Trying to speak through a gag is hard

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


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


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


Mmmmph mmmmph mmm.


— Mmmm Mmmm


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

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


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


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


Here are more definitions:


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


TRADE LIST, n.: A publisher’s catalogue of all books currently in print. (If you want to see a real, live example, here is the link to my listing in my publisher’s catalogue: You might want to check it out soon, because I suspect that a ROOKIE MISTAKE was made regarding the cover, and it may be changed soon.) The purpose of listing the ISBN and other publication data is to make it as easy as possible for booksellers and private citizens to order the book in question.


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


And in the meantime, keep up the good work!


— Anne Mini


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


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

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


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


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


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


Okay, here are the definitions du jour:


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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




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


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


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


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


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


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


And in the meantime, keep up the good work!


— Anne Mini


More terms you should know

Last week, I started a glossary of terms that every book-loving, agent-seeking aspiring writer should know, phrases that are tossed about in writer-oriented publications with a blithe disregard of whether those new to the field might not know them. (And not just the newbies: I have been a professional writer and editor for over a decade, and I still run across terms I do not know from time to time.) So it’s time to bite the bullet and learn what those phrases mean.


Again, if there is a term that you were really hoping I would define here that did not make the list, please send me a message via the COMMENTS function, below, now or at some point in the future. I am always happy to track down definitions for my readers.


My apologies to readers of my last posting: alphabetically, the first listing of today’s should have been in last Friday’s. However, someone suggested over the weekend that I include it, and I’m not about to let the tyranny of the alphabet deprive my dear readers of a necessary definition.


ELEVATOR SPEECH, n.: The three-minute version of a book, designed to be spoken aloud while in transit, containing the essential PREMISE, the target MARKET, and hitting all of the MARKETING POINTS of the book. All too often, aspiring writers walk into conferences with a PITCH (the three-sentence version) all prepared, but neglect to develop this longer selling tool. As a result, authors often run out of steam a minute into an all-important first meeting with an agent. The essence of a good elevator speech is knowing when to stop talking. (The more I define this, the more I think it deserves a blog of its own – watch for it in the coming week.)


JACKET BLURB, n.: The short synopsis of the book typically printed inside the flaps of a hardback’s dust cover. Generally runs about 100 words. (Not to be confused with BLURB, defined last week.)


LITERARY FICTION, n.: (1) Another ambiguous category of prose. Depending upon whom you ask, it can mean either character-driven fiction where the writing style is more important than the plot or character-driven fiction that assumes its target audience has a college-level vocabulary. (The average book published in North America assumes a tenth-grade vocabulary, by contrast.) If you want to start a lively controversy at any literary gathering, start asking people whether they consider John Irving’s work literary or mainstream. (2) Any work of fiction that contains a semicolon.


MAINSTREAM FICTION, n.: The vast majority of fiction sold in North America. Conforming to none of the standard genre classifications, mainstream fiction appeals to readers from across demographic groups. When mainstream fiction is well-written, or when it receives either a significant prize or critical adulation, it tends to be categorized as literary fiction. If you want to start a lively controversy at any literary gathering, start asking people whether they consider Alice Walker’s work mainstream or literary.


MANUSCRIPT, n. (often abbreviated MS): An unbound, single-sided complete draft of a book, for submission to editors and agents. Manuscripts differ from published books in a number of important ways: for instance, they always have at least 1-inch margins, are double-spaced, and are in 12-point type. For other ways in which manuscripts differ from published books, see STANDARD FORMAT.


MARKET, n.: (1) The demographic group most likely to buy a specific book, as in “Wow — your book would do really well in the YA market.” You should know the target market of your book, and why your book will appeal to that market, BEFORE you start pitching your work. (2) The current selling environment for books, as in “I can’t place this book in the current market.”


MARKET, v.: To present work to people who might buy it. Thus, a novelist markets his work to an agent; the agent then markets it to an editor; the editor markets it to the rest of the publishing firm, and the publishing company markets it to the public.


MARKET ANALYSIS, n. (also known as a COMPARATIVE MARKET ANALYSIS): A semi-objective view of the other books currently available on your topic AND an examination of the demographics of who might buy your book. For nonfiction, this is a formal section of the book proposal; for fiction, it’s just a good idea to for the author to conduct. In a conversation about your work with a publishing professional, under NO circumstances should you EVER admit that you have not performed a market analysis, because from the point of view of an agent or editor, the FIRST thing an author should do upon coming up with a great idea is to find out who else has written something similar.


MARKETING POINTS, pl. n.: Any facts about you or your book that will make it easier to sell. Make sure that your query letter AND your pitch both include the major marketing points for your book.


OUTLINE, n.: For nonfiction, an outline is essentially an expanded table of contents: a list of chapter or section titles, with each title accompanied by a 2-3 sentence summary of what that chapter or section will contain. Generally, when discussing fiction, the person using this term actually means a SYNOPSIS. Double-check.


PACKET, n.: An array of materials about a proposed book, used to attract interest within the publishing community. For fiction, this might include a synopsis, a bio, and the first chapter of the novel; for nonfiction, it would include the BOOK PROPOSAL and a cover letter.


PITCH, n.: (1) Verbally, your 30-second synopsis of your book. Frequently, agents and editors at conferences will prefer to hear pitches from authors, rather than reading any of the author’s work. (2) In writing, the three-sentence teaser for a book. (3) The second paragraph of most query letters to agents. (See my earlier postings about how to write query letters, if this is news to you.)


PITCH, v.: To recite your pitch to an agent or editor. If you are really doing your job at a conference, you should be pitching at least several times an hour, to anyone who will listen. It’s great practice.


PLATFORM, n.: For nonfiction, the array of credentials, expertise, and life experience that qualifies you as an expert on the topic of your book. Generally, the first thing an editor will want to know about a prospective NF author.


PREMISE, n.: The underlying logical proposition of a piece of fiction; often synonymous with the HOLLY WOOD HOOK. Usually, the premise is easier to identify for genre fiction (“hardboiled detective with a soft spot for curvy dames gets embroiled in city hall intrigue”) than for MAINSTREAM or LITERARY FICTION. In the latter case, the premises of, for instance, THE REMAINS OF THE DAY (“A butler butles for years on end.”) or THE ENGLISH PATIENT (“A severely burned man lies still and has flashbacks.”) must have required considerable embroidery upon the underlying premise to pitch successfully.


PRESS KIT, n.: An array of materials used to convince newspapers, radio stations, and television stations that you and your work deserve attention. It used to be that publishing houses put these together for authors, but now, most authors need to assemble and distribute their own press kits. (Don’t worry; it will be the subject of a future blog.)


That’s all for today – I should be able to finish the rest of the alphabet tomorrow.


But while I still have your attention, I am going to digress from my very serious subject matter to pursue the shade of the lovely and talented Ralph Fiennes. This weekend, I took a MUCH-NEEDED break from manuscript revision to see THE CONSTANT GARDENER and CORPSE BRIDE, a double feature with a whole lot of dead women in it. Has anyone but me noticed that, cinematically speaking, the mortality rate of any female character that gets romantically involved with a Ralph Fiennes character in a movie is 100%? This film, THE ENGLISH PATIENT, THE END OF THE AFFAIR, SCHINDLER’S LIST… What’s next, ANNA KARENINA? I’m sure women worldwide would have much happier fantasy lives if his love interests were occasionally allowed to survive the final frame. If I met him in a dark alley – or, still worse, in a desert – I would instantly run in the opposite direction.


All right, there is your dose of serious career-building information AND total whimsy for the day. Go out and enjoy the first days of autumn.


Keep up the good work!


– Anne Mini


Glossary of terms you need to know

Now that conference season has wound to a close, many of you are probably poring over agent and editor guides, trying to figure out whom to query. Isn’t it annoying that every single one of them seems to ask for something different?


At the risk of seeming too basic, I thought it might be useful to pass along definitions of the terms that tend to get tossed about in these guides (and at conferences), in case anyone was afraid to ask.


ADVANCE, n.: Money paid to an author prior to the publication of a book; often quite small. Typically, the advance is paid in three installments: 1/3 on contract signing (although it is not unusual for this to arrive MONTHS after the ink is dry), 1/3 upon acceptance of the manuscript by the editor (or, again, months afterward), and 1/3 upon publication. As this money is a prepayment of anticipated royalties, the author will then receive no royalties until the advance amount has been reached. However, if the author’s share of sales does not ever reach the amount of the advance, the author generally does not have to pay back the difference.


AGENT, n.: For fiction, the first judge of whether your book will get published; for non-fiction, the person who uses his/her connections to get you a publishing contract. Your advance, royalty, etc. checks will go directly from the publisher to your agent, not directly to you, so do make sure to sign with someone you trust.


AGENCY CONTRACT, n.: What an agent has you sign prior to representation; you should read it very carefully, for it lays out with great specificity what your financial arrangements will be. Contracts can either be per book (so you would need to renew it when you wrote your next) or per year (regardless of how many books you write.) Typically, agents receive 15% (non-negotiable) for North American sales of your writing, 20% or more for foreign sales. (For reasons I have not been able to fathom, my agency takes 23% of sales in the Baltic republics, so they’ll really score if my memoir takes off in Lithuanian.)


AUTHOR PHOTO, n.: A picture taken at the author’s expense that graces either the inside back cover or the back of the dust jacket; often, it will appear in the publisher’s catalogue and/or on the publisher’s website as well. It need not be in black-and-white, but often is; for established authors, author photos are often a decade or more out of date, which is why you don’t always recognize your favorite authors at book signings. Since you will need to produce this picture immediately after the book contract is signed, you might want to consider getting your picture taken now. Trust me, it will take you several tries to get a photo you like enough to want to see mass-produced.


BIO, n.: A 1/3 – 1/2 page (single-spaced) description of your writing credentials, relevant experience, and educational background. Writers are now responsible for producing these themselves.


BLURB, n.: A statement by a famous person/published author/anyone you can cajole about how good your book is. Typically, these are printed on the back jacket. If you have a really good one (say, from a famous writer), for heaven’s sake, include it in your query letter. It is completely acceptable to start garnering blurbs prior to selling your book; if some Eminence Grise of the literary world says your novel is the most important book since MADAME BOVARY, feel free to mention it in your query letter. However, skip including rave reviews from your friends, family, or professors: in a professional context, they will not come across as impressive.


BOOK PROPOSAL, n.: The indispensable marketing tool for selling a nonfiction book, to be prepared with care, as everything in it is essentially a writing sample; you wouldn’t believe how many book proposals look as though they were thrown together in a couple of hours. The typical proposal includes a synopsis of the book being proposed, a narrative description of what the book is about and why this author is the best person to write it, an outline, a comparative market analysis, a marketing plan, an author bio, and 1-3 chapters of the book. (If you missed my many-part series of postings on how to write a book proposal, check them out below.)


BOUND PROOF, n.: A softback edition of a book that is sent to reviewers, potential blurb-givers, and other “opinion-makers” prior to publication of the book.


CHICK LIT, pl. n.: Definition varies upon whom you ask: some say sex-positive work for adult women readers; some say bouncy novels about Republican bimbos; some say anything vaguely humorous written by an American or British woman under the age of 40. Like art, everyone knows it when she sees it, but has trouble defining precisely what it is.


CLIPS, n. (also known as CLIPPINGS): Photocopies of your previously published articles, often included in a book proposal or query letter to a magazine.




COPY EDITING, v.: (1) Proofreading a manuscript for grammatical, spelling , and logical errors. (2) What editors at publishing houses used to do for authors, and authors are now expected to do for themselves.


COPY EDITING, n.: The stage of the publication process AFTER the editor’s substantive editing changes have been incorporated. Generally speaking, this process is not conducted by the editor him or herself.


COVER LETTER, n.: The massively polite missive you should send along with ANYTHING you EVER submit to an agent or editor, reminding them that they have asked to see the work enclosed. A lot of writers forget to include this, instead just sending an undirected manuscript or book proposal. ALWAYS include a brief cover letter, thanking the agent or editor for their interest in your work.


EDITOR, n.: For fiction and non-fiction, the official who does acquisitions for a publishing house. For articles, the person who does acquisitions for a magazine.


EXCLUSIVE, n.: When an agent or editor wants you to promise not to show your work to any other agent or editor until she has made up her mind. A courtesy you extend to people who have the power to make or break your work. Exclusives are always requested specifically; if an agent has not asked for an exclusive, either directly or through a listing in a guide, then you are free to submit to several agents simultaneously. Always place a time limit on exclusives (3 weeks is reasonable).


FREELANCE EDITOR, n.: A person who edits writing for clarity, grammar, etc., who is paid by the author, not a publishing house or agency. Many editors also do substantive editing as well.


FRESH, adj.: Industry term for an unusual look at a well-worn topic; marketable. The industry truism is that they’re always looking for an author who is fresh, but not weird. (Weird can mean anything from a topic never written about before to an unpopular political spin to a book proposal in a non-standard folder.)


GALLEYS, n.: The unbound proofs of a book in production, produced so the author and editor may check them for accuracy. Unlike the manuscript, the galleys will show the book as it will actually appear in print.


HOLLYWOOD HOOK, n.: 1-sentence or 25-word description of the concept of a book at its most basic level, cast in terms of other people’s successes. A famous example was Star Trek’s original pitch: “It’s Wagon Train in space!”


I shall continue with the rest of the alphabet on Monday, tightness of deadline and legal conditions permitting. In the meantime, if you see a term, here or elsewhere, that you would like me to define for you, drop me a line via the COMMENTS function, below.


And keep up the good work!


–Anne Mini


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


(2) Is my manuscript in standard format?


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


And the best of luck!


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


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


Keep up the good work!


— Anne Mini


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


I’m trying to save you some headaches here.


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


And maybe you are right.


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


– Anne Mini


Standard format for title pages

Yes, I know: title pages seem pretty straightforward, right? Surely, if there is an area where a writer new to submissions may safely proceed on simple common sense, it is the title page.




Believe it or not, the title page of a manuscript tells agents and editors quite a bit about both the book itself and the experience level of the writer. There is information that should be on the title page, and information that shouldn’t; speaking with my professional editing hat on for a moment, virtually every manuscript I see has a non-standard title page, so it is literally the first thing I will correct in a manuscript. I find this tendency sad, because for every ms. I can correct before they are sent to agents and editors, there must be hundreds of thousands that make similar mistakes.


Even sadder, the writers who make mistakes are their title pages are very seldom TOLD what those mistakes are. Their manuscripts are merely rejected on the grounds of unprofessionalism, usually without any comment at all. I do not consider this fair to aspiring writers, but once again, I do not make the rules, alas.


In fact, properly-formatted title pages are rare enough that a good one will make your manuscript (or your excerpt, if an agent asks to see the first chapter or two) shine preeminently competent, like the sole shined piece of silver amidst an otherwise tarnished display. It is well worth your effort, then, to make sure that your title page does not scream: “This writer has never sold a book before!”


In the first place, the title page should be in the same font and point size as the rest of the manuscript – which, as I have pointed out before, should be in 12-point Times, Times New Roman, or Courier. Therefore, your title page should be in 12-point Times, Times New Roman, or Courier. No exceptions, and definitely do not make the title larger than the rest of the text. It may look cool to you, but to professional eyes, it looks rather like a child’s picture book.


“Oh, come on,” I hear some of you saying, “the FONT matters that much? What about the content of the book? What about my platform? What about my brilliant writing? Surely, the typeface pales in comparison to these crucial elements?”


You’re right — it does, PROVIDED you can get an agent or editor to sit down and read your entire submission. Unfortunately, though, this is a business of snap decisions, where impressions are formed very quickly. If the cosmetic elements of your manuscript imply a lack of knowledge of industry norms, your manuscript is entering its first professional once-over with one strike against it. It may be silly, but it’s true.


Most of my clients do not believe me about this until they after they switch, incidentally. Even queries in the proper typefaces tend to be better received. Go ahead and experiment, if you like, sending out one set of queries in Times New Roman and one in Helvetica. Any insider will tell you that the Times New Roman queries are more likely to strike agents (and agents’ assistants) as coming from a well-prepared writer, one who will not need to be walked through every nuance of the publication process to come.


Like so many aspects of the mysterious publishing industry, there is actually more than one way to structure a title page. Two formats are equally acceptable from an unagented writer. (After you sign with an agent, trust me, your agent will tell you how she wants you to format your title page.) The unfortunate technical restrictions of a blog render it impossible for me to show it to you exactly as it should be, but here is the closest approximation my structural limitations will allow:


Format one, which I like to call the Me First, because it renders it as easy as possible for an agent to contact you after falling in love with your work:


Upper left-hand corner:


Your name


First line of your address


Second line of your address


Your phone number


Your e-mail address


Upper right-hand corner:

Book category

Word count


(Skip down 10 lines, then add, centered on the page:)


Your title


(skip a line)




(skip a line)


Your name (or your nom de plume)


There should be NO other information on the title page.


Why, you may be wondering, does the author’s name appear twice on the page in this format? For two reasons: first, in case you are writing under a name other than your own, as many writers choose to do, and second, because the information in the top-left corner is the contact information that permits an agent or editor to acquire the book. Clean and easy.


If you are in doubt about which category your book falls within, read one of my last three postings.


Word count can be approximate — in fact, it looks a bit more professional if it is. This is one of the advantages of working in Times New Roman: in 12-point type, everyone estimates a double-spaced page with one-inch margins in the business at 250 words. If you use this as a guideline, you can’t go wrong.


Do not, under any circumstances, include a quote on the title page. Many authors do this, because they have seen so many published authors use quotes at the openings of their books. Trust me: putting your favorite quote on the title page will not make your work look good.


While the Me First format is perfectly fine, the other standard format, which I like to call the Ultra-professional, is more common in the industry. It most closely replicates what most agents want their authors’ ultimate manuscript title pages to look like:


Upper right corner:


Book category


Word count


(Skip down 12 lines, then add, centered:)




(skip a line)




(skip a line)


Your name (or your nom de plume)


(Skip down 12 lines, then add in the lower right corner:)


Your name


Line 1 of your address


Line 2 of your address


Your telephone number


Your e-mail address


Again, there should be NO other information, just lots of pretty white space. After you sign with an agency, your agent’s contact information will appear where your contact information does.


That’s it, my friends – the only two options you have, if you want your title page to look like the bigwigs’ do. Try formatting yours accordingly, and see if your work is not treated with greater respect!


Having trouble picturing this? Completely understandable. You’ll find visual examples here. Keep up the good work!


— Anne Mini


Nonfiction book categories – and a cheerier Anne

Hello, dear friends —


Well, I’m in a much better mood than I was last week: I realized over the weekend that since I don’t own much of anything, it matters less if I’m sued over my memoir, A FAMILY DARKLY, than if I were well-to-do. If my publisher, which I believe IS well-to-do, isn’t taking the lawsuit threats particularly seriously, I suppose I should be even less concerned.


It did get me thinking, though, about the ironies of this business. When the marketing department came up with the title of my book, I was actually pretty annoyed: I had wanted to call it IS THAT YOU, PUMPKIN?. (Just so you know, first-time authors very seldom get to name their own books; I have it on reliable authority that there are publishing houses that automatically change EVERY title that they acquire, just to put their stamp upon the book.) “What does that title MEAN?” I asked, with some heat. “What precisely is dark about my family? And while we’re at it, can I at least beg for a comma, to create at least the illusion of its being grammatically correct?”


I never really got an answer, except to have it pointed out to me repeatedly that a movie based upon one of Philip’s books (A SCANNER DARKLY, which everyone should rush out and read immediately) is scheduled to come out approximately when my book does. The connection between my book and the movie, I gather, is to be almost subliminal.


In any case, I threw a fit over it at first. I told them that I could never bring myself to say it with a straight face. I argued; I complained; I believe I even whined, to no avail. A FAMILY DARKLY it was.


I’ve had the summer to get used to it, but to be absolutely frank, it didn’t really start to grow on me until I started receiving threats from the Dick estate. Actually, I had kind of liked Philip’s kids before that; I had thought we were getting along pretty well, until they decided that I was the Anti-Christ, for reasons I have yet to fathom. Many other writers have said far, far worse things about their father than I do, and yet I’m the only one that they’ve ever threatened to sue. Go figure.


They threatened first in early July, promising a bumper crop of demanded textual changes by the first week of August. The list of demands never came, however, so I thought, understandably, that they’d changed their minds. So the letter from their lawyer, delivered to my doorstep in early September, came as something of a surprise.


Turns out that one of their objections is that they believe that my book gives the false impression that they agree with my point of view. It doesn’t, but there’s no convincing angry people of anything that they don’t want to hear. In fact, the only thing in it that I can find in the book that might remotely be construed, if read backwards and upside-down, to indicate approval is a description of one lunch we had together, and one brunch at my house.


I don’t know about you, but I often eat meals with people who disagree with my opinions. I don’t feel it commits me to anything.


In any case, I’ve been revising like mad, to remove any vestige of an impression that these people and I ever agreed on so much as the time of day; unless I’m very much mistaken, the draft going to press will not even allow the reader to conclude that they were remotely civil to me. I hope they shall be pleased. (The funny thing is, it was not even hard to switch the tone: one of the complainants spent the first half-hour of her visit to my house rudely snooping around, staring at all of my possessions as if she were trying to value them for future sale. For all I know, she was: how am I to know if she was already contemplating a lawsuit, before she had even read the book?)


Now, I feel the title of the book is really, really appropriate: not to describe my family, but theirs. All’s well that ends well, right?


Okay, on to the promised topic du jour: the categories of nonfiction books. Again, the category belongs in the first paragraph of your query letter, as well as on the title page of your book and as part of your verbal pitch. Like genre, NF categories are the conceptual boxes that books come in, telling agents and editors roughly where it would sit in a bookstore. (The nonfiction categories are a much rougher indication of location than the fiction. Do be aware that the categories used in the publishing industry are not necessarily the same as those used by bookstores. In my own area, for instance, I have noticed that Barnes & Noble tends to shelve biography, autobiography, and memoir together; Amazon lumps memoir into the autobiography category.)


By telling an agent up front which category your book is, you make it easy for her to tell if it is the kind of book she can sell. Do bear in mind that the first things an agent or editor now tends to look for in a NF book query is not a great idea, but the platform of the writer. Your job in the query letter will be to sell yourself as the world’s best-qualified person to write this book.


Fortunately, most of the categories are pretty self-explanatory.


ENTERTAINING: no, not a book that IS entertaining; one ABOUT entertaining.


HOLIDAYS: about entertaining people at particular times of year.


PARENTING AND FAMILIES: this includes not only books about children, but books about eldercare, too.


HOUSE AND HOME: so you have a place to be PARENTING and ENTERTAINING your FAMILIES during the HOLIDAYS. This is for both house-beautiful books and how-to around the home. At some publishing houses, includes GARDENING.


HOW-TO: explains how to do things OTHER than house- and home-related tasks.


COOKBOOK: I suspect that you’ve seen one of these before, right?


FOOD AND WINE: where you write ABOUT the food and wine, not tell how to make it.


LIFESTYLE: Less broad than it sounds.


SELF-HELP: if you have ANY platform to write one of these, do so. These are the books that can land you on Oprah.


HEALTH: body issues for laypeople. If your book is for people in the medical professions, it should be classified under MEDICAL. Diet books are sometimes listed here (if there is a general philosophy of nutrition involved), sometimes under FOOD (if it is less philosophical), sometimes under COOKBOOK (if there are recipes), sometimes under FITNESS (if there is a substantial lifestyle/exercise component).


FITNESS: exercise for people who consider themselves to be out of shape.


EXERCISE: fitness for people who consider themselves to be in relatively good shape.


SPORTS: exercise for competitive people in all shapes.


HISTORICAL NONFICTION: Your basic history book, intended for a general audience. If it is too scholarly, it will be classified under ACADEMIC.


NARRATIVE NONFICTION: THE hot category from a few years ago. Basically, it means using fiction techniques to tell true stories.


TRUE CRIME: what it says on the box.


BIOGRAPHY: the life story of someone else.


MEMOIR: the life story of the author, dwelling on personal relationships.


AUTOBIOGRAPHY: the life story of the author, focusing on large, generally public achievements. The memoirs of famous people tend to be autobiographies.


ESSAYS are generally published in periodicals first, then collected.


WRITING: technically, these are HOW-TO books, but editors love writing so much that it gets its own category.


CURRENT EVENTS: explanations of what is going on in the world today, usually written by journalists. Do be aware that if you are not already a recognized expert in a current event field, your book probably will not be rushed to market, and thus perhaps will not be on the market while the event you have chosen is fresh in the public mind. Bear in mind that most books are not published until over a year after a publisher buys the book. This really limits just how current the events a first-time writer comments upon can be.


POLITICS: About partisan ideology.


GOVERNMENT: about the actual functions, history, and office holders of the political realm.


WOMEN’S STUDIES: a rather broad category, into which history, politics, government, and essays related to women tend to migrate. Logically, I think it’s a trifle questionable to call one book on labor conditions in a coal mine in 1880 HISTORY, and call a book on labor conditions in a predominantly female-staffed shoe factory in 1880 WOMEN’S STUDIES, but hey, I’m not the one who makes the rules.


GAY AND LESBIAN: Much like WOMEN’S STUDIES, this category includes works from a varied spectrum of categories, concentrating on gay and lesbian people.


LAW: This includes books for the layman, as well as more professionally-oriented books. Some publishers compress this category with books about dealing with governmental bureaucracies into a single category: LAW/GOVERNMENT.


ARTS: a rather broad category, no?


PHILOSOPHY: Thought that is neither overtly political nor demonstrably spiritual in motivation.


RELIGION: books about the beliefs of the major established religions.


SPIRITUALITY: books about beliefs that fall outside the major established religions. Often, the Asian religions are classified under SPIRITUALITY, however, rather than RELIGION. Go figure.


EDUCATION: Books about educational philosophy and practice. (Not to be confused with books on how to raise children, which are PARENTING AND FAMILIES.)


ACADEMIC: books written by professors for other professors. Tend not to sell too well.


TEXTBOOK: books written by professors for students.


REFERENCE: books intended not for reading cover-to-cover, but for looking up particular information.


PROFESSIONAL: Books for readers working in particular fields.


MEDICAL: Books for readers working in medical fields. (Not to be confused with HEALTH, which targets a lay readership.)


ENGINEERING: I’m going to take a wild guess here – books written by and for engineers?


TECHNICAL: Books intended for readers already familiar with a specific field of expertise, particularly mechanical or industrial. Unless the field is engineering, or computers, or cars, or medical…


COMPUTERS: fairly self-explanatory, no?


INTERNET: again – speaks for itself.


AUTOMOTIVE: I’m guessing these aren’t books for cars to read, but to read about cars. (Sorry, I couldn’t think of anything remotely funny to say about this. I’ve had a really long day.)
FINANCE: covers both personal finances and financial policy.


INVESTING: finance for those with more than enough money to pay the rent.


BUSINESS: this is another rather broad category, covering everything from tips for happy office interactions to books on executive manners.


CAREERS: books for people who are looking to break into a field. Includes books on how to find a job, how to interview, how to write a resume…


OUTDOORS AND NATURE: again, rather broad, as it encompasses everything outside a building that does not involve SPORTS, EXERCISE, FITNESS…


TRAVEL: Books on how to get there and what to do when you do get there.


TRAVEL MEMOIR: First-person stories about someone who went somewhere.


PHOTOGRAPHY: both books about and books of.


COFFEE TABLE BOOK: Books with big, gorgeous pictures and relatively little writing.


GIFT BOOK: Impulse buys.


Looking at this list, it strikes me as rather incomplete set of categories to explain all of reality. However, these are indeed the major categories – and as with fiction, you definitely need to specify up front which your book is.


Boy, am I glad to be finished with this set of information! I’m not a big fan of lists, as reading matter goes. Tomorrow, I shall show you how to format a standard title page, which will be much more fun.


In the meantime, keep up the good work!


— Anne Mini


Genre categories — and more of my saga

Okay, take a deep breath, boys and girls: we’re going to tackle the rest of the fiction book categories today. (Don’t worry, I’ll get back to that jolly interesting stuff about my memoir being the target for an ill-conceived lawsuit threat at the end of the post. I just didn’t want to leave all of you anxious queriers out there in the lurch, category-less.)

Yesterday, for those of you who missed it (I posted considerably later than usual), I went through the standard general fiction categories. Picking a category for your work is important, because (a) you only get to pick one, no matter how badly you would like to form hyphenate composites like Erotica-Western (and who wouldn’t want to read THAT?), and (b) 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 chosen categories.

Furthermore, you cannot dodge this kind of negative snap judgment by avoiding making a choice at all amongst the dozens of available categories, or by hiding your choice in the middle of your query letter. Oh, no: agents expect to see a straightforward statement of your category in the first paragraph of your query letter, on the title page of your manuscript (I’ll show you how to format a title page next week, legal difficulties permitting), and in your pitch.

Agents and editors LIKE making snap judgments, you see. It saves them time.

There is an unfortunately pervasive rumor on the writers’ conference circuit that a genre label automatically translates into writing less polished than other fiction in professional minds. No, no, no: genre distinctions, like book categories, are markers of where a book will sit in a bookstore, not value judgments. Naturally, agents and editors expect a book to reflect the conventions of books within the stated genre, but believe me, an agent who is looking for psychological thrillers is far more likely to ask to see your manuscript if you label it PSYCHOLOGICAL THRILLER, rather than just FICTION.

Case in point: I once had the misfortune to be assigned at a writers’ conference to be critiqued by an editor who did not handle mainstream or literary fiction, which is what I was writing. Since he had been good enough to read my first chapter and synopsis, I sat politely and listened to what he had to say. What he had to say, unsurprisingly, was that while he found the writing excellent, but he would advise that I change the protagonist from a woman to a man, strip away most of the supporting characters, and begin the novel with a conflict that occurred two thirds of the way through the book, concerning the fall of the Soviet Union. “Then,” he said, beaming at me with what I’m sure he thought was avuncular encouragement, “you’ll have a thriller we can market.”

Perhaps I had overdone the politeness bit. “But it’s not a thriller.”

He looked at me as though I had just told him that the sky was bright orange. “Then why are you talking to me?”

The rumor that genre carries a stigma has resulted in a lot of good manuscripts that would have stood out in their proper genres being pitched as mainstream or even literary fiction. Thus, queries and pitches have been aimed at the wrong eyes and ears. By labeling your work correctly, you increase the chances of your query landing on the desk of someone who genuinely likes your kind of book astronomically.

So label your work with absolute clarity. Many first-time genre authors make the completely understandable mistake of simply labeling their work with the overarching genre: MYSTERY, ROMANCE, SCIENCE FICTION, etc. However, did you know that each of these categories has many, many subcategories?

The more specific you can be, the more likely your work is to catch the eye of an agent or editor who honestly wants to snap up your book. (Or so the professionals claim. Really, it’s a shortcut that enables them to weed out queries outside their area with a minimum of letter-reading; that’s why agents like to be told the category in the first paragraph of the letter. It saves them scads of time if you tell them instantly whether your book is a hardboiled mystery or a caper mystery: if it isn’t the variety they are looking for today, they can weed it out almost instantly.)

Let me state outright that the major genres all have wonderful writers’ associations which can undoubtedly give you more specific information than I can here. This list is intended to guide people’s first forays into picking a category.

Let’s start with SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY, because it is the genre closest to my heart. My first writing teacher was an extremely well-known science fiction writer, so my first efforts at short stories were naturally in that genre. It may amuse those of you who write SF (the professionals NEVER call it Sci Fi, incidentally) that Philip, arguably one of the best-selling SF writers of all time, told me from the very beginning that he thought I should not write in his genre, no matter how well I did it: it was, he said, too hard for any good writer to make a living at it.

But times have changes substantially since Philip was writing, and if you write SF or Fantasy, you have many options within the genre. You can, of course, simply list SCIENCE FICTION or FANTASY, if your work does not fall into any of the subcategories.

SCIENCE FICTION ACTION/ADVENTURE: The protagonist must fight incredible odds or impressive beasties to attain his (or, less frequently, her) goals. Eek — is that an Ewok behind that tree?

SPECULATIVE SCIENCE FICTION (what if X were changed?) and FUTURISTIC SCIENCE FICTION (what if my characters lived in a future society where X was different from now?) are often mistakenly conflated into a single category. Wait — is this a government plot?

ALTERNATE HISTORY: What if X had changed in the past? What would the present be like? Philip’s THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE, predicated on the premise that the other side won World War II, is the usual example given for this subgenre.

CYBERPUNK: I have heard a lot of definitions for this subgenre, ranging from THE MATRIX to NEUROMANCER. Think technology-enhanced alternate realities with a dark twist.

DARK FANTASY: Fear skillfully woven into a what-if scenario. Until CYBERPUNK got its own following, its books tended to be marketed as DARK FANTASY.

COMIC FANTASY: Elves on ecstasy.

EPIC FANTASY: Wait — my friends the centaur, the half-human, half-canary, and a centipede have to save the universe AGAIN? If Tolkein were writing today, his LORD OF THE RINGS series would probably be marketed under this category.

If you are in serious doubt over where your SF/FANTASY book falls, go to any bookstore with a good SF/fantasy section and start pulling books off the shelves. Find a book similar to yours, and check the spine and back cover: the subgenre is often printed there.

VAMPIRE FICTION is sometimes categorized as fantasy, sometimes as horror. But there is something hypnotic about your eyes.

HORROR is its own distinct genre, and should be labeled accordingly. Never get into a car without checking the back seat, and for heaven’s sake, if you are a teenager, don’t run into the woods.

Okay, take another deep breath, because we are now going to delve into the many, many ROMANCE subcategories.

EROTICA is not your grandmother’s idea of pornography anymore. (Well, I guess it might be, depending upon what your grandmother was into.) Sexually-explicit writing where arousal is the point.

HISTORICAL ROMANCE has a zillion subcategories, primarily because its subcategories are often specific to period and locale. A few of the biggies: REGENCY, SCOTTISH, MEDIEVAL, TEXAS, WESTERN, MIDDLE EASTERN. ELIZABETHAN ENGLAND.

TIME TRAVEL: You have given up on the opposite sex in your own timeframe.

INSPIRATIONAL: If your romance novel is informed by spirituality, it belongs here.

CONTEMPORARY: Having a current-affairs issue at its core OR a protagonist who is a woman deeply devoted to her career.

FANTASY and CHICK LIT are hyphenates within the genre: basically, the conventions of these categories are grafted onto the ROMANCE genre. Natural choices, I think.

MULTICULTURAL: Not all of the people falling in love are white. Seriously, that’s what this means. I don’t quite understand this euphemism, since generally books labeled MULTICULTURAL are about a single culture, but hey, I don’t make the rules.

ROMANTIC SUSPENSE: this used to be called Women in Jeopardy or, more colloquially, Bodice Rippers. No comment.

PARANORMAL and GHOST ROMANCE are divided by a distinction I do not understand. Sorry. Check with Romance Writers of America.

CATEGORY ROMANCE: This is actually what many people think of automatically as a romance novel — the Harlequin type, written according to a very rigid structure.

Okay, hang in there, because here comes the last of the many subcategoried genres: MYSTERY. Again, I would urge you to consult the excellent resources provided by the Mystery Writers of America, if you are in serious doubt about which subgenre to select.

HISTORICAL: Again, self-explanatory?

COZY: An amateur sleuth is solving the crimes. VERY popular: about a quarter of the mysteries sold in North America fall into this category.

POLICE PROCEDURAL: The people who are supposed to be solving the crimes are solving the crimes.

LEGAL: A lawyer misreads his or her job description, and gets involved with solving a case.

PROFESSIONAL: A doctor, professor, reporter, etc. misreads his or her job description, and gets involved with solving a case.

PRIVATE INVESTIGATOR: A PI reads his or her job description correctly, and gets involved with solving a case.

PSYCHOLOGICAL or FORENSIC: A psychologist or forensic scientist plays around with his or her job description, refusing to leave the rest of the crime-solving to the police.

SUSPENSE: Wait, is ANYBODY going to solve the crime here? Hello? Is anybody else in the house? Hello?


HARDBOILED: There’s this guy, see, who lives by his own rules. He ain’t takin’ no guff, see — except maybe from a beautiful dame with a shady past. Often, she has legs that won’t quit AND go all the way to the ground. (A genre with surprising longevity: in 2003, hardboiled mysteries were 5% of the mysteries sold.)

ROMANTIC SUSPENSE: This time, the beautiful dame with a past and the legs IS the protagonist.

COPS AND KILLERS: What it says on the box.

SERIAL KILLER: Baaad people.

CHICK LIT: With how much time the protagonist spends in bed, it’s AMAZING that she finds the time to solve the case AND coordinate her shoes with her Prada handbag.

BRITISH: You may be wondering why I asked you all here.

SPY THRILLER: You may be wondering why I have you tied to that chair, Mr. Bond.

NOIR: This loner drifts into town, where he collides romantically with someone else’s wife under magnificently moody lighting conditions. What’s the probability that he’ll get fingered for a murder he didn’t commit?

CAPER: The protagonists are non-career criminals, often with wacky tendencies. Can they pull it off? Can they?

The remaining genre categories, WESTERN and ACTION/ADVENTURE, speak for themselves. Or, more precisely, I don’t have anything smart alecky to say about them.

And that’s it. In my next posting, I’ll cover the nonfiction categories — and we’ll finally be done. Hurray!

To put my own adventures into perspective, the threat to my book, A FAMILY DARKLY, has now entered the LEGAL THRILLER stage of its development. Even as I write this, lawyers are scratching their learned heads over the puzzling allegations made about my memoir. Of particular interest is the issue of whether my telling the truth about a relationship that has been hush-hush since, oh, before the Bicentennial (yes, one of my claims to fame is that Philip K. Dick laughed like hell when I told him about having to dress up as a miniature colonial wife and wield a mean flatiron in an elementary school diorama on Housework Before Modern Technology) should seriously bother anyone now.

Also at issue: since the woman who, ahem, borrowed my mother’s first husband on a semi-permanent basis has written her own book about the break-up of one marriage and the establishment of the next, and Philip has written a fictionalized account of it, is there any logical or ethical reason that my mother’s side of things (as seen through my vision, darkly) should not see print? Can you, in fact, be a public figure and be selective about what is divulged about you after your death?

On the bright side, though, everyone concerned seems rather eager to get these issues resolved before A FAMILY DARKLY comes out, or to be more precise, before the marketing blitz for A SCANNER DARKLY begins. A big-budget film, I’m told, based upon Philip’s 1979 novel. Sort of the end of an era for me, to see concepts and characters I pictured in my head while Philip so much about during revisions, translated into big-screen images. Let no one say that the creative process isn’t often pretty surreal.

It may surprise you to learn — it surprised me, I’ll confess — that the author actually has very little to do with a lawsuit of this nature: it’s all handled by the publishing house and, at the moment, a wildfire of argument about whether my book should be censored amongst habités of the many PKD fan sites. It’s actually rather maddening, to be stuck on the sidelines while discussion rages over what is after all my baby.

I shall keep you posted, of course, on what happens. And in the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Book categories — and yes, you have to pick one

Heavens — I got so wrapped up in my own saga that I almost forgot that I promised you a posting on book categories! To return to a theme from last week, labels, like standard formatting rules, are very important to agents and editors: if they can’t place your work within a conceptual box, chances are they will reject your work as weird. (And remember, in industry-speak, weird is bad; fresh is good.) Thus, before you submit your work to any agent or editor, you will need to decide which box is most comfortable for your book.

To be precise, you will need to mention your book’s genre in your query letter, on the title page of your manuscript (upper right corner is standard), and anytime you pitch. Hard as it may be to believe, to professional eyes, the category is actually more important than the title or the premise. To an agent, the category determines which editors on her contact list she can approach with your book; to an editor, it determines which market niche it will fill. If your work is difficult to categorize, or straddles two categories, their brains go into a tailspin: on which shelf in Barnes & Noble can it rest?

To a lot of writers, particularly fiction writers, the requirement to pick a single category for a work that may legitimately appeal to three or four target audiences often seems, if not repressive, a little foolish. You may be an expansive, freewheeling soul who longs to transcend narrow conceptions of genre; you may have a great love of two distinct genres, and long to combine them; you may feel that the value judgments placed upon certain genres render it undesirable to pick the most obvious label. (Why, for instance, is women’s lit so often sniffed at, when thrillers — bought disproportionately by men, and thus could legitimately be named men’s lit — are not?) You may feel, and with some justification, that the agent you are querying has a far greater knowledge of the market, and is thus in a far better position than you to decide in which category your book belongs.

No matter which you are, you will need to pick a category for your book anyway. Sorry. If you shilly-shally, or even hesitate when you are asked at a conference, you run the risk of appearing uninformed about the industry. I hate to be the one to tell you this, but there do exist agents so category-minded that they will automatically disregard any query that does not specify the book’s category clearly within the first paragraph.

This is serious business.

Okay, let’s tackle fiction first. Genre fiction has subcategories, just as general fiction does, so these lists will be quite extensive. Hey, don’t blame me: I’m just the messenger here.

In general fiction, the categories are:

FICTION: also known as mainstream. This is the bulk of the market, so do not be afraid of the plain-Jane moniker.

LITERARY FICTION: fiction where the writing style is a major selling point of the book. Assumes a college-educated audience.

HISTORICAL FICTION: pretty self-explanatory, no?

WOMEN’S FICTION: not to be confused with romance; WF is mainstream fiction specifically geared for a female readership. Since women buy the vast majority of fiction sold in North America, however, this category’s edges can get somewhat nebulous. Think of the YA-YA SISTERHOOD.

CONTEMPORARY WOMEN’S FICTION: Novels about what used to be called “career women.” If your protagonist is a doctor or lawyer who takes her work seriously, chances are that this is the category for you.

CHICK LIT: Assumes a female readership under the age of 40; always has a protagonist who is good in bed. In fact, some agents and editors refer to this category as GOOD IN BED.

LAD LIT: Similar to CHICK LIT, except the good-in-bed protagonist is a troubled young man; all of us have female co-workers who have dated the prototypes for these characters. The only example I have ever heard anyone use for this category is HIGH FIDELITY.

LADY LIT: Similar to CONTEMPORARY WOMEN’S FICTION, but the protagonist is often independently wealthy, or regards her relationships as more important than her work; the protagonist is always older than a CHICK LIT heroine. (I swear I’m not making this stuff up.)

FUTURISTIC FICTION: Not to be confused with science fiction, which is its own genre, these are literary or mainstream books set in the future; I gather the point of this category is to permit agents to say to editors, “No, no, it’s not genre.” Think THE HANDMAID’S TALE.

ADVENTURE FICTION: Not to be confused with ACTION/ADVENTURE, this category encompasses books where the protagonists engage in feats that serve no business purpose, yet are satisfyingly life-threatening. If your protagonist surfs, mountain-climbs, or wrestles wild animals, this may be the category for you.

SPORTS FICTION: Similar to ADVENTURE FICTION, but focused on conventional sports.

POETRY: If you do not know what this is, go knock on your high school English teacher’s door at midnight and demand to repeat the 10th grade.

SHORT STORIES: a collection of them. Generally, authors who publish short story collections have had at least a few of them published in magazines first.

CHILDREN’S: another fairly self-explanatory one, no?

YOUNG ADULT: books written for people too old for CHILDREN’S, yet too young for FICTION. YA, unlike other categories, may often be successfully combined with genres: YA FANTASY, YA WESTERN, etc.

COMICS: exactly what you think they are.

GRAPHIC NOVEL: A book with a COMICS format, but a specifically adult-oriented plot line.

Whew! And that’s just the non-genre fiction categories.

Do allow me to reiterate: you only get to pick one for your book. If you are wavering between close categories — say, between CONTEMPORARY WOMEN’S FICTION and CHICK LIT, do not be afraid to guess; there is quite a bit of overlap between categories, whether agents and editors admit it or not. Take a good look at your manuscript, decide whether sex or job is more important to your protagonist (if you are writing about a call girl, this may be an impossible determination to make), and categorize accordingly. If you’re off by a little, an agent who likes your work will tell you how to fine-tune your choice.

The distinction that seems to give writers the most trouble is between FICTION and LITERARY FICTION. Let’s face it, most of us like to think our writing has some literary value, and critical opinion about what is High Literature changes with alarming frequency. When asked, even most agents and editors have a hard time telling you precisely what the difference is — but, like art, they know literary when they see it. Yet ask any three agents whether THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP, THE SHIPPING NEWS, and THE COLOR PURPLE are mainstream or literary, and you will probably get at least two different answers.

Lest you think, as many aspiring writers do, that all good fiction is literary, let me remind you that these are marketing categories, not value judgments. LITERARY FICTION is quite a small percentage of the fiction market, so do be aware that if you pick that category, you may be limiting your book’s perceived market appeal. When in doubt, FICTION is usually safe, because it is the broadest — and most marketable — category.

If you are in serious doubt whether your book is sufficiently literary to count as LITERARY FICTION, apply one of two tests. First, take a good, hard look at your book: under what circumstances can you envision it being assigned in a college English class? If the subject matter is the primary factor, chances are the book is not literary. I once mortally offended an English professor by bringing in an example from GONE WITH THE WIND, as mainstream a book as ever you would hope to see: “That’s mass market,” the professor snapped. “We don’t study that sort of thing here.” Ooh — touchy.

The other test — and I swear I am not suggesting this merely to be flippant — is to open your manuscript randomly at five different points and count the number of semicolons, colons, and dashes per page. If there are more than a couple per page, chances are your work is geared for the literary market. Mainstream FICTION tends to assume a tenth-grade reading level: LITERARY FICTION assumes an audience educated enough to use a semicolon correctly, without having to look up the ground rules.

Do be careful, however, when applying this second test, because writers tend to LOVE punctuation. Oh, I know this is going to break some tender hearts out there, but if you want to write fiction professionally, you need to come to terms with an ugly fact: no one but writers particularly LIKE semicolons. If you are writing for a mainstream audience, you should consider minimizing their use; if you are writing most genre fiction, you should get rid of them entirely.

If you don’t believe me, I implore you to spend an hour in any reasonably well-stocked bookstore, going from section to section, pulling books off the shelf randomly, and applying the punctuation test. If you are writing for most genre audiences (science fiction being the major exception), most agents and editors prefer to see simpler sentence structure.

Again, I don’t make the rules: I merely pass them along to you.

Tomorrow, I shall go into the genre categories and subcategories, as well as the nonfiction categories. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

I got feedback on my LIFE?

I have been thinking again today about those of us who write about true events — and yes, alas, my publisher is still being sued over my memoir — and I want to speak about a topic that is discussed only very rarely amongst memoirists, and that in hushed tones and only amongst ourselves. It is, successful memoirists assert behind closed doors, extremely difficult to expose your own cherished notions of yourself and your past to outside scrutiny.

If you are brave enough to want to share your life story with the world, do keep in mind that you will be tying up your most cherished and hated memories with a nice red ribbon — and handing it to people whose life’s work is pointing out logical holes in stories. I’m not talking about predatory lawyers here, or even reviewers, but agents and editors.

Be prepared to answer questions from your agent and editor that most therapists would blush to ask. Do try to keep a sense of humor about it, because after all, you are the person who invited the scrutiny. (And do remember, as I did not, that you are under no obligation to show your manuscript to your kith and kin. As the lawyers say, it’s always better to ask forgiveness than permission. How I wish now that I had followed my own advice in this respect!)

The first serious barrage of ultra-personal questions about my memoir, A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK caught me totally by surprise, even after a lifetime listening to would-be biographers interview my mother about her glory days. When I first began shopping the book around, a good half of the publishing professionals I spoke to asked the same first question: was this book about a love affair that ended when I was 15?

Oh, please. As if no young woman ever had anything interesting to say that didn’t have something to do with sex.

If I had been a savvier marketer back then, I suppose I would have answered, “You’ll have to read the book and see,” but it’s pretty difficult to treat the story of your own life like a commodity. It’s hard not to take the prurient questions personally. They probably were not actually asking, “Were you a teenage slut?” but that’s certainly how I heard it.

Yet once you have written a memoir, your telling of your life IS a commodity. Like any other salesman with any other product, your agent has to understand it well enough (or repackage it well enough) to be able to sell it to editors. And your editor has to be able to sell his or her vision of it to his publisher, and the publishing house’s marketers to the world.

This may be self-evident logically, but emotionally, it is anything but. You learn a lot about yourself, and about how others see you. For a memoirist, the process of bringing out reminiscences is roughly akin to conducting a year’s worth of therapy by shouting deep, dark secrets across a crowded opera house to a hard-of-hearing therapist seated on the far side. His questions and your answers are essentially public — as is your story, the instant you start to market it. And, given the peculiarities of the NF market, perhaps even before you have written it.

There are easier things to do.

And you unquestionably have a higher chance of maintaining plausible deniability if you write your life as fiction. But some of us have led lives too wacky to make for realistic fiction. Just because something actually happened doesn’t mean it is believable on the pages of a novel.

Let me repeat that, because it’s the single biggest problem the memoir-writer faces: just because something happened doesn’t mean it is plausible. It is the memoirist’s job to make the improbabilities of life credible, by creating rich characters and compelling story arcs out of the materials real life has given him. A memoir is not a transcript of everyday life, because that would be unreadable — a good memoir is real life illuminated by an insightful eye and a heart not afraid to reveal its own foibles.

All this being said, if you are considering writing a memoir, I can’t encourage you enough to do it. There is liberation in shouting your deepest, darkest secrets across that crowded opera house that the veiled whispers of fact-based fiction simply cannot provide. Go ahead and shout — but only if you’re telling the truth as you know it. You may need to cling to the security of knowing you are being honest in the dark night of criticism to come.

Before I sign off for the day, I’d like to throw a question out to all of you truth-tellers out there: how do you work up nerve to write about matters you have never discussed with your family? Is there a line between what is legitimate to use in a memoir and what is too personal to tell, and if so, who gets to draw that line?

Please send your good ideas on this subject via the COMMENTS function, below. I would love to get your thoughts; obviously, these issues are very much on my mind at the moment. Let’s get a conversation going!

And keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

One of a kind

I am calmer today, thanks for asking; my sense of humor shows signs of only being sprained, rather than broken. If certain people want to launch frivolous lawsuits at my memoir because I tell the truth in it about someone who has been dead for 23 years, I have only two options: to make up lies that will please them, or to keep right on telling the truth. I prefer the latter, and I don’t see how I could, in all integrity, do anything else.

I’ll keep you posted on how all of this truth-telling works out for me.

It has made be think, though, about what I have been taught over the years by doubtless well-meaning teachers and writers about how to write the truth. In retrospect, I am honestly struck by how much of the advice was simply not useful at all. There is a great deal I wish I had known, and even more that I wish I had not needed to unlearn before I could finish writing my memoir. (Which WILL see print, I swear. I’m not going to be intimidated by bullies with buckets of money.) So what is the newly-minted memoirist to believe?

Case in point: the advice to write what you know.

We’ve all heard this, right? I assume so, because the result has been an apparently endless stream of short stories about upper middle-class teenagers with angst and very lovable English teachers. It has also — unfortunately for someone like me, who has written about a well-known literary figure survived by unfortunately testy heirs — has led to far too many biopics about writers where the Great One in question lives a life IDENTICAL to the world depicted in his work. So much for creativity: in the biopic universe, the work IS the life.

Personally, I like to give writers a bit more credit for imagination. I prefer to think, for instance, that Dorothy Parker occasionally had a happy love affair, that Ernest Hemingway was something more than a mindless thug fond of killing things, and that John Irving does not actually harbor a pet bear. I could be wrong about all this, of course, but I suspect I am not.

With a memoir, writing what you know seems like basic common sense, right? In a way, yes, but will everybody’s personal story make a good book, even in skillful hands? And is telling the unvarnished truth enough to make a book interesting to people who have never met you?

If you have had an extraordinary life, obviously you have good memoir material, but what about an ordinary life examined with sensitivity and insight? Surely, common experiences would resonate with more people than unusual ones? Think about ANGELA’S ASHES: there were quite a few kids who could have grown up to write similar memoirs, weren’t there?

Again: yes, but — there’s a fine line between speaking to shared experience and reproducing what has been written before. Despite what editors say at writers’ conferences about searching high and low for the next ANGELA’S ASHES, copycat books seldom sell well to the general public. (If you doubt this, take this quick quiz: close your eyes, turn around three times, and now name at least three of the BRIDGET JONES clones’ authors. Could you do it?) To paraphrase Mae West, a copy is forgettable, but the public loves an honest-to-goodness original.

Unfortunately, there are scads and scads of people in the publishing industry who seem to forget this. You may recognize them by their distinctive stripes: they are the agents who snap up a book that sounds like the currently hot thing, show it to one or perhaps two editors — then drop the book flat when it doesn’t sell instantly. They are the editors who will pitch a book to their colleagues as “the next X” (where X = current bestseller), acquire it enthusiastically — then lose interest in them as soon as fashion turns, leaving the poor author high, dry, and without any book promotion budget whatsoever. They are the marketing people who change their minds about what is marketable on a daily basis, and who eschew whimsy. I do not recommend their cultivation, unless you have a skin the approximate thickness of the average bark on a 100-year-old cedar; otherwise, it will only end in tears.

In my opinion, the reading public is actually less fickle than this, bless its collective heart. Once a reader finds a writer she likes, she tends to keep buying that writer’s subsequent books, with an unstinting loyalty rare in this hyper-competitive world. This sterling reader will often even go back and try to find earlier works by a favorite author, the ones that got dropped by a once-enthusiastic press when the time came to ante up for publicity or the ones that did not get stellar advance reviews. Honestly, I do not think authors spend enough time being grateful to readers of this caliber: they are the ones for whom it is genuinely a pleasure to write.

That being said, do bear in mind that this sterling reader probably spends a fair amount of time hanging out in bookstores and/or browsing on Amazon: to catch her eye with a book about a common experience, the writing has to be far above average, and the take has to be unusual.

This attitude, unlike the latest-hot-thing prejudice, expresses itself similarly in the reading public and amongst agents and editors. There’s simply a higher bar for originality for common experiences. At this point, there have been so many books about, say, a Baby Boomer caring for her dying parent(s), (or a 60’s radical simmering down over time, or a high-powered businessman coming to terms with his own mortality and learning in the process that there is more to life than money, or city folks learning the value of country ways, or the loss of anyone’s virginity) that the storytelling must necessarily be stellar to sell the book. By writing on a common subject, unfortunately, the author automatically runs the risk of the agent taking one look at the query, crying to the heavens, “Oh, God, not another book about X!” and hastily shoving it aside unread.

So how do you make your story stand out from the crowd? In my case, I had a built-in advantage: I spent much of my childhood in secret telephone confabs with a brilliant science fiction writer who was afraid to leave his house. That’s not the kind of thing that happens very often , I am told — and that is precisely what I would suggest you look for in your own story: what about you is absolutely unique?

In asking this, I am turning the standard advice on its head. I would advise you to write not just what you know, but what ONLY YOU know. In other words, what is the story that only you can tell?

It doesn’t have to be spectacular, just original and close to home. Think about Marjorie Rawlings’ children’s classic THE YEARLING. A simple, classic story, far removed from the potboilers that were selling well at the time. But these were characters that Rawlings knew and loved down to her bones — and thus, the reader learns to love them, too.

I would suggest that if you want to write a memoir, the people in your life need to spring off the page with all the intensity of fictional characters; if you want to write a novel, its characters need to leap into the reader’s mind with all the solidity of real people. And that will be hard, because you won’t want to step on the toes of the living or the memories of the dead — or, in my case, excite the lawyers of the heirs.

You’re too nice a person for that, right?

Ah, but your responsibility to your future reader demands that you are honest — that you write not the story that your family or your friends or your coworkers or the nearest person with a scary lawyer thinks will make them look good, but the story that only YOU know.

Necessarily, others will disagree with you; that’s the nature of differing points of view. But if you stick with the story you know in your gut to be true, and tell it from the perspective that only you can show, you’re bound to end up with an honest memoir or truthful-feeling novel.

And, unfortunately for the kith and kin of memoirists everywhere, there really isn’t any other way to write a good memoir. Honest, your honor: it just can’t be done any other way.

Keep up the good work, my friends.

– Anne Mini

My publisher is being sued over my book

Dearly beloved:

I had planned to write a long, lovely post today about how to prep your initial chapters for sending out to editors and agents, but I have received very upsetting news. Remember a couple of weeks ago, when I was waxing poetic about memoirists often being misunderstood, threatened, and occasionally even sued when they are telling the truth? Well..

I am hugely, horribly, terribly upset. Is there anything more awful, anything that makes you revert to a child-like breathlessness at the injustice of it all, as being attacked for telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?

Okay, let me calm down and tell you what is going on. The Philip K. Dick estate has renewed its threat to sue if my memoir, A FAMILY DARKLY, is published. Yes, that’s right, the one that’s already available for pre-sale on Amazon, the one for which I won the PNWA’s Zola Award in 2004, the one that I’ve been running myself ragged to get out the door this year. My baby, in other words. To make matters worse, I was just finishing up the final edits!

The estate has known about the book for over a year, and has had the manuscript since June, but now, in September, they’re suddenly on the warpath; perhaps they believed that when they asked me for changes, their copy of the manuscript should have magically changed before their eyes, HARRY POTTER-style. I shan’t bore you with the details of what they’re claiming I have done, but it’s all terribly ugly; all in all, they generally assert that it’s the worst book since MEIN KAMPF, and I gather that they wouldn’t be terribly sorry to see me burned as a witch.

Let me translate that for those of you not accustomed to being sued by people with pots and pots of money: the underlying fear here is that my telling the truth (which actually isn’t anything horrible; just aspects of the man that hadn’t been written about before) might harm attempts to sell certain short stories by a famous science fiction writer who shall remain nameless to a gargantuan studio known for harboring a certain big-eared mouse. As nearly as I can tell, the objection seems to be that my memoir depicts Philip as funny — which he undoubtedly was. The prevailing fear seems to be that the mouse might prefer its late artistic geniuses devoid of colorful habits and waggish personalities.

As I understand it, the mouse — and the estate, which has never threatened to sue a biographer before, as far as I know — has no objections whatsoever to the many, many bios that depict the famous SF writer in question as a drug-addicted maniac; the idea that he might have had friends is apparently far more disturbing to rodential sensibilities than anything he might have ingested in his lifetime.

Oh, lordy. Preserve us from dealing with those with no sense of humor.

I hear you asking: wait, I thought it wasn’t legally possible to slander or libel the dead? And isn’t truth an absolute defense against libel? And aren’t good people everywhere generally dead set against the practice of censorship?

Well, yes, yes, and yes. Doesn’t seem to be stopping ’em, though.

I’m frantically searching my mind for some instructive tidbit I can glean from the horror of today, to pass along to aspiring memoirists, to help them along their path, but honestly, I’m too upset at the moment. Unless the moral is this: maybe it’s a waste of time and valuable energy to try to please people you can’t respect.

Because, honestly, I don’t know what I could have done to avoid this outcome, other than flatly lying, twisting the Philip I had known into a shape more palatable for relatives who had met him only three or four times in their lives. I spent MONTHS asking for input, dancing around egos, even making tiny, insignificant, silly changes that someone or other thought were monumentally important because she’d missed the point of this anecdote or that. I was incredibly accommodating — only to learn, via a letter on very expensive lawyerly letterhead, that the people I had been trying so hard to please had chosen to ignore all of the changes I had made at their request. I learn, only at this very, very late date, that they now claim that I didn’t tell them I was writing a book at all.

You’d think that the prize for best NF book would have tipped them off, but hey, some people need more obvious hints than others.

Dearly beloved, does this make any sense to you? It doesn’t to me, I confess, and I’m the one who’s been living through it.

I guess all I can add, when all is said and done, is this: even with all this furor, even staring in the face the very real possibility that my book may be yanked from the shelves for the most specious of reasons, I still feel it has all been worth it. There is nothing in the world that feels better than telling the truth, especially a truth that you’ve been holding in for a very, very long time.

I hope I’ll be able to be more upbeat tomorrow. In the meantime, keep up the good work, and I’ll keep you posted.

– Anne Mini

Summing it all up: the synopsis

Hi, gang —

For the past week, I have been talking about various circumstances that might lead to a good author receiving a form letter rejection. (If you missed my thrilling guided tour of the query letter, see earlier postings.) I would like to emphasize that the problems I have been pointing out for the last couple of days are by no means boneheaded mistakes: most of them are very sophisticated mistakes indeed, ones that require a lot of careful time, effort, and often following step-by-step directions in a writers’ magazine to make really well.

As I’ve said before, my goal here is to save you some time. Yes, the best way to learn is through direct personal experience, but I see no compelling reason that every English-speaking writer should have to make the same set of 23 mistakes before figuring out what agents and editors want to see. I’m trying to show you a few shortcuts.

Today, I want to talk about synopses, and no one’s gonna stop me. Not all agents want to see a synopsis along with the query letter (check the agent’s listing in one of the standard agent guides to make sure), but most do. Since literally every book will at some point require a synopsis, you might as well write a good one up front.

For the purposes of this discussion, I shall assume that you have already read up on them in one of the many excellent guides on the subject. (If anyone out there wants a blow-by-blow about how to write one from ground zero, send me a message via the COMMENTS function, below, and I’ll write a post on it.) Generally, a synopsis should run between 2 and 5 pages in length, double-spaced, with 1-inch margins. If yours is either longer or shorter than that, you might want to tinker with it until it fits within standard expectations before asking yourself the questions below.

Otherwise, read yours over IN HARD COPY, ALOUD. As regular readers of this blog are already aware, my professional editor hat gets all in a twist at the notion of any writer’s proofreading solely on a computer screen.

And don’t even get me started on the chronic inadequacies of most word processing programs’ grammar checkers! Mine disapproves of gerunds, apparently on general principle, strips accent marks off French words, and regularly advises me to use the wrong form of THERE. (If anybody out there does not know the ABSOLUTELY IMMUTABLE rules governing when to use THERE, THEIR, AND THEY’RE, drop me a comment, and I shall make everything clear.) Like a bad therapist, a poor grammar checker cannot be sufficiently disregarded, but even in the unlikely event that your grammar checker was put together by someone remotely familiar with the English language as she is spoke, you should NEVER rely solely upon what it tells you to do. If you’re in doubt, look it up.

There is another excellent reason to read the synopsis out loud: to make sure it stands alone as a story. Since part of the point of the synopsis is to demonstrate what a good storyteller you are, flow is obviously important. If you have even the tiniest reservations about whether you have achieved this goal, read your synopsis out loud to someone unfamiliar with your project — and then ask your listener to tell the basis story back to you. If there are holes in your account, this method will make them leap out at you. (Insofar as a hole can leap.)

Okay, let’s assume that you’ve read and reread your synopsis, and it is both grammatically impeccable and one hell of a good story; Will Rogers, Mark Twain, and Dorothy Parker would all gnash their venerable teeth, if they still had them, in envy over your storytelling skills. Now it’s time to start asking yourself a few questions:

(1) Is my synopsis brief and the length requested by the agent? Is it double-spaced, in 12-point type, with standard margins?

Yes, I know I mentioned all this already. Check again, because any of these problems will generally result in your synopsis being placed into the rejection pile, unread.

(2) Does the first page of the synopsis SAY that it’s a synopsis? Does it also list the title of the book? Is every page numbered? And does every page contain the slug line MY LAST NAME/TITLE/SYNOPSIS/#?

Again, this is nit-picky stuff — but people who work at agencies and publishing houses tend to be nit-picky people. (Try saying that four times fast!) The sooner you accept that, the happier your writing life will be.

(3) If I mention the names of places, famous people, or well-known consumer products, are they spelled correctly?

I did not realize until I started editing professionally just how common it is for writers to misspell proper nouns. Here again, I blame the demon word processing programs: mine has the infernal impudence to insist that Berkeley, California (where I happen to have been born) should be spelled Berkley, like the press. Trust me, any West Coast-based agent or editor will know which one it should be — and wonder why you don’t.

Yes, it is unfair that you should be penalized for the mistakes of the multi-million dollar corporations that produce these spelling and grammar checkers. Pacific Northwest-based editors have been known to throw spitballs at Microsofties; I content myself with occasionally sending them a roster of the fine English faculty at the University of Washington, with the suggestion that perhaps it was time to retake English 101. I know what the fate of people who propagate false spelling and grammatical information if I ran the universe — boiling oil would be amusingly involved — but alas, I am not so empowered. And look what the result has been: Bill Gates is the richest man in the world, living in a state with no personal income tax, and the world is full of bad grammar.

From your perspective as a querying writer, there can be very serious consequences to these grammatical and spelling oversights caused or at least encouraged by word processing programs: agents and editors cannot tell whether you as, say, a cookbook author, can’t spell to save your life, or haven’t bothered to proofread — or if some yahoo in Woodinville just couldn’t be bothered to check a dictionary to see how hors d’oeuvre is actually spelled by the French. (I had to enter that one in my custom dictionary.) To the agent or editor, YOU are invariably the one who looks unprofessional.

This doesn’t mean not to spell-check: you should. But you should never rely upon a spell-checker or grammar-checker alone. They’re just not literate enough.

If you have any doubt whatsoever about your own proofreading skills, lasso a friend with better ones. Hire a professional editor. But do not expect to get by with the level of perfection deemed good enough by those who design word processing programs.

(4) If I use clichés for comic effect, have I reproduced them correctly?

As I have mentioned before, I frown upon the use of clichés in print. (You can’t see me doing it, but I am frowning at it right now.) Part of the point of being a writer is to display your thought, not the truisms of others. And frankly, I think any good author should be able to make it through a 1-page query letter and a 2-5 page synopsis without quoting other people. Occasionally, however, there are reasons to utilize cliché — the best reason, of course, being to make fun of them.

You would not BELIEVE how common it is for writers to reproduce clichés incorrectly. (I would not believe it myself, if I had not been a judge in a number of literary contests.) And an incorrectly-quoted cliché will, I assure you, kill any humorous intention deader than the proverbial doornail. So make sure that your needles remain in your haystacks, and that the poles you wouldn’t touch things with are ten-foot, not 100-foot. (How would you pick up a 100-foot pole, anyway?) When in doubt, ask someone outside your immediate circle of friends — your own friends may well be making the same mistake you are.

(5) Does my synopsis present actual scenes from the book in glowing detail, or does it merely summarize the plot?

Too many writers forget that the synopsis is, in fact, a writing sample. It needs to shimmer with talent. “This happened, and then this, and then this,” is, alas, generally not the best way to shimmer.

Don’t worry about depicting every twist and turn of the plot — worry about giving a solid feel of the mood of the book within the context of a basic plot summary. Show where the basic conflicts lie, introduce the major characters, but make sure to pick a scene or two to present in a wealth of sensual detail. Show ’em what you can do.

(6) Have I left out anything crucial — like the ending twist?

This is yet another agents’ pet peeve. A lot of authors depict the plot in exquisite detail, and then leave the synopsis-reader flat. “I want to preserve the suspense,” these writers say. “I don’t want to give everything away.”

While I understand the innate storyteller’s instinct that prompts this strategy, I still think it is a mistake. Literally every agent I have ever asked about it has said that his or her reaction to such synopses is not a furor of excitement to find out how the book ends, but a snap judgment that the writer has not yet finished the book.

Trust me: these are not people who like to be teased.

(7) Is this a synopsis, or is it a marketing pitch?

Many synopses eschew plot in favor of discussions of the market’s crying need for their particular books, an elucidation of the target market, or — heaven help us — an in-depth personal discussion of the author’s motive for writing the book in the first place. If the book in question is NF, this can make some sense, but it’s a risky strategy: the synopsis is where people in the publishing industry expect to see a brief summary of the argument of the book.

For fiction, however, this approach can be fatal. Marketing suggestions belong in the query letter, not in the synopsis. Girls aged 10 to 14 may spent the entire rest of their lives influenced by the book you have written, but an agent will not want to learn that in the synopsis. The synopsis is for telling what the book is ABOUT.

It is also far from uncommon to write the synopsis as if it were the back cover blurb for the book, which has a different goal entirely. Yes, you are using the synopsis to market your work, but this is not the place to include blurbs, boast that this is the next WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP, or state that it belongs on the bookshelf of every carpenter in America.

Stick to what the book is about.

Whew! That was a lot of work, wasn’t it? It’s worth it, though: not only will a stellar synopsis please an agent, and thus help you get signed, but it will also probably be gracing the desk of any editor your agent wants to interest in the book. After the editor falls in love with your book, your synopsis will be what is circulated amongst the other editors and higher-ups, not your manuscript itself (unless the publishing house in question is absolutely tiny, that is.) The thing is gonna get around.

Trust me, it’s worth the time to perfect it. The synopsis and the query letter are your calling cards, your introduction into a world that does not yet know what a talented, wonderful person you are. They’re tools: use them well.
Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Presenting your writing right: The body of the query letter

Howdy, campers — I’m in a good mood today. A few weeks ago, the fine publishers-to-be of my memoir (A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK, already available for presale on Amazon!) have moved the release of my book forward by almost two months, to earliest February, 2006. Freaked me out a little at first, but actually, I have always found the wait-in-patient-silence part of being a writer significantly harder to take than, say, tight deadlines.

So when the publicity department sent me an author questionnaire the length of the last HARRY POTTER volume, I was kind of psyched. I remain so, even while digging up the addresses of every bookstore I have ever visited in North America, unearthing copies of every piece I have published since I was old enough to vote, and attempting to clear my schedule of every conceivable obligation between now and next February. Fortunately, I had nice writing friends who trained me years ago to keep a writing resume and maintain meticulously-detailed contact lists, so I have most of the information already at my fingertips. Including, incidentally, some comic articles in Dutch; I don’t speak it myself, but apparently my voice translates well into the language of the Low Countries.

I mention all of this not to gloat, but to perform the same office for my loyal readers as kind souls did for me in days of yore: I urge you to start keeping records of every publication (regardless of whether you were paid for it or not), every speaking engagement (ditto — and giving a reading at a writer’s conference or one of the PNWA’s fabulous TWIO events definitely counts), and any experience remotely related to your writing or your subject matter. Get into the habit of adding to it automatically, so that it is never out-of-date. Trust me, you will need this information at the precise psychological moment when you are least likely to have access to your full brainpower: when you are living on caffeine and excitement in the months leading up to your first book’s publication, your memory will probably not be operating at peak efficiency.

Wait — who are you people? And why am I writing this?

It’s also a good idea to get into the habit of maintaining a database of people you will want to contact when the book comes out, as well as anyone who might conceivably be helpful in promoting it. Most of us do some form of this already, so we can readily access the addresses of our kith and kin for holiday cards (or on the outside chance that someday, we will need to crash on Cousin Marvin’s couch in Poughkeepsie). Start with the kith and kin, and just keep adding contact information for every new person you meet. If the idea of an Excel program seems like too much work, establish a box to accept every business card you ever get, as well as the odd scrap of paper bearing the vitals of that fabulous person you met at a writers’ conference. Anyone who might conceivably recognize your name on a dust jacket belongs on this list.

Frankly, ever since I signed my book contract, I have gleaned contact info from anyone who sounds even vaguely interested in the book. Cab drivers. Other passengers on buses. The woman who cuts my hair. It may seem a bit cheesy to include service providers, but hey, if your dentist does not like you well enough to consider buying your book, you may need to go back to charm school. Most people are genuinely intrigued when someone they know, however obliquely, actually manages to get something published — and I assure you, every writer you have ever met will want to know how you pulled it off. You’re gonna want to drop ’em all a postcard, preferably with your book cover printed on it.

It’s only neighborly.

Okay, back to practical matters. Yesterday, I urged you to take a long, hard look at the first paragraph of the query letter you’ve been sending out, to make sure you are projecting the impression that you are an impressively qualified, impeccably professional writer waiting to be discovered (as opposed to the other kind). Today, I want to talk about the body of the letter, the part where you talk about the book itself.

Is everybody comfortable, query letter in hand? Read the entire letter aloud, so it is clear in your mind (and to catch any lapses in logic or grammar), then ask yourself the following questions:

(9) Is my brief summary of the book short and clear? Have I said what the book is about?

Frequently, authors get so carried away with the premise of the book that they forget to mention the theme at all. Or they try to cram the entire synopsis into the query letter. Given that the entire query letter should never be longer than a page, your summary needs to be very short and sweet. Just the facts, ma’am.

Or not the facts, just the premise. You really only have 3-5 sentences here to grab an agent’s interest, so you might well be better off emphasizing how interesting your characters are, rather than trying to outline the plot. Read these two summaries: which would make you ask to see the first fifty pages of the book?

“Murgatroyd, a blind trombonist with a lingering adolescent passion for foosball, has never fallen in love — until he met Myrtle, the baton-wielding conductor with a will of steel. But what chance does he have? Myrtle’s just been dumped by the world’s greatest Sousaphinist; she has vowed never to look at the brass section again. Can Murgatroyd win the heart of his first love, without compromising his reputation as he navigates the take-no-prisoners world of the symphony orchestra?”

Snappy, isn’t it? The characters come off as quirkily interesting, and the basic conflicts are immediately apparent. Contrast this with the more common type of summary:

BATON OF MY HEART is a love story that follows Murgatroyd, who was blinded at age six by a wayward electrical wire. As a child, Murgatroyd hated and feared electricity, which causes him to avoid playing conventional sports: football fields are always brightly lit. This light metaphor continues into his adult life, where he performs in symphony halls with lights trained on him all the time. Life isn’t easy for Murgatroyd. Eventually, he gets a job with a new symphony, where he doesn’t know anybody; he’s always been shy. He makes friends in the woodwind section, but the people who play next to him remain aloof. A mysterious woman is hired to conduct the symphony. Murgatroyd is intrigued by her, because…”

Hold it a minute: We’re all the way through a lengthy paragraph, and we still don’t know what the essential conflict is!

(10) Is my summary in the present tense?

This is one of those industry weirdnesses: one-paragraph summaries, like pitches, are always in the present tense. Even if you are describing events that happened before the fall of the Roman Empire. Go figure.

(11) Does it emphasize the points that will make the book appeal to my target audience?

If you find being direct about it (“PIGSKIN SERANADE is designed to appeal to the romantic football-lover in all of us”) a trifle gauche — and actually, even if you don’t — it should be readily apparent to anyone who reads your summary what elements of the book are most likely to draw readers.

The easiest way to do this is to make sure that the tone of summary echoes the tone of the book. If you have written a comedy, you’d better make sure there’s at least one line in the summary that elicits a chuckle. If you have written a steamy romance, you’d better make sure there’s some sex in the summary. And so forth.

(12) Wait — have I given any indication here who my target audience is?

Most query letters include no reference whatsoever to the target audience, as though it were in poor taste to suggest to an agent that somebody somewhere might conceivably wish to purchase the book being pitched. But think about it: if an agent is going to spend only about thirty seconds on any given query letter before deciding whether to reject it out of hand, is there really time for the agent to think, “Hmm, who will buy this book?”


(13) Have I mentioned the genre?

Like it or not, you do need to use some of your precious query letter space to state outright what KIND of a book it is: you’d be surprised at how few query letters actually mention whether the work being pitched is fiction or nonfiction. This is a business run on categories: pick one.

A lot of writers think they can fudge genres by listing several: comic romance, spiritual how-to, women’s thriller. Logically, these hybrids may make sense, but they look wishy-washy to professional eyes. An agent will have to tell any editor what genre your book falls into: it is really helpful if you are clear about it upfront.

The one exception: Literary/Mainstream Fiction. This one is okay, because no one is really sure where precisely the dividing line between the two categories lies, and occasionally, very literary works have huge mainstream appeal.

If you find all of this confusing, hold your horses until next week. In a future posting, I shall list all of the accepted publishing categories, and discuss the differences between them.

(14) Have I avoided using clichés?

I think this one speaks for itself, doesn’t it?

(15) Have I listed my credentials well? Do I sound as though I am a competent professional, regardless of my educational level or awards won?

If you have any background that aided you in writing this book, you need to make sure you mention it in your query letter. Period.

Truthfully, unless you are writing a book that requires very specific expertise, most of your credentials will not actually be relevant to your book. But do say where you went to school, if you did, and any awards you have won, if you have. If you are a member of a regularly-meeting writers’ group, mention that: anything that makes you sound like a serious professional is appropriate to include. Even your certificate in woodworking.

(16) Have I made any of the standard mistakes? Do I refer to “fiction novel” (a very common pet peeve among agents; in point of fact, all novels are fiction), or waffle about the genre? Is my query longer than a single page — or, if it isn’t, have I resorted to margin-fudging or an ultra-small typeface to make it so?

(17) Does my query letter read as though I have a personality?

This question surprises writers who have done their homework, the ones who have studied guides and attended workshops on how to craft the perfect query letter. The fact is, though, those guidelines are widely enough known now that a textbook-perfect letter can come across as, well, unimaginative. In a situation where you are pitching your imagination and perceptiveness, this is not good.

You need to make sure that you are not presenting a man without a face: your query letter needs to sound like you at your best. You need to sound professional, of course, but if you’re a funny person, the query should reflect that. If you are a person with quirky tastes, the query should reflect that, too. And, of course, if you spent your twenties and early thirties as an international spy and man of intrigue, that had better come across in your query.

There is no 100% foolproof formula, my friends, whatever the guides tell you. But if you avoid the classic mistakes, your chances of coming across as an interesting, complex person who has written a book worth reading goes up a thousandfold.

Tomorrow, on to the synopsis! In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

That’s very nice, but —

I’ve been talking for the last few days about rejection factors that are beyond your control, ones you would be well advised not to take personally. However, if after you have sent out dozens (or even hundreds) of query letters, you are receiving only rejections, form or not, it may be time to reexamine what you are sending out.

If you are not getting the responses you want, but are occasionally being asked to send the first fifty pages or a book proposal, chances are, your initial query is pretty good. You may not have focused your agent search tightly enough, but you’re exciting interest. If, however, you have sent out twenty or thirty queries and NO ONE has asked to see more, it’s worth taking the time to look at your query and synopsis through professional eyes, to figure out why.

You need not wade through that many rejections, of course, before you check your submissions for some of the red flags below. However, for most new writers, it takes quite a bit of rejection to open their eyes to the possibility that their work needs, well, work. Unfortunately, these writers all too often automatically assume that it’s the idea of the book being rejected, rather than a styleless querying letter or a limp synopsis, or, still worse, that somehow the rejecting agents are seeing past the initial packet to the book itself, decreeing from afar that the writing is not worth reading — and thus that the writer should not be writing. It’s contrary to the evidence, of course, but this particular fear leaps like a lion onto many fledgling writers, dragging them off the path to future efforts: it is the first cousin that dangerous, self-hating myth that afflicts too many writers, leading to despair, the notion that if one is REALLY talented, the first draft, the first query, and the first book will automatically traject one to stardom.

It almost never works like that: writing is work. Instead of listening to the growls of the self-doubt lion, consider the far more likely possibility that it is your marketing materials, not the chapters that the agents in question have not yet seen, that is conducive to rejection. Use that moment of worry to your advantage: I have found in my years as a freelance editor that having the edges of the faith that good writing always finds a home blunted a bit often makes a writer more receptive to constructive criticism. So go ahead and subject your marketing materials to serious critique.

Read over your query letter, synopsis, and first chapter; better still, read them over AND have someone you trust read it over as well, checking for logical holes and grammatical problems. The best choice for this is another writer, ideally one who has successfully traversed the perils of the agent-finding ravine. As much as you may love your mother, your spouse, and your best friend, they are, generally speaking not the best judges of your writing. Look to them for support and encouragement, not for technical feedback. Find someone whose opinion you trust — such as, say, a great writer you met at a conference — and blandish her into giving your query letter and synopsis a solid reading.

(Lest you think I am casting unwarranted aspersions upon your mother, your spouse, or your best friend, let me add that my own fabulous mother spent her twenties editing the work of Philip K. Dick; she is one of the best line editors I have ever seen, in my professional opinion, but as she is my mother, I would never dream of using her as my only, or indeed even my primary feedback source. That doesn’t stop her from line editing while she reads my work, as I do for hers — years of professional editing causes a particular type of myopia that prevents one from ever reading again without brandishing a vicious pen that attacks margins with the intensity a charging rhinoceros — but I respect my work enough to want first reader feedback from someone who was NOT there when I took my first toddling steps.)

As I mentioned yesterday, make sure that you read everything in hard copy, not just on a computer screen. Proofreading is far easier in hard copy. Once you have done this, and made sure your submission pieces say what you thought they were saying (you’d be surprised how many don’t), sit down with yourself and/or that trusted first reader and ask yourself the following questions.

(18) Is my query letter polite?

You’d be amazed at how often people use the query letter as a forum for blaming the agent addressed for conditions in the industry: my personal favorite began, “Since you agents have set yourself up as the guardians of the gates of the publishing world, I suppose I need to appeal to you first.” A close second: “I know that challenging books seldom get published these days, but I’m hoping you’ll be smart enough to see that mine…”

My friends, agents have to interact their clients quite a bit throughout the process; do make sure that you’re coming across as someone with whom it will not be painful to associate.

(19) Does my letter sound competent and professional, or as if I have little confidence in the work? Do I sound as though I know what I’m doing, or does it read as though I’m apologizing for querying at all?

While it is a nice touch to thank the agent at the end of the query for taking the time to consider your work, doing so in the first paragraph of the query and/or repeatedly in the body of the letter comes across as obsequious. Begging tends not to be helpful in this situation. Remember, reading your query is the agent’s (or, more likely, the agent’s assistant’s) job, not a personal favor to you.

(20) Does my book come across as marketable, or does it read as though I’m boasting?

I have literally never met an agent who could not, if asked, launch into a medley of annoyingly pushy, self-aggrandizing query letter openings. Trust me, they’ve already seen their share of, “This is the greatest work ever written!”, “My book is the next bestseller!”, and “Don’t miss your opportunity to represent this book!”

It doesn’t work.

(21) Do I make it clear in the first paragraph of the letter why I am writing to this particular agent — or does it read as though I could be addressing any agent in North America?

Agents complain vociferously and often about queries that read as though the writer simply used a mail merge to address letters to every agent listed on a particular website or in a given guide. There are hundreds and hundreds of literary agents — why did you choose this one, out of all others, to query?

Most agents are proud of their work: if you want to get on their good side, show a little appreciation for what they have done in the past. If the agent you are querying has represented something similar to your work in the past, definitely mention that in your query letter. (As in, “Since you so ably represented X’s book, I believe you may be interested in my novel…”)

There are many ways to find out what an agent has represented. Check the acknowledgments of books you like (authors often thank their agents), or check the agency’s website to see whom the agent represents. There are several online search engines that will permit you to enter an author’s name and find out who represents him; I use Publishers Weekly, as it is so up-to-date on just-breaking sales news. If all else fails, call the book’s publisher, ask for the publicity department, and ask who the agent of record was. I once had a charming conversation with an editor at a small Midwestern press, who confided to me that when she had acquired the book about which I was inquiring, the author did not yet have an agent. Sensing an opportunity, I promptly pitched my book to her — and she asked me to send her the first fifty pages right away.

Alternatively, if you have heard the agent speak at a conference, read an article she has written in a writer’s magazine, or even just noticed that your favorite author thanked her in the acknowledgments of a book you liked, mention that upfront. If you have no such personal reason, be polite enough to give a general one: “Since you represent literary fiction, I hope you will be interested in my novel…”

These are just the preliminary questions, of course, the ones that concern the first paragraph of your query letter. I have dwelt upon the first paragraph, because — oh, it pains me to be the one to tell you this, if you did not already know — countless query letters are discarded by agents every day based upon the first paragraph alone. Think about it: if you had to get through 200 queries before the end of the afternoon, would you keep reading if the first paragraph were not promising?

Oh, yes, you SAY you would. But honestly, would you?

Take a good, hard look at your first paragraph, and make sure it is one that will make the agent want keep reading. Again, it is really in your interest to adhere to the prevailing manners of the publishing world: for all intents and purposes, it is considered rather impolite to make a busy agent (or assistant) read the entire cover letter in order to find out what you want. All too often, when writers do not make their intentions clear up front, the letter simply gets tossed aside after the first paragraph. (This is the reason I advise against e-mail queries, incidentally, except in the case of agents who specifically prefer them: it’s too easy to delete an e-mail after reading only a line of it.)

Tomorrow, I shall deal with the questions you should ask about subsequent portions of your query letter — and yes, I know that it seems impossibly nit-picky to concentrate this hard upon a page of text that isn’t even in your book. I’m just trying to save you some time, and some misery — and a whole lot of rejection.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Publishing fads

Hey ho —

Did you miss me? No, I didn’t take the long weekend off; as a matter of fact, I was working extra hard: I needed to do a final edit on my novel before my agent starts shopping it around. (Out comes the broken record again: most of the publishing industry was on vacation until today. Translation: there wouldn’t have been much point in my agent’s trying to market my novel last week, or even last month.) I sat down, much to the chagrin of my cats, and read every syllable of the book IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD.

You’d be amazed how many errors in grammar, spelling, and cadence you catch that way — and, speaking as a professional editor myself, there are problems that cannot be caught any OTHER way. Small monitors don’t let you see the entire page, which leads to uncaught word repetition; monitor light leads to eye fatigue, which automatically makes you read faster, and thus proofread less well. I have years of editing experience, a computer monitor the length of the average skateboard and twice as tall as my head, AND an agent with an excellent eye — and I still would not let any of my writing leave my house until I have proofed it in hard copy. I would urge you to do the same.

(A quick tip to self-editing novelists: always read your dialogue aloud, or have some nice person read it to you. Different characters should have different cadences, just as people do in real life, and the easiest way to tell if your characters sound too much alike is to hear them speak aloud. Also, if you discover a sentence that cannot be said in a single breath, chop it up: even the hyper-educated, people whose spoken words form themselves automatically into paragraphs, keep their sentences to under a breath in length. Happy editing.)

All right, back to the topic at hand. I talked last time about the many reasons your query might be met with a form letter rejection because of the structure of the agency system. Today, I would like to discuss factors even more mercurial, and even less under the writer’s control. I will speak, in short, of fashion.

At many of the larger agencies, assistants are told to look for very specific things in the queries they accept, and those things may change with great frequency, based upon what is selling well at any given moment. Remember a few years ago, when half the agents at any conference would say they were violently interested in representing chick lit, because BRIDGET JONES was on the bestseller lists? Depend upon it, this change in the marketplace happened too fast for agents to record it in their agent guide listings — so asking writers for it at conferences was the fastest way to scare up BRIDGET clones.

This was great for writers who already had been working on books that fell into the chick lit category, but hard on virtually everyone else. The publishing world does most assuredly experience fads, and unfortunately for all of us, no writer can accurately predict at the beginning of the writing process what will be the hot thing at the end of it. You need to write what you want to write, and hope that your timing will be good. To win at the fad game, an author always needs to be a year or two ahead of the curve.

I have a very distinct memory of a group meeting a few years ago at a conference that shall remain nameless with an editor who shall remain nameless from a major publishing house which — well, you get it. As we went around the table, pitching our books, the editor grew restive: a memoir about living with AIDS, a how-to book by the daughter of a con artist, a thriller that honestly sounded thrilling for a change, all flashed by without eliciting so much as an eyebrow twitch from the editor. The last writer, a sweet young thing who admitted she had not actually written any of the book she was pitching yet, talked about a story that sounded suspiciously like COLD MOUNTAIN, which had just made it big. (For those of you who weren’t paying attention, COLD MOUNTAIN was a surprise hit at a time when industry wisdom decreed that NOBOBY was buying historical romances anymore.)

The editor practically flew from her seat, exclaiming that she had been waiting for days to hear someone pitch a decent historical romance — because, she said, in the wake of COLD MOUNTAIN, they were so easy to sell. After gushing all over the nonplused sweet young thing (who I began to suspect of having made up the story on the spot), the editor turned to the rest of us. “I have some advice for you,” she said tartly. “Start reading the bestseller lists every week. Then start writing.”

It is a tribute to the good manners of writers everywhere that none of us at the table threw anything at her, for it was in fact a spectacularly poor piece of advice. Yet what would have been the point of excoriating her for her shortsightedness? It would have been like punishing a panda for liking bamboo: editors like to sell books.

Although she wasn’t articulate enough to explain it to us, what she really wanted us to have done is to have predicted today’s bestsellers a year and a half ago, and THEN started writing, so we would have been ready in time. How she expected us to do that — Ouija board? Tarot cards? Wandering around a well-stocked bookstore with a dowsing rod? — we shall never know.

And really, since most books are not actually published until more than a year after the contract is signed (you knew that, right?), what she wanted us to do was even more magical: to have predicted next year’s bestsellers three years ago, to have written one in record time, to have approached her about eleven months before COLD MOUNTAIN was slated to come out (i.e., about a month after the contract for it was signed), taken her in a time machine a year forward so she could see for herself that COLD MOUNTAIN was going to be a runaway bestseller, and blandished her into publishing our novel so it would come out at about the same time. Piece o’ cake.

I can assure you, my friends, that unless you are the next Amazing Kreskin, you will lead a far happier and more productive life if you do not try to second-guess the trends of several years from now. Accept that, and write books that YOU like.

Screenplays are particularly susceptible to being rejected because they are not the hot thing du jour. If a comedy about werewolves did exceptionally well at the box office over the weekend, you can bet your boots that all over Southern California, producers and script agents rushed into their offices Monday morning, crying, “Where is the next werewolf picture?”

You really will live a happier life if you just accept that this is beyond your control.

Sometimes, the focus du jour at an agency or publishing house is based upon personal preferences, over which you have even less predictive control than of market trends. If a given agent just had a baby, for instance, she might well be more interested in stories about young mothers; if her brother has just been diagnosed with cancer, she might well suddenly be in the market for books about that. I once heard a well-known editor say that she went through a year of snatching up anything about Paris because neither she nor her new husband had managed to garner enough time off work to go on their long-planned honeymoon there! Imagine the happiness of the struggling author who had toiled for ten years on her book about a hat maker in Paris, and happened to be in the right place at the right time!

This is a good reason to go to conferences: agents and editors will often spontaneously open up about this sort of preference. But never — well, hardly ever — will you see such spur-of-the-moment switches in taste written up in an agency guide. Just accept that there are some things you will never know.

Then again, you may just have caught the agent or assistant in a bad mood. I call this the grapefruit rule, lifted from how trial attorneys talk about the moodiness of judges: how your query strikes any particular reader is often dependent upon what the reader had for breakfast that day. We would all like to think that when we craft a thoughtful, innovative cover letter and send it along with a synopsis or a chapter or whatever the agent in question says he wants to see, it will be given a fair and impartial reading. But sometimes, your reader may have a tummy ache from a bad grapefruit, and is accordingly not to be pleased, even by the best book in the world.

If there is a way to avoid being the submission read immediately after the agent has scalded her tongue on a too-hot latte or right after having a fight with his ex, I don’t know about it. (Believe me, I would tell you if I did.) This is an instance where your fate is truly in the lap of the gods; my only advice is to be kind to children and poor people, and pray that you spent the entirety of your last life helping little old ladies across the street or rescuing people from collapsed mine shafts. Here, you really are relying upon your karma.

I mention all this to you not to urge you to hire a private detective to ferret out the personal preferences of your dream agent or editor, or to encourage you to burn sacrifices to Gladys, the goddess of easily-available parking spaces, to assure that your first reader at an agency arrives for work in a good mood. No, I am trying to help you see that sometimes, your query or your book gets rejected not because it isn’t good, but because it is not precisely the book that particular agent wants to see at that particular moment. Think of it as a big game of “What color am I thinking of?” where the winner gets an agency contract or a book published. I hate to be the one to tell you this, but honestly, sometimes rejection is that arbitrary.

You might have gotten a form letter rejection for any of these reasons, or for any of a hundred others that are utterly beyond your prediction and control. It does not mean that you are a bad writer, or that your book is a bad idea. It is just the way the game is played these days. If you really wow an agent’s assistant (who is usually the person screening query letters), you might get a note scrawled in the margins of the form letter, explaining why the agency isn’t asking to see your work. (I once got a “Wow! What a great query!” written on a form rejection, which was frustrating, yet pleasing at the same time.) Take that as a compliment, for it means that a rushed, overworked agent or assistant gave your query an extra thirty seconds of attention.

But whatever you do, don’t beat yourself up about what you cannot change. No matter how hard you try, you will not be able to anticipate what will strike the personal fancy of any particular agent or editor at the moment when your query is released from its envelope. I hope and pray that you will strike lucky, but in the meantime, all you can do is craft the book of your dreams, present it in a professional manner, and keep sending it out. And out, and out.

Hold your head high — and keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Top Ten Lies Agents and Editors Tell Hopeful Authors

Since this is the season for sending out your work to agents from the PNWA conference (or, indeed, other summer writing conferences), some of you may find yourself puzzled at the differential between the agent’s (or editor’s) warm face-to-face response to your pitch and the rather tepid communications submissions, even accepted ones, tend to generate. It’s not uncommon for I speak to many authors every week to tell me, tears in their eyes, “But she loved my idea at the conference!”

Others may still be smarting from quick conference brush-offs, ranging from “I don’t handle that sort of book,” (spoken in a tone that implied that you should already have known that) to “Gee, that sounds interesting, but my client roster is totally full at the moment,” (so why come to a conference to solicit more?)

Still others of you may have spent the time since the conference perfecting your submissions, preparing to send them out. If you have been wading through the standard agents’ guides, your head may well be spinning at how different your dream agent’s pitch at the conference was from her stated preferences in the guide or on her website.

You may, in short, be wondering right about now what to believe of what you heard at the conference.

Honestly, most agents and editors who attend conferences are good at heart. They truly do want to help new authors. However, not all of them are necessarily there to discover the next Great American Novel: in fact, it’s rare for an agent to pick up more than a single author from any given conference — even a great one like PNWA — or for an editor at a major house to pick up anyone at all. (That, incidentally, is why the PNWA routinely asks the agents who speak at the conference to state clearly in their presentations whether they represent anyone locally: it gives aspiring writers an opportunity to see how open they are to conference discoveries.)

There are agents who pick up only one or two clients a year out of ALL of the conferences they attend. There is even an ilk who goes to conferences simply to try to raise authorial awareness of market standards, with no intention of signing any authors. (The ones who attend conferences just so they can visit their girlfriends in cities far from New York, or who just want a tax-deductible vacation in the San Juans, are beyond the scope of my discussion here, but I’m sure the karmic record-keepers frown upon them from afar.)

The fact is, sometimes a nice conversation at a conference is just a nice conversation at a conference.

You may have noticed that this ambiguity of intention occasionally gets reflected in the blurbs in agents; guides. How many of us have read that a particular agent is looking for new authors in a wide array of genres, including our own, only to be crushed by a form letter huffily announcing that the agency NEVER represents that kind of work?

I once made the mistake of signing with an agent (who shall remain nameless, because I’m nicer than she) who listed herself as representing everything from literary fiction to how-to books, but who in fact concentrated almost exclusively on romance novels and self-help books, two huge markets. I did not learn until the rather tumultuous end of our association that she had signed me not because she admired the novel she was ostensibly pushing for me, but because I had a Ph.D.: she hoped, she told me belatedly, that I would become frustrated at the delays of the literary market and write a self-help book instead.

Why would an agent advertise that she is looking for genres she does not intend to represent? Well, for the same reason that some agents and most editors go to conferences in the first place: just in case the next bestseller is lurking behind the next anxious authorial face or submission envelope. An agent may well represent cookbooks almost exclusively, but if the next DA VINCI CODE falls into his lap, he probably won’t turn it down. He may well reject 99.98% of the submissions in a particular genre (and actually state in his form rejections that he doesn’t represent the genre at all, as an easy out), but in his heart of hearts, he’s hoping lighting will strike. A broad advertiser is a gambler.

Yes, Virginia, that’s very, very annoying for the writers who believed his pitch.

So how does the new writer know what to believe? I wish I could give you a sure-fire way to tell, but frankly, I don’t know of one.

However, over the years I have gathered an accepted array of truisms that agents and editors tend to spout at eager authors they meet at conferences and in agents’ guides. I suppose they are not lies, per se, so much as polite exit lines from conversations, but from the writer’s point of view, they might as well be real whoppers.

Because I love you people, I have also included a translation for each that makes sense in writer-speak — and I suspect some of the translations may surprise you. Do keep this guide by you the next time you receive a rejection letter or go to a conference, so you can keep score.

Top Ten Lies Agents and Editors Tell Hopeful Authors

(with translations)

10. “There just isn’t a market for this kind of book right now.”

Translation: I don’t want to represent/buy it, for reasons that may or may not have anything to do with what is selling at the moment. Do not press me for my reasons.

9. “The market’s never been better for writers.”

Translation: I only represent previously published authors. Since it is now possible for an author to self-publish a blog or write for a website, I don’t think there’s any excuse for a really talented writer not to have a relatively full writing resume. (Note: this attitude is almost never seen in those who have ever written anything themselves.)

8. “I could have sold this 10/20/2 years ago, but now…”

Translation: You’re a good writer (or your pitch was good), but I’m looking for something just like the most recent bestseller. I’m not even vaguely interested in anything else. Actually, I am pretty miffed at you authors for not paying closer attention to the bestseller lists, because, frankly, you’re wasting my time.

OR: You’re a good writer, but I started being an agent/editor a long time ago, back when it was easier to sell books. Your work may have a political slant that has gone out of fashion, or it is too long, or it shares some other trait with a book I truly loved that I struggled to sell for a year to no avail. I don’t want to get my heart broken again, so I really wish you would write something else. Have you checked the bestseller list lately?

7. “We gave your work careful consideration.”

Translation: We spent less than a minute reading it — and by we, I really mean an underpaid summer intern who was looking for predetermined grabbers on the first page or in the query letter. Please do not revise and resubmit, because we’re really busy.

OR: If I had actually taken the time to read it, I might have had some constructive comments to make, but I simply haven’t the time. In my heart of hearts, I do feel rather guilty for not having done so; that is why I am making this defensive statement in my form-letter reply.

6. “The length doesn’t matter, if the quality is good.”

Translation: I don’t want to be the one to tell you this, but a first novel shouldn’t be more than 450 pages for literary or mainstream fiction, 250-350 for anything else. Frankly, I think you should have taken the time to check how long works in your genre are. However, if you’re a spectacularly talented writer, I would like a peek at your work, because maybe I could work with you to bring it under accepted limits.

OR I think the current length standards are really stupid, and I don’t want to give them more credibility by stating them here.

5. “We are interested in all high-quality work, regardless of genre.”

Translation: We actually represent only specific genres, but we are afraid that we will miss out on the next bestseller.

OR: We are an immense agency, and you really need to figure out who on our staff represents your genre. If I am feeling generous when you pitch to me, I will tell you who that is.

OR: We are a brand-new agency. We don’t have strong contacts yet, so we’re not sure what we can sell. Please, please send us books.

4. “I am looking for work with strong characters/a strong plot.”

Translation: I am looking for books easy to make into movies.

3. “We are always eager to find new talent.”

Translation: we are looking for the next bestseller, not necessarily for someone who can write well. (Yes, I know; this one is genuinely counterintuitive.)

2. “We are looking for fresh new approaches.”

Translation: This is a definitional issue. If it is a spin on something already popular or on a well-worn topic, it is fresh; if it is completely original, or does not appeal to NYC or LA states of mind, it is weird.

OR: We are looking for young writers, and think older ones are out of touch.

1. “True quality/talent will always find a home.”

Translation: But not with my agency.

OR: Because I love good writing, I really want to believe that the market is not discouraging talented writers, but I fear it is. Maybe if I say this often enough, the great unknown writer in the audience will take heart and keep plowing through those rejections until she succeeds.

There are two sentiments, however, that always mean exactly what they say: “I love your work, and I want to represent it,” and “I love this book, and I am offering X dollars as an advance for it.” These, you can trust.

Hope this helps. If you have other industry double-speak that should be added to this list, send ’em in, complete with definitions. I’ll post the best ones.

Hey, let’s make this a contest, so the winners can use it on their writing resumes: the First Annual Definitional Frenzy Award, judged by yours truly. Winners shall earn undying glory and another place to establish their web presences.

And please, don’t let all of this silliness depress you. There are good agents and editors out there, ones with integrity who genuinely want to help you sell your work. I am passing all of this along in the hope that knowing the tactics of some of the ones who aren’t so wonderful will help you figure out whose opinions are worth taking seriously — and whose should be brushed aside without further ado, so you can continue on your merry way.

Keep up the good work!

–Anne Mini