Dotting those Is

First, if you haven’t had a chance yet, check out the Holiday Table contest in my last posting. Submit a short story, scene, novel excerpt, poem, or whatever format you deem best on your version of a West Coast holiday meal (or wherever you happen to live), to counter all of those sticky-sweet cookie-cutter TV movie holiday extravaganzas. Winners (hey, I’m open to the possibility of there being more than one super-fabulous entry!) will have their work posted here for all to see, as well as having it posted on a high-class literary fiction website. That’s right, me buckos — I’m talking publication credits here. So get your typing fingers flying by December 15.

Given that from now until Xmas is a publishing world dead zone, a time of internal reassessment when query letters are seldom read, to be followed by the annual avalanche of New Year’s resolution query letters in January, now is a lovely time to take a break from querying. Time to get back to the basics. In other words, it’s a great time to be revising your own work.

This, I know, will make some of my long-term readers giggle. As I spent most of August and September insisting, it is NOT the best idea in the world to be the only eyes who see your work before it lands on an agent’s or editor’s desk. Gaining some outside perspective, via a trustworthy first reader, has many benefits — most notably, good pre-submission feedback can enable you to weed out the rookie mistakes that tend to result in automatic turndowns from professionals.

When I was a high school senior, my guidance counselor took me aside and confided that he had heard that the University of California admission offices for Cal Berkeley and UCLA had instituted a new policy: if an application essay contained more than five grammatical or spelling errors, the whole application was automatically tossed in the pile to be routed to the less prestigious of the UC schools. In other words, here was a situation where spelling and grammar did indeed count, to the nth degree.

I have no idea whether the UC system ever instituted such a policy (although having been a reader of admission essays for a major university’s graduate programs, I have to admit that it was often tempting to toss the less literate ones aside), but evidently, my counselor was whispering it into ears other than mine: for a few months, I enjoyed quite a spate of popularity at my high school as an application essay editor.

Most literary agencies operate on a similar philosophy as the putative UC application readers. As I explained in my September blogs, the agents themselves are very seldom the first readers of submissions, and almost never the first readers of query letters. Even at small agencies, the first readers are generally assistants; it’s how agent-wannabes learn the trade. A query is often answered affirmatively by a single reader, but once you’ve been asked to send chapters, it is not unusual for two or three junior readers to screen it prior to the agent’s seeing it. If any of those juniors think it is not up to snuff, the agent is probably not going to read it at all.

(Even, incidentally, if you met the agent — or editor — at a conference, had a wonderful conversation, and the agent asked to see a chapter or two. Such a request is an invitation to skip the querying phase, not the initial reader stages.)

For this reason, it is absolutely vital to clear your manuscript (and query letter, and synopsis) of spelling and grammatical errors, pronto. As any professional editor will tell you, DO NOT rely upon your word processing program’s spelling and grammar checker. They tend to be rife with technical errors — mine, for instance, regularly tells me to use the wrong form of there, their, and they’re — and it’s far too easy for a slip of the mouse to convince your dictionary to accept “caseless” when you mean “ceaseless.” Spellcheck, by all means, but I implore you, do not let that be your only means of proofreading.

Remember, college admissions readers are inundated with essays only once per year. In an agency, readers are inundated most of the time. The agency readers I know say they tend to discount a work on the third error — or even less, if the errors come on the first page. As a judge in literary contests, I have been told to knock out entries at the first or second error. So let the writer beware.

Also, as any editor will happily tell you, the computer screen is not the best place to proofread, even if you read every syllable aloud (which I recommend, particularly for novels that contain dialogue). Since I edit professionally, I have a monitor that could easily balance a small litter of puppies on it, if I held it flat, but I ALWAYS use hard copy for a final edit. It’s just too easy for the eyes and the brain to blur momentarily in the editing process, making you skip an error. So do read your work in hard copy before you even dream of sending it to an agent or publishing house.

An editor at a small but prestigious publishing house once gave me some good advice for self-editing: when you are reading your manuscript in hard copy, keep a stack of Post-Its™ by your side. Every time you look up from the text while you are reading, no matter what the reason (barring an earthquake or house fire, of course), flag the paragraph where you stopped.

Then, after you finish, go back and examine all of those paragraphs. Was there a problem there that needed to be fixed, or did your mind simply start to drift? His theory was that where YOU drifted off, another reader would start thinking about doing the laundry as well.

After you have proofed and poked the slower movements of your text, I STRONGLY urge you to have at least one third party reader take a gander at the text. Select wisely, preferably another writer, rather than a friend, lover, or — sacre bleu! — a family member. (If you are unfamiliar with my repeated tirades on why none of these three categories contain unbiased readers, please see my September postings on the subject.)

Ideally, you would run it past your writing group, or a freelance editor familiar with your genre, or a published writer IN your genre, but not all of us have those connections or resources. In a pinch, pick the most voracious reader you know or the person so proud of her English skills that she regularly corrects people in conversation. My litmus test is whether the potential reader knows the difference between “farther” and “further” — yes, they actually mean different things, technically — and can use “momentarily” in its proper form, which is almost never heard in spoken English anymore. (Poor momentarily has been so abused that some benighted dictionary editors now define it both as “for a moment” — its time-honored meaning — AND “in a moment,” as we so often hear on airplanes: “We will be airborne momentarily…” Trust me, you wouldn’t want to be in a plane that was only momentarily airborne (unless you have a serious death wish.)

A word to the wise, however: never, NEVER, simply hand a manuscript to a non-professional reader (i.e., someone who is not a professional writer, editor, agent, or teacher) without specifying what KIND of feedback you want. All too often, the amateur reader gets so intimidated at the prospect of providing first-class advice that she simply gives no feedback at all — or just keeps putting off reading the manuscript. Alternatively, other readers will run in the other direction, treating every typo as though it were evidence that you should never write another word as long as you live. All of these outcomes will make you unhappy, and might not produce the type of feedback you need.

In tomorrow’s posting, I shall talk about strategies for getting that feedback without treating your first readers like mere service-providers (if you want to do this without engendering social obligations, you really should be working with a paid professional freelancer, rather than your friends). Until then, keep up the good work — and think about your contest entry!

– Anne Mini

The thrill of the ordinary — and a contest!

All right, the turkey is in the oven, the cranberry jelly steeped with cinnamon and cloves is made, and there are apparently sports on television. As we writers know, stolen time sandwiched between obligations is golden writing time, so if you don’t mind my jumping up occasionally to baste, now is the time to blog.

It is also the time for me to give my loyal readers a little writing assignment — and a challenge. This time, I have a holiday goodie to inspire you: the winner of this little contest will not only have his or her writing posted here, for all to read, but also on a respected literary fiction website.

(And for those of you who are unsure: yes, Virginia, being posted on a third-party website DOES count as publication, technically. You may legitimately use it as a bullet point on your writing resume — if you are not already making it a practice to maintain a detailed writing resume and adding to it at least once or twice per year, please see my postings of September 7 and 28; in the long run, it will make your life much easier — and boast about it in your query letters. Heck, I’ll even write a stellar blurb about the winner, suitable for hitting up my agent now — and an admiring world later, when I am better known — with “Anne Mini says I write like an angel.”)

And, as I told you on Tuesday, the publishing world is effectively shut down for the rest of the year, so you have the time you would have spent querying hanging on your hands, right?

Before I give you your assignment and deadline, let me share a tender tale of holiday festivity at Harvard. I remember this particular Thanksgiving distinctly, as it was the year that I unwisely agreed to share the festivity with my roommate’s family. Roomie’s father was a chemistry professor, and he decided that this was the year to determine experimentally just how little heat a turkey could be subjected to and still be served. In my opinion, a microwave oven was not the proper instrument to utilize for this experiment, but who was I to question the march of progress? The following year, the professor actually won a Nobel Prize, so he must have had good ideas occasionally, but trust me, this was not one of them. When it came my turn to tell the assembled family what I was grateful for, holding hands around the holiday table, I couldn’t help glancing down at the bloody mess on my plate and blurting: “I’m grateful that I grew up in a family of excellent cooks.”

That year, I was taking an introductory Italian class, taught by a fiery European immigrant who dressed every day in fine black leather suits, claimed to be sleeping with several rather prominent 70-year-old economists then engaged in advising the current president, and moved like a panther in heat. She gave us Italian soft porn comic books to improve our vocabularies — which it certainly did! — and regularly bought out all of a particular shade of red hair dye stocked in Cambridge drug stores, so no one else would have precisely her wild shade. She liked to be noticed.

The class adored her.

Our midterm was set on the last day of class before Thanksgiving break, and for the essay section of the test, we were assigned to write a short piece on our family’s usual celebration. On the first day back from break, our teacher came flying into the room, late as usual. She crushed me to her monumental bosom, redolent of expensive leather, a trifle too much Chanel no. 19, and what I could only assume was the lingering affection of a major economist. With a resounding smack upon my startled head, she announced that I had won a bet for her with the other Italian teaching fellows.

In all of the Italian 101 sections combined, there were perhaps a hundred students, all of whom had been given the same midterm essay assignment. Out of those hundred, I had been the only one who had written a short story. Everyone else had written the Italian equivalent of:

“On Thanksgiving, our family eats turkey. My mother cooks it for a long time. I like gravy on my potatoes. At the end of the meal, we eat pie made from pumpkin, a kind of squash.”

Based upon past experience, my teacher had known that I was constitutionally incapable of writing an essay that straightforward. What won her a bottle of Veuve Cliquot was my little story about how my parents tended to invite every non-citizen they knew to our Thanksgiving repast, so my brother and I would end up vainly trying to explain the more nonsensical traditions to guests totally bewildered by them, much to my parents’ amusement. Then, when everyone was good and perplexed, my father would stand ceremoniously, holding the carving knife and fork aloft — and with a single swift stroke, slice the turkey clean through from top to bottom. Gasps galore. My mother, tireless in pursuit of that one awesome moment when a perfectly-stuffed slice of turkey fell onto the plate, as cohesive as though the whole thing were a ham, would spend hours on end boning the bird. One year, a guest fainted, and had to be revived with a rather potent Napa Valley Chardonnay. The following year, my parents made a suckling pig instead, so large that I was convinced for hours that they had cooked our Labrador retriever and hung a garland of cranberries around its neck.

Why is it that, in writing about the festivals of our lives, we so seldom dwell upon the DISSIMILARITIES between our widely disparate families’ holiday dinner tables? Oh, I know, there are countless scenes in movies that deal with the Thanksgiving meal: always an intact family, with parents permanently married, always the same beautifully-lit pink and beige foods heaped on the table, and almost always in a multi-story A-frame house, located somewhere in New England where the first light snow of winter wafts gently to the ground. There may be drama going on in the other rooms of the house, but in the dining room (there is always a dining room, even when the family depicted is very poor; at worst, there is the world’s largest kitchen equipped with a dining nook that would easily seat 8 adults comfortably), all is harmony and stuffing.

If I knew Thanksgiving only from movies and TV, I would think that every American was struggling to forge an adult relationship with her adorably graying upper middle class WASP parents (he, square-jawed, clean-shaven, and incapable of showing emotion to his nearest and dearest; she, stuck in some sort of arid 1950s oven cleaner ad where everything in the house remains perpetually clean with no effort) and ne’er-do-well brother/slutty sister/frigid sister played by Julianne Moore in an atmosphere of TREMENDOUS FAMILY SECRETS that everyone has known perfectly well for the last decade or two. And yet Mom (unaided, or perhaps with assistance from the non-slutty sister, in the unlikely event that such is available; extra points if she is played by Hope Davis and is an asexual corporate lawyer), bless her, always manages to get that perfect meal on the table. No one ever chokes on an underdone drumstick, and spices, beyond nutmeg and perhaps a bit of sage, are utterly unknown.

But for the vast majority of Americans, that is not the way this family festival plays out, is it? For starters, New England, as fond as the Puritans may have been of it, is a rather small part of the country, geographically speaking, and almost none of us are actually descended from the first colonists. Westerners born and bred almost never see a white Thanksgiving (I am quite sure that when we ate suckling pig in California, I was in short sleeves), and Pacific Northwesterners generally go to Grandmother’s house over flat highways marked with grayish drizzle, rather than over the river and through the woods. Unless, of course, it is a period of especially heavy rainfall, in which case we drive our SUVs through flooded streets. Most of our trees are evergreens, so they do not change color at all, and in earthquake country, you don’t see a whole lot of multistory single-family houses, as we don’t like our kith and kin being squashed by falling rubble when the floor starts to shake unmercifully.

And that’s just how different the West Coast experience is on the OUTSIDE.

So here is your challenge, should you care to accept it: write a scene that shows what the holiday table is like in your neck of the woods, and post it via the COMMENTS function on this blog (that’s what the copy-and-paste function is for, my friends) before December 15. Standard format, please (if you don’t know what that is, your submissions to agents and editors are probably being rejected on structural grounds alone: do yourself a favor, and read my posting of August 31), and nothing longer than 10 double-spaced pages. Winners will receive undying glory, an actual readership amongst your peers, and posting on a literary fiction website. Just a little resume candy to stuff your holiday stocking.

Ho, ho, ho.

— Anne Mini

It’s all in the timing

Have you finished sending out your fall’s quota of query letters to agents yet? Or, if you are dealing directly with editors, have they already received your manuscripts? Well done, if so: I release you to pursue a well-deserved long winter’s nap. I’ll wake you up around Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.


If you have not, and if you are the kind of impatient person who gets upset if her letters are not answered within a month or two, I would seriously advise delaying your next set of queries until well after everyone’s New Year’s resolutions have had time to peter out — the experts say that takes about three weeks, on average.


As regular readers of this blog already know, you’re far better off using the intervening time to polish your submissions into perfection than sending out fresh queries. From now through the end of the year, the publishing world is a dead zone; for the first month of the year, it is a madhouse. Either way, it means delays and frustration for writers caught in the maelstrom.


For those new to the sad reality, almost no new business is conducted between Thanksgiving and Christmas in the NYC publishing industry. Agencies recognize this, and roll back their efforts accordingly. Some ambitious souls do launch back in with a will between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, although it is rare, because everyone is cringing with anticipation over the annual descent of the twin horrors of January: both publishing houses and agencies need to get all of their tax data out to authors by the end of the month, which invariably causes a flurry of paperwork, and almost every unpublished author in North America sends at least one query letter in the first month of the year.


Including all of those timid souls who were too intimidated by the process even to consider sending out queries back in June. Think about it: if you have spent the last eight or ten months working up nerve to show your work to others, what’s your single most likely New Year’s resolution?


The result, as any agent or editor will tell you with rays of horror shooting from her eyes, is a perfect avalanche of queries and unsolicited manuscripts. Tends to make the readers a might testy – and testy is the last thing you want the person screening your precious submission to be, right?


If you were not aware of this two-month hiatus, it’s not your fault: it is just one of those rules of the game that someone has to tell you. I have met writers with YEARS of submissions under their belts who continued, mystified, to rush to their mailboxes throughout each Yuletide season, only to be disappointed to find nothing more than holiday cards from long-lost friends, presents from close kith and kin, and perhaps a few candy canes left by the postman. That most coveted of presents, a contract from an agent or a publisher, is almost never found under the Christmas tree.


So don’t bother asking your local department store Santa for it. I’ve tried, and it doesn’t work.


Fortunately, you have come to the right place to avoid your work getting lost in the crowd. In the first place, NEVER send an unsolicited manuscript — even if you read in a fairly credible guide that the publishing house or agency will consider them. Yes, you should always send exactly what the agent or editor has asked to see, but trust me, you are ALWAYS better off asking first, rather than going to the considerable expense and trouble of sending an entire manuscript. Unsolicited manuscripts almost always end up in one of three places: in the garbage can/recycling bin, in the author’s mailbox, accompanied by a form letter stating that it does not meet our needs at this time, or, in the best-case scenario, sitting in a dank storeroom with hundreds of other unsolicited manuscripts, waiting for the company’s annual let’s-go-through-the-slush-pile party or the Second Coming, whichever comes first.


Second, and even more important for your sanity, don’t bother querying during the dead time. It’s far, far better to be one of three hundred query letters in a week than one of three thousand.


I found out only this last week what publishing houses and agencies are DOING during the December dead time. I had always thought that they just whooped it up during the holidays, but no: it is a sort of winter cleaning, when everyone catches up on the work that has fallen through the cracks in the previous eleven months. Think of it as the chrysalis stage of the publishing process, when all the little editors are wrapped up tight in their cocoons, waiting for spring.


Did you find that image soothing? Did it reconcile you to the long wait to come?


I didn’t think so. But once again, here is a situation where knowing a bit about how the publishing industry works can save you minutes, hours, or even weeks of soul-wrenching doubt about whether the quality of your work is the reason you have not heard back yet.


Let me save you some chagrin: the quality of the work, good or bad, is almost NEVER the reason for a delayed response; internal pressures at the agency or publishing house almost always are to blame. (For a more complete explanation of how these factors work, see my postings from early September.) It’s tempting to attribute a long turn-around time to the agent’s showing your query or your manuscript around to a delighted staff, in order to get everyone on board, or to an editor’s wanting to read your submission for the third time, in order to convince himself that it really is as brilliant as he had thought the first time through. For the more masochistically-minded, it is tempting to conclude that the work is terrible, and so has been set aside, pending future guffaws.


But the simple fact is, this is an industry where people are EAGER to clear paper off their desks: if you have not heard back on a submission, far and away the most probable explanation is that no one has read it yet. And if you sent it between Thanksgiving and MLK, Jr., Day, that probability soars to a near certainty. Is it really worth torturing yourself with that kind of delay?


Instead, why not treat your work to a stimulating rewrite during the holiday season? Better still, why not read it from front to back in hard copy, so you can catch any lingering errors? Then – rested, refreshed, and perfected by its holiday spa treatment – you can send it out into the world in the new year, confident that your work is at its best and brightest.


Just an early holiday notion, my friends, designed to keep that seasonal sparkle alight in your eye. Keep up the good work!


— Anne Mini

Do I need to copyright?

Someone I barely knew — the on-again, off-again girlfriend of the brother of a friend of mine, which is as fine a definition of a casual acquaintance as I’ve ever heard — called me the other day, full of questions about a very common brand-new writer terror. She had written a short piece — an essay, really — and had, through sheer persistence and the rare strategy of actually LISTENING to the advice she had been given by published writers of her acquaintance, gotten the publisher of a small press to agree to take a look at it. In mid-celebration for this quite significant achievement, she experienced a qualm: what if this guy stole her ideas, or her entire work? Who would believe her? And how could she ever prove that she had come up with it first?

Half of her friends laughed at her, saying that she was being paranoid and unreasonable; the other half told her, in all seriousness, that she should go through the arduous process of copyrighting what she had written before she e-mailed it to the guy. Confused, she did something very sensible: she called me and asked what to do.

As Gore Vidal is fond of saying, there is no earthly problem that could not be solved if only everyone would do exactly as I advise.

The problem was, all of her friends were partially right: the vast majority of reputable publishing houses would never dream of stealing your material, and yet, as in any other business, there are always a few cads. At most writers’ conferences, you will hear speakers scoff at the possibility, but anyone who has been in the writing and editing biz for any length of time knows someone with a horror story. Better safe than sorry, as our great-grandmothers used to stitch painstakingly onto samplers.

I should reiterate, though, that outright theft is rare. The single best thing you can do to protect yourself is to deal with reputable agents, editors, and publishing houses. The problem is, you can’t always tell. The Internet, while considerably easing the process of finding agents and small publishers hungry for new work, also renders it hard to tell who is on the up-and-up. A charlatan’s website can look just like Honest Abe’s. Agencies and little publishers go in and out of business so swiftly that there isn’t time for them to get listed in the standard guides — yet start-ups are often the ones most accepting of first-time authors.

So let’s say you did get involved with someone unscrupulous — what’s the worst that could happen? Usually, a premise or plot is what gets stolen, rather than the actual text itself — and this is legally tricky, since what is copyrightable is not the idea or the story, but the PRESENTATION of it. This legal ambiguity is the reason that, very sensibly, the screenwriters’ guild simply advises its members to register every draft of their screenplays with the guild before the ink dries from the printer. Other writers, however, do not enjoy the luxury of this kind of protection.

Copyrighting an individual work, however, is a long, tedious, and can be an expensive proposition; if you can, it’s best left to your publishers to handle. You don’t really need to spend the money to do it yourself, if you resort to the standard protective practice of former days, what used to be called the Poor Man’s Copyright. It is dirt-cheap and it has for decades stood up in court as proof that the original author was in fact the original author.

Here’s how to do a Poor Man’s Copyright — and no, Virginia, it’s NOT an actual copyright; it is merely a means of proving what you wrote when. Print up a full copy of your manuscript; if it is too long to fit comfortably in a standard Manila folder, break it up into chapters. Place it (or the chapter) into a Manila folder. Seal the folder, then sign across the seal, the way professors do with letters of recommendation. This will make it quite apparent if the seal is broken. Then, take clear adhesive tape and place it over your signature and the seal. Address the envelope to yourself, then mail it. When it arrives, DO NOT OPEN IT; store it in a safe place. Should you ever need to prove that you had written a work before someone else did, the postmark and the unbroken seal (let the judge be the one to open it) will be ample proof of your contention.

Repeat for every significantly revised draft — because, as I mentioned above, it is the PRESENTATION of the concept that you can claim as your own, not the story itself. There’s no need to go crazy and mail yourself a new version every time you change a comma, but a complete revision definitely deserves a new mailing.

You can also protect yourself by checking out agents with the AAR (Association of Authors’ Representatives) and WGA (Writers’ Guild of America), both of whom sponsor websites. Not all agents are members of one or the other, but if there have been complaints in the past, these groups should be able to tell you.

You can also protect yourself by avoiding sending ANY of your original material by e-mail. Yes, a lot of agents now prefer that kind of submission, so you may not be able to wiggle out of it, but ideally, literally every piece of your writing that you ever send to anyone in the publishing industry with whom you do not already share an established relationship of trust should be sent via tracked regular mail. If it is your first time dealing with this particular person or entity, send it registered mail, so someone will actually have to sign for it. That way, should a question ever arise, you can prove exactly when they received it.

If you absolutely MUST send a submission via e-mail, send blind copies to a couple of friends whom you trust not to forward it along. Ask them to save it until you send them an all-clear signal. That way, you can prove, if necessary, that as of a particular date, you were the writer in the position to send the material.

I frown upon sending original material via e-mail, anyway, for a variety of reasons. First, most NYC agencies and publishing houses are working on computers with outdated operating systems; the chances that they will be able to open your attachment at all, especially if you are a Mac user, are pretty slim.

Second, and more seriously, you never REALLY know where an e-mailed document is going to end up. It can be forwarded at the recipient’s discretion, and at the discretion of anyone to whom he forwards it, indefinitely. Technically, this can compromise your claim to copyright, since in order to copyright a piece, the author must have maintained control over how and where it can be read. (This, incidentally, is why postings on a blog are considered provisionally published, to protect the writer’s ownership of them.) If your piece has been floating around the computers of Outer Mongolia for the last six months, it’s going to be awfully hard for you to prove that you held control over who did and did not read your work.

What you do NOT need to do — and what many novice writers give themselves away by doing — is place in the header or footer of every page, “© 2005 Author’s Name.” Yes, copyright can be established by proving intent to publish, but intent to publish is also established by submitting work to an agent or editor. Technically, your work is not copyrighted at the manuscript phase, but at the time of actual publication, so adding the “© 2005 Author’s Name”  is actually a false statement, and one that will not protect you, should push come to shove. It will, however, give rise to substantial mirth amongst its first readers at most agencies and publishing houses. “Look,” they will say, pointing, “here’s another rookie.”

This unseemly mirth tends to cover an undercurrent of hostility: writers who so pointedly indicate distrust of the people to whom they send their work are in fact conveying a subtle insult. You are not to be trusted, such marks say, loud and clear, affronting those who would never steal so much as a modifier from an author and not scaring those who would steal entire books outright. Best to leave it out.

The beauty of the Poor Man’s Copyright, of course, is that it can be done entirely without the knowledge of your recipients. Ditto with the blind e-mail copies. There’s no need to advertise that you are protecting yourself. But for heaven’s sake, especially if you are dealing with someone that you do not know well enough to trust, take these few quiet steps to protect yourself. Chances are, you will never need their help, but remember that old-fashioned sampler: better safe than sorry.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

The writer’s tender skin

In the throes of writing a book, whether fiction or nonfiction, it’s pretty easy to lose sight of your target readership, isn’t it? Although we writers seldom admit it in public, deep down, most of us do like to believe that there are people out there, bless them, who will rush out to buy our books simply because WE have written them, not because they contain information that the reader wants or a style the reader finds appealing. “My God!” our ideal readers cry. “I hadn’t known it, but I have been searching for this authorial voice all of my life!”

One of the cruelest awakenings inherent in the major step of sending your work out to agents for the first time is the cold realization that in fact, there don’t seem to be readers out there clamoring specifically for your particular prose stylings or wryly unusual worldview at the moment. Or if there are, the publishing industry does not seem to have heard their faint cries. How a writer deals with this first significant disappointment — whether she takes it as a challenge to refine her work, her pitch, and her bag of writer’s tools instantly, curls up in a ball and never sends anything out again, or chooses a path somewhere in between — is, although hidden from the world, one of the best indicators of future writing success.

I don’t mean to say that you will be best served by pretending that rejection does not hurt — it does. But hurt can lead to reevaluation, and reevaluation can lead to the breaking of bad habits. Not to mention toughening you up for the sterling moment when your agent tells you that five of the first ten editors who read your book ALMOST bought it, and the rest hated it. The farther along you get in your writing career, the bigger the slap-in-your-face realizations become. (Imagine being the first runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize!) The earlier in your journey that you learn to accept rejection as a learning experience, the better off you will be later on.

I preach better than I practice on this point: I am still abjectly furious about the first high-handed editorial change anyone ever made to my work. I was ten years old, and as crossing guard of the year, I had been selected to write and give a thank-you speech at the annual luncheon honoring parent volunteers at my elementary school. (Actually, they’ve never asked the crossing guard of the year to give the speech before or since, so my appointment to this coveted post may well have had more to do with my writing abilities than with my whistle-blowing acumen.) I wrote the speech, a rather florid little piece jam-packed with superlatives, and submitted it to my teacher and the principal for approval. On the day before I was to give it, the manuscript was returned to me, unwisely marked with red pen at the end. If I close my eyes, I can still picture it: my teacher and principal had conspired to change, “We send you much love and many kisses” to “We send you mucho love and kisses.”

Instantly, I set up the time-honored writer’s howl of protest. “It’s stupid!” I cried. “And it isn’t grammatically correct in either English or Spanish!”

My teacher stared at me, puzzled, then had the temerity to pat my shaking hand. “It’s cuter that way, dear,” she assured me. “Everyone will love it.”

This was my first experience with editorial pigheadedness, so I actually said what all of us think when we’re edited badly: “I don’t care if they love it. I’m afraid that they’re going to think that I wrote it wrong!”

For the record, the average fifth-grade teacher does not like to be told that her students have a better grasp of grammar than she does. Even when it’s true. Perhaps even especially when it’s true. I was loudly and harshly overruled, and the bad edit stayed.

My teacher watched me like a lynx in the hours leading up to the speech, muttering threats under her breath as she led me up to the microphone, lest I revert to the pre-edited, grammatically-correct version. And, to give her her due, the adults in the room did burst into loud guffaws when I said the dreaded line in her version. It brought down the house.

When the speech was reproduced, word for word, in my hometown paper, there was the hideous edit, in all of its ungrammatical glory. There, for all the world to see, was the utterly unjust implication that I did not know how to construct a sentence in English. Or Spanish.

I’m not an unforgiving person, but I have never forgiven my teacher for changing it.

I did, however, learn two valuable lessons that have served me well throughout my subsequent writing career. First, when people who are bigger and more powerful than you are decide to be wrong, they can generally get away with it. From schoolhouse to publishing house, I have found this to be consistently true. Second, most of the time, when you make a small mistake, readers do not generally howl down the house or toss the publication straight into the fireplace. As my long-ago ballet teacher was fond of saying, the audience doesn’t know the steps; it’s your style that they notice, not your technical perfection.

The latter may seem like an odd observation to those of you who have spent the last few months reading my repeated exhortations to make your submissions to editors and agents letter-perfect, but it is nonetheless true. The readers who are out there waiting to buy your books are not going to hold a few stray editor-induced lapses against you; everybody knows that the writer doesn’t do the final proofreading on a piece. While it’s always annoying and hurtful to have your words changed before your eyes, chances are, the changes you are being asked to make will not brand the whole work as illiterate, or destroy your hard-won style. Relax a little, and realize that your agent and/or editor are, in schoolyard terms, far bigger than you are.

How I responded to that first editorial jab — with an initial fight, a begrudging acceptance of the inevitable, a workmanlike willingness to make the best of bad advice, and apparently, decades of residual resentment — has been, I must confess, absolutely indicative of how I respond today. I have been able to professionalize my behavior, but in my heart, I am still that irritated ten-year-old whenever I see the swipe of an editorial pen.

Ask me in thirty years what I was asked to change today in my memoir. I’ll probably be able to tell you. But I made the change.

Mucho love and kisses, everyone, and keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Control issues

I’ve just been reminded — rather rudely, in fact — of just how little control the author actually has over most of the aspects of the publication process. Oh, we all have our fantasies about how our books will be so perfect by the time we send them to the publishing house that not one comma needs to be changed, but even if that were true (and possible), the vast majority of what happens to a book after a publishing house gets its mitts on it happens AROUND the text, rather than TO it. Every couple of weeks throughout the publishing process, the writer is reminded of that.

And that in turn reminded me that it had been awhile since I filled my dear readers in on the publication process for my memoir, A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK. I haven’t been talking about my book much lately, partially for legal reasons (yes, my publisher is STILL being threatened with a lawsuit of puzzling purpose; my publisher has asked me not to discuss it in any detail in this forum, but if you’re interested, I’m told that a lengthy pseudonymous debate has been dragging on for months at the estate-owned Philip fan forum. I haven’t been following it myself, but if you’re a fan of vituperative personal abuse, it’s apparently been the place to be), and partially because, from the author’s point of view, the period after the final draft has been overnighted to the publisher is rather uneventful.

Which is to say, a great deal is going on, but the author (and, to a surprising extent, the author’s agent) is often left out of the loop. Scads of decisions are made outside the author’s presence, as it were; as with the title change, I found out about most of them only in retrospect.

“Title change?” I hear some of you asking, clutching your manuscripts to your chests. “What do you mean, someone else picked the title for your book? Could that happen to ME?”

In a word, yes.

For those of you new to this forum, the title of my memoir was changed (it was originally entitled IS THAT YOU, PUMPKIN?) summarily by my publisher, without either my consent or my input. That in itself was not at all unusual — as I have mentioned before, there are many publishing houses where first books are AUTOMATICALLY retitled by publicity departments, more or less on general principle. Puts their mark on the book, I guess. What was odd (but, alas, not unheard-of) was that I learned of the title change by stumbling across my book, months before I had been told it would be available for presale, on Amazon.

It was, I admit, a bit startling. It was also the first time I had seen the cover.

I’ve been polling all of the current first-time authors I know (and I know plenty) on the subject, and this sort of “oops — did we forget to let you know?” issue seems to be the norm, rather than the exception. Remember last month (October 13, to be precise), when I broke the news to you that you probably would not be the person titling your own book? Well, here’s a list of other little details that the writers I polled found to be beyond their control since I posted that:

– Their release dates

– The number of chapters and/or the overall length of their books

– The narrative tone

– The subject matter, in one or more important respects

– Final grammatical choices

– The target audience

None of these, interestingly enough, were changed because the original drafts and/or plans were not good; in fact, in most of these cases, the authors had actually been praised for the very aspect of the book that ended up getting changed. (Or so report the authors, and they have no reason to make up stories of personal disappointment.) Sometimes these changes work, sometimes they don’t. It’s sort of like when a self-styled handy friend targets an appliance of yours that works just fine, but makes a noise while it functions: it’s impossible to tinker with one part of the mechanism without throwing the others out of kilter, necessitating further adjustments. Depending upon the skill of the tinkerer and the initial structural stability of the tinkeree, the end product can purr like a kitten and work like John Henry — or it can cough and splutter itself to a standstill.

What seems to be common to every experience of this kind is that the author, like the appliance-owner, stands on the sidelines, making small squeaks of terror while her baby is reworked.

Interestingly enough, all of these writers report that they felt powerless even over matters that were set forth specifically in the contract as areas of joint approval. (I, for instance, technically had approval rights over the cover — and we’ve seen how THAT worked out. And this is, mind you, with an editor who loves the book and likes me personally.) As Thomas Hobbes was so fond of saying, “Rights are the ability to enforce them.” Once a book cover is posted on, say, Amazon or B & N, there’s not a whole lot the author can do about it.

As so many first-time authors can tell you to their chagrin, publishers’ minds are apt to change without warning, so cultivating a Zen-like calm in the face of ever-changing circumstances is arguably in your best interest. My current mantra is “But it IS being published” — repeated about 150 times per day, it’s fairly effectual in keeping teeth-grinding at bay.

Which may be the reason that I have a reputation at my agency and publishing house for being ultra laid-back. Since NYC publishing types are prone to rather peppery exchanges, my being naturally soft-voiced gives the impression of being far more reasonable than the actual content of the discussion would dictate. And, to tell you the absolute truth, it’s been my experience that Manhattanite agents, editors, publishers, and publicists tend to zone out during the I-statements that we West Coast denizens have been taught to use in argument: I have long suspected that each time I say, “I think” or “I feel”, my genuinely kind and conscientious agent and publisher take it as a signal to take a ten-second nap.

We West Coasters have a reputation for being laid-back, you know; we should take advantage of it more often.

One of the most valuable tools you can have in your writer’s kit is a vast amount of long-term patience. You’re going to need all of it you can, precisely when you think you have exhausted it though months and years of writing and agent-hunting. As I keep saying over and over again in this forum, the race is not finished until your book has been on the bookshelf at Borders for six months. Then, and only then, will your efforts on its behalf get to flag a little.

Lest this sound impatient on my part, or anything but exhausted, do bear in mind that my inspiration-to-publication road has been unusually SHORT. In fact, the pace has been quite blistering, by industry standards. I started writing the book in February, 2004; I won the PNWA contest in July, 2004; I signed with my agent in October, 2004, after delays that were almost entirely self-imposed (S.G. had offered representation some time before, but I wanted to take the time both to get to know her and the two other agents I was considering and finish a first draft of the book before I signed); I spent the rest of the autumn of 2004 revising my book proposal; the book went out to editors at the end of January, 2005, and it sold in the middle of March of this year. I delivered the manuscript at the beginning of June, and according to Amazon, those eager readers who have pre-ordered it (at a significant discount, I should report) will be receiving physical copies of the book in early February, 2006.

That’s less than two years after the original urge to write the book popped into my head. And I have STILL found occasion to use every ounce of patience in the face of change that I had stored in my writer’s tool kit. Not to mention every iota of the flexibility I had hidden there, and the support of every writing friend I have made over the years. Because the vast majority of what happens to a book after it is bought by a publisher has absolutely nothing to do with the writing, but with accommodating the professional and personal preferences of a seeming army of competing departments within the publishing house. With so many voices clamoring, the author’s is bound to get drowned out every once in awhile.

Everyone chant with me now: but it IS being published. But it is being published.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Getting yourself to write

Yesterday, I filled you in on a writer’s trick to get your body to gravitate automatically toward your writing studio. But for a lot of aspiring writers, finding the time and energy to sit in front of the computer is not the hard part: it’s the intimidation of that blank screen, that bare sheet of paper. It’s conquering the fear of starting.

If you feel this way, you are certainly not alone. Many writers have terrific ideas, but find themselves stymied once it is time to commit those ideas to paper. They worry that they are not talented enough, or that no one will be interested in what they have to say, or that their writing is not important enough to take time away from all of their other obligations. About a third of the writers I know can’t make themselves sit down to write until every iota of the housework is done, right down to the last folded t-shirt and balled-up sock. For some reason, writing for them seems to be a perpetual when-I-have-time-for-it phenomenon.

I’m not going to lie to you — if you find that you’re not sitting down on a regular basis and writing, it’s going to take an awfully long time to produce something publishable. If you are waiting until you have an entire day free of work, laundry, and other obligations, you may well be waiting for quite a long time. Most Americans work far, far too much (and in return receive the lowest amount of vacation time in the industrialized world) to have a lot of unused leisure time.

I could parrot other advice-givers, and order you crabbily to turn off the TV/radio/other electronic distractions, but my God, there’s a war on. I would be the last person to advise you to be LESS aware of what is going on in the world around you at the moment. And chances are, by the time you collapse in front of the TV, you’re pretty exhausted from work, keeping up with the kids, etc. I have to say, your distractions have my sympathy.

But, as much as it pains me to tell you this, it probably will not get your book written to expend your few leisure moments daydreaming about the month-long vacation at a mountain cabin that would permit you to dash off a first draft in its entirety. If you can afford such a retreat, great. There are plenty of artists’ colonies and secluded bed-and-breakfasts that would simply love to shelter you for a period of limited, intense work. (Check out the back of Poets & Writers magazine, where many fellowships for such retreats are advertised.)

But I would bet a nickel that the very idea of arranging your life to disappear for a month’s writing retreat feels impossible right about now. You’re a responsible person with obligations. If you have kids, it’s hard to imagine disappearing for that long; if you have a demanding job, it may well be impossible. Not to mention paying your bills throughout this retreat.

So it probably behooves you to make the most of the work time you already have. If you have been able to find an hour or two per day, or a few hours at a stretch each week, good for you! You need to make the most of every second — which in and of itself can be intimidating; if you waste your scarce writing time, you feel terrible. (Which, incidentally, is why most writers are so sensitive to our kith and kin’s remarking that we seem to be sitting in front of our computers staring into space, rather than typing every instant. Reflection is necessary to our work, but it is genuinely difficult sometimes NOT to fall into a daydream.)

Here’s one trick the pros use, one that I find works well for editing clients writing everything from bone-dry dissertations to the Great American Novel. Like the light bulb trick, it seems disappointingly simple, but I assure you, it works: play the same piece of music EVERY time you sit down to write. Not just the same CD, but the same SONG.

It may drive you crazy at first, but be consistent. Before long, your brain will come to associate that particular song with work — which in turn will help you sink into your work more quickly. After awhile, you can put on other music later in your writing sessions, as long as you always being with the same song. Your brain will already be used to snapping immediately into creative mode.

I do this myself, so I can give you first-hand assurance of its efficacy. For my recently-completed novel, I put on the same Cat Stevens CD (hey, I was writing about hippies) literally every time I sat down to write — and now that I have finished the book, I can’t hear THE WIND without moving instinctively toward my computer. Even now, I can’t hear more than a bar or two of Yaz’ UPSTAIRS AT ERIC’S without starting to think about my long-completed dissertation. I tell you, it works, if you give it a chance.

If you are a person who needs to write under conditions of complete silence, try lighting the same type of incense or scented candle seconds before turning on the computer. Always wear the same socks, or pull your hair into a specific type of ponytail. It actually does not matter, as long as it is a sensual experience that occurs ONLY when you are writing — and is repeated EVERY time you sit down to write.

If finding the time is the problem, I always suggest breaking your normal routine for a week or ten days. Keep a record of how you spend your time. This lets you get a clearer idea of what is and is not immutable in your usual schedule. Switch around chores with your spouse; if you pick up the kids after school, try rearranging your carpool so you drive them there in the morning instead; it may well be that this will leave you fresher for evening writing. If you always do the dishes or laundry in the morning, do it late at night; maybe it will turn out that early morning is your prime writing time, and if so, do you really want to fill up that time with housework?

Apart from forcing you to reexamine your habitual use of time, there’s a sneaky reason to disrupt your household for a week or ten days in this way: many writers are too nice or too responsible or too habit-bound to expect their family members to change anything about THEIR schedules in order to make room for their writing. They will probably kick and scream at first, but your writing is important to you: if, say, you were no longer doing the laundry, or your teenager cooked dinner twice per week, or you opted out of hosting your thirty-person family’s Thanksgiving this year, how much time would that free for your writing?

You deserve this time. You are not being selfish to ask for it. Actually, by making the effort to evaluate your time so carefully, you will be being considerate of their needs, too. But trust me, very, very few writers have the luxury of families, roommates, and friends who spontaneously say, “You know, honey, I’ve been thinking, you would have two and a half hours of clear time per week to work on your book if I did the grocery shopping for the next six months. Please let me do this for you!”


Having grown up in a family of writers, I can tell you with absolute confidence: when intensive writing schedules work, EVERYONE in the household is cooperating to make that happen, starting in babyhood. A professional writer’s kid learns to go to sleep by the sound of typing (and actually, the sound of a manual typewriter still makes me sleepy, speaking of conditioned reflexes), and to this day, I seldom raise my voice above quiet conversational level, lest there be someone writing in the next room. It’s habit, like everything else.
To minimize the resentment of the rest of your household, as well as to gain a more accurate sense of how you would use your untrammeled time, I advise your going on a media fast for that week or ten days. It won’t hurt your worldview to turn off the TV and radio for that long, nor to skip the daily newspaper. Not only will this allow you to assess just how much time every day you are currently spending being entertained and/or informed, to see if you could purloin some of that time for writing, but it will also help you get back into the habit of listening to your own thoughts without distraction.

I go on one of these fasts every year, and it honestly is amazing how much it calms the thoughts. It also arouses the pity and wonder of my household, and reminds my kith and kin just how important it is to me to have inviolate writing time. It reminds them that they, too, are contributing to my writing success, if only by remembering not to call during my writing time. It reminds them that they can actually LOOK for a stamp when they need it, rather than asking me. And it reminds them why I am so strict throughout the rest of the year about not wanting to hear what is happening on the currently hot sitcom. For me, getting sucked into an ongoing plot line is a big dispensable time waster. I have seen a grand total of one episode of FRIENDS, and none of ER, but I have written a couple of pretty good books.

I’m not sure that I could pick Jennifer Aniston out of a lineup, though.

At the end of your week or ten days of messing with your schedule, after your routines are good and disrupted, look back over your account of how you spent your time. What worked and what didn’t? Where could you fit in chunks of solid writing time on a regular basis?

Yes, this is hard, but I would be the last to tell you that being a writer is easy. Still, the rewards of self-expression are massive and ongoing. It is well worth reassessing your schedule to make room for you to try.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Fighting the winter writing blues

Ah, the charms of a PNW winter: right about this time of year, people who hold a day job droop visibly, as we are rapidly approaching the point where they are going to work AND coming home in the dark. It can be depressing, making getting out of bed feel like an outright burden.

Yes, the gloriously long days of summer do compensate for the blahs of a local winter, but that’s awfully hard to remember in mid-November, isn’t it? Just try to remember the kind of September when grass was green and — well, admittedly, the grass does stay pretty green around here all winter, but still, you know the song. My point is, back in September, you could get off work and still SEE that the grass was green without whipping out a pocket flashlight.

Remember, Seattle is where those clever doctors DISCOVERED seasonal affective disorder. It really isn’t just you — or me, for that matter. We who live far north need to take better care of ourselves in the winter.

The late dawns and early dusks are particularly hard on writers, I think. No matter whether you get up early or stay up late to snatch your precious daily writing time, the fast-waning winter light is bound to alter your schedule a little. I write and edit full-time, so I am spared the pain of the pitch-dark commute, but let me tell you, when I look up from my computer and notice that I have only an hour of daylight left, I practically have to lash myself to my desk chair to keep myself at work.

Fortunately, I now have a tool that makes seasonal adjustment easier: the full-spectrum light bulb. Yes, they are a bit more expensive than your average light bulb, but they do undoubtedly help fight local November-December blahs — they really are worth the investment. Write ’em off as a writing expense; most writers do find that they are more productive in the winter months with adequate lighting. And if you use them strategically, you need not spend a fortune to improve your mood.

If you can’t beat the seasonal blues, join ’em — and get them to help you keep your good writing habit resolutions. Okay, I’m about to share a trick of the full-time writing trade, one of those professional secrets that you always suspected the published shared with one another in furtive whispers: in the winter months, have your writing space be the ONLY room in the house equipped with full-spectrum lighting, and plenty of it. Make it blaze.

“That’s it?” I hear you cry in frustration. “Light my studio differently from the rest of the house?”

Yes, oh scoffers, that is what I said. Do it, and make sure you spend at least an hour per day in the room for the first week with the new lighting. (Ideally, you should be writing while you’re there, of course.) It does not take very long to inculcate the habit in your psyche. Soon, you will find that your body actually CRAVES being in your writing space. You (and, most likely, any pet animals that you own) will automatically gravitate there.

Nifty trick, eh?

That is my tip du jour, my friends. Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Another writerly truism gets the Anne treatment

I’m not sure that HAPPY Veterans’ Day, is the proper term of holiday-marking, but I hope you are having a sterling day, nonetheless. To get myself into the proper spirit, I spent the morning re-reading splendid sections of ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONTCATCH-22, and a couple of Louisa May Alcott’s short stories about being a nurse during the Civil War. I hope some bright author out there is busy scribbling away at the great Gulf Wars novel, so that something beautiful comes out of all this death. (Hey, I spent half the morning contemplating trench warfare. I’m entitled to be grim.)

But now I shall cast aside the gloom of the day in order to pursue my new kick, re-examining the old warhorses of writerly advice. Today, I should like to delve into the notion the dialogue should show everything necessary about a situation, without the added distraction of commentary, insight into thought processes, or physical reactions.

In many instances, this is a strategy that works brilliantly, particularly for comedy. Sticking solely to dialogue enables the reader to move quickly through banter, without having her attention drawn away by side comments from the narrator. Take, for example, this bit of self-sufficient dialogue from Joseph Heller’s CATCH-22:

“What’s your name, son?” asked Major — de Coverley.

“My name is Milo Minderbinder, sir. I am twenty-seven years old.”

“You’re a good mess officer, Milo.”

“I’m not the mess officer, sir.”

“You’re a good mess officer, Milo.”

“Thank you, sir. I’ll do everything in my power to be a good mess officer.”

“Bless you, my boy. Have a horseshoe.”

“Thank you, sir. What should I do with it?”

“Throw it.”


“At that peg there. Then pick it up and throw it at this peg. It’s a game, see? You get the horseshoe back.”

“Yes, sir, I see. How much are horseshoes selling for?”

Now, I find this use of pure dialogue admirable. It tells us everything we need to know about characters that the book is not going to explore in much depth: Major — de Coverley is a whimsical commander who regards his own word as law, and Milo is obsessed with the art of the deal. Not bad character development, for only thirteen lines of dialogue.

As a technique, then, no-frills dialogue can undoubtedly be extremely useful, and I applaud its use in moderation. However, like the rule about perspective in third-person narration, a lot of writers, teachers, and editors get carried away with it. You can’t throw a piece of bread at a writers’ conference without hitting someone who will tell you, with an absolutely straight face, that dialogue should NEVER be encumbered by non-spoken information.

Those of you who have been reading the blog for awhile should be able to predict my reaction to this: I’m no fan of the hard-and-fast stylistic rule, generally speaking. The rules of grammar I can respect as immutable (as I wish more writers, particularly for magazines and newspapers, did), but I am always mistrustful of any rule that tells me that I must dismiss a particular piece of writing automatically, without really reading it, on the basis of a stern stylistic preference.

Personally, I find long stretches of pure dialogue rather boring, but I know I am in the minority on this point. Movies and television have accustomed us to stories told entirely by dialogue, visuals, and background music; if you took that same piece of bread you were trying to fling above and cast it at the speakers’ table at the same average conference, you might well hit some expert who had come to tell novelists that their work would be best served by embracing screenwriting techniques with vigor, and keeping thought and physical sensation reportage to a minimum.

I can tell you the source of this advice: a very common fledgling writer tendency to get so bogged down in reporting every thought the protagonist has that the text slows down to the rate of molasses flowing uphill. It is definitely possible to stay too much in a character’s head. Yes, yes, we all know about Proust and Dostoyevsky’s characters who languish in bed for scores of pages at a stretch, contemplating their lives. It was fresh when they did it, but it’s been done so many times now that it’s bound to seem derivative.

For my sins, I once sat through a five-hour version of HAMLET that so catered to the title character that the actor (who, since he is now a rather famous political columnist and former editor-in-chief of THE NEW REPUBLIC, shall remain nameless) was allowed to take FIFTEEN MINUTES to get from “To be or not to be” to “Soft you now, the fair Ophelia” — a mere 33 lines of text, according to the Riverside Shakespeare that every college student of my generation owns. And this for a speech that, as any Shakespearian actor can tell you, half the audience knows well enough by heart to chant softly along with the actor. It was a bit de trop. (Truth compels me to own that since it was the late 1980s, the audience of this particular production of HAMLET was also plagued by repeated playing of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s dubious hit, RELAX, DON’T DO IT. There has been more subtle directorial symbolism.)

From the reader’s perspective, a too-long sojourn into any character’s thoughts, feelings, and doubts (a particular favorite for writers of literary fiction, perhaps due to too many viewings of HAMLET in their early youths) can feel interminable. I am not necessarily an advocate of the hard-and-fast rule that some conflict should occur on every single page (although it’s not a bad rule for a first-time self-editor to follow), but most readers do tend to get a bit restive after the fourth or fifth page of a character’s sitting around and thinking.

If you are not of the sit-and-ponder school, but are still wondering if you are staying too much in a character’s head in a third-person narrative, here’s a self-editing tip: go through the text and note every time the reader is given information outside dialogue by the protagonist’s specifically NOTICING something. Pay attention to whether the text lets the narration mention that the truck stop waitress has red hair, or whether Joe Protagonist SEES her have red hair. If you find that more than about a tenth of the information is conveyed as protagonist sensation, you should think about moving the perspective outside him more. Or consider switching to first-person narration.

All that being said, I am still a fan of exposition alternated with dialogue, particularly in emotionally-charged scenes. We writers live so much in our heads that we tend to create characters who do so, too. However, in real life, people have physical reactions to things: discomfort in their guts when meeting someone smarmy, tightness in the chest when yelled at by the boss, slumping of the shoulders when receiving the news of the death of a friend. These are legitimate pieces of information to include in characterization, and I find that they often add depth to dialogue-based scenes.

Also, I’m skeptical about the idea that dialogue can ALWAYS convey everything that is going on in a scene, either emotionally or factually. People very frequently do not say what they are thinking, and Freudian slips, though common in post-war literature, actually do not occur with great frequency in real life. Frequently, what a character is NOT saying can be as telling as what she is. Even in comedy, where speed of exchange is most desirable, adding exposition amid the verbal exchanges of wit can considerably heighten the tension of a scene.

Take, for example, this excerpt from E.F. Benson’s LUCIA IN LONDON, the second installment in Benson’s brilliantly funny Mapp and Lucia series. Here, social climber Lucia is sitting in the boudoir of duchess Marcia, chatting with her newly-acquired friends about lovers; she has been pretending to be having an affair with fey Stephen, to make herself appear more interesting, and Marcia et alia are trying to grill her about it. Lucia has just finished saying:

“If you all had fifty lovers apiece, I should merely think it a privilege to know about them all.”

“Marcia longed, with almost the imperativeness of a longing to sneeze, to allude directly to Stephen. She raised her eyes for a half second to Adele, the priestess of this cult in which she knew she was rapidly becoming a worshipper, but if ever an emphatic negative was wordlessly bawled at a tentative enquirer, it was bawled now. If Lucia chose to say anything about Stephen, it would be manna, but to ask — never! Aggie, seated sideways to them, had not seen this telegraphy, and unwisely spoke with her lips.

“If an ordinary good-looking woman,” she said, “tells me that she hasn’t got a lover or a man who wants to be her lover, I always say, ‘You lie!’ So she does. You shall begin, Lucia, about your lovers.”

“Nothing could have been more unfortunate. Adele could have hurled the entire six rows of Whitby pearls at Aggie’s face.” The effect of her carelessness was that Lucia became visibly embarrassed, looked at the clock, and got up in a violent hurry.

“Good gracious me!” she said. “What a time of night! Who could have thought our little chat had lasted so long?”

There is a LOT of information conveyed in this excerpt, and all of it contributes to Benson’s comic effect. Now look at the same passage after the dialogue-only rule has been applied to it:

“If you all had fifty lovers apiece, I should merely think it a privilege to know about them all.”

“If an ordinary good-looking woman,” Aggie said, “tells me that she hasn’t got a lover or a man who wants to be her lover, I always say, ‘You lie!’ So she does. You shall begin, Lucia, about your lovers.”

“Good gracious me!” Lucia said. “What a time of night! Who could have thought our little chat had lasted so long?”

Quite a bit flatter, isn’t it? Aggie’s fluke and Lucia’s reaction are still there, but the other two women might as well not have been in the room. We have entirely lost the delicious sense of conspiracy between Marcia and Adele, and Aggie’s blunder has been reduced to simple gaucherie. It’s substantially less funny.

Again, the enriched dialogue method should be used in moderation, just as the dialogue-only method should be. Like profanity, stylistic restrictions are far more effective when used sparingly than constantly; who pays attention to the profanity of a constant swearer? Select the time when your dialogue choice will have the greatest effect.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Help! It’s the point-of-view Nazis!

A couple of postings ago, I used the term “point-of-view Nazi” in passing. Several readers have asked me since what it means, if I made it up, and what was I doing making light of Nazism, anyway? For the benefit of those unfamiliar with the phrase, I shall write about this phenomenon at length today.


No, I did not invent the term: it’s fairly widely-known industry jargon. A point-of-view Nazi (POVN) is a reader — often a teacher, critic, agent, editor, or other person with authority over writers — who believes firmly that the ONLY way to write third-person-narrated fiction is to pick a single character in the book or scene (generally the protagonist) and report ONLY his or her thoughts and sensations throughout the piece. Like first-person narration, this conveys only the internal experience of a single character, rather than several or all of the characters in the scene or book.


Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this kind of narration: it combines the advantages of a dispassionate narrator with the plotting and pacing plusses of a single perspective. It permits the author to sink deeply (or not) into the consciousness of a chosen character without losing the emotional distance of an omniscient narrator. It renders the later actions of other characters more surprising to the reader. It is not, however, the only third-person narrative possibility — a fact that drives your garden-variety POVN wild.


All of us have our own particular favorite narrative styles, and many of us have been known to lobby for their use. What distinguishes a POVN from a mere POV enthusiast is his active campaign to dissuade all other writers from EVER considering the inclusion of more than one POV in a third-person narrative. He would like multiple-consciousness narratives to be wiped from the face of the earth, if you please. He has been known to tell his students — or members of his writing group, or his clients, or the writers whom he edits or represents — that multiple POV narration in the third person is, to put it politely, bad writing. It should be stamped out, by statute, if necessary.


So much for Jane Austen and most of the illustrious third-person narrative-writers of the 18th and 19th centuries, who used multiple perspectives to great effect.


I bring up our forebears advisedly, because one of the reasons that POVNs are so common is that in the post-World War II era, the prose stylings of the 18th and 19th centuries tended to be rejected as old-fashioned by writing teachers. Many of today’s more adamant POVNs are merely transmitting the lessons they were taught in their first good writing classes: for years, many English professors set it down as a general rule that multiple POVs were inherently distracting in a third-person narrative.


Now, I have to admit something: I am not a big fan of this species of sweeping rule. I like to read an author’s work and consider whether her individual writing choices serve her story well, rather than rejecting it outright because of a preconceived notion of what is possible.


In fact, I have a special affection for authors whose talent is so vast that they can pull off breaking a major writing commandment from time to time. Alice Walker’s use of punctuation alone in THE COLOR PURPLE would have caused many rigid rule-huggers to dismiss her writing utterly, but the result is, I think, brilliant. I had always been told that it is a serious mistake to let a protagonist feel sorry for himself for very long, as self-pity quickly becomes boring, but Annie Proulx showed us both a protagonist AND a love interest who feel sorry for themselves for virtually the entirety of THE SHIPPING NEWS, with great success. And so on.


One effect of the reign of the POVNs — whose views go through periods of being very popular — has been the production of vast quantities of stories and novels where the protagonist’s POV and the narrator’s are astonishingly similar — and where the other characters are exactly as they appear to the protagonist, no more, no less. (The rise of television and movies, where the camera is usually an impersonal narrator of the visibly obvious, has also contributed to this kind of “What you see is what you get” characterization, if you’ll forgive my quoting the late great Flip Wilson in this context.) Often, I find myself asking, “Why wasn’t this book just written in the first person, if we’re not going to gain any significant insight into the other characters?”


I suspect that I am not the only reader who addresses such questions to an unhearing universe in the dead of night, but for a POVN, the answer is very simple. The piece in question focused upon a single POV because there is no other way to write a third-person scene.


Philosophically, I find this troubling. In my experience, there are few real-life dramatic situations where everyone in the room absolutely agrees upon what occurred, and even fewer conversations where all parties would report identically upon every nuance. I think that interpretive disagreement is the norm amongst human beings, not the exception.


So do I like to hear the thoughts of multiple players in a scene, to capture the various subtleties of interpretation? You bet. If I want to hear a single POV, I reach for a first-person narrative. Call me wacky.


These are merely my personal preferences, however; I am perfectly willing to listen to those who disagree with me. And there I differ from the POVN, who wishes to impose his views upon everyone within the sound of his voice, or reach of his editorial pen.


To be fair, too-frequent POV switches can be perplexing for the reader to follow — and therein lies the POVN’s primary justification for dismissing all multiple POV narratives as poor writing. One of the more common first-novel problems is POV switching in mid-paragraph, or even mid-sentence. But heck, that’s what the RETURN key is for, to clear up that sort of confusion.


If you are involved with a writing teacher, writing group compatriot, agent, or editor who is a POVN, you need to recognize his preference as early in your relationship as possible, in order to protect your own POV choices. Otherwise, you may end up radically edited, and some characterization may be lost. Take, for example, this paragraph from PRIDE AND PREJUDICE :


“Elizabeth, having rather expected to affront him, was amazed at his gallantry; but there was a mixture of sweetness and archness in her manner which made it difficult for her to affront anybody; and Darcy had never been so bewitched by a woman as he was by her. He really believed, were it not for the inferiority of her connections, he should be in some danger.”


I might quibble about Austen’s use of semicolons, but it’s not too difficult to follow whose perspective is whose here, right? Yet, as a POVN would be the first to point out, there are actually THREE perspectives in this single brief paragraph, although there are only two people involved:


“Elizabeth, having rather expected to affront him, was amazed at his gallantry…” (Elizabeth’s POV)


“but there was a mixture of sweetness and archness in her manner which made it difficult for her to affront anybody” (the POV of an external observer)


“Darcy had never been so bewitched by a woman as he was by her…” (Darcy’s POV)


A POVN in Jane’s writing group would undoubtedly urge her to pick a perspective and stick to it consistently throughout the book; a POVN agent would probably reject PRIDE AND PREJUDICE outright, and a POVN editor would pick a perspective and edit accordingly. The resultant passage would necessarily be significantly different from Jane’s original intention:


“Elizabeth, having rather expected to affront him, was amazed at his gallantry; but there was a mixture of sweetness and archness in her manner which made it difficult for her to affront anybody. Darcy remained silent.”


At this rate, the reader is not going to know how Darcy feels until Elizabeth learns it herself, many chapters later. Yet observe how easily a single stroke of a space bar clears up even the most remote possibility of confusion about who is thinking what:


“Elizabeth, having rather expected to affront him, was amazed at his gallantry; but there was a mixture of sweetness and archness in her manner which made it difficult for her to affront anybody.


Darcy had never been so bewitched by a woman as he was by her. He really believed, were it not for the inferiority of her connections, he should be in some danger.”


The moral here, my friends, is that you should examine writerly truisms very carefully before you accept them as invariably true. Grab that gift horse and stare into its mouth for awhile. You may find, after serious consideration, that you want to embrace being a POVN, at least for the duration of a particular project; there are many scenes and books where the rigidity of this treatment works beautifully. But for the sake of your own growth as a writer, make sure that the choice is your own, and not imposed upon you by the beliefs of others.


To paraphrase the late Mae West, if you copy other people’s style, you’re one of a crowd, but if you are an honest-to-goodness original, no one will ever mistake you for a copy.


Keep up the good work!


– Anne Mini

The changes you DON’T want to make, part V: the extremities

Today, thank goodness, is the last installment of my series on how to deal with change requests that you feel will damage your book if made. I have been dealing with this topic at length, because for all of the complaints one hears amongst writers about unreasonable editorial demands, writers actually do not tend to talk much amongst themselves about practical means of accommodating or rejecting requested changes. Yet another area, I suspect, where fear of appearing less accomplished than other writers (“Of course, I can make those changes! In my sleep!”) keeps us from sharing common experiences.

Before I move on to the final steps of the process, I want to repeat my earlier disclaimer: please do NOT take the steps advised below before taking the ones described in my last four blogs. Starting the delicate negotiation process in the middle will not speed your efforts; it will, however, greatly increase the probability of insulting your editor and/or agent, upon whose good opinion your work is largely dependent. Take it slowly, and remember to be polite at all times.

That being said, let’s move on to what you do when your editor or agent has refused to cooperate with your first genteel indications of displeasure.

(10) Bring in outside help.

If you have an agent, this is a great time to turn the matter over to her — the situation has gone beyond your ability to negotiate. Your agent may well know more about this editor than you do, or about editorial imperatives within the publishing house. There may be more going on here than you realize — such as, for instance, the hiring of a new senior editor who has just declared strong opposition to the kind of argument you are making in your book.

If you do turn the issue over to your agent, you must accept that you are no longer one of the negotiators. As such, you must accept the outcome. Think of it like the electoral college: technically, you are not voting for a presidential candidate, but for an elector who has PLEDGED to vote for that candidate. Like delegates taking the primary and/or caucus results from their states to the national elections (who are bound to vote for particular candidates only on the first ballot), electors can in fact change their votes in a pinch. Your agent may come back with a compromise that does not please you.

If the agent is the one making the suggestions, however, or if you do not have an agent, you need to explore other options for outside help. Running the remaining suggestions past your first readers, for instance. If you can legitimately go back to your critiquer and say, “Hey, I know that you are pretty firmly committed to my removing the Ellen character, but none of my 15 first readers drew the same conclusion you did about her. Your concern was about male readers, and half of mine were men. Would you be open to reading a revised manuscript that did retain Ellen, to see if any of the compensatory changes I made alters your dislike of her?”

If you are writing nonfiction, consider calling in an expert in the field to back you up. Having spent many years teaching in a university, I can tell you that most academics will very happily devote half an hour to talking to any writer who is interested in their life’s work. You may have trouble tracking down a famous professor to corroborate your points, but it is often surprisingly easy to get to one of the top people in the field. Offer to add a footnote or a line in your acknowledgments in exchange.

If the expert supports your view, resist the urge to gloat. Call your editor and say, “Hey, I’ve been thinking a lot about what you said about point X, and you raised an excellent point.” (Even if he didn’t.) “I thought I should double-check, so I contacted…” (Refer to your expert by every title she has ever held.) “And SHE says…”

Few editors or agents would continue to argue with you at this point.

(11) Recognize that you are dealing with someone else’s OPINION, not fact, and you may not be able to change his mind.

If the editor/agent categorically refused to negotiate certain points (or all of them), you may have found yourself reduced to point #10 rather quickly. Once you have winnowed out all of the fact-based objections and tried to prove that you are not alone in believing as you do, you just have to face that your critiquer may not actually have any rational reasons for certain of his objections. Something in your book may have rubbed him the wrong way, and he wants it out.

“In all matters of opinion,” Mark Twain wrote, “our adversaries are insane.”

It is seldom worth the energy to debate the merits of a personal dislike, but if you try, keep your tone respectful. Frequent use of such phrases as, “I respect your opinion, but…” and “I can see what you mean, but I think…” will go a long way toward keeping the conversation civil.

In an extremity, you can always go the Gaslight route — implying gently that the fault is not in the text, but in the beholder — but I warn you, it can provoke anger. Tread carefully as you say: “I’ve been over all of Ellen’s dialogue, and I’m afraid I still don’t see where it is overtly political. If you can identify it, I’d be happy to take out any particular phrase.”

You can fight the good fight for only so long, though, so do not allow this discussion to go for many rounds. Try to keep the squabbles brief, so that they do not come to dominate your relationship with your editor or agent.

(12) Know when to give in — but keep a copy of your original version.

Ultimately, you cannot move forward in the publication process unless your agent and editor approve of your work. As tempting as it might be to ignore the worst of the advice, don’t. Although you can often get away with not making minor changes, I can assure you that your critiquer WILL notice if you do not make the major ones. If, after you make your case as persuasively as you can while still remaining polite, and you have exhausted your other options for proving your point, prove that the book, and not the passage, is most important to you.
Make the changes.

Yes, I know it’s awful, but your only other viable option remaining would be to produce an ultimatum of your own: take my book as is or forget it. With an agent, this may well be a choice you are willing to offer. With an editor who has already bought your book, however, it is different. Given how VERY likely it is that an affronted editor will drop the book, and how very much harder it will be for your agent to re-sell it, now that it has a history of conflict, do make very sure that you are comfortable with BOTH of the options you are presenting before you present the ultimatum.

Many unpublished writers have romantic conceptions about the purity of their visions, but honestly, I have seen very few books where the entire point of the book was lost due to a stupid editorial decision. Consider this: you need to get your book published before you can make a name for yourself as an author. If the disagreement between you becomes a pitched battle, you are inevitably the loser in the end. Do not allow the argument to go on long enough or become vicious enough that the editor considers dropping the book — or your agent considers dropping you.

I know this sounds like a nightmare for your reputation, but often, poor editorial choices harm the author less than you’d think within the industry. Forced editorial changes that are bad ideas are common enough that everyone in the publishing industry will merely shrug sympathetically and believe you when you mention in later years that your did not want to make the changes in question.

If you make sure to keep a copy of the original version of the book, the one before any of the hateful changes, you can always reinstate your vision in future editions — or, and this actually isn’t terribly far-fetched, if the editor is replaced anytime in the near future. Editors move around a great deal these days, you know.

After you decide to play ball, get the manuscript off your desk as soon as humanly possible; don’t give yourself time to continue to agonize. No need to send a cover letter admitting that you’ve thrown in the towel; just a polite note accompanying the manuscript, saying that you have revised it, will suffice.

Notice what has happened here: although it may not feel like it at the time, you are actually better off than you were at the beginning of the revision process. By being polite and professional, you will have established yourself as being reliably pleasant under pressure, a trait publishing house like to know that their authors have before sending them on publicity tours. By going methodically through the steps, you probably will have gained at least a few concessions, so you will be better off than you would have been if you had just kept quiet and made them all.

You will definitely be better off than the many, many writers who, upon being faced with nasty editorial demands, just throw up their hands and hide for months on end, procrastinating about dealing with the book at all. I can’t even begin to count the number of times I have heard agents and editors complain bitterly about writers who do that. Instead, you kept your dignity and worked through the problem like a professional. Bravo! (Or brava, as the case may be.)

I hope that you will never be in a position to need this advice, of course — but now you are prepared if you ever should. Starting tomorrow, I shall be moving on from this ultra-depressing topic to lighter, more congenial matters. A relief for everyone, I expect, including your humble correspondent.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

The changes you DON’T want to make, part IV

All right: today is the day when I tackle the worst-case scenario. What do you do if your agent or, still worse, your editor has asked you to make a major textual change that you feel would be harmful to the book AND every polite, professional means of demurring has failed?

For those of you joining us mid-series, I have been writing for the last week about dealing with editorial requests with aplomb. If you are new to the writing game, you are, unfortunately, far more susceptible to micro-editing than a better-established author; from the editor’s prospective, you have fewer bargaining chips, and from yours, you do not yet have the market experience to be able to put your foot down with credibility. Unfortunately, you do not yet have a comeback to that all-too-common editorial comment, “Look, I know what sells, and you don’t.”

Before taking ANY of the steps I am about to discuss, please go back and read my last three postings, because today’s advice is to be reserved for ONLY those situations where you have tried tactful, non-confrontational approaches to ironing out your differences with your editor or agent FIRST. If you leap to these later steps — as, alas, too many writers do — before you have tried the preliminary ones, you run the risk of being dismissed as unable to take criticism. At worst, your passion in defense of your book may come across to your editor or agent as an ultimatum: take my book as is or not at all.

This is not an industry that takes well to ultimata. Most standard publishing and agency contracts are specifically written to make it far from difficult for an editor to dump an uncooperative writer. Even if you are 100% right, engaging in a pitched battle with your editor after the book is often like a Mini Cooper’s contesting the right of way with a Mac truck: legally, the truck may have to yield to the Mini, but if it does not, the Mini is going to be far more damaged than the truck, right?

So do try your utmost not to allow the situation to degenerate into ultimatum-flinging. You may be hopping mad, and thus have to do violence to your emotions in order to take the early non-confrontational steps I advised earlier, but trust me, it’s honestly in your best interest to be as sweet as pie socially while you are raising hell textually.

If you have taken the steps in order, by the time you are ready to proceed to the more serious argumentative steps below, you will have learned enough about your critiquer to be able to avoid his pet peeves in argument. You also will already have taken the minor points off the table, in order to concentrate on the primary issues; Steps 1 — 7 (explained in my last three blogs) will achieve that.

Even if you cannot resolve all of your contested points, you will at least have learned a great deal about WHY the editor wants the changes — and how flexible he is. If he’s a my-way-or-the-highway kind of guy, or if he is terrified of symbolism, or if he’s a point-of-view Nazi, you’re MUCH better off knowing that early in the editing process. This may not be someone who is accustomed to compromise.

From here on out, I am going to assume that you have been a model of restraint and courtesy throughout your dealings with the poor advice-giver. It’s time to up the ante.

(7) Make the changes you have already agreed to make — then reassess.

It’s a good idea to wait a few days, deadlines permitting, before implementing any changes you conceded in your earlier discussions. It’s been my experience that my clients tend to feel rather let down if they make the changes right away, as though they had lost the fight entirely. Taking some time to let the intense feelings subside permits you to reassess the text calmly.

Take a look at the remaining contested points: is there any way at all that you could make those changes, now that you have won some of the concessions that you wanted? In other words, are you sure that you want to push this fight to the next level?

(8) Separate the fact-based issues from the opinion-based issues, and demonstrate that you are correct about the facts.

This may seem as though you should have done it at the beginning of the process, but providing someone who regards himself as an authority on a book with evidence that he is flat-out wrong is actually a fairly confrontation step. Few of us like admitting that we are wrong, and occasionally, one does meet an editor or agent who is on, as we say on this coast, his own little power trip. Until you absolutely have to prove your contentions, try not to humiliate your opponent.

If you have done your homework and can back up your claims, the facts should be non-negotiable; be very clear about whether it is the facts your critiquer is contesting or your interpretation of them. If it is the facts, quietly provide photocopies of reputable print sources for your contentions. (Print sources are better than electronic ones in this instance, as the printed word has greater power in the publishing industry than does electronica.)

On questions of grammar, for instance, simply photocopy the page in one of the standard editing guides — you own a copy of Strunk & White, right? — and mail it to your critiquer. Write a nice cover letter, of course, saying, “Hey, after our discussion about this, I thought I should double-check my facts, and…”

Don’t gloat, and don’t negotiate: you are sending this corroboration as a courtesy, not as persuasion. This evidence is merely your way of explaining why you will NOT be making the requested factual changes. Do it politely, and finish your cover letter with an assurance that you’re already working on the OTHER changes he’s requested.

At the end of this step, you should have a list of all of the remaining contested issues that are purely matters of opinion. Again, reassess: are the remaining points worth a fight?
If they are, proceed to steps 9 — 11.

But where are steps 9-11? In tomorrow’s blog — where else?

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

The changes you DON’T want to make, part III

For those of you joining us mid-series, I have been writing for the last few days about the unfortunately not unheard-of dilemma of a writer’s being asked by an agent or editor to make changes that the writer not only does not want to make, but believes might do serious harm to the book. As I keep saying, I sincerely hope that none of you find yourselves in this situation, but it happens to enough writers — especially first-time ones — often enough that all of us should probably think twice about condemning relatively newly-published writers for big, gaping holes in their plots and/or logic. Amongst published writers, editorial whims are legendary, and now that agents are expected to have books and book proposals all but print-ready by the time editors see them, they are starting to get the reputation for being rather whimsical, too.

Before taking ANY of the steps I am about to discuss, go back and read my last two postings, because today’s advice is to be reserved for ONLY those situations where you have tried tactful, non-confrontational approaches to ironing out your differences with your editor or agent FIRST. If you leap to these later steps — as, alas, too many writers do — before you have tried the preliminary ones, you run the risk of being dismissed as unable to take criticism. If your objections to the advice you’ve been given are justified (and you will have to judge for yourself whether they are), the book will be best served by your clearing the discussion of all extraneous elements; Steps 1 — 5 (explained in my last two blogs) will achieve that for you. From here on out, I am going to assume that you have already done that, and have been a model of restraint and courtesy throughout your dealings with the poor advice-giver.

Okay, so now you have been so reasonable that you feel as though your head is going to burst if you have to be polite for a single additional second. What do you do if all of this has not been enough to get your powerful critiquer to drop his most ill-conceived demands?

(6) Present your case.

Please note that I have not advised your arguing the point until this step. Up until now, you have been as cooperative as humanly possible, right? All you did before was ask for clarification, thus leaving your critiquer a face-saving way to back down from his silly advice. Since that did not work to your satisfaction, you are well within your rights to make a sane, well-organized argument in favor of your position.

Be polite in your discussion, and reiterate up front (and without whining) that you have already made the bulk of the requested changes. Identify each change, making it clear precisely what it is you think you have been asked to alter, and give your reason for believing each will not help the book, but try to do so without making your critiquer look stupid for suggesting such a ludicrous thing. Instead, state your fears about what such a change will do to the integrity of the book. (Try to avoid using words like disembowel, destroy, or decimate; they inflame tempers on both sides of the discussion.)

Let’s say you’ve been asked to remove a strong secondary character, Ellen, because twice in the course of the book, she makes feminist statements (yes, it happens). When you asked your editor to explain why, he said that the character was too political, and that male readers would not like her. He advised, instead, that your 40-year-old protagonist, Natasha, should have a teenage sister who resembles Natalie Portman in many significant physical respects, in order to make your book more filmic. Your instinct might be frame your answer like this:

“You sexist idiot, you have missed the entire point of my novel! What are you going to suggest next, that the courtroom scene take place in the middle of a Girls Gone Wild video taping?”

While emotionally satisfying in the moment, such a response is unlikely to elicit the kind of let’s-work-together vibe conducive to problem solving. It would serve both you and the book better if your answer went something like this:

“I’ve finished almost all of the revision that you asked me to do, but I am still having difficulty conceiving how I can remove Ellen from the plot entirely. She is the voice of ethics in the plot, and as a neurosurgeon, she is able to speak with authority about their mother’s dementia. If Ellen were a high school senior, I fear that her statements about brain chemistry might lack credibility. How would you suggest that I get around this problem?”

BE BRIEF, refrain from invective, and ALWAYS end with a request for advice. Asking shows respect, and even if you don’t understand how your editor could possibly have graduated from a decent elementary school, given his language skills, you need to maintain a professional mien.

It is almost always easier to make these points in writing, rather than on the phone or in person. Most of the writers I know prefer expressing themselves in writing, anyway, and it permits you to state your case in its entirety before your agent or editor has a chance to interrupt you. (If you do have a verbal discussion, it’s a good idea to send an e-mail immediately afterward, recapping what you believe the mutual decisions to have been.)

(6) Suggest alternatives.

If you are presenting your arguments in writing, it makes a lot of sense to incorporate this step with the previous one. For each requested change, offer to make a DIFFERENT change that you think will better achieve the goal. Could a scene that was not cut go instead of the cut one, for instance? Could your argument be made stronger if you simply added another example, instead of deleting a point? Be practical, and offer your editor a smorgasbord of appetizing choices, so he can feel good about changing his mind. Be up front, though, about any plot or argumentative problems these changes will cause — and never suggest any change that you are not willing to make.

In the case of the novel about Ellen’s sister, you could simply add a paragraph to the previous one:

“I have been considering giving Ellen a husband and a couple of children, to make her more sympathetic to the male readers you mentioned. This would require substantial revision of the timeline of the flashback sequence, where Natasha and Ellen are children together, which I am not sure I can complete by our two-week deadline. (Were you anticipating the flashback being cut entirely if I incorporated a teenage sister? If Ellen is 25 years younger than Natasha, they could not have been children together.) Alternatively, if the deadline is indeed firm, I could give Ellen a wacky hobby, such as beekeeping in her attic, to make her bon mots come across more as a general sense of humor, rather than political commentary. Do you think this is a good idea? I am not convinced that the head of neurosurgery at Manhattan General would have the time (or the attic space) for such a hobby, but that could be part of the humor.”

If you cannot come up with alternatives that please you, offer trade-offs from your list. If you make a less detestable change, can you keep something that your heart is set on keeping? If length is the issue, is there something else you could cut that would allow you to keep your favorite scene?

If you want to play hardball, look at the book from the editor’s perspective: is the change he is suggesting at all likely to make it impossible to keep a part he particularly liked? Is there a compromise you can suggest that would allow both of you to be partially pleased with the outcome? Here’s a strategic solution to the Ellen problem that would make everybody happy:

“Since Ellen’s medical expertise saves much exposition in the book, I am reluctant to remove her entirely. If I don’t have a fairly significant character working at the hospital, I don’t know how I can justify keeping that scene in the nurses’ locker room; as we both agreed, it is a highlight of the book, but for the joke to work, a female doctor has to walk into the room. However, I have had a bright idea that would allow keeping that scene and give the book a teenage girl character without eliminating Ellen: what if I gave Ellen a teenage daughter who is a candy striper?”
Listen carefully to your editor or agent’s response. If you are contesting a major point in the critique, you probably will not gain a total victory, but you will probably pick up some minor concessions along the way. Don’t turn your nose up at these; they add up.
Make sure to express gratitude for any concessions you do win.

In 99% of the cases, steps 1-6 will get an author to a point where she can live with the suggested revisions, without engaging in bloody battles for dominance. In my next post, I shall discuss the hair-raising possibility of dealing with an editor or agent who refuses to negotiate, but rest assured, those cases are rare.

Preparation is power, my friends. Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

The changes you DON’T want to make, part II

Yesterday, I wrote about the various reasons that you might feel compelled, through forceful recommendations by an editor or agent, to make revisions to your manuscript that you feel might actually harm the work. Heaven forefend that this should happen to you. However, it is a common enough occurrence that I wanted to give you some guidelines for how to deal with it. Here are some practical steps to take — and do make them in order:

(1) Go through the requested changes, and make sure that you understand what you are being asked to do.

One of the problems with receiving a hostile editorial memo or other set of negative feedback from an agent or editor is that it is awfully easy for the writer to overreact, or at the very least, allow a few criticisms to burgeon mentally into a damnation of the entire work. Chances are, that’s not what your editor or agent meant to convey.

Give yourself a little time to cool down, then go through the requested changes one by one, highlighting those which seem reasonable.

Go back through the text (or the editorial memo, or the letter from the agent) again and highlight (either in a different color or not, as you choose) the requests about which your considered reaction (rather than your first one) is tepid. A LOT of editors have particular words that they like or dislike intensely; don’t take it personally if your critiquer crossed out a bunch of your words and replaced them with synonyms. Most of the time, accepting such alterations will make little difference to the quality of the manuscript overall. If you don’t care much one way or another, this is an easy concession to make.

Making two passes over the manuscript will help clarify in your mind whether the requested changes that so outraged you at first are worth a fight. If you are going to get into an argument with someone who has power over you and your work, it’s a good idea to narrow your focus down to what is truly objectionable, rather than the critique in its entirety.

(2) Make all of the OTHER requested changes.

This is the single best thing you can do to preserve your reputation as a hard-working, reasonable writer. Go through the text and make every change you highlighted. That way, you establish firmly that you are willing to revise the text; it is the CONTENT of certain changes that disturbs you, not the fact of being criticized.

Granted, it may take a little time to plow through them all, but if there was ever a moment in your career not to procrastinate, this is it. It’s tempting to set the work aside, hoping that your critiquer will change his mind. It’s tempting to think that if you sit on the manuscript for awhile, a magic solution that requires no effort will occur to you. Unfortunately, many, many writers before you have faced this temptation, too, and fallen before it. Agents and editors complain constantly about writers who suddenly disappear for half a year at a time, ostensibly revising. However good the writer’s reasons may be, in the publishing industry, such a delay is considered passive-aggressive and annoying.

(Allow that irony to sink in for a moment. In an industry where it routinely takes a month to respond to a query, several months to consider a manuscript for representation, and months on end to read a manuscript with a eye to purchasing it, the writer who goes mute upon being asked to revise work is singled out as passive-aggressive. Go figure.)

(3) Make a list of the remaining suggestions, ranked in order of distastefulness.

This step is really for you, as a preparation for discussion with your editor and/or agent. Write down a few specific arguments for each — text-based arguments, rather than merely the fact that you hate these suggestions. Ranking them will force you to reexamine just how much you actually object to each. Are there some changes that you would be willing to make if you did not have to make others?

(4) Ask your editor or agent for clarification of the contested points, mentioning first that you have already made the bulk of the requested changes.

Now that you have singled out a few specific points out of the array of suggested changes, it is time to approach your critiquer to negotiate. Make it non-confrontational, and do try, if at all possible, to single out one of the suggestions you already implemented for praise.

Say that you do not understand the purpose of some of the suggested changes, and ask for clarification on specific points. (You’d be surprised how often an editor miswrote a suggestion in the margins, asking for change A when he really wanted change H.)

I always advise making this request via e-mail, so you have a written record of the afterward. (If you are making this request of an editor, consider discussing the situation with your agent first, if you have one. Your agent may well want to handle this situation for you.)

(5) Reassess.

Carefully note any changes in what you are being asked to do, and make any subsequent changes that seem reasonable RIGHT AWAY. That way, you have demonstrated yet again that you are a reasonable author, willing to work with your editor or agent — which will place you in a stronger position in future negotiations on the remaining points.

Take another look at your list of unacceptable changes. Does anything on it still need to be addressed, or can you now finish revising your manuscript in peace? Have you won enough concessions that you could live with the rest of the changes?

Take a few days to linger on this step, deadlines permitting, because it is an extremely important one. You are deciding whether your remaining objections are worth a fight with your agent or editor, two people whom you really do want to be fond of you and your work. If you have any suspicion that your objections to the remaining points are based in your pride being hurt, rather than fear that your BOOK will be hurt, make sure you understand your own motivations.

Incidentally, if pride is the issue, I think it is perfectly acceptable for you to go back to your agent and editor and say, “You know, I really appeciated your feedback on the book, but I noticed that I had a hard time with the way it was presented. It may just be my personal pet peeve, but I hear constructive criticism much better if it’s put as X, rather than as Y.” This is not being whiny; it’s clarifying the conditions under which you work best. The more information you can give your agent and editor about how best to communicate with you, the less of everyone’s time and energy will be wasted on missed signals.

If you decide that the remaining point(s) are so detrimental to the book that they are worth a battle royale, now is the time to start the negotiation process. In tomorrow’s blog, I’ll give some practical tips about that.

I have walked a lot of clients through this process, and I can tell you from experience that no matter whether you decide to push forward with your objections or not, if you have gone through the first five steps in a spirit of honesty, dedicated to the integrity of your manuscript, you will earn a reputation for being a level-headed, reasonable writer eager to revise. That’s no mean feat, considering that you began the process in fundamental disagreement with your agent or editor.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

The changes you DON’T want to make

I have written quite a bit in the last couple of months about self-editing your work, both on your own initiative and in response to comments from your first readers, to come up with a new draft that fulfills your vision of the book. From time to time, I have discussed dealing with revision requests from agents and editors. Today, I would like to talk about how to handle authoritative revision requests, the ones that are non-negotiable because they come from your agent (or prospective agent) or editor.

I wrote in a previous blog about how to respond in the moment to being confronted with agents’ and editors’ negative comments (please see Cultivating Patience, October 11), but I would like to reiterate: it is vitally important that you do not blow up when asked to change your work. At least, that you do not blow up in front of the person asking for the changes. While it would be merely impolite to snipe at a well-meaning critiquer of your work within the context of a writers’ group, it might well harm your reputation if you snarl back at an agent (even after you have signed with her) or an editor, NO MATTER HOW WELL JUSTIFIED YOUR RESPONSE MAY BE. Even when confronted with the world’s biggest buffoon screaming in the world’s loudest voice, if you reply in kind, it is YOUR reputation that will be hurt, not the critiquer’s.

You need to maintain the reputation of being an easy-to-work-with writer, because it is a serious selling point for any future book you write. In the shorter term, being calm in the face of criticism will also bring rewards. You want your agent to send your work out eagerly and to speak of it positively, don’t you? You would like your editor to look upon your next draft with favor, don’t you? However friendly your agent and/or editor may be, until you are a relatively well-established writer, they honestly do have power over you. So don’t insult them if you can possibly avoid it.

Among other plusses, if you remain pleasant when criticized, you will have the element of surprise on your side. I hate to be the one to tell you this, but writers have a simply TERRIBLE reputation amongst agents and editors as crybabies and whiners. As a group, they think of us as people who will instantly begin howling with outrage if they suggest that we change so much as a semicolon of our precious work. (This is one of the reasons, by the way, that it is easier for writers with even the most minor journalistic experience to find agents and sell their work. Journalists, the publishing world believes, have learned through hard experience how to take critique without quibbling. See why I keep urging you to try to place pieces in your local community paper?) They believe that we so fall in love with our own words that we bleed when they are cut.

We have all met a few writers like that, of course; they pop out of the woodwork regularly at writers’ conferences. They are the ones who tell horror stories about how an agent — get this! — had the nerve to ask for the book to be revised! Clearly, the agent was an idiot who did not understand the brilliance of the book. They are the ones who sent out a query letter once, got rejected, and never sent another because they were too furious. Clearly, there is a conspiracy to keep great work off the shelves. They are the ones who unstrategically begin their pitches with, :We”l, I know you’re going to say that this is too radical/too conservative/too original ever to sell, but…” They are, in short, inflexible.

But as inflexible writers tend not to be the ones searching the internet for advice on how to improve their chances at publication — and certainly not the ones who join fine organizations like the PNWA, dedicated to mutual assistance amongst writers! — I don’t need to harp upon why a flat refusal to revise is undesirable. I suspect that all of my readers are savvy enough to know that belligerent resistance to editorial advice is one of the FIRST signs agents look for as evidence of unprofessionalism in a writer.

We all like to think of ourselves as reasonable people, but what if you, after struggling for months or years to make your work market-ready, receive an editorial order so misguided that you firmly believe, after you have thought about it long and dispassionately, that you feel will ruin the book if incorporated?

I would love to be able to tell you that this never happens, but sometimes it does. Just as not every agent will be the best advocate of your work, not every editor will have the judgment to maximize its potential. Yours might be that editor’s first book, or the first book of its type, or the editor’s heart might not be in it. Remember, although junior editors have a lot of power over writers, this is a poorly-paid job, often held by people in their twenties. (So the next time you hear an established middle-aged writer complain that too many editors are just barely out of their college English classes and thus lack the life experience to understand serious writing, don’t be too quick to dismiss it as sour grapes.) I have — and I tremble to say this, but its true — actually seen friends’ and clients’ work CHANGED by an untalented editor from being grammatically correct to being grammatically incorrect.

No, that wasn’t a misprint. Within the last week, I have had a rather pointed argument with an otherwise reasonable editor at a major NYC publishing house who insisted that “everyone and his Uncle George” was wrong. He thought it should be “everyone and their Uncle George.” I referred him to Strunk and White, of course, and privately cursed his high school English teachers, but my point here is that it is not very uncommon for the writer to have a better grasp of the rules of grammar than junior editors.

I know. It’s awful, and the universe really should not work that way. Shame on it.

While you can always part company with an agent who seems to misunderstand your work, after a press buys it, you will have considerably more difficulty walking away from an editor with whom you do not click. You do not want to earn the reputation of being a contract-breaker, any more than you want to be known as someone who blows up over every suggested change.

So how can you handle this ticklish situation? Let’s assume that you have already exercised the patience of a saint, and not immediately said, “Wow, that;s the stupidest idea I have every heard!” when your editor first vouchsafed the suggested changes. Let’s assume that you gave yourself a few days to calm down, then re-read the contested passages. What should you do next?

In the interests of high drama (and because my practical advice is lengthy), I shall break off for today, but an 8-point plan of attack follows in tomorrow’s post. Same bat time, same bat channel.

In the meantime, keep up the good work!

–Anne Mini

An editing epiphany — and a brand new name

It occurred to me this weekend that there really ought to be a muse, if not an ancient Greek goddess, of manuscript revision. Few of us writers like to admit it, but if we write works longer than a postcard, we all inevitably worship in private at this muse’s altar. Why should the initial inspiration gals get all the credit, when so much of the work that makes a book wonderful is in the re-editing?

Editing gets a bad rap, and self-editing even worse. You can’t spend half an hour in a gathering of more than three serious writers without hearing someone bitch about it. Oh, it’s so hard; oh, it’s so tedious. Oh, I’m sick to death of revising my manuscript. If I have to spend another instant of my life reworking that one pesky sentence, I shall commit unspeakable mayhem on the nearest piece of shrubbery.

We don’t describe the initial rush to write that pesky sentence that way, though, do we? Our muse leaps out at us, flirts with us, seduces us so effectively that we look up a paragraph later and find that six hours have gone by. Our muse is the one that gives us that stunned look in our eyes that our loved ones know so well, the don’t-call-me-for-breakfast glaze that tells the neighborhood that we will not be available for normal human interaction for awhile.

(My boyfriend has just informed me that I have that look in my eyes now, and that my dinner is getting cold.)

Ah, but the muses of initial inspiration don’t always stick around, do they? No, the flighty trollops too often knock you over the head with a great idea, then leave you in the lurch in mid-paragraph. Do they call? Do they write? Don’t they know we worry, wondering if they are ever going to come back?

Not so Ataraxia, the muse of revision. (Hey, I came up with the notion, so I get to name her. As I recall from the ancient philosopher Sextus Empiricus — I know, I know; you can’t throw a piece of bread at a party these days without hitting someone chatting about Sextus Empiricus, but bear with me here — ataraxia is the state of tranquility attained only at the end of intense self-examination. Ataraxia is the point at which you stop second-guessing yourself.) Ataraxia yanks you back to your computer, scolding; she reads over the shoulder of your dream agent; editors at major publishing houses promise her their firstborn. While being a writer would be a whole lot more fun if completing a good book could be accomplished merely by consorting with her flightier muse sisters, party girls at heart, sooner or later, we all need to appeal to Ataraxia for help. Best to stay on her good side.

I have not been treating her with much respect lately, I’ll admit: I was more or less ordered by my editor to add a preface to my memoir, as well as making some minor revisions, and I was dragging my feet terribly about it. I just couldn’t make myself get started, and truth compels me to say that I often took Ataraxia’s name in vain. How tedious, I thought, inventing reasons not to sit down and put in a few hours of solid work on the project. What a bore, to have to go back to a book I consider finished and tweak it. Hour after hour of staring at just a few sentences, changing perhaps an adjective or two every ten minutes. Yawn. The thrill is in the creation, not in the perfection.

Fortunately, after a couple of weeks of dodging Ataraxia’s dicta, I started listening to what I was saying about why I didn’t want to do the revision. It wasn’t that I objected to putting in the time; there have been few days in the last decade when I haven’t spent many hours in front of my computer or scribbling on a notepad. It wasn’t that I felt compelled, or that I thought the changes would be bad for the book. No, my real objection, I realized, is that I expected the revision process to bore me to tears.

Am I alone in this?

It was then that Ataraxia whacked me over the head with an epiphany: a manuscript is a living thing, and to allow it to change can be to allow it to grow in new and exciting ways. I had been thinking of my text as something inert, passive, a comatose patient who might die if I inadvertently lopped off too much on the editing table. What if, instead of thinking of revision as nitpicking, I used it to lift some conceptual barriers within the book? What if I incorporated my editor’s suggestions in a way that made the book better? Not just in terms of sentences and paragraphs, but in terms of content?

For those of you who have not yet edited a book or other major work of your own, this may sound impractical, as if I am suggesting that the revision process should entail rewriting the entire manuscript, or as if I am merely using the Day of the Dead to resurrect that tired old writing-class advice, kill your darlings. I am advising neither. What I am suggesting is that instead of regarding feedback as an attack upon the book, a foreign attempt to introduce outside ideas into an organically perfect whole or a negative referendum upon your abilities as a writer, perhaps it would be more productive to treat critique (your own included) as a hint that maybe the flagged section could use an influx of fresh creativity.

What I am suggesting, in fact, is moving beyond just making grammatical changes and inserting begrudging sentences where your first readers have asked, “But why is this happening here?” If you have stared at a particular sentence or paragraph for hours on end, changing it and changing it back — c’mon, you know we all do it — naturally, you’re going to get bored. Naturally, you are going to loathe that kind of revision.

The next time you find yourself in that kind of editing loop, set the text you’re working on aside for a few minutes. Pick up a pen (or open a new document) and write that section afresh, in new words, as if for the first time. No peeking at your old text, and no cheating by using sentences you recall writing the first time around. Allow yourself to use different analogies, to reveal character and event differently. Give yourself time to play with your ideas and the way you want to say them before you go back to the original text.

Then walk away for ten minutes. Maybe you could do some stretching exercises, to avoid repetitive strain injuries, or at least take a stroll around your house. Get your eyes off the printed word for awhile.

And then, when you return, read the original version and the new. You probably will not want to substitute one for the other entirely, but is there any part of the new version that could be incorporated into the old in an interesting way? Are there sentences that can be switched productively, or some new ones that could be added to the old? Are there arguments or character points in the new that would enliven the old?

What you’re doing with this exercise is transforming revision from a task where you are fine-tuning something essentially finished into an opportunity to infuse the manuscript with fresh ideas at problematic points. Conceptually, it’s a huge difference, and I guarantee it will make the revision process a lot more fun.

Incidentally, I finished the preface and revised the requested sections, and I’m pretty proud of the result. To tell you the truth, I think it’s a better book now — a tough thing to admit, after having kicked and screamed about these changes for quite some time. Ataraxia teaches us humility, I guess.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini