is there? To her eye, only the latter is formatted for professional consideration.

If the nonfiction writer preferred not to introduce the date of the entry in the paragraph preceding the diary entry, she could use a NF convention we discussed last week, the subheading. For many writers, there’s a distinct advantage to presenting a diary entry this way: a subheading, the entry would more closely resemble the way a reader might find it in a published book:

NF diary entry b

As you may see, this format takes up more room on the page — not always an inconsiderable matter, to a writer who is trying to edit for length. As with a letter, the more of the formal elements the writer chooses to include, the more space it will take. (Which often begs the question: is verisimilitude it worth taking up an extra few lines of text in a manuscript that’s already a bit on the long side? If so, a less literal rendering of frequent letters and diary entries can be a quick, easy way to reclaim a page or two of lines over the course of an entire manuscript.)

For fiction or memoir, a similar format should be used for diary entries longer than a few lines but less than a couple of pages long — unless several diary entries appear back-to-back. (But of that, more below.) A novelist or memoirist faces a structural problem: it can be considerably harder in fiction to work the entry’s date into the preceding text (although many a fine writer has managed it with such sterling phrases as The minute volume trembled in Gerald’s hand. On May 24, 1910, his mother had written:), so the subheading is a popular choice for indicating the date.

As with other subheadings in fiction, the date should not be in boldface. Let’s take a peek at what the resultant short diary entry would look like on the page.

diary fiction 1

Still clear what is and is not diary entry, isn’t it? By offsetting the text, even a swiftly-skimming Millicent would find it easy to figure out where Nellie’s words end and Gerald’s thoughts begin.

But how, you may well be wondering, would a writer present several short diary entries in a row? If the diary did not go on for more than a couple of pages, all that would be necessary would be to insert a section break between each.

In other words, by skipping a line between ‘em. Like so:

diary fiction 2

If a series of diary entries goes on for pages at a time, however, offsetting them makes less sense; the point of offsetting is, after all, to make a clear distinction between the offset text and the regular text. After the third or fourth page of offsetting in a row, a skimming Millicent (or, more disastrous, an agent flipping forward in the manuscript) might leap to the incorrect conclusion that the margins just aren’t consistent in this manuscript.

May I suggest an elegant alternative, one that would side-step the possibility of this type of misinterpretation entirely? Consider devoting an entire chapter to them, titling that chapter something descriptive and unprovocative like Nellie’s Diary, and formatting all of the entries as regular text with subheadings.

Curious about what that might look like? You’re in luck; here are the first two pages of Chapter Eight:
diary chapter 1

diary chapter 2

Lovely and clear, isn’t it? It’s also, in case those of you who are trying to shorten your manuscripts happen to be interested, the most space-efficient means of presenting these diary entries on the page. What a difference a half an inch of margin on either side makes, eh?

Oh, dear: I can’t justify saying anything more on the subject, and there are still twenty minutes of the flight to go. Maybe if I surreptitiously slip my paperback out of my computer bag, I can have it in front of my face before the misunderstood husband next to me notices I’ve turned off my computer.

Oh, the places I go. Keep up the good work!

The getting-a-book-published basics, part V: home is where…your book will sit in a bookstore?

gentleman hanging his hat3gentleman hanging his hatgentleman hanging his hat2

Remember how I was telling you that some of my best ideas for posts came from readers’ questions. Well, it’s happened again: after yesterday’s post on the various possible outcomes of a query or pitching effort and the advisability of querying more than one agent at a time, sharp-eyed reader Elizabeth asked a very important follow-up question:

Anne, ?I’ve always heard you should query one agent at a time. If they don’t want simultaneous submissions or queries, would they say so on their website or guidelines? … So far I haven’t seen anyone requesting exclusive inquiries.

I’m so glad you brought this up, Elizabeth — I’m sure that you are not the only writer who has heard that old chestnut. It’s one of the most wide-spread pieces of aspiring writer mythology. In its extended form, it runs a little something like this: agents like to get a jump upon other agents, so they insist — not just prefer — that writers query them one at a time; if a writer dares to send out multiple simultaneous queries and one of the agents decides to make an offer, he will become enraged to the point of losing interest in the book project.

Unagented writers have been whispering this one to one another for decades. It’s never been true for queries, and it’s seldom true for even requested materials today.

There’s a practical reason for that: sending out a query, waiting to hear back, getting rejected, and starting afresh would add years to most agent-searching efforts. Agents make their living by discovering new writers; they don’t want the truly talented to give up in despair. Which is what would happen, in many cases: in an environment where many agencies state on their websites that if a querier does not hear back, that means they are not interested, expecting writers to query one at a time would be downright cruel.

Now, the opposite assumption prevails: if an agency does not explicitly state on its website or agency guide listing that it will accept only exclusive queries, its member agents will generally assume that every aspiring writer who queries them are also querying other agents. Which means, in practice, that aspiring writers who have heard the pervasive rumor to the contrary are effectively granting exclusive reads of their queries unasked.

The same holds true for submissions: all too often, aspiring writers will believe that they have no choice but to wait until they receive a reply from a single agent, but most of the time, the agent does not expect such a break. (For an in-depth look at why this is the case, please see the archived posts under the EXCLUSIVES TO AGENTS category at right.)Unless an agent asks point-blank for an exclusive look at a manuscript, or her agency has a policy requiring non-competitive submissions, the writer is free to continue to query and/or submit until she signs a representation contract.

In fact, many agents actually prefer multiple submissions, as long as the writer tells them that others are reviewing the manuscript; to a competitive mind, something others covet is inherently valuable. Heck, I’ve known agents who wait for others to make an offer before even skimming the manuscript on their desks.

To be fair, there are a few — very few — agencies out there who do prefer to have solo peeks at queries, but they usually make this fact ABUNDANTLY clear on their websites and in their listings in the standard agency guides. Quite a few more like to be the only ones looking at requested materials, but again, they don’t make a secret of it; the requests for pages generally include this information. (If you’re curious about what happens to a multiply-submitting writer who already has a manuscript with one agent when another asks for an exclusive peek — a more common dilemma than one might think — please see either the EXCLUSIVES AND MULTIPLE SUBMISSION or WHAT HAPPENS IF MORE THAN ONE AGENT ASKS TO SEE MY MANUSCRIPT category on the archive list at right.)

So never fear, Elizabeth: as long as conscientious queriers like you do their homework, you’re not going to run afoul of the vast majority of agents. But it always, always pays to check before querying or submitting.

Everyone clear on that? Please ask follow-up questions, if not.

In the meantime, let’s get back to yesterday’s hot topic: how Millicent the agency screener can tell almost instantly whether a queried or submitted book is a potential fit for her agency. As it happens, it has a lot to do with whether the queriers or submitters have done their homework: the single most common rejection reason is that the agent approached does not represent that type of book.

True of queries; true of verbal pitches; true of manuscript submissions. If an agent doesn’t already have the connections to sell a book within the current market, it doesn’t make sense for him to consider representing it. (Unless, of course, it’s a type of book so hot at the moment that he believes a trained monkey could sell it.)

I can already feel some of you gearing up to equivocate. “But Anne,” wheedle those of you who believe your book is so inherently marketable that you are eager to learn that trained monkey’s address, “I’m not silly enough to try to interest an exclusively nonfiction agent in my novel, or a fiction-only agent in my memoir. But surely beyond that, a good book’s a good book, right?”

Um, no. At least not to the pros. Where a book sits on a shelf in a well-stocked bookstore is integral to who will be willing to consider representing it — and which editors will be willing to consider acquiring it.

I’ll go even farther: to an agent or editor, there is no such thing as a generic book. Every traditionally-published book currently being sold in North America falls into a book category.

Book categories and why they are your friends
As I brought up earlier in this series, no single agent represents every kind of book there is: like editors at publishing houses, they specialize. While this may seem frustrating or confusing to an aspiring writer new to the agent-seeking process, in the long run, it’s actually in the writer’s interest.

Why, you cry, clutching your pounding head at the apparent paradox? As we saw a few days ago, agents sell their clients’ work by taking it to editors they know already to be interested in the subject matter or genre — and because they make money only if they can sell their clients’ work, it isn’t to their benefit to show a book to anyone who isn’t likely to publish it.

Rather than relying upon vague impressions about who likes what kind of book or time-consuming descriptions of every single book on offer, everyone in the publishing industry uses specific terms when discussing them. Each type of book has a one- or two-word description known in the publishing industry as a book category.

The people an agent knows at publishing houses who she is positive will be interested in the types of books she sells AND respect her opinion about writing enough to take her calls are known as her connections. The better an agent’s track record of selling a particular type of book, the better and more extensive her connections will be. Similarly, if an agency has a long history of selling a certain type of book, even junior agents there may reasonably be expected to have pretty good connections for it.

Thus the frequent appeal of a large and/or well-established agency over a small or newer one: when the agents enjoy good connections, it’s easier for them to slip a first-time author’s manuscript under the right pair of eyes. Everyone benefits, potentially.

However, good connections require agent specialization. The publishing industry is immense and complex; it would be impossible for even the best-established agent to have connections for every conceivable type of book. By concentrating upon just a few kinds of manuscript, then, an agent can concentrate upon his established areas of strength.

What does this mean for the average aspiring writer? Glad you asked.

Writers, too, are specialists — even peripatetic ones like me, who write several different types of book. However broad one’s interests and capacities might be, no one is going to write in every conceivable book category, right? Therefore, it’s in each writer’s interest to have his work represented not by just any old agent, but by one who shares his interests — and, more importantly, who already has the connections to sell his books.

In other words, specialists of a feather should flock together.

Agents are well aware of the substantial benefits of flockery, which is why they are seldom reticent about the kinds of books they want. They will state the book categories they represent right on their websites, in their listings in the standard agency guides, and often in their biographical blurbs in writers’ conference brochures as well.

So there’s no mystery to finding out who represents what: it’s usually as easy as a straightforward Google search or opening a book.

Benefiting from knowledge so obtained, however, requires that an aspiring writer be aware of the book category into which his book most comfortably fits. If you’re not sure how to figure this out, you’ll find some guidance in the aptly-named BOOK CATEGORIES archives on the list at right.

Okay, now you’ve freaked me out. How on earth do I figure out what my category is?
Generally speaking, aspiring writers agonize far too much over making the right choice: just pick one. Remember, the goal here is not to cover every topic in the book, but rather to give your future agent and editor some indication of who is likely to buy your book and on which shelf at Barnes & Noble a reader might eventually find it.

It’s a technical designation, after all, not a summary.

Select one that already exists, if you please, rather than just making one up. You should also pick just one, rather than stringing a few together into an unholy hyphenate like Mystery-Women’s Fiction-Western-Nature Essay. Committing is in your interest, not Millicent’s, after all: if she receives a query for a Science Fiction-Chick Lit – Urban Vampire Epic, and her boss agent represents only chick lit, it’s not a very tough rejection choice.

I know — I would like to read that last one, too.

Do be aware, too, that many categories overlap (mainstream fiction, women’s fiction, and literary fiction, for instance, share quite a bit of common ground), so you may not find a perfect fit. That’s fine; as long as you’re close, your future agent will be able to tell you how to categorize it more accurately.

A great place to start: figure out who is already writing the kind of books you write.

Figuring out the category of already-published books
If you live in the U.S. or Canada, an excellent first step toward committing to a book category is to track down a recently-released paperback or trade paper book similar to yours and examine the back cover. Many publishers will display the book category in one of two places, in the upper-left corner:

sarah-vowells-back-cover-ii

Actually, now that I’ve posted it, I notice that Sarah Vowell’s ASSASSINATION VACATION (a terrific book for anyone interested in political history, by the way; she’s a very funny writer) is listed in two categories: biography and travel. That makes perfect sense, because the book both talks about the lives of various murdered American presidents and follows Ms. Vowell’s journeys to their assassination sites. (Seriously, it’s funnier than it sounds.)

The other common locale for a book category is in the box with the barcode:

jonathan-selwood-back-cover

Okay, so that last photo was a trifle askew. However, since Jonathan Selwood’s THE PINBALL THEORY OF APOCALYPSE (six rows’ worth of passengers on an airplane thought I was having some sort of fit because I was laughing so hard at one point; once I had fended off medical assistance and read the passage in question out loud, the flight attendants came running to find out what was wrong with all of us) partially concerns the aftermath of a major earthquake, being akimbo seems rather appropriate.

I’m not sure if the photo will reproduce clearly enough for you to see it, but Mssr. Selwood’s book is designated merely as fiction. Counter-intuitively, this general-sounding moniker refers to something quite specific: novels for adults that do not fit into a genre designation. For all of you whose first thought upon my telling you that you would need to narrow down your complex 400-page book into a one- or at most two-word category choice, this might be a good selection.

Admittedly, it can be rather a pain to decide which category is right for your work, but once you have determined it, the hunt for an agent to represent it becomes substantially simpler: don’t even consider approaching an agent who doesn’t represent books in your category.

Like granting an agent an unrequested exclusive, it’s just a waste of your time. Unless, of course, you genuinely don’t care if your book gets published next year or forty years hence.

Next time, I shall give you a bird’s-eye view — or, more accurately, a Millicent’s-eye view — of what happens to requested materials after they arrive at an agency. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Are we there yet?

penguin light display

No, that’s not a computer-generated image of post-global warming penguin habitat; that’s what happens when your humble hostess’ hand slips while her mouse is on the brightness slider in iPhoto whilst playing with a picture she took of a neighbor’s holiday decorations. I rather like the result.

But let it be a reminder to us all: once an artist starts tinkering, the resulting revision may not end up looking very much like the original.

Sometimes, that’s all to the good. On a not entirely unrelated topic, last time, I waxed poetic on the subject of boredom.

Not your standard, garden-variety, oh-God-I-can’t-believe-there-are-still-forty-six-minutes-until-my-lunch-break ennui, but the more specific get ON with it! impatience that tends to infect agents, editors, and their screeners if a manuscript drags for more than, say, a quarter of a page at a stretch. Which is, as I’m sure has already occurred to you, an absurdly short amount of text upon which to base any judgment whatsoever. Yet as I pointed out in my last post, the standards by which the rest of the world, including that large segment of it that happens to read books, gauges boredom is not really applicable to your manuscript.

So an aspiring writer has a clear choice to make here: pace purely according to the needs of the story and one’s own personal internal metronome, or structure one’s book-length narratives, especially within their first few pages, with the expectation that they must pass muster even with a reader whose idea of a long wait for an elevator involves just enough time to remove her finger from the call button.

Not certain which route is for you? Here’s a small hint of the direction I would like to see you choose: your submissions will ultimately be more successful if you edit them with an eye to the industry-specific tolerance for slowness.

Did I just hear a groan of disbelief out there? “Wait just an agent-boring minute,” some of you who favor slower pacing exclaim indignantly, “I can’t open three books at my corner bookstore without finding pages upon pages of slow build-up. I’ve read award-winning novels where positively nothing happened until p. 42 — and even then, it was subtle. So there must be agents and editors out there who appreciate slower work. I just need to find them, right?”

Right, with caveats: such agents and editors do exist within the continental United States — but their numbers are hardly legion. Just how rare are they, you ask? You know that overworked metaphor about finding a needle in a haystack? Picture an entire barn, stuffed to the rafters with hay and a single needle.

Still enthused about hunting for it?

Don’t believe me? Fine. But if your pacing tends to be on the slow side, I cannot urge you strongly enough to run, not walk, back to the bookstore where you found those gently-paced domestically-produced books in your book category and take another gander at them. I’d bet an hour of hay-searching that they all exhibit at least one of the following characteristics:

(1)The book in question is not the author’s first published book.

(2) The book in question was not written by an author who is still living.

(3) The book in question was first published outside the United States.

(4) The book in question isn’t a novel.

“Ha!” a couple of book-perusers shout. “I’ve found a slow-paced book — singular — for which (1) – (4) are not true. Start combing that haystack, my friend!”

Not so fast; I wasn’t done with my list of conditions. Shall I venture a guess that the book in your hand is either

(5) not published within the last ten years,

(6) self-published, or

(7) represented by an agent who picked up the author more than ten years ago.

Scratching your heads, wondering how I knew? Let me take these factors one by one, reserving the most common for last.

Wildly different standards of pacing used to be applied to books (points 1, 2, 5, and 7), because the readers at whom new books were aimed had quite a bit more time on their hands than they do now, when their hands are full of Blackberries and iPhones.

Remember, until the 1990 census, the MAJORITY of Americans did not live in cities. How were you gonna keep ‘em down on the farm without a good book?

Now, the publishing industry aims very squarely for city- and suburb-dwellers. Commute readers, for instance, and the fine folks who listen to books-on-tape in their cars. These people have less time to read than, well, pretty much any other human beings in the whole of recorded history, as well as more stimuli to distract them, so agents and editors are now looking for books that will keep the interest of people who read in shorter bursts.

Millicent’s speed-reading habit is starting to seem less outrageous already, isn’t it?

At least, US publishers have swung in the direction of tighter pacing. In other countries (point 3), different standards prevail. Why, in the U.K., many pros consider it downright stylish for nothing to happen for the first 50 pages, a pace that would make anyone in a Manhattan-based agency reject it by page 4 at the latest.

Of course, self-publishing authors (6) need not concern themselves with prevailing pacing norms in the traditional published market. Yet since it’s SIGNIFICANTLY harder for author-financed books to gain shelf space at brick-and-mortar bookstores these days — most of the big chains, like most libraries, have traditionally-published books only policies — you might not encounter any at all in your bookstore crawl.

One also encounters slower pacing — and more uneven pacing in general — in nonfiction books (4), especially memoirs. This is often true even if the author is as American as apple pie, his agency as New York-oriented as Woody Allen, and his publisher as market-minded as, well, an NYC-based publisher. So why the tolerance for a slower NF pace?

Simple: nonfiction is not generally sold on the entire book; it’s sold on a single chapter and a book proposal. Thus, the agent and acquiring editor commit to the project before they have seen the final work. This allows slower-paced books to slip through the system.

Which brings me to the first on my list (and the last in most aspiring writers’ hearts), the comparatively lax pacing standards applied to new books by authors who already have a recognized fan base. Established writers have leeway of which the aspiring can only dream.

To be specific, the kind of dream where one rends one’s garments and goes on frustrated rampages of minor destruction through some symbolically-relevant dreamscape. The torrid penguin hell above, perhaps?

As I am surely not the first to point out, the more famous the writer, the less likely his editor is to stand up to him and insist upon edits. This is why successful authors’ books tend to get longer and longer over the course of their careers: they have too much clout to need to listen to the opinions of others anymore.

I’m looking at you, Stephen King. Although I am continually recommending your book on craft and keeping the faith to those new to the game.

A writer seeking an agent and publisher for a first book, particularly a novel, virtually never enjoys this level of power, unless she happens already to be a celebrity in another field. Indeed, at the submission stage, the aspiring writer typically does not have any clout at all, which is why I think it is so important for writers’ associations to keep an eye on how their members are treated. (At a good conference, for instance, the organizers will want to know IMMEDIATELY if any of the attending agents or editors is gratuitously mean during a pitch meeting. Seriously, tell them.)

Since the first-time writer needs to get her submission past the most impatient reader of all, the agency screener, she doesn’t have the luxury of all of those extra lines, pages, and chapters. The pacing needs to be tight.

How tight? Well, let’s just that only first-time authors ever hear that tedious speech about how expensive paper, ink, and binding have become.

Here’s some more bad news: the pacing bar has definitely risen in recent years, rendering most of the books currently taking up shelf space at the local megastore are not a particularly good guide to pacing for first-time novelists. Five years ago, the industry truism used to be that a good manuscript should have conflict on every single page — not a bad rule of thumb to bear in mind, incidentally, while you are self-editing. Now, the expectation is seldom verbalized, but agents, editors, and their screeners routinely stop reading if they are bored for even a few lines.

Particularly, as we saw in the HOW NOT TO WRITE A FIRST PAGE series earlier this year (conveniently preserved under the category of the same name on the archive list at right) if those few lines happen to lie the first page of the submission. Bearing that in mind, here are a couple of sensible questions for any self-editor to ask himself at the end of every paragraph — and to ask the trusted first readers to whom I sincerely hope each and every one of is are showing your work BEFORE submitting it to the pros to flag:

At any point in the preceding paragraph, has my attention wandered? Did I ever lose interest for more than, say, ten seconds?

Such questions are not a mark of authorial insecurity — the willingness to ask them is an indicator that an aspiring writer is being very practical about the demands of the publishing world now, rather than ten years ago. Or a century ago. Or in the U.K.

Hey, professional readers scan those pages closely; most Millicents are simply too overwhelmed with submissions say to themselves, “Well, I’m bored now, but maybe the pace will pick up in a page or two.” Don’t test her patience.

Now that I’ve thoroughly depressed you, I’m going to sign off for today; my last couple of posts have been, I’m told, a trifle long to wedge into the schedules of last-minute holiday shoppers. So I’m going to show that I can take my own advice and know when my writing should take up less space.

May the season be bright — and keep up the good work!

Getting out of your protagonist’s head and into the — text?

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Sorry about the sporadic posts of late, campers — the Grumpy Relative’s health woes continue, and I’ve been trying to spend as much time with GR as humanly possible of late. Turns out that keyboards are surprisingly noisy when someone is trying to sleep.

Tonight, though, I may bang on the keys as much as I like. That’s fortunate, because I’ve been eager to get back to our ongoing discussion of techniques to tighten up a sluggish manuscript.

Standard disclaimer: because every manuscript is as different as the proverbial snowflake, there’s no way to come up with a list of pacing rules that applicable to every one. As I mentioned last time, every writer has preferred means of slowing down or speeding up text.

Thus my asking you to take marking pens to your manuscript. To identify what could use trimming, you need to recognize your particular writing patterns. So let’s get back to the nitty-gritty, shall we?

In my last post, I asked you — politely, I hope — to sit down with some of your favorite chapters throughout your book and differentiate by colored markings abstract vs. concrete statements of characterization.

You remember the difference, right? Abstract statements bottom-line a character’s ever-changing array of feelings, thoughts, actions: Pierre felt morose, Jerry was sexy, Maura was a tall, cool hunk of woman, etc. Such sentences can save a lot of time in a narrative, quickly providing the reader a sense of what’s going on and who is doing it.

Sometimes, that’s a technique that can come in very handy. When an action scene, for instance, suddenly requires fifteen thugs to jump Our Hero, describing each one individually and in a nuanced manner would slow the scene down to a crawl. Or in a scene where the action is pretty mundane, a swift summary statement like Bernadette spent the next fifteen hours yawning her way through book shelving can act like a fast-forward button for the narration.

By contrast, concrete characterization statements depict what a character is saying, doing, feeling, and so forth in a particular moment. In a story told primarily through concrete statements (and generally speaking, writing with a high concrete/abstract ratio is considered more stylistically polished), the narrative expects the reader to draw conclusions about what characters are like based upon an array of specific actions, feelings, words, and so forth, rather than simply providing a summary statement.

Sound familiar? It should: this is yet another manifestation of everyone’s favorite writing bugbear, the difference between showing and telling.

Obviously, every manuscript ever produced needs both, and the appropriate ratio of abstract to concrete varies quite a bit by genre. Think about it: could you really get away with a summary sentence like, “She had legs that stretched all the way from here to Kalamazoo,” in a genre other than hardboiled mystery, bless its abstraction-loving fan base? (All right, I’ll admit it: one of the all-time best compliments I have ever received came from a writer of hardboiled; he commented on a dress I was wearing by telling me, “You look like trouble in a B movie.” I cherish that.)

That’s one of the primary reasons agents and editors tend to expect aspiring and published writers alike to read a whole lot of recently-published books within the category they write, in case any of you conference-goers out there had been wondering: to gain a working sense of the abstract/concrete statement ratio habitual readers of that type of book will expect to see. (Some other popular reasons for keeping up with the latest releases: learning what that particular readership likes, figuring out what is and isn’t appropriate vocabulary for that specific readership, gaining currency with what’s being published right now, rather than in, say, 1858, and other practical benefits.)

Because, let’s face it, there’s no such thing as a chapter, paragraph, or even sentence that’s appropriate for every book in which the creative mind might choose to have it appear. Context matters — and so does book category.

How, you ask? Avoiding summary statements wherever possible may serve a high-end women’s fiction writer very well, for example, but actually harm certain types of genre novel. The rash of semicolons that might make an academic book look learned is unlikely to fly in a Western — but you’d be surprised how much more acceptable it would be in a science fiction novel. And while those of us devoted to literary fiction do occasionally marvel at a story intended exclusively for a college-educated readership (not a bad definition of literary fiction, incidentally) written in very simple language, the vocabulary range of most literary fiction is quite different from that of well-written YA.

And don’t even get me started on how much more acceptable rampant summary statements are in most types of nonfiction than in fiction. Memoirs in particular tend to rely upon them pretty heavily. (Why? Well, as a reader, how eager are you to hear every detail of what happened to even a very interesting real-life narrator over a two-year period? If a memoirist steers too clear of abstract statements like Auntie Mame’s My puberty was bleak, she’s going to end up expending quite a bit of precious page space on illustrating just how bleak it was, right?) There’s just no substitute for familiarity with one’s chosen book category.

Hey, here’s a hint to pass along to the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver: how about stuffing a grateful writer’s stocking with the five best books released within the last year in his or her book category?

(Note to those of you being driven mad by my frequent use of the term: there’s no such thing as a published book in the United States market that doesn’t fall into a particular book category, no matter how genre-busting it may be. That’s simply how publishers and booksellers think of books. For some tips on figuring out which conceptual container might best house your manuscript for marketing purposes, please see the BOOK CATEGORIES posts on the archive list at right.)

So much for my carefully non-judgmental speech on the subject of abstract vs. concrete statements. That being said, however, it is worth noting that on any given reading day, the average agent, editor, or contest judge sees a whole lot more summary sentences in the course of any given day of manuscript-screening than concrete ones.

Which, obviously, can render a genuinely original telling detail quite a refreshment for weary professional eyes. So, generally speaking, if you can increase the frequency with which such concrete details appear, you’ll be better off in most types of submission.

Ready to take gander at the ratio in what you’ve been submitting — or are planning to submit to professional scrutiny anytime soon? Fantastic. Let’s go ahead and dig up those yellow-and-red pages from last time. But this time grab a third color of pen –- let’s say green, and complete the Rastafarian triumvirate — and…

1. Mark all the sentences where your protagonist (or any other character whose thoughts are audible to the reader) THINKS a response to something that has just happened, instead of saying it aloud or the narrative’s demonstrating the reaction indirectly.

These kinds of sentences are hard to show out of context, so bear with me through a small scene. The sentences destined for marker overcoats are in caps:

I CAN’T BELIEVE SHE SAID THAT, BERTRAND THOUGHT.

WHY WASN’T HE ANSWERING? “What’s wrong?” Emintrude asked, rubbing her tennis-sore ankles. “Are you feeling sick to your stomach again?”

OH, WOULD ONLY THAT HIS ONGOING DISSATISFACTION WITH THEIR MARRIAGE STEMMED FROM A SOURCE AS SIMPLE AS NAUSEA. WAS HIS WIFE HONESTLY SO SOULLESS THAT SHE COULDN’T FEEL THEIR WELL-MANICURED LAWN CREEPING UP THE DOORSTEP TO SMOTHER THEM IN SEDUCTIVE NORMALCY? “No,” Bertrand said. “I just had a long day at work.”

Remember, you’re not judging the quality of writing by determining what to highlight, or sentencing any given observation to the chopping block by marking it. You are simply making patterns in the text more visible.

Finished? Okay, now humor me a little and get a fourth color of pen — purple, anyone? — and…

2. Mark any sentence where your protagonist’s reactions are conveyed through bodily sensation of some sort. Or depicted by the world surrounding him, or through some other concrete detail.

You’re probably going to find yourself re-marking some of the red sentences from last time around, but plow ahead nevertheless, please.

Starting to notice some narrative patterns? Expressing character reaction via physicality or projection is a great way to raise the telling little detail quota in your manuscripts.

Does this advice seem familiar? It should, for those of you who regularly attend writing workshops or have worked with an editor. It is generally expressed by the terse marginal admonition, “Get out of your character’s head!”

I wish feedback-givers would explain this advice more often; too many writers read it as an order to prevent their characters from thinking. But that’s not what “Get out of your character’s head!” means, at least not most of the time. Generally, it’s an editor’s way of TELLING the writer to stop telling the reader about the character’s emotional responses through dialogue-like thought. Instead, (these feedback-givers suggest) SHOW the emotion through details like bodily sensation, noticing a telling detail in the environment that highlights the mood, or…

Well, you get the picture. It’s yet another way that editors bark at writers, “Hey, you: show, don’t tell!”

What will happen to your manuscript if you take this advice to heart? Well, among other things, it will probably be more popular with professional readers like our old pal, Millicent the agency screener — because, believe me, protagonists who think rather than feel the vast majority of the time disproportionately people the novels submitted to agencies and publishing houses. And when I say vast majority of the time, I mean in practically every submission they receive.

To put it bluntly, a novel that conveys protagonist response in other ways a significant proportion of the time will enjoy the advantage of surprise.

Why are characters who think their responses — essentially summarizing what they might have said or done in response instead of saying or doing it — so VERY common, especially in memoir? One theory is that we writers are so often rather quiet people, more given to thinking great comebacks than saying them out loud. (A girl’s best friend is her murmur, as Dorothy Parker used to say.) Or maybe we just think our protagonists will be more likable if they think nasty things about their fellow characters, rather than saying them out loud.

That, or there are a whole lot of writers out there whose English teachers made them read HAMLET one too many times, causing them to contract Chronic Soliloquization Disorder.

Whichever it is, most submissions in practically every book category would be better received by Millicent if they exhibited this type of writing less. Done with care, avoiding long swathes of thought need not stifle creative expression.

Don’t believe me? Okay, let’s revisit our little scene of domestic tranquility from above, this time grounding the characters’ reactions in the flesh and the room:

By the time Ermintrude was midway through her enthusiastic account of the office party, Bertrand’s stomach had tied itself into the Gordian knot. The collected swords of every samurai in the history of Japan would have been helpless against it.

“Bertrand!” Ermintrude’s back snapped into even greater perpendicularity to her hard chair. “You’re not listening. Upset tummy again?”

He could barely hear her over the ringing of his ears. He could swear he heard their well-manicured lawn creeping up the doorstep to smother them in seductive normalcy. The very wallpaper seemed to be gasping in horror at the prospect of having to live here any longer. “No,” Bertrand said. “I just had a long day at work.”

See the difference? The essentials are still here, just expressed in a less obviously thought-based manner.

Go back and take another look at your marked-up manuscript. How green is it? How heavy purple is that prose?

Sorry; I couldn’t resist setting you up for that one.

No, but seriously, it’s a good question: all of the types of sentence you just identified are in fact necessary to a successful narrative, so ideally, you have ended up with a very colorful sheaf of paper. Using too many of one type or another, believe it or not, can be boring for the reader, just as using the same sentence structure over and over lulls the eye into skimming.

If you doubt this, try reading a government report sometime. One declarative sentence after another can be stultifying for the reader.

The telling details of your manuscript will be nestled in those red- and purple-marked sentences – note how frequently they appear in your chapters. If you find more than half a page of yellow and/or green between patches of darker colors, you might want to go back and mix up your abstract/concrete ratio more.

If you find any pages that are entirely yellow and/or green, I would suggest running, not walking, to the nearest used bookstore, buying three or four battered paperback editions of books that sell well in your chosen genre, and carting them home to perform the four-marker experiment on them. Could you revise your manuscript so that the color ratio in it replicates that in those books?

Yes, this is a time-consuming exercise, now that you mention it. A test like this is rather nerve-wracking to apply to your own work, but it’s a great way to start getting in the habit of being able to see your pages as someone who does not know you might. (If you want to get a REALLY clear sense of it, trade chapters with a writer you trust, and apply the same experiment.)

Stellar self-editing takes bravery, my friends – but I know you’re up to it. Keep up the good work!

Pitching 101, part IV, in which I finally stop giving preliminary cautions and start talking about the building blocks of a terrific pitch. Oh, and you’re going to have to pick a book category.

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Yes, it’s true: in the fourth installment in this series, I’m moving beyond telling you how to prepare for a conference where you might be able to pitch your book to an agent or editor, either formally or informally, and proceeding toward how to decide what to say when you get there. While some might shake their heads, muttering, “Why on earth is she going over every nuance, when we’re already deep in literary conference season?”, well, I have two answers.

First, for the many, many aspiring writers who (unwisely, I think) put off constructing (or often even thinking about) their pitches until the eve of the conference, I’ve established a super-quick crash course in how to do it: you’ll find it under the aptly-named HOW TO WRITE A PITCH AT THE LAST MINUTE category on the archive list on the lower right-hand side of this page.

Second, years of experience teaching good writers to pitch lead me to believe that just telling you what to do without helping you understand why each part of the pitch is necessary in order to market your work persuasively to agents and editors — including parts that are usually left out of the three-line pitch entirely — usually results not only in less effective pitches, but writers not particularly comfortable with giving them. Call me zany — and believe me, there are plenty of local conference organizers who do — but I just don’t believe that pitching advice that tells writers to blurt out a summary of their books as fast as humanly possible and leaves it at that is actually all that helpful come pitching time.

Hey, I warned you that my approach to pitching was a bit unorthodox.

Contrary to the prevailing wisdom, I believe that the definition of pitching successfully is not merely being able to cram an entire 400-page book into three sentences and spit it out coherently. Instead, I define pitching success as the ability to speak fluently and persuasively about a book in terms that make an agent or editor likely to say, “Gee, I’d like to read that. Please send me the first 50 pages right away.”

I define a pitch’s success by its results, not its conformity to a pre-set model to be used in all instances. I know: radical.

Thinking of it this way makes it far, far easier to make it through the pitch preparation process: instead of grumblingly adhering to an evidently arbitrary and difficult standard of presentation, you’re gearing up to have all of the marvelously fulfilling conversations that will define the rest of your life as a professional writer.

Much nicer to wrap your brain around than croaking out the bare bones of your premise in 10 seconds, isn’t it?

Now that you are prepared for my advice to be a bit offbeat, I am not afraid to shock you with my first unorthodox suggestion:

DON’T start the pitch-prepping process by sitting down and trying to summarize your book’s plot or argument in just a few lines. Instead, let your first step be figuring out where your book would be placed on the bookshelves of Barnes & Noble, Borders, or a similar chain bookstore.

Why? Because this is the single most important piece of information you can tell an agent or editor about what you write. And because everyone in the US publishing industry talks about the demarcations in the same terms, you’re going to communicate a whole lot better with them if you use the book categories they already know. Which are:

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

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

Actually, there are a few more, but these are the main ones. For more detailed analysis, again, please see the BOOK CATEGORIES heading on the list at right. Also, the major genre’s writers’ associations tend to provide precise definitions of each subgenre on their websites. But these are enough to get you started.

Pick one.

Before anybody out there starts to freak out about the prospect of having to select the perfect pre-fab label, let me hasten to add: aspiring writers are not singled out for punishment in having to do this; literally every professional author does as well. It’s a technical designation, after all, not a summary of the book’s contents.

And contrary to popular belief, choosing does not define a writer for life: the book category is merely the conceptual box into which all books aimed at a particular already-established market are placed. Literally every book published by a North American publisher has been assigned to such a category.

So calm down and ask yourself: in a marketing display, what kind of books would be grouped around it? How would it be placed so as to suggest that if the potential buyer liked book X, he would probably be interested in your book as well?

Lest any of you fiction writers are tempted to say, “Oh, my book would just be in the literature section, filed under my last name,” that’s not a good enough answer. Nor is, “Oh, I’m a genre-buster — I don’t want to limit myself with a label.”

That kind of answer just isn’t useful to an agent — on order to sell your book to an editor, your agent is going to need to be able to tell him right off the bat what kind of a book it is, not merely that she thinks it’s well written. Similarly, in order to argue that your book belongs in next year’s catalog, an editor is going to have to tell the rest of the folks at the publishing house the book category, just as the marketing department is going to have to tell the distributor, and the distributor the bookstore buyer.

Thus, the book category is in fact the industry shorthand for where a book should be directed in order to sell, at every level. So it follows as night the day that aspiring writers who equivocate between categories because they believe (not entirely without reason) that their books are too complicated to be shoved into a single conceptual box, or even refuse define their work automatically render it harder for all of these people to do their jobs.

And that’s not the world’s best idea, because if you want them to assist you in getting your writing into print, it’s really much more in your interests than theirs to make it as easy as possible to help you.

Let me repeat that, because it’s vital and I’ve never heard any other pitching advisor mention it: aspiring writers who go out of their way to make it easy for folks in the publishing industry to help them succeed tend to garner a heck of a lot more help than those who make it difficult.

Partially, that’s just human nature: a person for whom it’s a pain to do favors tends not to have others leaping forward to do him any. But partially, it’s also because most writers inadvertently make it difficult by not learning how to talk about or present their work professionally.

Which leads me to the other, utterly selfish reason that you should figure out the proper category for your book, and pronto: once you know where the pros would envision your book selling best, you will have both an infinitely easier time pitching AND finding agents to query. Suddenly, those cryptic lists of book types in agents’ guides and opaque conference bio blurbs will spring to life for you.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of aspiring writers do not do their homework in this respect — and believe me, from the pros’ perspective, it shows in their pitches. The industry defines types of books far more specifically than writers tend to do — and, as I’ve been pointing out over the last few days, no agent represents every kind of book. Since they define their work by book category, writers’ reluctance to commit just seems like ignorance of how books are sold.

Does that conclusion seem harsh? Actually, it isn’t, particularly: the sad fact is, the vast majority of aspiring writers out there have only a vague idea of how their books would be marketed to booksellers. So I’m here to tell you: the FIRST question any editor would ask an agent about a book, or a committee would ask an editor, or a book buyer would ask a publishing house’s marketing department is, “What’s the book category?”

But I even as I typed that last bit, I could sense that some of you out there were still feeling abused for having to adhere to the established categories, feeling (and not without some justification) that there’s more to art than marketing labels. If you feel that way, you’re certainly not alone: you can’t throw a piece of bread at a writers’ conference anywhere in North America without hitting a writer who believes that his artistic freedoms are endangered by the very request. Or a writer who has fretted for a year about picking the right category. And anyone who has ever listened to pitches for a living can tell you horror stories about writers who wasted half (or even all) of their pitch appointments complaining about it.

To save any of you from ending up as the subject of such a tale. let’s take a look at how the average pitcher deals with this fundamental question, and why the standard oh, my God, don’t make me pick! responses tend not to impress agents and editors very much.

In the first place, writers often mishear the question as, “So, what is your book about?” rather than what it is, a straightforward request for marketing information. Thus, they all too often give exactly the same response they would give anybody who asked the more general latter question at a cocktail party:

“Well (gusty sigh), it’s a novel…mostly, it’s women’s fiction, but it’s not really a romance novel. I guess it’s also suspense, with thriller elements. And the writing is definitely literary.”

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

Remember, agents and editors think about books as products, rather than merely as works of art or expressions of the inner workings of the writers’ souls. And as products, agents need to sell books to editors, and editors to editorial committees, and marketing departments to distributors, and distributors to bookstores, and bookstores to readers.

I assure you, a vaguely-defined book is much harder to drag through that process. And much, much, MUCH harder for a writer to pitch successfully.

So it’s an excellent idea to tell them up front — as in both your pitch and the first few lines of your query letter — what kind of book it is. But in order to make sense to people in the industry, you need to speak their language: pick one of their recognized categories. In other words, don’t just guess, don’t lump a couple of categories together into a Frankenstein’s monster of a hyphenate, and don’t just make up a category.

How do you know where to start? Glad you asked — you know how I love step-by-step instructions.

1. Learn where book categories lurk.
In this age of rampant standardization of book packaging, this isn’t all that hard to do. Take a gander at the back jacket of most recently-released hardcover books: you will find, usually in either the upper left corner or just above the barcode, a one- or two-word description. That is the book category.

Not sure how to find it? Okay, here’s the back cover of Sarah Vowell’s ASSASSINATION VACATION (a terrific book for anyone interested in political history, by the way; she’s a very funny writer). Follow the lead of my pen:

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You may notice that her publisher has listed the book in two categories: biography and travel. That makes perfect sense, because the book both talks about the lives of various murdered American presidents and follows Ms. Vowell’s journeys to their assassination sites. (I’m not kidding: it honestly is very funny.)

The other common locale for a book category, especially on trade paperbacks and softcover books, is in the box with the barcode. Here’s the back of Jonathan Selwood’s hilarious THE PINBALL THEORY OF APOCALYPSE:

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Okay, so that last photo was a trifle askew. However, since the novel partially concerns the aftermath of a major earthquake, that seems rather appropriate.

2. Find some recently-released books similar to yours and check how they’ve been categorized.
Think about your book. Can you come up with, say, 3-5 titles that are similar to it in subject matter, tone, approach, voice, etc., that have come out in North America within the last five years? Not similar in ALL respects, necessarily — just one or two may be enough to steer you in the right direction

If you can’t come up with any that are remotely similar, I suspect that you’re not overly familiar with the current book market — a serious liability for anyone hoping to pitch or query a book to someone who makes a living following such trends.

If all else fails, start feeding relevant search terms into Amazon and see what comes up.

3. See how the books on your list have been categorized by their publishers.
Once you have your list, go to a bookstore (either physically or online) and see where those books are housed. That is, most likely, where your book would be categorized, too.

4. From among those categories, select the one that intuitively seems to fit your book best.
Book categorization is not a perfect science — pick the one that comes NEAREST to where you envision the book being shelved in a big bookstore. (Since I’ve written about this topic quite frequently and I’m trying to get us through the pitching basics fairly quickly, for more specific tips on how to do this, please see the BOOK CATEGORIES heading on the list at right.)

Fair warning: many categories overlap — fiction, women’s fiction, and literary fiction, for instance, share quite a bit of common ground. Choose the one that you like best; as long as you’re close, your future agent will be able to tell you how to categorize it.

Whoa, I didn’t even have time to move my hand to the return key before I felt a mighty gust of cries of WAIT! coming from out there. “But Anne,” breathless voices cry, “I honestly don’t know how to categorize my novel. Is it literary, mainstream, or just plain fiction — and will agents hurt me if I guess wrong?”

This is an excellent question — one that I covered at some length in several posts; I would encourage you to go back over this post, this one, and this. You might also try asking yourself few questions about your book:

(a) Does your book assume a college-educated readership? Does it try experiments with structure and language? Is character development more important to the reading experience than plot? If you answered yes to at least two of these, literary fiction would probably be the safest choice.

(b) Is your book aimed at a general adult audience, or is more heavily weighted toward a female readership? (Okay, so this is kind of a trick question, since women buy over 80% of the fiction sold in the US and almost all of the literary fiction, but bear with me here.) If it is genuinely aimed at a general market, fiction would be a good choice.

If it does assume a female readership, or if the protagonist is female, consider women’s fiction. And just in case any of you are harboring the surprisingly pervasive prejudice that women’s fiction label is automatically pejorative: women’s fiction is far and away the best-selling fiction category.

(c) Does your book have a filmic, easily-summarized plot? Are the style and storytelling technique similar to a bestselling author’s? If so, it might be mainstream fiction (also known as commercial fiction).

(d) Is your protagonist relatively young — and have sex with more than one partner/do drugs/have a drinking problem? Does the plot deal with adult-themed issues that probably wouldn’t make it onto network television in the dinner hour? If so, it might be adult fiction or contemporary fiction.

(e) Are all of the criteria in #4 true, but the protagonist is female, under 40, have a sense of humor, doesn’t pursue significant interests in the book OTHER than having sex with more than one partner/doing drugs/having a drinking problem — and yet is not a memoir by Elizabeth Wurtzel? If so, you might want to consider the chick lit category, especially if your protagonist’s interest in shoes and handbags borders on the pathological.

Before any chick lit writer gets all defensive on me, allow me to add that there is some chick lit out there does deal with serious subject matter (see the comments on this post); like many, many other book category distinctions, the difference between women’s fiction and chick lit is often a matter of tone. If you write in either category and are unsure what that means, it would be a grand idea to walk into a bookstore, ask a savvy clerk to point out the three best recent releases in women’s fiction and chick lit, and read the first few pages of each.

All that being said, it’s not completely unheard-of for women’s fiction with a young protagonist to be assigned to chick lit simply due to the sex and age of the writer, or for an agent to decide to submit a book to chick lit editors as chick lit and women’s fiction editors as women’s fiction. Ultimately, categorization is a call the agent to make; all you’re trying to do in a pitch or query is to find a label in the general ballpark.

Which leads me to…

(f) Are you planning on pitching or querying an agent who likes to make this call himself? In that case, you might be best off simply labeling it fiction — but you’re unlikely to know that unless you’ve spoken to the agent personally. If this is the case, you should pick the closest label, then nod smilingly when the agent to whom you are pitching says you are mistaken.

Hey, it’s how those of us already signed with agents do it. I even know a quite prominent author who claims that she doesn’t know for sure whether any particular piece is women’s fiction or memoir until her agent has sold it as one or the other.

All that being said, try not to get too discouraged if your book’s category does not immediately pop to mind. Often, it is genuinely a hard call. Just do your best.

5. Use the book category you’ve chosen to describe your manuscript whenever you are communicating with anyone in the publishing industry.

Feel free to use it ubiquitously. Its uses are myriad: in your pitch, in your query letter, on your title page (if you don’t know where this info should go, please see the TITLE PAGES category on the list at right), in checking an agent’s conference blurb or listing in an agency guide to see whether she represents your kind of book, whenever anyone at a literary event asks, “So, what do you write?”

But whatever you do, NEVER tell anyone in the industry that you have a “fiction novel” – this is a very, very common pet peeve amongst agents and editors. By definition, a novel IS fiction, always, just as a memoir is always nonfiction. (Technically, anyway. Don’t even get me started on how many memoirists have found their books under just-the-facts scrutiny over the last couple of years.)

Some of you are still squirming under the necessity of choosing, aren’t you? “But Anne,” I hear some confused would-be pitchers and queriers cry, “I occasionally see categories other than the ones you’ve listed on book jackets and when authors speak about their work. Therefore, you must be wrong about agents and editors expecting to us to label our books, and I can refer to my manuscript any way I like — or not categorize it at all.”

Oh, that old saw. Naturally, there are new categories popping up all the time, a side effect of the expansive creative impulse of the human mind. And there’s no international police force compelling every published author out there to speak of their books in the same terms.

That doesn’t mean, however, that it behooves an aspiring writer to make up a book category. All one has to do is check out any of the standard agency guides to see why: when asked what kinds of books they represent, agents don’t use descriptions that are only meaningful to themselves and their closest friends; the vast majority of the time, they use the standard category designations.

That being said, generally speaking, it’s safer to pick one of the standards rather than to insist upon a category that has only been introduced recently: if it’s too new, the agent or editor to whom you are pitching may not yet be aware of it yet. (Hey, it happens.)

When in doubt, pick a more general category over a hyper-specific one. Or at any rate, select the more marketable one. It increases your chances of your work sounding to an agent like something that will sell.

But again, try not to stress about it too much. Believe me, if you are off just a little, an agent who is intrigued by your work will nudge you in the right direction, rather than writing you off because you picked the wrong sub-category. In fact, it’s not at all uncommon for an agent to sign a writer and then say, “You know, Ghislaine, I think your book would sell better as women’s fiction than mainstream fiction. Let’s market it as that.”

And if Ghislaine is a savvy writer, she won’t immediately snap back, “Why is it women’s fiction rather than mainstream — because the author possesses ovaries?” (Not all that an uncommon an underlying reason for the choice, actually; some of my work has been categorized that way on apparently no other pretext.) Instead, market-ready writer that she is, she will respond, “If you think it’s a better idea, William. But do you mind explaining the logic to me, so I may consider how you’ve planning to market my work when I’m writing my next novel?”

THAT, my friends, is language the entire industry understands. This is a business where finesse definitely counts.

Hey, I don’t make up the lingua franca; I just speak it. (For more on the ins and outs of defining women’s fiction (particularly when a book occupies the rather broad territory where women’s, literary, and mainstream overlap), please see the three posts beginning here.)

6. What to do if you just cannot bring yourself to apply step 5 to the category that makes the most sense
If you truly get stuck in mid-decision, here is a sneaky trick: go to a well-stocked bookstore and track down a friendly-looking clerk. Describe your book to her in very general terms, and ask her to direct you to the part of the store where you might find something similar.

Then start pulling books off the shelf and examining their back covers for categories.

Hint: don’t be too specific in your description to the clerk — and whatever you do, don’t mention that you wrote the book you are describing. “My favorite book is a suspenseful romantic comedy about murderous contraltos set in the Middle Ages — would you have anything close to that?” tends to yield better results than, “I’m looking for a book about an opera diva who lives in 9th-century Milan, has scores of amorous misadventures, and strangles her conductor/lover. Where would I find that in your store?” The latter is more likely to turn up a puzzled shrug than useful directions.

Repeat in as many bookstores as necessary to start seeing a pattern in where you’re being advised to look. That location is where your book is most likely to be shelved.

Yes, this process can be a pain, but stating your category up front will simply make you come across as more professional, because it’s the way that agents and editors talk about books. Agencies do not impose this requirement in order to torment writers, you know; the category you pick will determine to a very great extent whether any given agent or editor will be even remotely interested in your work.

Because yes, Virginia, there are professionals who will simply not read a query or listen to a pitch unless it is for a book in one of their pre-chosen categories. Agents and editors LIKE making snap judgments, you see. It saves them time.

Sorry to be the one to break it to you.

To put a more positive spin on the phenomenon, think of it this way: if you tell an agent immediately what kind of book you are pitching, the busy little squirrels in her brain can start those wheels spinning toute suite, so she can instantly start thinking of editors to whom to sell your book.

Since that is precisely what you want her to be doing, what are you complaining about?

If you’re still a bit confused and want more help fine-tuning your selection, again, I would recommend taking a gander at the posts under the BOOK CATEGORIES heading at right. In the past, I have spent more time on this particular point; I could easily spend a week on this point alone. (And have, as it happens.)

And if you’ve narrowed it down to a single category, congratulations! You’re ready to move on to Step 2 of writing your pitch.

Which, not entirely coincidentally, will be the subject of my next post. (Hey, I told you I liked step-by-step directions.) Keep up the good work!

The marketability of the unexpected, by guest blogger Mary Hutchings Reed

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Welcome back to our ongoing-but-episodic series on the various species of censorship authors today face. While we’re going to be talking about formal, state-sponsored censorship later in this series, this month, I’ve asked a number of the most interesting authors I know to share their thoughts on ways in which writers are discouraged from writing what they want — and how they want.

Today, I am delighted to introduce the brilliantly incisive Mary Hutchings Reed, author of the startling COURTING KATHLEEN HANNIGAN a Star’s “Hot Book of the Week.” Based on Mary’s personal knowledge of what goes on behind those beautifully venerred law firm doors, lawyer Kathleen Hannigan shrewdly plays the partnership game with her whole heart until she is called to testify in a sex discrimination suit and is forced to choose between her partners and her principles.

A prolific writer, Mary writes across a wide variety of categories, from novels to short stories (including one in the most recent issue of Ars Medica to, believe it or not, a well-received musical comedy about golf. But her first novel is why I blandished her into speaking to us today.

COURTING KATHLEEN HANNIGAN is a book that flies in the face of prevailing notions of what goes on in law firms — including those behind-the-scenes thrillers written by authors who, like Mary, have spent years in the trenches. Unlike some of those glossier works, this reads like the real thing because it is.

Why might that have proven problematic for the book at the marketing stage? Well, remember our chat a few weeks ago about book categories, those conceptual containers into which a manuscript must fit in order to be marketable to a major US publisher? While the industry is always looking for fresh book concepts, as well as new spins on well-worn stories, it’s sometimes difficult to convince agents and editors that an audience exists for a kind of book that doesn’t fit comfortably into any of those boxes.

Why, you ask? By definition, the only way to demonstrate positively that there are readers already eager to buy a story would be the successful recent publication of a similar story, right? So how one prove that readers would want to buy a particular kind of book, but have not yet hat the chance.

COURTING KATHLEEN HANNIGAN was not the kind of book agents and editors tend to expect people with Mary’s staggeringly impressive credentials to write — and this made it a rather problematic to market as well. But I’ll let Mary tell you all about that. (If after you read today’s post, you want to learn more about CKH’s very interesting road to publication, please see my interview series on the subject beginning here.)

I shall only add this: women writers (especially good literary ones like Mary) often get pigeonholed, as any agented mainstream or literary fiction writer who has been stunned to find her work summarily recategorized as women’s fiction can attest. If a writer is female and so is the author, yet the novel is not genre fiction, that category assignment tends to be automatic.

And that can be limiting, because within women’s fiction, a protagonist is expected first and foremost to be likable. Of course, depending upon genre, all protagonists are subject to the criticism of not being likable Which makes some sense, since the reader is going to need to feel positively enough about the protagonist in order to want to follow him or her as the plot unfolds, right? Yet as those of you who have been pitching, querying, or submitting a novel or memoir centered on a strong female protagonist may already know from personal experience, highly educated female characters — like, say, lawyers — or ones engaged in professions where aggressiveness is a positive trait — like, say, lawyers — are often, if not dismissed out of hand as not particularly likable, are at least under suspicion of soon becoming so. That can be very limiting for a writer trying to produce a convincing protagonist acting within a realistic present-day work situation.

I just mention.

Please join me in a big round of applause for today’s guest blogger, Mary Hutchings Reed. Take it away, Mary!

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My first novel, Courting Kathleen Hannigan, was a disappointment to literary agents. I was a lawyer. I was female. I was from Chicago. Unread, they’d anointed me the next Scottie Turow or at least Scottoline.

But I let them down. I’d written a novel about the life of a woman lawyer in a powerful law firm—the life of any person, actually, who has to overcome the handicap of being different in order to succeed — I’d not written the novel they were looking for, a legal thriller by woman lawyer.

Adding insult to injury, more than one said how well-written CKH was, but lamented that it had a very limited audience. When I had the chance to speak with agents at literary conferences, I heard comments like, “Who wants to read about a woman lawyer in a law firm?”

My first defense of course was that there were more than 300,000 women lawyers in this country, and another couple hundred thousand paralegals, and they all had mothers and friends (check Facebook) and secretaries and husbands and brothers and fathers who might want to know what their little girl’s life was life, especially in the early years of women in law. (I also knew, from readers of the novel in manuscript form, to know that much of what was true in the seventies and eighties continues to plague women in the profession today, although perhaps in more insidious, less visible ways.)

My second response, of course, was just that Kathleen Hannigan happens to a strong and interesting woman character attempting to exercise some power over her own destiny—certainly a universal-enough theme. (It hadn’t occurred to me, until Anne asked to guest here, that “powerful woman character” was itself a no-no, but it may be.)

“Yes, but it’s not a thriller.”
One could draw several different conclusions from my first encounter with the gatekeepers. You could conclude that publishers and literary agents aren’t interested in strong female characters or women characters wielding power. You could conclude that lawyers should stick to lawyering, with the exception of Turow, Grisham, Scottoline and other former prosecutors (or criminal defense lawyers) who can translate their blood-and-guts experiences into suspenseful (and commercially viable) plots.

You could conclude, quite rightly that practicing law at that powerful law firm is a helluva lot more lucrative than writing novels.

On the other hand, you could conclude that if a novel is that limited in its appeal, it ought to be self-published, since the audience—only half a million, off the top!—is also easily targeted. You could also conclude that if you a writer, you write; you write about the things that interest you and worry later about the commercial viability of your work product.

Luckily for me, I drew these last two conclusions, publishing Courting Kathleen Hannigan in the fall of 2007, and going on to write six more novels, two of which are now placed with an agent, April Eberhardt of Reece Halsey North.

(OK, these new novels are not about lawyers, but they are about strong women characters — a street musician and a mother dealing with her daughter’s sex-change operation in a small town. My agent was intrigued with these stories, even though I warned her they were doomed to failure: How many street musicians are there? Surely, not even half a million. And small towns? Lots, of course, but people don’t read books there, do they? And they certainly don’t buy books–they go to the library!)

Self-publishing Courting Kathleen Hannigan was a wonderful experience—I get new sales every day and “fan” mail from women of my generation (Yale Law ’76) thanking me for telling their story, for validating their experiences, for writing the social history of women in law so that today’s young women might understand how hard fought were their maternity leaves and diversity committees and mentoring programs.

I also get letters from audiences I hadn’t considered: a thirtyish insurance broker who serves the legal industry, a sixty-year old gay partner at a big firm who identifies with the story because, he, too, felt he was living a “double life” in the seventies, trying to be himself and to be the person the law firm assumed him to be.

So, I’ve learned that I was right about the audience for the book, and I was wrong to give heed to the “censors.” Nurses, secretaries, boyfriends, fathers, women in corporations—all have found Kathleen Hannigan to be a character they could relate to, admire, cry with, root for. If I’ve made a mistake in marketing Courting Kathleen Hannigan, it was in listening to the literary agents/censors who dubbed the book “for women lawyers only.” (Most of the reviews on Amazon, for instance, are from attorneys.)

In marketing the book, I concentrated there; I have not reached out broadly to corporate women generally, and only recently sent out a mailing to book clubs, joined Facebook, etc. (Visit my website for the book club questions/fact sheet.)

The nice thing about self-publishing: nothing stops me from doing now what I maybe should’ve done before — having now glimpsed how my thinking about my own book was warped by other people’s characterizations of it, I can do something about it. I can reach out to non-lawyer readers and assure them that if they are looking for a book about a powerful woman character (and given that you read Anne Mini’s blog, you probably like such characters), they should rush off to Amazon and buy now — either paperback or Kindle!

The point is, I suppose, that when you are aware of censorship, you can respond to it. The more insidious is the censorship that seeps in to our consciousness, as with my marketing of my first novel.

As writers, we need to be on-guard against the censorship of the marketplace, the censorship that could prevent our strong women characters from making it to the page in the first place. It would’ve been easy to conclude that the only book the publishing world wanted from me was a legal thriller, and I suppose I could have learned enough and borrowed enough from the genre to have turned one out.

But that’s not who I am as a writer; crime stories, like criminal law, don’t interest me, except on TV when I’m too worn out to pay attention to anything else. Strong women, women who take charge of their lives, women who seek power and women who wield power—they do intrigue me, and I enjoy meeting them, both real and imagined.

So, in order to write my second novel, and the third, and each one up to the seventh, which is in progress as we blog, I’ve had to forget the market, forget that I’m a lawyer, ignore those expectations for what a woman lawyer from Chicago will write about, and write.

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marys-photo-jpeg.jpgEver since turning 40 a few years ago, Mary Hutchings Reed Mary has been trying to become harder to introduce, and, at 57, she finds she’s been succeeding. Her conventional resume includes both a bachelor’s and master’s degree from Brown University (both completed within the same four years, and she still graduated Phi Beta Kappa), a law degree from Yale, and thirty-one years of practicing law, first with Sidley & Austin and then with Winston & Strawn, two of the largest firms in Chicago. She was a partner at both in the advertising, trademark, copyright, entertainment and sports law areas, and now is Of Counsel to Winston, which gives her time to write, do community service and pursue hobbies such as golf, sailing, tennis, and bridge.

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

Her current book, COURTING KATHLEEN HANNIGAN, is available on Amazon or directly from the author herself on her website.

So how does a book go from manuscript to published volume, anyway? Part IV: what happens after a writer queries or pitches?

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Still hanging in there? I know, I know: there’s a LOT of information in this basic overview series, but if you start to find it overwhelming, just try to concentrate on the big picture, the broad strokes, rather than feverishly attempting to memorize every detail. After all, you can always come back and refresh your memory later.

One of the many charms of the blog format lies in its archives: as long as I am running Author! Author!, these posts aren’t going anywhere. So please feel free to use this series as a general overview, delve into the more specific posts on individual topics (grouped by topic for your perusing convenience on a handy list on the lower right-hand side of this page.)

Even if you are not new to the business side of art, it’s good from time to time to distance yourself from the often-trying process of trying to get your writing published. And if you doubt that, do me a favor: rise from your chair, take two steps away from the monitor, and take a gander at the photograph above.

If you don’t see the rock smiling at you, you may be focusing too much on the small picture.

Last time, I went over the three basic means of bringing your book to an agent’s attention: querying, either by sending a letter via regular mail (the classic method), approaching by sending an e-mail (the newfangled method) or through the agency’s website (the least controlable), and verbal pitching (far and away the most terrifying. Today, I’m going to talk about the various possibilities of response to your query or pitch — which, you may be happy to hear, are relatively limited and very seldom involve anyone being overtly mean.

I heard that chortling, experienced pitchers and queriers; I said overtly mean, not dismissive. There’s a big difference. And call me zany, but I find it hard to believe that the possibility of an agent’s being genuinely rude in response hadn’t occurred at least once to all of us before the first time we queried.

So to those of you who have never queried or pitched before, I reiterate: the probability that an agent will say something nasty to you about your book at the initial contact stage is quite low. S/he may not say what you want him or her to say — which is, of course, “Yes! I would absolutely love to read the book you’ve just queried/pitched!” — but s/he is not going to yell at you. (At least, not if you’re polite in your approach and s/he is professional.) At worst, s/he is going to say “No, thank you.”

And just so you’re prepared, newbies: pretty much every writer who has landed an agent within the last decade heard “No, thank you,” many, many times before hearing, “Yes, of course.” Ditto with virtually every living author who has brought a first book out within the last ten years. (At least the ones who were not already celebrities in another field; celebrities have a much easier time attracting representation. Yes, life is not fair; this is news to you?)

That’s just the way the game works these days. Translation: you should not feel bad if your first query does not elicit a positive response. Honestly, it would be unusual if it did, in the current market.

So if an agent isn’t likely either to go into raptures or to fly into an insult-spewing rage after reading a query letter or hearing a pitch, what is likely to happen? Let’s run through the possibilities.

How can a writer tell whether a query or pitch has been successful?
As we discussed last time, the query letter and pitch share a common goal: not to make the agent stand up and shout, “I don’t need to read this manuscript, by gum! I already know that I want to represent it!” but rather to induce her to ask to see pages of the manuscript. These pages, along with anything else the agent might ask the writer to send (an author bio, for instance, or a synopsis) are known in the trade as requested materials.

So figuring out whether a query or pitch did the trick is actually very simple: if the agent requested materials, it was.

Enjoying this particular brand of success does not mean that a writer has landed an agent, however: it merely means that he’s cleared the first hurdle on the road to representation. Be pleased, certainly, but remember, asking to see your manuscript does not constitute a promise, even if an agent was really, really nice to you during a pitch meeting; it merely means that she is intrigued by your project enough to think that there’s a possibility that she could sell it in the current publishing market. So send what he asks to see, of course, but keep querying other agents, just to hedge your bets.

If the agent decides not to request materials (also known as passing on the book), the query or pitch has been rejected. If so, the writer is almost invariably informed of the fact by a form letter — or, in the case of e-mailed queries, by a boilerplate expression of regret. Because these sentiments are pre-fabricated and used for every rejection, don’t waste your energy trying to read some deeper interpretation into it; it just means no, thanks. (For more on the subject, please see the FORM-LETTER REJECTIONS category on the archive list on the lower right-hand side of this page.)

Whether the response is positive or negative, it will definitely not be ambiguous: if your query has been successful, an agent will tell you so point-blank. It can be a trifle harder to tell with a verbal pitch, since many agents don’t like watching writers’ faces as they’re rejecting them — which is one reason that a writer is slightly more likely to receive a request for materials from a verbal pitch than a written query, by the way — and will try to let them down gently.

But again, there’s only one true test of whether a pitch or query worked: the agent will ask to see manuscript pages.

If you do receive such a request, congratulations! Feel free to rejoice, but do not fall into either the trap I mentioned above, assuming that the agent has already decided to sign you (he hasn’t, at this stage) or the one of assuming that you must print off the requested pages right away and overnight them to New York. Both are extremely common, especially amongst pitchers meeting agents for the first time, and both tend to get those new to submission into trouble.

Take a deep breath. You will be excited, but that’s precisely the reason that it’s a good idea to take at least a week to pull your requested materials packet together. That will give you enough time to calm down enough to make sure that you include everything the agent asked to see.

How to pull together a submission packet is a topic for another day, however — the next day I post here, in fact. Should you find yourself in the enviable position of receiving a request for submissions between now and then, please feel free to avail yourself of the in-depth advice under the HOW TO PUT TOGETHER A SUBMISSION PACKET category on the list at right.

In the meantime, let’s talk about some other possible agently reactions.

What if a writer receives a response other than yes or no — or no response at all?
If you receive a response that says (or implies) that the agency requires writers seeking to be clients to pay for editorial services or evaluation before signing them to contracts, DO NOT SAY YES; instead, check with the agents’ guild, the Association of Authors’ Representatives, or Preditors and Editors to see if the agency is legit. You may also post a question on Absolute Write. (The last has a lot of great resources for writers new to marketing themselves, by the way.)

Why should you worry about whether an agency is on the up-and-up? Well, every year, a lot of aspiring writers fall prey to scams. Again, call me zany, but I would prefer that my readers not be amongst the unlucky many.

The main thing to bear in mind in order to avoid getting taken: not everyone who says he’s an agent is one. Some of the most notorious frauds have some of the most polished and writer friendly websites.

Scams work because in any given year, there literally millions of English-speaking writers looking to land an agent and get published, many of whom don’t really understand how reputable agencies work. Scammers prey upon that ignorance — and they can often get away with it, because in the United States, there are no technical qualifications for becoming an agent. Nor is there any required license.

Yes, really: it’s possible just to hang up a shingle and start taking on clients. Or rather, start asking potential clients to pay them fees, either directly (as in the notorious We don’t work like other agencies, but we require a paid professional evaluation up front dodge; to see a full correspondence between an actual writer and such a business, check out the FEE-CHARGING AGENCIES category at right) or by referring writers to a specific editing service (i.e., one that gives the agency kickbacks), implying that using this service is a prerequisite to representation.

Reputable agents decide whether to represent a manuscript based upon direct readings; they do not require or expect other businesses to do it for them. Nor do they charge their clients up front for services (although some do charge photocopying fees). A legitimate agency makes its money by taking an agreed-upon percentage of the sales of their clients’ work.

If any so-called agent tries to tell you otherwise, back away, quickly, and consult the Association of Authors’ Representatives or Preditors and Editors immediately. (For a step-by-step explanation of how others have successfully handled this situation, run, don’t walk to the FEE-CHARGING AGENCIES category at right.)

Heck, if you’re not sure if you should pay a requested fee, post a question in the comments here. I would much, much rather you did that than got sucked into a scam.

Better yet, check out any agent or agency before you query. It’s not very hard at all: the standard agency guides (like the Writers Digest GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS and the Herman Guide, both excellent and updated yearly) and websites like Preditors and Editors make it their business to separate the reputable from the disreputable.

Fortunately, such scams are not very common. Still, it pays to be on your guard.

More common these days is the agency that simply does not respond to a query at all. Agencies that prefer to receive queries online seem more prone to this rather rude practice, I’ve noticed, but over the last couple of years, I’ve been hearing more and more reports from writers whose queries (or even submissions, amazingly) were greeted with silence.

In many instances, it’s actually become a matter of policy: check the agency’s website or listing in one of the standard agency guides to see if they state it openly. (For tips on how to decipher these sources, please see the HOW TO READ AN AGENCY LISTING category on the list at right.)

A complete lack of response on a query letter does not necessarily equal rejection, incidentally, unless the agency’s website or listing in one of the standard agency guides says so directly. Queries do occasionally get lost, for instance. The single most common reason a writer doesn’t hear back, though, is that the agency hasn’t gotten around to reading it yet.

Be patient — and keep querying other agents while you wait.

Seeing a pattern here? There’s a good reason that I always urge writers to continue querying and pitching after an agent has expressed interest: as I mentioned yesterday, it can take weeks or even months to hear back about a query, and an increasing number of agencies now reject queriers through silence. A writer who waits to hear from Agent #1 before querying Agent #2 may waste a great deal of time. Because agents are aware of this, the vast majority simply assume that the writers who approach them are also querying other agents; if they believe otherwise, they will say so on their websites or in their listings in agency guides.

For some guidance on how to expand your querying list so you may keep several queries out at any given time, please see the FINDING AGENTS TO QUERY category on the list at right.

What should a writer do if her query was rejected?
Again, the answer is pretty straightforward: try another agent. Right away, if possible.

What it most emphatically does not mean is that you should give up. Contrary to what virtually every rejected writer believes, rejection does not necessarily mean that the book concept is a poor one; it may just means that the agent doesn’t represent that kind of book, or that she just spent a year attempting to sell a similar book and failed (yes, it happens; landing an agent is no guarantee of publication), or that this book category isn’t selling very well at the moment.

The important thing to bear in mind is that at the query or pitching stage, the book could not possibly have been rejected because the manuscript was poorly written . The query might have been rejected for that reason, naturally, but it’s logically impossible for an agent to pass judgment on a manuscript’s writing quality without reading it.

Makes sense, right?

One piece of industry etiquette you need to bear in mind: once a writer received a formal rejection letter or e-mail, it’s considered rude to query or pitch that book project to the same agent again. (See why it’s so important to proofread your query?) At some agencies, that prohibition extends to all of the member agents; however, this is not always the case. Regardless, unless a rejecting agent actually tells a writer never to approach him again, a writer may always query again with a new book project.

Contrary to an annoyingly pervasive rumor that’s been haunting the conference circuit for years, however, being rejected by one agency has absolutely no effect upon the query’s probability of being rejected by another. There is no national database, for instance, that agents check to see who else has seen or rejected a particular manuscript (a rumor I have heard as recently as two months ago), nor do agencies maintain databases to check whether they have heard from a specific querier before. If you’re going to get caught for re-querying the same agency, it will be because someone at the agency remembers your book project.

You really don’t want to tempt them by sending the same query three months after your last was rejected, though; people who work at agencies tend to have good memories, and an agent who notices that he’s received the same query twice will almost always reject it the second time around, on general principle. In this economy, however, it’s certainly not beyond belief that an agent who feels that he cannot sell a particular book right now may feel quite differently a year or two hence.

I leave the matter of whether to re-query to your conscience, along with the issue of whether it’s kosher to wait a year and send a query letter to an agent who didn’t bother to respond the last time around.

If your query (or manuscript, for that matter) has been rejected, whatever you do, resist the temptation to contact the agent to argue about it, either in writing or by picking up the phone. I can tell you now that it will not convince the agent that his rejection was a mistake; it will merely annoy him, and the last thing your book deserves is for the agent who rejected it to have a great story about an unusually obnoxious writer to tell at cocktail parties.

In answer to what you just thought: yes, they do swap horror stories. Seldom with names attached, but still, you don’t want to be the subject of one.

The no-argument rule is doubly applicable for face-to-face pitching. It’s just not a fight a writer can win. Move on — because, really, the only thing that will genuinely represent a win here is your being signed by another agent.

It’s completely natural to feel anger at being rejected, of course, but bickering with or yelling at (yes, I’ve seen it happen) is not the most constructive way to deal with it. What is, you ask? Sending out another query letter right away. Or four.

Something else that might help you manage your possibly well-justified rage at hearing no: at a good-sized agency — and even many of the small ones — the agent isn’t necessarily the person doing the rejecting. Agencies routinely employ agent-wannabes called agency screeners, folks at the very beginning of their careers, to sift through the huge volume of queries they receive every week. Since even a very successful agent can usually afford to take on only a small handful of new clients in any given year, in essence, the screener’s job is to reject as many queries as possible.

Here at Author! Author!, the prototypical agency screener has a name: Millicent. If you stick around this blog for a while, you’re going to get to know her pretty well.

Typically, agents give their Millicents a list of criteria that a query must meet in order to be eligible for acceptance, including the single most common reason queries get rejected: pitching a type of book that the agent does not represent. There’s absolutely nothing personal about that rejection; it’s just a matter of fit.

Why, you ask? Read on.

Book categories and why they are your friends
As I brought up earlier in this series, no single agent represents every kind of book there is: like editors at publishing houses, they specialize. While this may seem frustrating or confusing to an aspiring writer new to the agent-seeking process, in the long run, it’s actually in the writer’s interest. As we saw a few days ago, agents sell their clients’ work by taking it to editors they know already to be interested in the subject matter or genre — and because they make money only if they can sell their clients’ work, it isn’t to their benefit to show a book to anyone who isn’t likely to publish it.

Rather than relying upon vague impressions about who likes what kind of book or time-consuming descriptions of every single book on offer, everyone in the publishing industry uses specific terms when discussing them. Each type of book has a one- or two-word description known in the publishing industry as a book category.

The people an agent knows at publishing houses who she is positive will be interested in the types of books she sells AND respect her opinion about writing enough to take her calls are known as her connections. The better an agent’s track record of selling a particular type of book, the better and more extensive her connections will be. Similarly, if an agency has a long history of selling a certain type of book, even junior agents there may reasonably be expected to have pretty good connections for it.

Thus the frequent appeal of a large and/or well-established agency over a small or newer one: when the agents enjoy good connections, it’s easier for them to slip a first-time author’s manuscript under the right pair of eyes. Everyone benefits.

However, good connections require agent specialization. The publishing industry is immense and complex; it would be impossible for even the best-established agent to have connections for every conceivable type of book. By concentrating upon just a few kinds of manuscript, then, an agent can concentrate upon his established areas of strength.

What does this mean for the average aspiring writer? Glad you asked.

Writers, too, are specialists, even ones like me who write several different types of book. However broad one’s interests and capacities might be, no one is going to write in every conceivable book category, right? Therefore, it’s in each writer’s interest to have his work represented not by just any old agent, but by one who shares his interests — and, more importantly, who already has the connections to sell his books.

In other words, specialists of a feather should flock together.

Agents are well aware of the substantial benefits of such an arrangement, which is why they are seldom reticent about the kinds of books they want. They will state the book categories they represent right on their websites, in their listings in the standard agency guides, and often in their biographical blurbs in writers’ conference brochures as well. So there’s no mystery to finding out who represents what: it’s usually as easy as a straightforward Google search or opening a book.

Benefiting from knowledge so obtained, however, requires that an aspiring writer be aware of the book category into which his book most comfortably fits. If you’re not sure how to figure this out, you’ll find some guidance in the aptly-named BOOK CATEGORIES archives on the list at right.

Select one that already exists, if you please, rather than just making one up. You should also pick just one, rather than stringing a few together into an unholy hyphenate like Mystery-Women’s Fiction-Western. Generally speaking, aspiring writers agonize far too much over making the right choice: just pick one. Remember, the goal here is not to cover every topic in the book, but rather to give your future agent and editor some indication of who is likely to buy your book and on which shelf at Barnes & Noble a reader might eventually find it.

It’s a technical designation, after all, not a summary.

Do be aware, too, that many categories overlap (fiction, women’s fiction, and literary fiction, for instance, share quite a bit of common ground), so you may not find a perfect fit. That’s fine; as long as you’re close, your future agent will be able to tell you how to categorize it.

If you live in the U.S. or Canada, a good place to start is by tracking down a recently-released paperback or trade paper book similar to yours and examining the back cover. Many publishers will display the book category in one of two places, in the upper-left corner:

sarah-vowells-back-cover-ii

Actually, now that I’ve posted it, I notice that Sarah Vowell’s ASSASSINATION VACATION (a terrific book for anyone interested in political history, by the way; she’s a very funny writer) is listed in two categories: biography and travel. That makes perfect sense, because the book both talks about the lives of various murdered American presidents and follows Ms. Vowell’s journeys to their assassination sites. (Seriously, it’s funny.)

The other common locale for a book category is in the box with the barcode:

jonathan-selwood-back-cover

Okay, so that last photo was a trifle askew. However, since Jonathan Selwood’s THE PINBALL THEORY OF APOCALYPSE (six rows’ worth of passengers on an airplane thought I was having some sort of fit because I was laughing so hard at one point; once I had fended off medical assistance and read the passage in question out loud, the flight attendants came running to find out what was wrong with all of us) partially concerns the aftermath of a major earthquake, that seems rather appropriate.

I’m not sure if the photo will reproduce clearly enough for you to see it, but Mssr. Selwood’s book is designated merely as fiction. Counter-intuitively, this general-sounding moniker refers to something quite specific: novels for adults that do not fit into a genre designation. For all of you whose first thought upon my telling you that you would need to narrow down your complex 400-page book into a one- or at most two-word category choice, this might be a good selection.

It can be rather a pain to decide, admittedly, but once you have determined your book’s category, the hunt for an agent to represent it becomes substantially simpler: you don’t even need to consider approaching an agent who doesn’t represent your category.

Okay, that’s more than enough for one day. Next time, I shall give you a bird’s-eye view of what happens to requested materials after they arrive at an agency. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Great gifts for writers with great gifts, part III: the graveyard of book contracts past, or, a few more good reasons to buy books by first-time authors, and still more evidence that a little contact with a book of quotations goes a long way

Looks like the aftermath of a major flood in Mouseville, doesn’t it? When I first caught sight of the scene, I instinctively glanced about to check if Anderson Cooper were reporting nearby, wet to the knees and disapproving.

Apparently, I am the mayor of poor, flooded Mouseville, because I took this picture about a foot and a half from where I am now sitting, inside my house. I came by the position honestly, I assure you: after my tirade the other day about the vital importance of good lighting in a midwinter writing space, the proverbial bee seems to have remained in my bonnet, buzzily nagging — nay, demanding — that I move my studio to the brightest room in the house in genteel protest of the notorious darkness of a Seattle winter and the news in the last few issues of Publishers Weekly.

As the far and away the brightest room in our house is also the biggest, the living room/library (so designated to differentiate it from the bedroom/library, kitchen/library, laundry room/library, etc.; see yesterday’s comment about serious writers always owning more books than shelves to house them), I was anticipating having to lobby my SO for the rest of the year to pull this off — by which time, of course, the darkest part of the year would be beginning to recede. However, in an odd twist that would be absolutely implausible in a novel, the very seasonal darkness of which I had been complaining abruptly made my case for me: my SO saw some doubtless light-craving soul jump off one of our region’s less lovely bridges the other day.

He’s been busily rearranging furniture in the ex-living room/library ever since. Heck, he even made an unprompted trip to Ikea for another bookshelf.

Fortunately, unlike most bits of real-life melodrama that don’t seem real on the page, the story of the jumper has ending rather an ancient Greek tragedy, complete with deus ex machina: at the particular moment the hapless jumper chose to end it all on that distinctly unpretty bridge (as opposed to the far more popular choice of suicidal aesthetes on the other side of town), an unoccupied ambulance happened to be trying to merge into the traffic jam on the bridge. If he had jumped directly into the ambulance, rather than off the bridge first, he probably would have been happier in the long run, but still, I hope that he will someday be grateful that King County evidently had the foresight to hire at least one psychic ambulance driver.

Just another service brought to you by the local New Age ordinances, presumably; we must have them. My proof: in yet another development that would make any hardened novel or memoir-reader snort with derision, I saw in the newspaper the other day that many Seattle City Council meetings open with a poetry reading.

If you have seen the poetry local government sees fit to post on buses, you are probably already trembling for democracy. Still, it’s kind of great to live in a town so stuffed to the gills with poets that there is actual competition over who gets appointed to be this month’s official City Poetry Curator.

In anticipation of a shiny new bookcase and the dislocation of my desk, my SO and I were gruntingly shifting the God-awful 1950s dresser his sainted grandmother had seen fit to bequeath to us. Until now, sentimental recollections had gilded the sublime hideousness of its multicolored veneer: Granny used to store her beloved Bible and handgun side-by-side in it.

A fact I discovered inadvertently years ago while helping her move, in case you’re curious. I had thought the revolver was a toy, the property of one of the grandchildren playing in the next room, until I picked it up — and realized that it was both real and loaded. Evidently, the phrase gun safe had never sullied Granny’s ears until I uttered them that day. If the words Communist plot featured prominently in her reply, well, far be it from me to speak ill of the dead.

Suffice it to say that before this enlightening discussion had unfolded far, I got the kids out of there, pronto.

For a variety of reasons, then, this particular dresser had slumbered for years under an embroidered tablecloth a globe-trotting friend had been kind enough to send me from Bangladesh shortly after Granny’s death, never moved and seldom even having its drawers opened. The discovery that our cats had been using it as a sarcophagus for the much-chewed remains of their furry toys thus seemed eerily appropriate.

For hours after we unearthed this mousy Valley of the Kings, the kitties prowled around protectively, snarling at us when we tried to discard the most decomposed of them. Clearly, that dresser had a preoccupation with death, and who can blame it, after the life it’s led?

I’m happy to say that it is no longer in the house — and that I have both a sunnier place to work and slightly more storage space for my books.

Speaking of which, last time, I was touting the virtues of getting into the habit of reading every (or as close to every as possible) first book published in your book category this year…and next year, and the year after that. Not only will adherence to this sterling practice give an aspiring writer a very solid sense of how editors and agents conceive of the category — thus rendering it easier to tell whether one’s work genuinely falls within it, a question that plagues many genre-crossers — but it will help develop a sense of one’s target readership as well.

Perhaps the lingering billows of dust from all that furniture moving have temporarily clogged my psychic antennae, but somehow, I felt that this sterling argument left some of you unconvinced yesterday. So I’m going to spend today elaborating.

Sometimes the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver requires more cajoling than others.

Reading the entire literary output of new authors in a particular subsection of the market may seem like a gargantuan task to some of you, but most of you have no serious reason for trepidation: the majority of book categories actually sport relatively few first-time authors in any year’s harvest of publications.

Yes, Virginia, even in the fairly large categories.

Let me share a deep, dark secret from my past: back in my thankfully long ago agent-seeking days, I made a practice of reading every first literary or mainstream novel written by an American woman under 40 published by a major US publishing house each year. Care to guess how long that took?

I wish I could report that it was a full-time job, but in truth, it wasn’t all that time-consuming. There were few years where more then 25 books answered that description; one year, there were only 7, counting new Canadian female authors. And those 7 were represented by only 3 agencies, I discovered.

Guess whom I queried the instant I uncovered THAT unsavory little fact?

The realization could have made me despair — but instead, it convinced me to sit down and take a good, hard look at the novel I was shopping around, to see if there was any way that I could legitimately make it appeal to readers of more book categories, because that opened up so many more querying possibilities. And sure enough, after I had taken most of the semicolons out of the text and readjusted the thought/action ratio a little, I found that my novel was about equally welcome to agents who represented adult fiction, women’s fiction, and literary fiction — which makes some sense, as there is considerable overlap amongst the readers of all three.

Heck, literary fiction aimed at women is considered downright redundant in some circles of the industry, since college-educated women form about 90% of literary fiction buyers.

And yet the burly writings of Phillip Roth continue to sell well. Yet another cosmic mystery. As that marketing genius Jacqueline Susann once said, “I think Phillip Roth is a great writer. But I wouldn’t want to shake his hand.” (Had I mentioned that I dug up far, far more quotes yesterday than I could ever hope to work into a single post?)

Unless a writer became awfully darned familiar with the book market, how is s/he to know that a book category filled with so many prominent male authors boasts such a largely female readership? Or that literary fiction by women featuring female protagonists is often marketed not as literary fiction, a comparatively tiny market, but as what agents like to call women’s fiction with a literary voice because the women’s fiction market is so huge?

Quoth Queen Marie Leckzinska, wife of Louis XV: “To live in peace with socieity, you must open your eyes to the qualities that are pleasing and close them to to the ludicrous and eccentric that are offensive.”

Hey, she said it; I didn’t.

Following the ever-changing boundaries of one’s chosen book category is only one of the many benefits of reading all of the first-time authors within it, of course. It’s substantially easier to produce something fresh if you know what agents and editors who represent your kind of book have been reading over the past couple of years. How about learning the current conventions of one’s genre, what’s now considered de rigeur and what’s now passé?

While you’re out snooping, why not do some research on what kind of voice have been selling of late, and which eschewed as old-fashioned? Are the Point-of-View Nazis enjoying a resurgence in your selected category, or have they fallen out of fashion? How long are first books in that category these days?

I hesitate to mention length, because it tends to be a sore spot with many aspiring writers. Don’t believe me? Okay, the next time you find yourself at an agents’ or editors’ forum at a conference, stand up and ask how many pages is too long for a submission. Even if the pros are very kind in expressing the answer, the subsequent depression amongst half the audience will be palpable — and most of the time, the writer grumbling in the row behind you will not be muttering that the limits are too high.

In answer to that inquisitive whimper I just heard out in the ether and the giant unshouted question that I suspect underlies it, the long answer is that I’ve written at length on this subject under the BOOK LENGTH category on the list on the right-hand side of this page.

The short answer: in general, 65,000 – 100,000 words — estimated, not actual — or 260 – 400 pages in standard format, is considered roughly normal for a first book. (If you don’t know how or why to estimate a word count, please see the WORD COUNT category on the list at right. If you’re unfamiliar with the restrictions of standard format for manuscripts, please see MANUSCRIPT FORMATTING 101 or STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED.)

To forestall any imminent heart problems out there, let me hasten to add that length expectations do vary quite a bit by category, genre, and even subgenre. Checking how long first books like yours are lately can save you a whole lot of uncertainty at revision time.

Am I hearing some long-suffering sighs out there? I know; that was a lot of heavy information to toss at you in a single post at the height of holiday season. I have more to say on this subject, but I’m going to sign off for today, to give you some time to digest all of this — or, for those of you whom I have already convinced of the value of stocking up on new works by first-time authors in your area, to scurry off to make a wish list for your FNDGG.

To lighten your hearts a bit before I go, let me just take a second to add: as Francis Bacon wrote so long ago, knowledge is power. In few areas of life is this as true as often as during the querying and submission stages of a writer’s career — because as painful as it may be to accept, scads of queries are rejected on sight because the book is miscategorized or sent to an agent who doesn’t represent that type of book; literally tons of manuscripts are rejected every year because they seem dated or repeat something that’s been done before or are just too long or short by current standards.

How can knowing all that make you more powerful in a situation that often seems arbitrary to aspiring writers? By spurring you to learn about the category in which you are writing, so you may market your work and revise it more effectively. That’s knowledge that can genuinely help you reduce your manuscript’s chances of rejection.

A bit depressing? Perhaps. Time-consuming? Definitely. It’s not for nothing that Lawrence Kasden said, “Being a writer is like having homework every night for the rest of your life.”

But isn’t your writing’s success worth it?

More thoughts on this subject follow tomorrow. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Keep up the good work!

So you were considering self-publishing: some words of wisdom from guest blogger (and happy self-published author) Janiece Hopper


Good evening, campers —

In light of recent events, I’m taking a break from my ongoing series on what standard format for book manuscripts looks like — don’t worry; it will return next week, along with some tips on writing and formatting a query letter — and taking the weekend off. (I know: practically unheard-of here at Author! Author!) In order to give you some fresh material for weekend pondering, I threw myself on the mercy of FAAB (Friend of Author! Author! blog), blogger, and novelist Janiece Hopper. She very kindly agreed to help us out. Thank you, Janiece!

For those of you who missed my wholesale gloating when Janiece’s first novel, Cracked Bat, came out — I love announcing my readers’ triumphs! — here’s a brief synopsis:

Linnea Perrault is the editor of The Edge, a successful community newspaper. Happily married to Dan, Spinning Wheel Bay’s premier coffee roaster and owner of The Mill, she is the mother of an adorable four-year-old daughter who insists upon lugging a fifteen-pound garden dwarf everywhere they go.When Linnea’s wealthy father returns to their hometown to make amends for abandoning her to a cruel stepfather twenty-eight years earlier, she painfully resurrects his old place in her heart. He buys the local baseball team. Before long, fairy tales, Islamic mystics, and a host of cross-cultural avatars come into play as the team is propelled to the top of the league. After a foul pass and an accident at the stadium, Linnea finds herself locked in the stone tower of pain as she realizes how much the man she married is like the father she never knew. Doctors can’t diagnose her debilitating condition, but kind, magical strangers give her a chance to save her soul. Cracked Bat is dedicated to the approximately five million people who have experienced the mystifying and frustrating ailments of myofascial pain syndrome, fibromyalgia, and chronic fatigue.

As you may see, it’s not a novel that is particularly easy to assign to a book category — which is one of the many reasons that I’m particularly thrilled that Janiece has given in to my blandishment to share her self-publishing experiences with us. I know that many of you write between genres and thus must have given dead-of-night thought to a question haunting many fiction writers these days: what would happen if I published it myself?

It’s a great question — and here is an author who can answer it from direct personal experience. Take it away, Janiece!

Hello everyone! I am absolutely delighted to be Anne’s guest blogger. So thank you, Anne. Today, I am going to share why I created Ten Pentacles to publish my novel, Cracked Bat. Self-publishing works for me because it reflects my relationship with writing and my purpose for doing the work.

We’ve all heard agents at conferences say that good writing will always find a home. This storyline serves. It keeps aspiring authors going to conferences and certainly helps keep the United States Postal Service in business. (Just think how much you’ve spent on stamps for query letters and how much you’ve paid in return postage for bulky, boxed manuscripts.) Unfortunately, the idea that good writing will always find a publisher to finance and promote it is simply not true.

In reality, the current publishing paradigm requires authors to tweak and twist their “good” writing until an agent can see (in a split-second, mind you) exactly how it fits into a publisher’s pre-established list and how it appeals to a pre-determined market.

I’m not critiquing, but after two years of intense writing, repetitive stress injury, and a divorce, I wasn’t willing to force Cracked Bat to be anything other that what it became. Whether or not a New York agent could “fall in love” with Linnea Perrault on the first page so that she could bulldoze a bleary-eyed, overworked editor into buying it with her enthusiasm became completely irrelevant.

Cracked Bat is good, true, beautiful, quirky…and exactly what I hoped it would be. But it is different. I call it Intuit-Lit.

Intuit-Lit illuminates limiting socially-constructed and neurologically-wired thought, behavorial, and physiological patterns so that characters can recast and overcome obstacles on their life paths. By sharing the characters’ experiences, I hope my find themselves further along on their own life journeys and are more conscious of and more comfortable with their own intuitive abilities. Please see my blog for more about how the blank stare of agents actually guided me to this rewarding work.

Cracked Bat faces what is painful truth for many Gen X women and transforms what must die into new life. The painful truth in the publishing industry today is, fiction that doesn’t “fit in” with what’s out there either dies in a drawer or needs a dynamic new structure to support it.

In Cracked Bat, Linnea Perrault learns to speak her truth in an unreceptive environment. As she embraces her authenticity, she takes responsibility for the outcome of her choices and her actions. In developing her character, I strengthened that part of myself. I didn’t want Cracked Bat to stagnate on a flash drive in my safety deposit box, so I took on the responsibility of creating something new, Ten Pentacles, to bring the book into being.

Authors pitching a book often find themselves in an unreceptive environment and spend a lot of time and energy trying to figure out how to make their creative “babies” conform to a distant other’s vision. It is very dysfunctional to parent the children we birth this way and it’s a disservice to our muse to force the art our “selves” create into a marketer’s take on reality.

Just as writing Cracked Bat led me to choose a more authentic life, I want this novel to live a book’s life that is consistent with its unique energy. I’m still figuring out exactly what that means, but I love being on this path. I love that it was my choice to print on recycled paper and not to ship it out in reams of bubble-wrap. I don’t care that my cover isn’t compatible with what’s on the shelves of the local bookstore today. The fact that my cover is deeply integrated with the story is more important to me than competing with someone else’s image.

Writers with traditional publishers almost never have any say over their book covers at all. I think this is almost abusive. We ought to get to dress our “baby,” the way we want to. I always wanted my cover to have a sleeping beauty on a massage table in the middle of a baseball diamond and I loved brainstorming all the symbolic images that could be embedded in that picture. I knew I wanted the cover to look like a cracked wooden bat and to have lots of red and white on it, like a baseball. I also wanted red, white, and black because I associate these colors with the Triple Goddess. Imagine explaining the need to honor that to someone at a traditional publishing house!

Well, the Universe stepped in to help me get just the look I wanted. Just as I began to consider forming Ten Pentacles, an educational assistant was assigned to my English as a Second Language classroom. She didn’t stay long before being moved to a higher needs assignment, but she was with me long enough to mention that she was a watercolor artist. I asked to see her work and loved it. The rest is history:

Now, at first glance, some people think Cracked Bat is a children’s book. As a former school librarian I can understand the misperception. Was that horrible packaging on my part?

No, I don’t think so. Not for this novel because this book is for people who are willing to take time to look beyond the surface, who go deep, and who can remember the thrill of settling down to let the magic of a fairy tale seep into their psyche.

Of course, I want to sell a million copies of my book, but only so that I could have more time to creative what I want to create. Choosing to self-publish, self-promote, and self-distribute while single-parenting teenagers and teaching full-time does seem to diminish my chances of hitting the bestseller mark.

Yet truly “owning” my story, both literally and figuratively, is far more satisfying than I ever imagined. I love my book so much that I’m actually I’m happy to have boxes full of yet-to-be sold, sealed with joy, and delivered (yes, via USPS) copies stacked all around my writing space. I love its physical manifestation so much that I’m grateful to the bank and glad to write the checks toward paying off the hefty loan I had to take out to get it printed. I can image my dad snickering at my business sense. Go ahead. I can laugh at it, too. I’m lucky enough to have a day job that I love as much as writing.

People always ask me if this was expensive. They ask how I started a company, designed a website, edited, proofed, published, and marketed while going through a major life transition. I know Anne’s readers expect honesty, so here it goes. Financially speaking, I have excellent credit…and I have become quite talented at justifying expenses that help me grow. For about the price of flying to and participating in Maui’s Writer’s Retreat and Conference (which I’ve always wanted to do) and hanging out on the beach for a few extra days (which any new divorcee seems entitled to), I created a company and produced my books. I missed out on the leis, the sand, and the great company, but I’ve got a very significant book in print.

Energetically, I have no idea how I did everything I did to make it happen. At one point, I realized I would never feel fulfilled, no matter how many beautiful seashores I visited or how many more writing classes I took until Cracked Bat was available for people who might want or actually need to read it. All I can say is that I was propelled by the story itself to get it out there. (I also have empathetic, creative sons who cheerfully make their own dinner several nights a week and do their own laundry.)

I truly wish all of Anne’s readers the best of luck in pursuing publication and hope you sell tons of books. But, above all, I urge you to honor your good writing in your heart and then, it will always have the home it really wants.

Janiece Hopper lives in Snohomish, Washington. She met her first garden dwarf on an island in the Pacific Northwest when she was four years old. Thirty years later she met a witch in the same place. As an elementary school teacher, librarian, and book reviewer with an M.Ed. from the University of Washington and a B.A. from California State University, she always struggled with calling fairy tales fiction. Intuit-Lit has resolved her conflict nicely. If Janiece ever goes to another baseball game, she’ll be the woman in the stands, trying to drink a mocha while wearing full catcher’s gear.