Hello, readers –

Today, I would like to talk about the Frankenstein manuscript’s prettier and more socially-acceptable cousin, self-plagiarized repetition. Where the Frankenstein manuscript varies substantially as pages pass, the self-plagiarized text becomes redundant: scenery described the same way, for instance, or a clever line of dialogue repeated in Chapters 2, 5, and 16.

I chose to bring this up on the day of the State of the Union address self-consciously, because nowhere is the practice of self-plagiarization more prevalent than in the garden-variety political speech. Tell me – do you think people would remember that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream if he had said it only ONCE in his famous March on Washington speech?

There’s a good reason: the repetition of an idea makes it memorable. The ideas – and usually even the actual phrases – of the beginning of a political speech invariably recur throughout. And, as anyone who has listened to two consecutive State of the Union addresses can tell you, political speeches often sound the same from year to year. No matter how fiercely THE WEST WING has tried to promote the notion of presidential speechwriters as ultra-creative writers, if you look at speeches given by the same politician over time, self-plagiarization is rife.

On paper, phrase repetition is problematic, but in and of itself, it is not necessarily self-plagiarization. On paper, phrase repetition can be used for emphasis (as I have just done here). A lot of good writers choose to repeat phrases within a single paragraph for rhythmic reasons, which can bring a passage an invocative feel. Take the
St. Crispin’s Day speech from HENRY V, for instance: “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers…”

Now THAT’s a political speech.

Unfortunately, a lot of poor writers favor this device, too, so it tends to be a rather risky trick to try to pull off in a short piece, such as a synopsis, or even in the first few pages of a manuscript submitted for a contest or as part of a query packet. To professional eyes, trained to search for the repetition of a single verb within a paragraph as evidence of boring writing, “we few, we happy few” will not necessarily jump off the page for its rhythm. In an ultra-quick reading (as virtually all professional readings are), it may be mistaken for an incomplete edit: you meant to change “we few” to “we happy few,” but you forgot to delete the words you did not want.

Self-plagiarization tends to raise red flags with professional readers, too. The writer may not realize that she has reused a particularly spectacular image from Ch. 1 in Ch. 3, but believe me, if there is repetition, professional readers will catch it. Editors are notorious for remembering entire pages verbatim. I am no exception: when I was teaching at the University of Washington, I was known for noticing when term papers resubmitted in subsequent quarters, even though I read literally hundreds of papers per term. I would even remember who wrote the original.

Although it may earn you an ill-humored rebuke from a professional reader, such repetition usually will not knock you out of consideration if the self-plagiarized bits occur far apart, such as at the beginning and end of a book. However, in a shorter piece, or in those first 50 pages of your novel that nice agent asked you to send for consideration, it can cost you. Repetition sticks in the professional reader’s craw, nagging at her psyche like a pebble in a shoe, so it is best to do it as little as possible.

“Now wait a minute,” I hear some of you out there grumbling. “Oscar Wilde repeated the same quips in one play after another. It became his trademark, in fact. So why should I be punished for using a single particularly sterling line 150 pages apart in my novel?”

Quite true. And Aaron Sorkin reused not only lines and speeches from SPORTS NIGHTin THE WEST WING (my pet repetition of the evening, apparently), but entire plot lines and basic characters. Tell you what – after you make it big, I give you permission to establish a trademark phrase and use it as often as you like. Until you do – as I sincerely hope you will – all I can do is tell you what tends to annoy agents, editors, and contest judges.

All writers of book-length works have repeated themselves at one time or another; if a simile struck us as the height of cleverness last week, chances are good that we will like it next week as well. Each time we use it, it may seem fresh to us. These little forays into self-indulgence are so common, in fact, that literary critics have a name for them: tropes.

F. Scott Fitzgerald was a notorious troper in his short stories. If memory serves, a thwarted heroine’s sobbing out (usually with her face hidden by her hair), “I’m so beautiful – why can’t I be happy?” immediately before she does something self-immolatingly stupid to remove herself from the possibility of marrying the story’s protagonist occurs at least four times throughout his collected works. Why our Scott found that line so very attractive remains a mystery eternal – it’s hard to believe he ever actually heard a human female utter it – but he did, and now it’s stuck to his name for all eternity.

Usually, though, self-plagiarization is more subtle. Spread out over an entire text — or as it often appears in the case of successful writers of series, once per book – self-plagiarization may be both innocuous and unintentional on the part of the writer. For example, E.F. Benson, author of two delightful series, the Lucia books and the Dodo books, was evidently extraordinarily fond of using Artic analogies for one person suddenly grown cold to another. As in: “It was as if an iceberg had spoken,” “It was as if the North Pole had spoken,” and “icebergs passing in the North Sea” must speak to one another so.

Now, it’s not a bad analogy, if not a startlingly original one. The problem is, as a Benson enthusiast, I was able to come up with three of them without even pulling his books off the shelf. These repetitions, deliberate or not, stick with the reader, just as surely as repeated phrases stick with the audience of a political speech.

Here, yet again, is an awfully good reason to read your entire book (or requested chapters, or contest submission) out loud before you submit it. Believe it or not, just as dialogue that seemed fine on the page can suddenly seem stilted when spoken aloud, phrases, sentences, and images that your eye might not catch as repetitious are often quite obvious to the ear. (Another good reason to read aloud: to make sure that each of your major characters speaks in a different cadence. Much more readable that way. As are lines of dialogue that can actually be said in a single breath without passing out.)

Oh, and now I see that I got so carried away with my topic, I’ve missed the first half-hour of the State of the Union speech, and shall have to catch the rebroadcast. Oh, I’m so beautiful – why can’t I be happy?

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

The Frankenstein Manuscript, Part III: My Book Was a Teenage Werewolf

Hello, readers –

Well, I did get sidetracked there, didn’t I? I got you all excited about the Frankenstein manuscript phenomenon, promised to tell you how to work through it — and then wrote about other things for a couple of days. Sorry about that; I’m back in the saddle today.

For those of you just tuning in, a Frankenstein manuscript is a work that — usually inadvertently — is written in so many different voices, styles, structures, and even quality of writing that it reads as though it had been written by a committee. Since I have literally never heard a single speaker at a writing conference address this very common problem — but have so often heard agents, editors, contest judges, writing teachers, and freelance editors complain about it in private — I wanted to alert my readers to it, lest the monster return again.

In a way, a Frankenstein manuscript is a gift for a busy agent, editor, or judge, because it’s so very easy to reject. Clearly, if the author herself did not catch the Frankensteinish inconsistency of the text, the book needs to go through at least one more major edit. In order to reject the manuscript, all the reader needs to say is, “While it’s an interesting premise,” (or voice, or style, etc.) “the author needs to work on craft, structure, and consistency.” Or, even more often, it can be rejected with a form letter: “Thank you for your submission, but your manuscript does not meet our needs at this time.”

In other words: NEXT!

While I am generally very much in favor of writers doing everything they can, short of laundry or house-painting, to make their agents’ and editors’ lives easier, trust me, you do not want to be on the donating end of such a gift.

If you are working on your first novel – or any other writing project – over the course of years, do yourself a favor and check it for stylistic consistency before you submit it to ANY agent, editor, or contest. Most of us don’t find our specific voices right away; allow for the possibility that yours developed while you were writing the book. And when you find the voice, the style, the structure you like best, make sure that every sentence in the book reflects it.

And you simply cannot do this by reading your work in screen-sized chunks. In order to make absolutely sure that your book hangs together cohesively, YOU MUST READ IT IN HARD COPY. In its entirety. Preferably in a few long sessions, and, if you change narrative voice very often, out loud, to ascertain that your various voices remain absolutely distinct throughout.

I hear some of you grumbling out there. I know, I know – you’ve been working on this book forever, and you’ve revised it so often that you could recite huge chunks of it from memory. And I’m telling YOU to reread the whole thing – aloud, yet?

Yes – because, alas, the more you revise a novel — or any book — the more likely it is to turn into a Frankenstein manuscript. It is an unintended downside of being conscientious about honing your craft.

Allow me to repeat that: the MORE you work on a novel, the MORE likely you are to end up with a Frankenstein manuscript. Think about it: over time, you move passages around; you insert new scenes; you add or subtract subplots, characters, dialogue. All of these inevitably affect other parts of the book.

Can you really be sure that you remembered to take out your protagonist’s sociopathic sister in EVERY place she has ever appeared, even as a shadow on a wall? And no, merely doing a search-and-replace on the sister’s name is not sufficient, because if a novel is complex and rich, the spirit of individual characters lingers, even when they do not appear on the page. Necessarily, you would need to write the consciousness of the sociopathic sister out of the psyches of every other character in the family.

And that’s just the problem with a single, major change. The vast majority of revision is minor — which does not mean that any given change might not carry resonance throughout the book. See now why I have been harping for months on the necessity of sitting down and reading your manuscript in its entirety, in hard copy, AND getting unbiased readers to look it over before you submit it to an agent, editor, or contest? Yes, it’s the best way to catch grammatical, spelling, and continuity errors – but it is also really the only way to notice where a deleted character or plot point still affects the rest of the book.

It is also far from uncommon for fledgling writers to incorporate the style, vocabulary, and/or worldview of whatever author they happen to be reading at the moment into their work. It’s like catching an accent when you’re staying in another country.

I’ll admit it: this is my personal Frankenstein tendency. When I was writing the novel my agent is currently marketing, I was reading a whole lot of Noël Coward. An extremely witty writer; I enjoy his work very much. However, he wrote almost exclusively about (a) pre-WWII British people and (b) people who inhabited now-transformed British colonial possessions. My novel is about the adult lives of children who grew up on an Oregon commune, so obviously, my characters should not talk like Coward’s. (Although it would have been amusing: “My dear, your hot tub attire is simply too killing!” “Reginald, I must implore you to desist from taunting the yoga instructor!” “May one assume that this tabbouleh is indeed vegan? The most frightful consequences may ensue otherwise.”)

I made a deliberate effort not to incorporate educated British cadences into my dialogue, and in self-editing, deleted any lines of thought that smacked even vaguely of 1920s urbanity. However, being a very experienced editor, I knew that I would probably miss a few, so not only did I read the entirety of my novel out loud (much to the astonishment of my cats and neighbors), but I also passed it under the eyes of first readers I trust, with the instruction to keep an eye out for Britishisms.

And you know what? I had missed three in my on-screen revisions.

My point here — other than providing fascinating footnote material for some graduate student fifty years from now who wants to write her thesis on Noël Coward’s influence upon American novelists — is that no matter how good you get at self-editing on a page-by-page basis, in order to avoid sending out a Frankenstein manuscript, you simply must take additional steps in screening your work. You never outgrow the need.

Partially, it is a focus problem. In the throes of the revision process – especially on a computer screen, which encourages reading in a piecemeal, episodic fashion not conducive to catching overarching patterns — it is terribly easy to lose sight of your book AS A BOOK.

This is where a writers’ group, a good writing teacher, a freelance editor, or even someone you’ve met at a writers’ conference with whom you can exchange work can be most helpful to you: helping you identify what in the finished book jars with the integrity of the whole. (These sources are also great for pointing out continuity errors, such as when the sociopath is named Janet for three chapters in the middle of the book, and Marie-France for the rest.) Not only will dependable outside eyes weed out Frankenstein tendencies, but the mere fact of having to defend your authorial choices to them will force you to make all of your deviations from standard narrative conscious, rather than accidental.

Such discussions are also terrific practice for wrangling with your future agent and editors, by the way.

If you’re going at it alone, my advice is this. Once you have read through the whole manuscript, go back and read it again, projecting onto it the style and/or voice you like best. Does it work? If not, pick another style or voice from the text, and project it through the entire manuscript. When you find one you like, save the original manuscript as a separate file (so you have the option of changing your mind later), and work through a separate copy, establishing the new style. Then, after you have finished, read the entire thing out loud again, for consistency.

But, really, it will take you far, far less time, in both the diagnosis and repair stages, if you take your Frankenstein manuscript on a field trip to other readers before you submit it to an agent or editor. If a writing group or class seems too time-consuming, consider hiring an editor; if a freelance editor seems too expensive, join a writing group. When you are making these calculations, though, do not forget to weigh the value of your time into the equation. If joining a group or paying an editor saves you a year’s worth of solo work, it might well be worth it.

Which brings me to the great question that loyal reader Pam submitted last week: how does one FIND a freelance editor like me? Well, Pam, I am a member of the Northwest Independent Editors’ Guild, which maintains a very user-friendly website. For each editor, there’s a small blurb and contact information. You can search by geographic region, the type of book you want edited, even preferred style manual, or you can post your job for editors to see.

I advise going through an organization to find an editor, because emotionally, handing your book over to a total stranger for criticism is a difficult thing; you will want to make sure in advance that you can trust the editor. NWIEG verifies that each member has significant editorial experience — and believe it or not, we actually do argue about punctuation on our members’ forum — so you can feel relatively secure that any editor listed will have the skills and background s/he claims s/he does.

Do take the time to have a conversation or e-mail exchange with any freelance editor before you make a commitment, however. A good personality fit is very important, and it is perfectly legitimate to ask a potential editor whether s/he has ever edited your type of book before.

If you are thinking about asking a freelance editor to work on a tight deadline — say, between now and when entries are due for the PNWA contest — please do not wait until the deadline is imminent. Good freelance editors are often booked up months in advance, and if you want a careful, thoughtful, professional read, you need to allow time for the editor to do her job.

Thanks for the good question, Pam — and keep up the good work, everybody!

– Anne Mini

Time is not on our side

Hello, readers —


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

A major milestone!

Hello, readers –

Guess what? This is my hundredth posting as the PNWA’s resident writer on writing! Honestly, the landmark snuck up on me. To celebrate, I am going to delay my planned discussion on how to fix a Frankenstein manuscript and devote my post to a good, old-fashioned stream-of-consciousness blog on keeping sane while marketing one’s writing.

I also added a byline today, just to see how it looks – and to reiterate my personal commitment to passing along to you as many hints, shortcuts, and for-heaven’s-sake-don’t-go-theres as I can to help PNWA members and other aspiring writers on their long, hard climb to publication.

One hundred posts — who knew I had so much advice to give? In case you’re interested, that’s 454 pages of writing in standard format, 12-point Times New Roman. (Those of you who have been paying attention for the last month should be able to make the word count calculation easily: 113,500 words, about three times the length of my master’s thesis.) Thanks to all of you whose excellent questions, concerns, and attention have made this space what it is today: bulky, crammed to the gills with information on how to navigate the difficult waters of the current writers’ market — as well as stories designed to help readers appreciate the publishing world’s delightful absurdities.

While you’re trying to break into the business, it is often difficult to see the industry as anything but a Manhattan-sized rejection machine, a cold, heartless behemoth that eats writers’ egos whole. After years of trying to please the people who run it, agents and editors may begin to seem like vengeful spiders, determined to pounce upon any promising market prospect and drag it into their webs. Form rejection letters start to read like personal insults, and those agents you meet at conferences remind you of that snooty popular kid in high school, the one you had a heart-stopping secret crush upon who never asked you to dance.

Come on, admit it: when an agent or an editor at a conference agrees to listen to your three-minute pitch, don’t you get that same little stomach flutter you got when your 7th-grade crush smiled at you in class?

When you show the fruit of your labors and the work of your soul to someone who can whisk it away to publication, naturally it is going to stir up raw, primal emotions – and honestly, I don’t think that most of the experts giving advice to aspiring writers acknowledge that enough. While we’re trying to find an agent and get our first book sold, almost all writers feel like the wallflower at the junior high school dance. We stand there in our dressed-up best, waiting to be noticed, and it seems like everybody else is dancing. We want to ask someone to dance with us, but the fear of rejection can be crippling. So we introduce ourselves unobtrusively and hope for the best.

When I was in junior high school, our dances featured a sadistic phenomenon known as the snowball. In other, less scrupulously venomous environments, I’m told, a snowball is where a single couple begins the dance by dancing together, then each partner picks someone else, forming two couples, then those couples break up and pick new partners, and so on until everyone in the room is dancing. How nice that sounds; how inclusive.

Not so at the Robert Louis Stevenson Intermediate School. (No, I’m not making that up. Stevenson once spent a year guzzling wine in my Napa Valley home town, rendering him an ideal role model, the town elders decided, for impressionable youngsters.) At R.L.S., the snowball placed partnering decisions in the hands of third parties – all you had to do to force two people to dance a slow dance together was write both of their names on a piece of paper and drop it into a box. Anonymously. At snowball time, the pairs were read out, and the selected couples would be herded into the center of the cafeterium (an unappealing architectural attempt to combine the functions of eating room, assembly room, and gym into a single structure) to cling together in public view for the duration of an interminable song.

The kindness of junior high schoolers to one another being legendary, you can probably guess what happened: almost invariably, couples were constructed for purely comic value. Girls who got their growth spurts early were partnered up with boys who hadn’t grown since the second grade; couples who had broken up amid screaming fights three weeks earlier were summarily brought back together; arch rivals for class president were made to hug to music. But every now and again, some well-meaning soul placed in the box the names of two people who honestly had crushes on each other, but were too shy to act upon them.

And that, for those of you who have not yet gone through it, is what the moments leading up to a conference-assigned 10-minute pitch session with an agent or editor you’ve never met before feel like. (Thought I’d just gone off on a tangent of reminiscence there, didn’t you? I really was illustrating a point.) If you have been paired up thoughtfully and well, there is the potential for a real professional romance to blossom in those intense few minutes. But if you find yourself sitting across from someone who does not handle your genre (despite having listed in the conference guide that she is eager to represent all kinds of fiction), you are sort of stuck there for the duration of the dance. Neither of you wants to be in the situation, but politeness dictates that you will both just live through the slow minutes as they tick by.

I know, I know: it makes you feel hopeless, but actually, as I have been trying to show over the course of my hundred blogs, there are things you can do to empower yourself. For instance, you can research the agents and editors who will be at a conference over and above the brief blurb in the conference brochure, to find someone who actually does have a strong track record of representing your kind of writing. You could do research on the web, or in a bookstore, to find out who and what the agents represent, or go to events like the seminar the PNWA is offering at its February 15th meeting, where you can hear about the strengths and preferences of the attending agents, and make your choices accordingly.

Once you get to the conference, you can listen attentively to the agents and editors at the podium, to try to get a sense whether you actually like the person to whom you have been assigned. (Having spent two years with an agent I did not like and who did not like me before I signed with my current agent – who is a doll and a peach and represents me with the fierceness of a tigress defending her cub – I cannot recommend enough signing with someone with whom you feel a sympathetic resonance.) If not – or if the agent announces she’s no longer looking for your kind of book – find out if you can switch appointments. If not formally, then informally – ask other conference attendees whom they are seeing, in case they are willing to trade with you.

The wonderful people who run the agent/editor desk at the PNWA conference will probably not appreciate my asking this, but why on earth should you limit yourself to only your assigned appointments? If there is an agent or an editor you desperately want to see, hang out near the check-in desk in case there are cancellations. Buttonhole your dream agent in the hallway and ask if you can give a pitch – or if he will squeeze in an appointment for you. They’re there to find undiscovered talent; assume that they want to hear about your project, if it’s in their line.

And if you find yourself in a conversation with an agent or editor who you realize would never be a good fit, don’t be afraid to stop the conversation, thank him for his time, and walk away. Trust me, in a conference situation, where pitches fly at agents and editors constantly, they will appreciate your candor. Alternatively, you could use the time to ask, “So, what other agents/editors here at the conference do you think will appreciate my work? What about other people at your agency?”

I have, in the throes of appointments that were a bad idea in the first place, been known to start pitching the work of people in my writing group, if they seem like better fits than I. Why not? The agent and I are both there, we already have the time booked – and honestly, isn’t it’s something you would like your friends to do for you? The agents and editors are always surprised, but invariably gracious, and on a couple of occasions have eventually signed the writers to whom I’ve introduced them. (On one particularly memorable occasion, I dragged a friend of mine up to his dream agent during a conference banquet, introduced them over the pasta bar, and jokingly told them that neither could eat until she let him go through his pitch. They complied. He hadn’t been able to get an appointment with her.)

My point is, you need not be passive in the face of the highly competitive, often intimidating process of trying to get your work published. If you are having trouble getting positive responses to your queries, find out why from someone who has been successful at it; if your manuscript keeps being sent back to you with form rejections, see if there’s anything you can do to improve your presentation. Ask questions of those who’ve been there; writers tend to be awfully nice people, glad to help one another out. And once you have achieved some success, don’t hesitate to pass your knowledge along to others. All of this will genuinely help you keep your chin up throughout the long, hard process of bringing your work to publication.

You can also, as I have been trying to help my readers do over the course of the last six months, learn to appreciate the absurdities of the business, for they are abundant, and in laughter there is power. For instance:

Like many publishing professionals, I read Publishers Lunch, the online daily (or nearly) update about what’s going on in the world of books. Yesterday, I found the world’s best job listing there:


Inside Metaphysical Sales Associate [Full Time]

Llewellyn Worldwide (Woodbury, MN)


Raises a great many perplexing philosophical questions, doesn’t it? Does the company also employ an Outside Metaphysical Sales Associate, who deals only in cold, hard facts? (For those of you who don’t know, Llewellyn is an alternative spirituality publisher; if you’ve ever picked up a book on shamanism, skrying, or channeling, chances are good that they published it.) Is Inside Metaphysical the name of a series of books, or does it refer to a sales methodology? What is it about inside metaphysical selling that makes it impossible to do effectively on a part-time basis? And to what specific locale does inside refer? People’s heads? Their souls? The Llewellyn building?

Not only does having a laugh about the industry render it less intimidating, but it also provides an important reminder that agencies and publishing houses are not monolithic entities: they are staffed by people, and those people have individual preferences and foibles. Whether you are querying an agent, soliciting a publisher, or trying to impress the Inside Metaphysical Sales Associate with your great interior beauty, there is a human being opening that envelope.

Your task when querying is not to wow an entire industry, but to charm a person.

Realizing that can only help you market your work. Aspiring writers seldom seem to think about this, but take some time to wonder: if I had to sell this book to an editor who gets 500 hundred submissions for every one he accepts, or if I had to sell this book to competing departments within a publishing house, each with its own pet project, how would I do it? What would I say about this book, if I could only get two sentences heard at an editorial meeting? How is this book important enough, or fresh enough, or brilliant enough that it is different from everything else on the market?

Now, once you have come up with tentative answers to those questions: are all of these selling points in your query letter? Does your synopsis demonstrate them abundantly?

And so forth. The more you can place yourself in the Manolos of a senior editor at a major publishing house, the better your chances of figuring out, not how to write a book from scratch that will sweep her off those size 10 feet, but how to pitch the work you already feel strongly about to her. And the more you can learn about how the publishing industry works, the better you can picture what will appeal to its denizens.

I’m still learning, myself. But what I know so far, I am happy to keep passing along to you.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

The Frankenstein Manuscript, Part II: The monster always returns

Hello, readers —

Yesterday, I introduced you to the Frankenstein manuscript, the frightening entity that is presented as a book written by a single author, but reads as though it had been written by several, so different are the voices, perspectives, and even word choices throughout. Such meandering manuscripts are common enough that professional readers — e.g., agents, editors, contest judges — tend to become profoundly suspicious of any manuscript that changes style or voice abruptly. With the super-quick readings that manuscripts generally get in the pre-acquisition stage (and always get in the first round of contest judging), the Frankenstein manuscript and the manuscript genuinely setting out to do interesting things with perspective are easily confused.

There are many fine examples of good books where writers have adopted a Frankenstein format self-consciously, in order to make a point. If you are even vaguely interested in experiments in narrative voice, you should rush out and read Margaret Atwood’s ALIAS GRACE.

Atwood tells the story of a murder, alternating between a tight first-person POV, straightforward third-person narrative, contemporary poems about the case, letters from the parties involved, newspaper clippings and even direct quotes from the murderess’ confession. It is an enjoyable read, but for writers, it is also a rich resource on how to mix battling narrative styles and structures well; as one might expect from a stylist as gifted as she; Atwood constructs her patchwork narrative so skillfully that the reader never has to wonder for more than an instant why (or how) the perspective has just changed.

I admire Margaret Atwood tremendously as novelist, poet, and essayist; I have spent years crossing my fingers as she hovered around the short list for the Nobel Prize. However, I suspect that even she would have had terribly difficult time marketing ALIAS GRACE if it were her first novel, at least in the current market, due to its Frankenstein structure.

Ditto for the inimitable Mario Vargas Llosa’s AUNT JULIA AND THE SCRIPTWRITER, one of my favorite novels of all time, and also a must-read for any writer considering playing funny tricks with narrative voice. Vargas Llosa is something of a structural prankster, folding, spindling, and mutilating the ordinary rules of storytelling in order to keep the reader off-balance. I admire his dash; when he was running for president of Peru (yes, really), he published an erotic novel, IN PRAISE OF THE STEPMOTHER, about… well, you can probably guess. (He lost, incidentally.) He, too, has been on the short list for the Nobel Prize for an awfully long time.

The moral here is this: once you’ve gained international acclaim as a prose stylist, you have a lot more leeway to mess with the conventional rules of writing. (Heck, Alice Walker made up entirely new punctuation rules for THE COLOR PURPLE, and that won the Pulitzer Prize.) But in your first book, in the current market, you probably cannot get away with breaking more than one or two of the rules — and even those need to be IMMISTAKEABLY marked, so agents, editors, and contest judges know that you broke them for a reason, rather than out of ignorance. (Trust me, no one on the Pulitzer committee thought that Alice Walker did not know how to use a semicolon properly.)

“Wait a gosh-darned minute,” I hear some of you exclaiming. “I take some liberties with narrative style, but it becomes clear over the course of the book why I’m doing it. Do you mean to say that if it is not clear in the first 50 pages, or whatever short excerpt the agent, editor, or contest has asked to see, my innovative experiment in English prose might just get thrown into the reject pile because it will be mistaken for bad writing?”

In a word, yes.

Before you fret and fume too much about how the intense pre-screening of the current agency system prevents genuinely bold experiments in writing from reaching the desks of publishers at the major houses, think about the Frankenstein manuscript from the point of view of the agent, editor, or judge who finds it on her desk one busy morning.

When I receive a Frankenstein manuscript as a freelance editing project, I have the option of sitting down with the author, having a major discussion about what she wants the book be, and helping guide the work toward more internal stylistic consistency. Basically, the process entails gathering together all of the battling styles, making the author come up with a justification for using each, and having the justifications duke it out until one (or, rarely, two) is declared the winner by the author. It takes time, but it’s generally worth the effort.

However, when a first reader at an agency or an editor at a publishing house receives a Frankenstein manuscript — and yes, some manuscripts are so internally scattered that the problem becomes apparent in even just the first chapter or first 50 pages — she is unlikely to have the time to figure out which voice and/or style is going to end up dominating the book. Even if she absolutely loves one of the styles or voices, her hectic schedule does not allow time for equivocation. She must that she select one of two options, and quickly: either she commits to nursing the author through precisely the kind of boxing match I described above, or she can simply reject the work and move on to the next submission, in the hope of finding a writer whose book will not need as much tender loving care.

With literally hundreds of new submissions coming in each week, which option do you think she’ll select more often?

When a contest judge receives a Frankenstein manuscript, the choice is even quicker and more draconian. The judge knows that there’s no question of being able to work with the author to smooth out the presentation; in the vast majority of literary contests, the judge won’t even know who the author is. Plop! There it goes, into the no-prize-this-year file. Better luck — and first readers — next year.

If you are attempting to play with unconventional notions of structure or style, make sure that it is pellucidly clear in the manuscript exactly what you are doing. Don’t leave it to the reader to guess, because, as I’ve shown above, professional readers just don’t have the time to figure it out.

And consider making your deviations from standard structure and narrative rules bold, rather than slipping them in here and there. Experimenting with several styles within a short number of pages is decidedly risky — and perversely, the less daringly experimental you are, the riskier it is, because tentative attempts look to professional eyes like unfinished work.

To borrow E.F. Benson’s wonderful example, let’s say you were planning to paint a picture of a house down the street. The house has a crooked chimney. The novice painter would paint it exactly as is, unskillfully, and viewers of the finished painting would wonder forever after if the chimney had really looked like that, or if the novice just couldn’t paint straight lines. An intermediate painter would paint the chimney as straight, to rule out that conclusion. But an expert painter would add 10 degrees to the angle of the chimney, so there would be no doubt in the observer’s mind that he had painted it that way intentionally.

The more deliciously complex and groundbreaking your chosen style is, the more clearly you should announce it. Unless, of course, you want to wait until you’re on the short list for the Nobel Prize before you start getting wacky.

Tomorrow, I shall talk about practical measures to keep your manuscript from falling accidentally into the Frankenstein realm.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

The Frankenstein manuscript

Hello, readers –

I’m in a terrific mood today — first, the 2005 Food Blog Awards have just come out, and my good friend and PNWA member Shauna James’ wonderful blog has just been named the best theme-oriented food blog in the world. As in: on the entire globe, in any language spoken by human beings.

So three cheers and a hat in the air for Shauna — and for all of you out there who have the guts, persistence, and determination to keep putting your writing out there for all the world to see. Whether you can eat gluten or not, if you are even vaguely interested in food or food writing, you owe it to yourself to trot on over to her site. Really luscious stuff, with some of the finest food photography you’re likely to see anywhere.

As if that weren’t enough to make me happy on this miraculously azure-skied PNW winter day, an editing client of mine has just made a major breakthrough with her book. Few writers, no matter how talented, find their voices the first time around, and we’ve been working together for months, trying to pin down how exactly to tell her story. And, as happens sometimes, it just suddenly congealed into something sharp and analytical and true.

On an artistic level, I’m thrilled that she’s found her voice, but as an editor, I know that in the short term, it means a lot more work for me. Because, you see, now we have to go back through the rest of the book with a fine-toothed comb, to make the voice that now has emerged sound consistent throughout the entire story.

Which brings me, rather neatly, to today’s topic: the Frankenstein manuscript, a book that meanders in voice, tone, perspective, structure, and/or style so much that it sounds as though it had been written by a committee, instead of an individual writer. All of these are cobbled together, like the body parts of Dr. Frankenstein’s creature, to create the illusion of a whole entity, but it lacks the spark, the true-to-life continuity of a story told from beginning to end by a sure authorial voice.

This is my personal nickname for such a book, but I assure you, every single agent and editor knows what it is, and dreads it — because they know, as I do, that its appearance heralds months and months of fine-combing to come.

The sad thing is, the Frankenstein tendency is almost always accidental, and generally goes entirely unnoticed by the writer. Writing a book takes a long time: as with my editing client, authorial voices, preferences, and even underlying philosophy can change radically over the course of a writing project. As revision is layered on top of revision, many writers become too absorbed in the details of the book to sit down and read it straight through AS A BOOK — which, unfortunately, is the only way to recognize a Frankenstein manuscript.

Even more unfortunately, for writers of Frankenstein pieces, reading a manuscript straight through, at least the first part of it, is how agents and editors determine whether they want to work with an author. If you have a Frankenstein manuscript, you are far, far better off recognizing the problem yourself before you submit it, because from the diagnosis of professionals, there is no appeal.

Sometimes, the pieced-together nature of a book is intentional, and its similarity to the standard Frankenstein tome will render it very, very easy for agents and editors to dismiss. If you are given to experimenting with multiple POV, changes in voice, or structural changes in mid-story, you need to be very, very aware that professional readers may well be mistaking your conscious choices for symptoms of a Frankenstein game plan.

I met a promising writer at a writers’ conference once, many years ago. He described his novel beautifully: a coming-of-age story about a boy so engrossed in the messages of the TV shows and movies he saw in the late 1950s that he incorporated these styles into how he viewed his life. The result, the author told me, was intended to be a picaresque account growing up from the kid’s perspective, real-life stories told as cowboys and Indians, spy thriller, spaceman adventure, etc.

Well, to be frank, I am not the best audience for works about prepubescent boys. As someone who spent her formative years sitting through sensitive European films where an earthy older woman’s charms gently coax some suspiciously attractive and precocious young boy toward manhood, I become leery every time a young protagonist goes anywhere within five miles of the town prostitute’s lair, his best friend’s older sister’s window, or anybody’s mother but his own. But that’s just me.

As an aside, I think such stories are a hard sell to experienced readers, unless they are AWFULLY well told. There are countless films about 8-to-12 year-old boys learning important life lessons the hard way; if the age is so darned important, why aren’t there as many films from the perspectives of girls in that age group? (An important exception to this: Kasi Lemmons’ excellent film EVE’S BAYOU tells such a story from a young girl’s perspective amazingly well.) I think that if you choose to tackle such a well-documented age group in a work intended for adult readers — particularly if you want to stick to the well-worn ground of white, middle- or upper-middle class boys in suburbia or in small towns with swimming holes, you really have to come up with something startling to rise above the sheer volume of competition.

But in this case, the author seemed like an interesting guy, so we exchanged work, despite my trepidations. And lo and behold, long before 50 pages had past, his intrepid wee protagonist had grabbed his fishing pole and skipped his way toward the edge of town, where the local voodoo priestess/cajoler of young boys into manhood lived.

Yet the fact that I’d seen the plot, conservatively speaking, 2700 times before was not what put me off the book. No, the problem was the fact that each stylistic switch came as a complete and utter surprise — even to me, who knew the premise of the book. Each episode was indeed presented in the style of some well-worn visual media style. Quite well, as a matter of fact. However, since the writing style changed radically every ten pages or so, pretty much any reader was guaranteed to fall into one she disliked occasionally. And since there was no overarching framework to make this junior Walter Mitty’s account of himself hang together, it read like a collection of short stories, unrelated articles of clothing hanging side-by-side on a clothesline, rather than as a cohesive book.

It read, in short, like a Frankenstein manuscript.

Because I liked the author and thought he was a pretty good writer, I wanted to help him out, so I worked up nerve to make a bold suggestion. “What if you set up very plainly in the first chapter that your protagonist sees life through a directorial lens?” (Sort of like Fellini’s 8 1/2, I added to myself.) “That way, the reader would be in on the conceit right from the beginning, and could enjoy each switch as play, rather than leaving the reader to guess after the style has changed 6 or 7 times that you have a larger purpose here.”

He, to put it mildly, did not like this advice; it sounded, he said, just like the feedback he had gotten from the agents and editors at the conference, or indeed, every agent he had queried. We all obviously, he said huffily, just didn’t like the fact that he was experimenting with narrative structure, doing something new and exciting and fresh. We were, in his considered opinion, sticks in the proverbial mud.

Well, we may have been, but we also evidently all knew a Frankenstein manuscript when we saw one, because we’ve seen so very, very many. He continued to have trouble placing his book, because, to professional eyes, such a manuscript means only one thing: the investment of a tremendous amount of editorial time and energy to make the work publishable.

My friend with ambitions to rewrite HUCK FINN had constructed his creature self-consciously, but far more often, as I said, writers are not even aware that the style shifts are visible. Particularly in first novels, the stylistic changes are often the inevitable result of the writer’s craft having improved over the years spent writing the book, or simple inexperience in carrying a late-added theme all the way through a story. In the most extreme cases, the shifts are so pronounced that the Frankenstein book can actually read as a sort of unintentional anthology.

I’m not talking about multiple-perspective pieces — although it is very easy for a book relying upon several storytelling voices to end up as a Frankenstein work, without a cohesive narrative thread tying it all together. No, in a good multiple-perspective novel, each voice and/or POV is sharp, distinct, differentiated to the extent that a reader familiar with each could open the book at any page and know within a paragraph who is speaking. THE POISONWOOD BIBLE, for instance, juggles multiple perspectives and voices beautifully, so that although the reader is treated to the overarching story in bits and pieces, the whole blends into seemingly organic coherence.

In a Frankenstein manuscript, no such organic coherence exists, even if the overall plot makes linear sense. The reader is jerked from writing style to writing style, as if the same story were being told on all available networks, but an indecisive child held the remote control, so the style of telling leaps from soap opera to broad comedy to PBS documentary. It’s tiring to read, and often, hard to follow. It also says pretty clearly to anyone who reads manuscripts for a living that the author has not yet performed a thorough, beginning-to-end edit on the book.

And this is a serious problem for the editor, as it is her job to strengthen the dominant style and muffle the rest, so the whole can stand as a unified piece of prose. It is also a serious problem for the author, since it’s hard to sell a piece that meanders stylistically.

Before I meander into my years of experience fixing Frankenstein manuscripts, I am going to stop for today. Tomorrow, I shall go into what happens to a Frankenstein manuscript when it reaches an agency or a publishing house — as well as methods you can use to catch and mend the problem before it passes under professional eyes.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

The promise of the first 50 pages – and an answer to that pesky poetry question

Hello, readers —

I have a lot to talk about today. First, allow me to respond to a terrific question submitted by sharp-eyed reader, inquiring mind, and poetry aficionado Colleen, who wrote in:

What’s the industry standard format for poetry? I know it’s single-spaced, double-spaced between stanzas, but I’m not sure about the margins. And should it be centered or justified at the left margin? Thanks for all the helpful advice! –Colleen

Well, I did know the answer to this one, but as I have only twice since I graduated from high school written poems that deserved to outlive the day they were written, I thought it would be a good idea to double-check with some of the award-winning poets I know. Perhaps they would have some insight for my readers that I, as a non-poet, would not.

Rising to the challenge was the fabulous Paula Neves, poetess extraordinaire, master of word craft, and web mistress of that wonderful literary site, Itinerant Muse, which features cutting-edge poetry, prose, and news from the world of words. Paula’s rich, lyrical style and delightfully offbeat worldview have led her to one poetry triumph after another, both in print and in performance. Here’s what she had to say to Colleen on the poetry formatting issue:

Mostly everyone that I’m aware of does single-spaced lines, double-spaces between stanzas, left justification, and 1″ margins. When submitting myself, I’ve always just done this or relied on the publication’s particular standards. I’m not aware of a “format guide” for poetry, but I will do a little digging ‘cause I’m curious.

I’m curious, too, Paula, because every published poet I approached with this question appeared puzzled by it. They, too, had merely been adhering to the standards set by the individual publication or contest – but all really liked the idea of a formatting guide for poets. (Several, too, expressed concern that there WERE unspoken standards out there, and that perhaps they had been violating them for years.) So I think it’s high time that some poet just bit the bullet and codified the standards. But that’s a project for another day, and another writer.

Today, I want to talk about an issue dear to the heart of every writer who has honed her skills and burnished her natural talent enough to be receiving “Yes, do send us the first 50 pages/ first three chapters” answers to her queries. For most writers who eventually publish, this is a distinct stage of professional development: first there is the invariable rejection stage (which I hope in your case is/was very short), then the we-might-be-interested-but stage, then the gratifying stage where most of your queries receive some interest. As I have been arguing for months on end now, the difference between stages is very often not the quality of the writing, but its presentation – although most writers do improve their craft as they revise their way through the stages.

The first time a writer receives a request to see part of her manuscript, it is a red-letter day, isn’t it? Finally, after years of struggling, here at last is recognition. And it is indeed recognition: of the fact that the writer has learned the ropes of the industry well enough to write a professional-quality query letter, put together a solid synopsis, and follow the submission directions to a T. This is nothing to sneeze at: the vast majority of submitters have not been able to achieve so much. So be proud of yourself.

So you give one last read-through to those precious pages (and yes, Virginia, if the agent has asked for 50 pages, send ONLY 50 pages, even if that means cutting the reader off in mid-sentence. You want to be asked for more, don’t you?), and send them off with fear and trembling. Or, rather, if you are a regular reader of this column, you will:

*Read the whole thing through IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD, to catch any last-minute problems

*Make sure that it is in standard format (if you do not know what this is, go back and read my blog of December 28), with all pages numbered and a standard slug line.

*Print it up on bright white paper of high quality (20 lb. or higher) that is a pleasure to handle and won’t tear in transit.

*Included a professional-but-pleasant cover letter that thanks the agent for her interest.

*Included a SASE, and

*Written “REQUESTED MATERIALS” in gigantic letters on the outside of the package.

Because if you do not, you know, I shall be cross – and, more importantly, so will the agent be. Proper presentation renders a fair reading of your work infinitely more likely.

If the agent loves the work, the writer will receive a letter or (more often) a phone call, asking for the rest. So then you repeat all of the steps above, the agent falls in love with the rest of the book, and you move on to the NEXT next stage of your growth as a professional writer. I sincerely hope that this is the way it works out for you.

Except most of the time, this is not what happens.

All too often, good writers’ books are rejected between the “Yes, we like the first 50 pages – send more immediately!” step and the “Yes, I want to sign you!” step. And this is puzzling, because, frankly, if the writer in question hadn’t cleared up most of the normal formatting problems, written a great query letter, and shown quite a lot of talent in those first 50 to boot, she wouldn’t have gotten this far. Is this, the rejected writer wonders, a sign that I’m just not talented enough? Or is this yet another aspect of the publishing world that lies outside my control?

Actually, it’s neither. It’s a phenomenon known in the industry as the book’s “not living up to the promise of the first 50.” And, as nearly as I can tell, it is a problem created almost entirely by the fact that writers spend years toiling their way through the progression I mentioned above.

Let’s face it, a writer could get away for an awfully long time in the query process – or the contest-entering process, for that matter — without having polished much more than the first 50 pp., couldn’t he? True, the expectation is that you will not query an agent, solicit a small publisher, or enter a contest for a finished book without having in fact completed it (for fiction, at least; for NF, you are expected to have a proposal in hand), but in practice, if you had 50 pages and/or three chapters of beautifully polished prose, you could go a long way with it before anyone in the industry would actually ask to see the rest of your book.

Even if you are not quite so strategic, the mere fact that professionals ask to see the first pages (particularly the first chapter) means that you yourself probably end up reading and revising them more than the rest of the book. We have all been told – and with great justification – that if you want to get your work past the initial screeners at an agency, publishing house, or contest, those first pages need to shine. So admonished, most of us polish those early pages to a high gloss. If you ever enter contests, this is almost certainly the case. Which means that the rest of the book may not be buffed quite so well.

Think about the implications of this from an agent’s or editor’s perspective. You have read a glorious first 50 pages and loved them. Consequently, your expectations about the author of them are very high. Since, due to writers’ tendency to want to play with their work a bit more before it is sent, a few weeks may pass before you see the next installment – and a few more may pass, while you are trying to find time to read it (many agents and most editors do their reading at home, rather than at the office), you may have built the book up even higher in your mind in the interim. So if when you finally tackle the rest, it seems like a rougher draft than the earlier work, you are bound to be disappointed, aren’t you?

Disappointed agents and editors, I am sorry to report, seldom sign authors or acquire books. If this sounds as though writers get punished for doing too good a job of self-editing their first few chapters…well, if I ran the universe, it wouldn’t work that way. But sadly, I do not.

This reminds of when I was a graduate student. In my department, doctoral exams were the subject of much puzzled debate, because the results were often the exact opposite of what the professors expected: time and again, the best students would merely pass, whereas the borderline and downright mediocre students would pass with honors. Many possible reasons were advanced; perhaps the hotshot students were given longer or more difficult reading lists to study, or the poor students studied more, so they felt insecure.
But year after year, professors were disappointed by their best students’ performances and charmed by their worst.

When it came time for me to take my doctoral exams, I was determined to break the trend. I prepared as if my life depended upon the outcome. I was a very good student, and like most of the top students before me, I did exceptionally well on the written part of the exam. By the time I reached the final, oral segment, I was dead tired. I had written 160 pages of difficult theoretical analysis over the course of just under two weeks, and the professors on my committee had been fighting one another the whole time. But still, I did not miss a single question throughout my grueling 3-hour oral exam. I was pretty darned proud of myself.

When my committee brought me back into the room to tell me my grade, however, I was shocked to learn that I had not passed with honors. Merely passed. “But I had the longest reading list anyone in the department has ever had,” I protested. “I answered every question, and you said that my writtens were close to perfect.”

The professors glanced at one another, clearly embarrassed. “Well, you did so well on your written exams,” my chair admitted, after a pause, “we expected something really stellar on your orals. We wanted you to impress us more.”

”Also,” another professor added, “you seemed tired.”

If I had enough strength left to lift my arms, I believe I might have thrown my pen at him, but as it was, all I had energy to do was tell them that I had solved the departmental mystery. The poor students were doing badly on their written exams, I explained, so the professors’ expectations of their performances in their orals were very low. Thus, the better you did on the first part, the less likely you were to impress them on the second; an impressive written performance, then, more or less disqualified you from receiving honors.

They were very impressed by my reasoning. They still didn’t give me honors, but at least they were impressed.

I don’t mean to suggest that you should write poorly for your first 50 pp – absolutely not, because then you will not be asked to send more. But do give some serious thought and revision time to the rest of the book, particularly the SECOND 50 pages. Because the better a writer you are, the harder an act you will have to follow.

And in the eyes of the publishing industry, this does not seem as unreasonable as it does from the point of view of a writer. An agent will not pick you up because you can write a good introductory chapter; she will sign you because she believes that you are so talented that you produce great sentences, wonderful paragraphs, stellar pages all the time — and that you will continue to do so for the rest of your life.

THAT’S how much faith an agent who asks to read the rest of the book has in you.

Flattering, really. But it sets an awfully high bar. Make sure that your book is ready to clear it, when the great day comes.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

When good perspectives go bad

Hi, readers –

The PNWA website is about to undergo a major overhaul! Even as I write this, dedicated volunteers are scurrying like mad to make it even more fabulous, user-friendly, and stuffed to the brim with useful info for all of you than it already is. Really, I think you’re going to like the results.

So don’t panic if you don’t hear from me for a few days – the blog will be in limbo during the reconstruction period, but it will emerge from its cocoon soon. My section will now be called GUEST WRITER, which makes me feel sort of like The Man Who Came to Dinner, but I promise you, even under the new aegis, I shall keep up my patented barrage of friendly advice, inside insights, and unsolicited gratuitous opinions. If you have writing- or publishing-related questions you would like to see me tackle, send ‘em in; if I don’t know the answer, I’ll find someone who does.

So to prepare you for the Grand Silence, I’m writing you an extra-long installment today.

Yesterday, I wrote about what a good idea it is to avoid incorporating stereotypes into your submissions, lest you offend someone on the reading end of your query. (Hint: not everyone in New York is straight, for instance.) In glancing over the post, I realized that I left a rather important piece out of the argument: even amongst agents, editors, and judges who are not easily affronted, stereotypes tend not to engender positive reactions.

Why? Well, in a new writer, what they’re really looking to see is originality of worldview and strength of voice, in addition to serious writing talent. When you speak in stereotypes, it’s extremely difficult to see where your authorial voice differs markedly from, say, the average episodic TV writer’s. It’s just not all that impressive.

Occasionally, though, marked personal prejudices may actually lend verve to a voice – which, incidentally, is nowhere more true than in the world of blogs. We bloggers are SUPPOSED to be absolutely open about our pet peeves and quirky interpretations of the world around us: the whole point is to be as subjective and stream-of-consciousness as possible. Think about it: wouldn’t Andrew Sullivan’s blog about politics (well worth reading, if you haven’t) be far less interesting if he didn’t make his personal views so VERY apparent? Or, for that matter, wouldn’t this very blog be rather uninteresting without my pronounced (albeit charming, I hope) personal slant? That’s why the mainstream news’ attempts at establishing themselves as legitimate blog voices tend to fall so flat: they are the products of PR research; the individual bizarreness has been utterly ironed out.

Minor vitriol, however, or personal anger masked as fiction, usually does not work so well in print. I cannot even begin to count the number of novels I have edited that contained scenes where the reader is clearly supposed to be incensed at one of the characters, yet it is not at all apparent from the action of the scene why.

Invariably, when I have asked the authors about these scenes, they turn out to be lifted directly from real life. The author is always quite astonished that his own take on the real-life scene did not translate into instantaneous sympathy in every conceivable reader. (These scenes are pretty easy for professionals to spot, because the protagonist is ALWAYS presented as in the right for every instant of the scene, a state of grace quite unusual in real life. It doesn’t ring true.) Ultimately, this is a point-of-view problem — the author is just too close to the material to be able to tell that the scene doesn’t read the way he anticipated.

Many writers assume (wrongly) that if someone is annoying in real life, and they reproduce the guy down to the last whisker follicle, he will be annoying on the page as well, but that is not necessarily true. Often, the author’s anger so spills into the account that the villain starts to appear maligned. If his presentation is too obviously biased, the reader may start to identify with him, and in the worst cases, actually take the villain’s side against the hero. I have read scenes where the case against the villain is so marked that most readers will decide that the hero is the impossible one, not the villain.

This revenge has clearly not gone as planned.

Yes, I called it revenge, because revenge it usually is. Most writers are very aware of the retributive powers of their work. As my beloved old mentor, the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, was fond of saying, “Never screw over a living writer. They can always get back at you on the page.”

Oh, stop blushing. You didn’t honestly think that when you included that horrible co-worker in three scenes of your novel that you were doing her a FAVOR, did you?

My most vivid personal experience of this species of writerly vitriol was not as the author, thank goodness, but as the intended victim. And at the risk of having this story backfire on me, I’m going to tell you about it as nonfiction. Call it a memoir excerpt.

A few years ago, I was in residence at an artists’ colony. Now, artistic retreats vary a great deal; mine have ranged from a fragrant month-long stay in a cedar cabin in far-northern Minnesota, where all of the writers were asked to remain silent until 4 p.m. each day (ah, the recently departed Norcroft! I shall always think of you fondly, my dear – which is saying something, as I had a close personal encounter with an absolutely mammoth wolf there, and a poet-in-residence rode her bicycle straight into a sleepy brown bear. And both of us would still return in an instant.) to a let’s-revisit-the-early-1970s meat market, complete with hot tub, in the Sierra foothills. They’re sort of a crap shoot.

This particular colony had more or less taken over a small, rural New England town, so almost everyone I saw for a month was a painter, a sculptor, or a writer. The writers were a tiny minority; you could see the resentment flash in their eyes when they visited the painters’ massive, light-drenched studios, and compared them to the dark caves to which they themselves had been assigned. I elected to write in my room, in order to catch some occasional sunlight, and for the first couple of weeks, was most happy and productive there.

When I go on a writing retreat, I like to leave the trappings of my quotidian life behind, but not everyone feels that way. In fact, several artists had brought their significant others to the colony, or, to be more accurate, these pairs had applied together: writer and photographer, painter and writer, etc. One of these pairs was a very talented young couple, she a writer brimming with potential, he a sculptor of great promise.

Although every fiber of my being strains to use their real names, I shall not. Let’s call them Hansel and Gretel, to remove all temptation.

Hansel was an extremely friendly guy, always eager to have a spirited conversation on topics artistic or social. No one in the dining hall was really surprised that he often brought the conversation around to sex; honestly, once you’d sat through his slide show of breast, leg, pudenda, buttocks, breast, you’d have to be kind of dense not to notice where his mind liked to wander. He and I talked in a friendly manner whenever we happened to sit at the same table. I loaned him a book or two. We had coffee a couple of times. Never occurred to me to think anything of it.

Until Gretel started fuming at me like a dragon.

Now, I don’t know anything about the internal workings of their marriage; perhaps they liked jealousy scenes. I don’t, but there’s just no polite way of saying, “HIM? Please; I DO have standards” to an angry lover, is there? So I started sitting at a different table in the dining hall. A little junior high schoolish, true, but better that than Gretel’s being miserable.

The fellowship that each writer received included a requirement that each of us do a public reading while we were in residence. Being a “Hey – I’ve got a barn, and you’ve got costumes!” sort of person, I organized other, informal readings as well, so we writers could benefit from feedback and hearing one another’s work. I invited Gretel to each of these shindigs; she never came. Eventually, my only contact with her was being on the receiving end of homicidal stares in the dining hall, as if I’d poisoned her cat or something.

It was almost enough to make me wish that I HAD flirted with her mostly unattractive husband.

But I was writing twelve hours a day (yes, Virginia, there IS a good reason to go on a retreat!), so I didn’t think about it much. I had made friends at the colony, my work was going well, and if Gretel didn’t like me, well, we wouldn’t do our laundry at the same time. My friends teased me a little about being such a femme fatale that I didn’t even need to do anything but eat a sandwich near the couple to spark a fight, but that was it.

At the end of the third week of our residency, it was Gretel’s turn to give her formal reading to the entire population of the colony, a few local residents who wandered in because there was nothing else to do in town, and the very important, repeated National Book Award nominee who had dropped by (in exchange for an honorarium) to shed the effulgence of her decades of success upon the resident writers. Since it was such a critical audience, most of the writers elected to read highly polished work, short stories they had already published, excerpts from novels long on the shelves. Unlike my more congenial, small reading groups, it wasn’t an atmosphere conducive to experimentation.

Two writers read: beautifully varnished work, safe stuff. Then Gretel stood up and announced that she was going to read two short pieces she had written here at the colony. She glanced over at me, and my guts told me there was going to be trouble.

The first piece was a lengthy interior monologue, describing Hansel and Gretel having sex in vivid detail. Just sex, without any emotional content to the scene, a straightforward account of a mechanical act which included – I kid you not – a literal countdown to the final climax. It was so like a late-1960’s journalistic account of a rocket launching that I kept expecting her to say, “Houston, we’ve got a problem.” I have no objection to writers who turn their diaries into works for public consumption, but this was graphic without being either arousing or instructive. Also, I’d read some of Gretel’s work before: she was a better writer than this.

However, the painters in the back row hooted and hollered, so maybe I just wasn’t the right audience for her piece. Still, looking around the auditorium, I didn’t seem to be the only auditor relieved when it ended. (“Three…two…one.) Call me judgmental, but I tend to think that when half the participants are pleased the act is over, it’s not the best sex imaginable.

Gretel’s second piece took place at a wedding reception. Again in the first person, again with herself and her husband identified by name, again an interior monologue, this had some legitimately comic moments in the course of the first page. As I said, Gretel could write.

Somewhere in the middle of page 2, a new character entered the scene, sat down at a table, picked up a sandwich – and suddenly, the interior monologue shifted, from a gently amused description of a social event to a jealously-inflamed tirade that included the immortal lines, “Keep away from my husband, bitch!” and “Are those real?”

She read it extremely well; her voice, her entire demeanor altered, like a hissing cat, arching her back in preparation for a fight. Fury looked great on her. And to her credit, the character that everyone in the room knew perfectly well was me – her physical description would have enabled any police department in North America to pick me up right away – never actually said or did anything seductive at all; her mere presence was enough to spark almost incoherent rage in the narrator. And Hansel sat there, purple-faced, avoiding the eyes of his sculptor friends, until she finished.

There was no ending to the story. She just stopped, worn out from passion.

I was very nice to her; what else could I do? I laughed at her in-text jokes whenever it was remotely possible, congratulated her warmly on her vibrant dialogue in front of the National Book Award nominee, and made a point of passing along a book of Dorothy Parker short stories to her the next day.

Others were not so kind, either to her or to Hansel. The more considerate ones merely laughed at them behind their backs. Others depicted her in cartoon form, or acted out her performance; someone even wrote a parody of her piece and passed it around. True, I did have to live for the next week with the nickname Mata Hari, but compared to being known as the writer whose act of fictional revenge had so badly failed, I wouldn’t have cared if everyone had called me Lizzie Borden. And, of course, it became quite apparent that every time I was nice to Gretel after that, every time I smiled at her in a hallway when others wouldn’t, it was only pouring salt on her wounded ego.

Is there anything more stinging than someone you hate feeling sorry for you?

So do think twice about what you’re putting on the page, particularly for work you are submitting to contests, agencies, or small presses – or, heaven forbid, reading to a group of people you want to like you, or at any rate your narrator. Revenge fantasies tend to announce themselves screamingly from the page. If you’re still angry, maybe it’s not the right time to write about it for publication. Your journal, fine. But until you have gained some perspective – at least enough to perform some legitimate character development for that person you hate – give it a rest. Otherwise, your readers’ sympathies may ricochet, and move in directions that you may not like.

It’s always a good idea to get objective feedback on anything you write before you loose it on the world, but if you incorporate painful real-life scenes into your fiction, sharing before promotion becomes ABSOLUTELY IMPERATIVE. If you work out your aggressions at your computer – and, let’s face it, a lot of us do – please, please join a writing group. Find good readers you can trust to save you from looking like a junior high schooler on a rampage.

And Gretel, honey, in the unlikely event that you ever read this, you might want to remember: revenge is a dish best served cold. Or, as Philip used to say, never screw over a living writer. You never know who might end up writing a blog.

Hey, I’m only human.

Keep up the good work!

— Anne Mini

The stigma of stereotyping

Ah, January: the time when agents are running around in circles, scooting to provide necessary tax documentation for their authors’ royalties by the end of the month, writers are feverishly sending out their New Year’s resolution queries and unsolicited manuscripts, and contest judges are steeling themselves for the next batch of entries. Actually, it’s such a busy time of year in the publishing industry that I always tell my editing clients: just stay home for now. Give the queries a rest for a few weeks because, honestly, this is far and away the hardest time of year to get picked up by an agent. With everyone under the sun querying at once, competition is at its most fierce.


You can always start querying again next month.


The timing is good, too, for PNWA members, because contest entries are due at the end of February. Now’s a fabulous time to be polishing up the work you plan to submit; for those of you new to the blog, check out the posts from the three weeks around the holidays for a ton of advice about how to improve your entries in the eyes of judges. (And lest this sound like a sales pitch for the organization that sponsors my passing all of this advice on to you, consider: winning the 2004 Zola award for my memoir propelled me directly into the path of my wonderful agent, who sold the book to a fine NYC publisher within 8 months of my night of pride at PNWA. I’m just saying.)


Even if you don’t, for some reason beyond my ken, want to enter the contest — hey, I know that you all have lives — it’s still a great time to be working on your submissions, rather than submitting them. Which is why today I chose a topic that will help you no matter whether you are entering a contest or querying an agent: avoiding stereotypes in your work.


Television and movies have rather hardened us to stereotypes, haven’t they? In visual media, stereotypes are accepted as a means of shorthand, a way to convey intended meaning without adding length to the plot or character development for minor characters. In this shorthand, we are all expected to accept that “regular guys” on screens large and small will invariably be commitment-shy, inarticulate about their emotions, and into meaningless sex; pretty women will be shallow, especially if they’re busty; anyone whose name ends in a vowel will be Mafia-connected; every Southerner will be bigoted, and every politician will be corrupt, unless played by the romantic lead.


In other words: the moment that Oliver Stone decided to show us Jim Morrison having a metaphysical experience, didn’t we all already know that he was going to stick a Native American somewhere in the frame as a spiritual merit badge?


Personally, I find this kind of predictability utterly boring. Honestly, as soon as any man in a horror movie is mentioned as having had “a hard childhood,” don’t we all know by now that he’s going to turn out to be the serial killer? Don’t we all know instantly that if the female lead faints or mentions putting on weight, she must be pregnant? And oh, lordy, as soon as we see Jackie Chan standing next to a ladder, don’t we all instinctively brace for a fight to break out?


Don’t get me wrong — I adore Jackie Chan; he’s a wonderful comedy writer. But after seeing dozens of ladder-related incidents in countless movies throughout his career, I suspect that he could garner laughs at this point by walking up to any given ladder, turning to the camera, and inviting the audience to join him in counting until a gang of ruffians appears to beat him up.


If I find such predictable elements boring, imagine how their appearance must make the fine people who read thousands and thousands of agency submissions for a living want to tear their own hair out, strand by painful strand. Because, alas, this sort of stereotyping is not limited to screenwriting alone. It has found its way — oh, how abundantly — into novels.


The sad thing is, it’s often unconscious on the part of the writer. Most of us imbibe truisms from our television sets, so it seems natural to us that every professor should be absentminded, every redhead should have a fiery temper, every high school cheerleader be a bimbette who cares only for boys with expensive cars. And, for what it’s worth, there are many, many readers out there who won’t lift an eyebrow if you reproduce these stereotypes in your work.


However, in ANY querying situation, just as in any contest or in submitting to any small publishing house on the planet, a writer can have literally NO idea who is going to read her submission. What that crucial reader — crucial because that person will make the decision whether your work is worth promoting or not — believes or does not believe about the patterns of human interaction is a big mystery. You cannot assume that this person is going to, say, laugh at the same jokes as everyone at your office.


And this can be counterintuitive, because as anyone who follows standup comedy can already tell you, there are a lot of people out there who will laugh at sexist, racist, homophobic, and other humor not particularly insightful about the nuances of the human condition. (Anyone want to hear about the differences between New York and LA? Anyone? Anyone?)


Many years ago, when e-mail was just starting to become widely used, an old high school classmate of mine looked me up. For awhile, we exchanged messages (okay, I’ll admit it, while we were both at work; it’s how Americans have gotten their revenge for losing coffee breaks and paid overtime) about what was going on in our daily lives, but like many people, Mark’s idea of keeping in touch with far-flung friends was to forward jokes that he’d found on the internet. Jokes he would not necessarily tell face-to-face.


Some of those jokes were awfully darned offensive, but my gentle twitting in response did not make him stop sending them. My bouncing them back to him did not work, either. So, on a day when he had sent me three jokes that were sexist (and two of them racist as well), I sent him a reply wherein I detailed exactly WHY the jokes were not funny to me; because I am a funny person, I rewrote one of them so it was funny without being offensive, to show him the difference. I thought he’d get a kick out of it, and he would stop forwarding such jokes to me.


You can see this coming, right?


When I went to work the next day, my inbox was crammed to the gills with nasty responses from people I had never heard of, much less intended to e-mail. (Seems I had accidentally chosen REPLY ALL.) About the nicest thing any of them called me was a snob; many suggested that my hobby was doing unpleasant things to men for which dominatrixes are very well paid indeed, and most seemed to think I was of the canine persuasion. In short, it was a bloodbath.


It took me several hours to figure out what had happened: apparently, Mark had been routinely forwarding these same jokes to everyone in his office. How did I figure it out? Two clues: a sharp rebuke from Mark, beginning with, “Are you trying to get me fired?” and five e-mails from female coworkers of his, thanking me for asking him publicly to stop. According to them, since the boss routinely forwarded (and told) this type of joke himself, they were all afraid that they would get fired if they said anything about it. I suspect they were right — the boss sent me one of the nastiest of the flame-mails.


Now, the content of the jokes is actually not my point here: other people might well have read them without finding them offensive; it’s entirely possible that I was simply the wrong audience for them. The important thing to note is that both Mark and I made, in one sense, the same mistake: we each sent something out assuming that the recipients thought the same way we did. And that is always a mistake.


In this case, our respective assumptions merely ended a friendship — which, given that we’d known each other since junior high and this incident occurred when I was in graduate school, was not an insignificant loss. But consider this: was what either of us did really so unlike what writers who include stereotyping in their work do every day when they submit to agents and editors?


Trust me, because I have learned this from long experience: when you send in a submission, you have even less idea about the interpersonal politics and personalities at any given agency or publishing house than I did all those years ago about the corporate culture of Mark’s company. You may not intend to hurt anyone’s feelings or raise anyone’s hackles, but honestly, you have no way of knowing that the agent’s assistant WASN’T a cheerleader in high school —and class valedictorian to boot. Maybe your use of an ostensibly harmless bimbo character will be one use too many for her — because maybe, just maybe, that reader is the kind of really nice person who worked at Mark’s company, who has been shrugging off offense after offense for years, because that’s how you get along at a job.


You never can tell. But just once, it would be nice to see a Native American character actually WALK into or out of a room, rather than appearing mysteriously and/or melting away into the darkness, wouldn’t it?


I’m not saying that you should strip your sociopolitical views from what you write. Definitely not. But do be aware that, like the law professor I mentioned a couple of weeks ago who struck up a conversation with an unknown colleague without realizing that the unknown’s wife was a Supreme Court justice, your reputation can only be improved by utilizing every ounce of tact at your disposal. Every time you use a stereotype, even one you’ve seen a million times on TV, you run the risk of offending someone’s sensibilities on the receiving end.


That’s just a fact.


Besides, you’re more talented than that. I know you’re more than capable of making your characters your own, without taking the easy way out of invoking stereotypes as a substitute for character development.


Keep up the good work!


– Anne Mini


P.S.: Oh, and so you know, the PNWA website will be on hold for a few days later this week, so it may reemerge in its new and fabulous form!

Starting afresh

Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, everybody! I know it’s common to reduce all of the Reverend Dr.’s accomplishments to the March on Washington and the “I Have a Dream” speech (leaving out, say, the fact that he held the world’s record as most prolific registrar of voters for at least two decades), but if you are interested in good rhetorical writing, do yourself a favor and find a compilation of his other writings. He was, among other things, an extremely talented writer, and I don’t think he gets enough credit for it.


I have been working on the early chapters of my next novel (an involved comedy set at Harvard, my undergraduate alma mater), and it has made me think about the question of being a single book author rather than a career writer. It’s not much of an issue while you’re writing your first book: then, the book IS your writing career.


But once you’ve completed the first to your own satisfaction, you need to confront some uncomfortable questions: okay, how does this book fit into my long-term writing plans? Is it representative of the kind of writer I want to be, or is it really a stepping-stone to the kind of book I’d actually prefer to write? And, always: what do I do for my next trick?


It is a common prejudice to regard authors who have not published yet as something other than “real” writers, an attitude that makes me apoplectic. “Real” writers, it is argued, are those who have books physically present in bookstores, who not only get paid for their writing, but actually make a living at it. “Real” writers, in short, are the ones on the bestseller lists, not the ones writing their hearts out in the solitude of their lonely rooms.


In other words, the people who use this term this way know absolutely nothing about the current writers’ market.


As anyone who has tried to market a book is very well aware, it can take YEARS to move successfully from the writing stage of a project to the point where the book is available for sale. Every writer, regardless of talent, has to move through the stages of writing the book, revising the book, finding an agent (unless you decide to go with a small publisher, or self-publish), selling the book to a publisher, rewriting the book to the publisher’s satisfaction, guiding the book through the IMMENSELY intricate byways of the average publishing house, promoting the book, and finally, building a fan base.


This is not a world, whatever the advocates of “real” writers say, where talent is instantly recognized, and a project is still warm from the author’s printer when she’s signing autographs at Barnes and Noble. In fact, as you may already be aware, finding an agent who is a good match with the work is a step that has taken many, many good writers two, five, ten, fifteen years – writers whose work has subsequently climbed the bestseller lists, won important awards, and charmed countless readers’ hearts.


I mention this, because I thought some of you could use a pep talk right about now. Since the NYC publishing world simply shuts down between Thanksgiving and the New Year, and agencies are swamped with New Year’s resolution queries and tax paperwork for last year’s sales for most of January, I would imagine that a lot of you are on pins and needles, awaiting replies. What you are doing is a necessary and laudable step of the process; it takes real courage to submit your work to total strangers with the power of life and death over it, and still more to keep submitting it after it has been rejected.


Don’t let anyone tell you that you’re not a real writer while you’re going through this process. Going through this process is precisely what real writers do, and the only genuine criterion for evaluating a writer is the quality of the writing. Period.


That being said, I return to the issue of the writing career. The vast majority of writers simply stop writing while they are marketing their first books, and no wonder. It takes a heck of a lot of energy to keep churning out queries personalized to each agency, crafting pithy synopses, and perfecting those first fifty pages that will wow the first agent who asks to see them. There are days when it takes almost too much energy to open the mailbox, to check for an acceptance or rejection. Be nice to yourself – this is emotionally difficult stuff.


However, if you truly do want a writing career, rather than a single success, it is vital that you not become so focused on the book you’re marketing that you neglect the next one. It’s always a good idea to have one in the pipeline.


And the more successful your first book is, the more crucial your next work will be. If you write genre fiction, you should plan on having another book completed within six or nine months of signing the contract on your first, as to be considered a successful genre writer, you will be expected to produce a new book every year and a half or so. If you write mainstream or literary, your name recognition will start to fade after a couple of years, so you will want to follow up as soon as you can. And if you write nonfiction, I can tell you from experience that your agent and editor will be asking you about your next project before you finish your first.


Funny, isn’t it? Before you sign with an agent or sell a book, it’s hard to get anyone in the industry to spend a few minutes reading your work, but after you’ve exhausted yourself pushing that work over the finish line, you’re expected to bounce to your feet and begin writing again instantly.


If you already have your next book partially finished or even completed, your life will be much, much easier later on, particularly in the year or two after you sign your first publication contract. (Remember, the months after you sign will be taken up with revision, so you may not have time to work on the next project then.) I know it’s tiring even to contemplate, but if you can be working on your next book while you are marketing the first, you will be doing precisely what successful writers do: keeping your career moving.


I hear some of you saying: wait a gosh-darned minute. I’ve been moving heaven and earth to scrape out the time to write my first book while working full-time (or, even more difficult, while raising kids full-time). Even if I didn’t take a well-deserved rest after finishing my book, I had planned to use my advance to support me while I wrote my next. If I already have notes on my next book, will that be good enough?


True, most books are not published until at least a year after the contract is signed – which means, in practical terms, that the final installment of your advance will be quite some time away. (Advances are typically paid in three installments: a third when the contract is signed, a third when the publisher accepts the book – i.e., after you have made all of the revisions your editor has asked you to make – and a third upon publication.) Unless your advance is very, very large indeed (as first-time authors’ advances seldom are), it is unlikely that a fraction of your advance will be large enough to support you for very long.


And I hate to be the one to tell you this, but even after your royalties exceed your advance amount, and you start receive straightforward royalty payments, it may be awhile before you get them. Some publishing houses are notoriously slow at passing along royalties – usually, contracts specify that they need pay them either when they exceed a certain set amount, or every six months, whichever comes first.


In other words, I wouldn’t count on your first book sale being able to take over your mortgage payments right away.


I know, I know, this isn’t the happy story we writers so often hear about overnight successes, but the fact is, most of the stories we hear are quite old, back in the heady pre-1990s days when editors would fall in love with a first novel, sign the author to a three-book contract, and hand over enough money that the author could devote himself (or, more rarely, herself) to her muse. You remember those days: it was the time when you would get all excited about a first novel, gleefully snatch up the author’s next as soon as it could be rushed into print – and never hear of that author again.


The reason for this was simple: authors used to struggle for years, perfecting that first book, and then their publishers would rush them into the second to try to maintain the momentum of the first. That’s why those second books so often seemed hastily-written; if the authors had not been writing all through the (back then, usually much shorter) agent-finding stage, the need to get the next book out the door sent them into a panic.


For this reason, publishing houses seldom give multi-book deals to first-time novelists anymore, but generally, the first book contract will contain a right of first refusal clause on the author’s next book. This means that even if your first book does not do well, the publisher reserves the right to see it before anyone else does, to have the option to buy it without running the risk of a bidding war. Which means, in turn, that if your first book enjoys the market success we all hope it will, you will be under considerable pressure to produce the next, pronto.


Use your querying stage wisely, and get started on book #2 as soon as you can.


As for me, with a memoir coming out this year, a novel just about to make the rounds of editors, and a small business to run, I don’t have time to stand around chatting. I need to get back to work on my next novel.


Keep up the good work!


— Anne Mini

The slugs of the Pacific Northwest

Continuing my series of responses to terrific questions posted by readers (and don’t worry, Colleen: I have not forgotten your excellent query. I am in the midst of trying to blandish one of several award-winning poets I know into answering it.), apparently I was not as clear about the slug line as I wanted to be. So today, I am going to clarify.

In case you don’t know, a slug line is the repetition of the author’s last name, title, and page number in the upper-left hand corner of each page of a manuscript. In general, it looks like this:


Usually, it is all in caps, but not everyone does it that way. I notice, for instance, that in my memoir manuscript, mine is in title case, for some reason that no doubt seemed good to me at the time that I first formatted the work. Thus, page 15 contains:

Mini/A Family Darkly/15

If your title is especially long (technically, mine is A Family Darkly: Love, Loss, and the Final Passions of Philip K. Dick), you may use a condensed version, but avoid actual abbreviations. FRIED GREEN TOMATOES AT THE WHISTLE STOP CAFE, for instance, could be listed in the slug line as


but not as


For a contest that insists, as most do, that the author’s name appear nowhere in the manuscript, the slug line should be modified thus:


Pretty much any word processing program will allow you to insert a changing page number, of course. In my version of Word, it’s just a matter of clicking on the # icon on the HEADER/FOOTER ruler.

The slug line is not merely another of those cosmetic touches that tells a professional reader whether a writer is industry-savvy or not — although leaving out the slug line does advertise that the writer has never worked with an agent. It is there for a very practical reason: a LOT of paper passes through the average agency or publishing house.

Manuscripts often get passed from hand to hand within agencies AND within publishing houses. Since manuscripts are never bound (unless a contest asks it to be), it is not unheard-of for pages to go astray. (This is also true of book proposals, incidentally, where the marketing department might get one section and the editor another, so it’s a good idea to include a slug line on every page of a book proposal, too.) Having every page labeled minimizes the possibility of pages remaining missing for long — or getting thrown away because no one knows where they belong.

(To answer the question your mind just howled: yes, it happens; stray papers get tossed all the time.)

Some authors I know like to make themselves hyper-contactable, so they include contact information in the slug line, too:

Author/Title/e-mail address or phone #/page #

I don’t do this, personally, because I think it encourages engaging in paranoid fantasies about what could possibly happen to my manuscripts when they are out of my hands. It’s easy to get carried away, once you admit the possibility: an agent’s picks up a single page of a submissions, walks around with it for awhile, realizes it is brilliant, runs back to her assistant’s desk to grab the rest of that sterling manuscript — only to find that the assistant has already sent it back to the author. Since, contrary to writers’ conference gossip, agencies do NOT keep very good logs about who has submitted what when (they get FAR too many to do that anymore), it would not, in this fantasy, be possible for the agent to contact the author of the single brilliant page — alas…

If you go the additional information route, please do not get carried away. There is no need to include your entire mailing address, middle initial, subtitle of the book, or any other tidbits you might want your readers to know. Remember, contact information in a slug line is for use in a case of last resort, when an agent has lost your title page AND cover letter.

Whatever you do, keep it to a single line. I once knew a very good writer who made the unfortunate choice to produce slug lines like this (names and titles changed to protect the guilty):

Widbey/The Coming Storm

Page 3

He thought it looked elegant, and after all, when it was single-spaced, there was more than enough room for it in the header. Actually, it did look kind of cool. And when he did finally land an agent (after two years when I, at least, wondered if his manuscripts were getting rejected because they looked unprofessional), she lectured him for fifteen minutes about how stupid his slug lines were. He reverted to standard slug lines thereafter.

Yes, people in the industry really do care that much about standardization.

What confuses some aspiring writers about the slug line is the fact that it is located IN the upper left margin of the manuscript — that’s right, floating in that inviolate one-inch space running all around the page, that part that’s supposed to remain white. So the first time that you put a slug line there, it can feel a trifle naughty, as though you are violating the rules.

Actually, even in contests, manuscript readers expect the slug line to be there — so much so, that contest rules very seldom even mention it as an exception to the top margin measurements. So you don’t need to worry about your entries being disqualified for margin violations.

Since most of us now use computers to produce our manuscripts, inserting the slug line could not be easier, but just in case some of you out there are reading this via your local library’s net browser, let me tell you how to do it on a typewriter. Go down one double-spaced line from the top of the page (which logically makes it two lines down, doesn’t it), then type the slug line. Then hit the carriage return to get yourself down the required inch, and start your text.

While, as I demonstrated yesterday, advancing technological choices have not always been the author’s friend (what’s the point of HAVING all of those other fonts if we can’t use them?), most word processing programs are already set up so you do not have to worry about WHERE to locate your slug line within the header. If you are set up for a one-inch top margin, the program will automatically start your header at half an inch from the top of the page, unless you specify otherwise. Nifty, eh?

There are different schools of thought about the type size for the slug line. Most professionals just use the same type size as the rest of the text (e.g., 12-point Times). However, if you are going to include your contact information in the slug line, you may reduce it to 10 point, so you don’t end up with a slug line that stretches all the way across the top of the page.

And that, my friends, is the story of the slug line. It’s an excellent idea to get into the habit of inserting your slug line in the margin IMMEDIATELY, before you even begin to write a chapter — just make it part of your initial formatting. That way, you won’t accidentally forget to insert it later on.

Many thanks to the readers who wrote in asking me to clarify this issue — because, as I mentioned yesterday, there are many, many little professional touches that become second nature after one has worked with agents and editors for awhile, and it’s easy to forget that no one is born knowing about them. (Actually, since I grew up in a family of writers, I honestly can’t remember when I didn’t know what a slug line was. I have, in fact, been known to insert slug lines absentmindedly in personal letters from time to time, so used am I to seeing them at the top of the page.) That’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Informed opinion — and some wisdom on screenplays

News travels fast! I have already been contacted by a couple of readers who found yesterday’s posting about standard typefaces rather upsetting. “Are you seriously suggesting,” one of them demanded, “that any submission that ISN’T in Times or Courier is automatically rejected by agents and disqualified from contests?”

No, that was not what I was suggesting. Contests seldom actually specify typefaces, and naturally, there are agents out there who are open-minded enough (or train their query screeners to be so) that they will consider submissions that are in alternate fonts. Actually, I would be quite surprised to hear any agent or editor ADMITTING IN PUBLIC that initial decisions are made primarily upon cosmetic criteria, however willing they may be to say it in private.

However — and this is an important thing for an aspiring writer to know — just as in a contest, the writer who is submitting to an agency or small publishing house does not know who will be reading her work. If you happen to hit a manuscript screener’s pet peeve — or the pet peeve of the screener’s boss, or of his favorite high school English teacher — the chances of your work progressing further through the contest, agency, or publishing house are basically nil.

Long-time readers of this blog will recognize this as a derivative of the grapefruit rule: an agent’s reaction to your submission may be dictated by what she ate for breakfast and whether it agreed with her or not. Certain factors affecting the judgment of any given reader — be it contest judge, agent, or editor — will always be beyond your control. If a contest judge has received bad news just before reading your entry, or an agent’s screener has just burned her lip on an over-hot latte, or an editor has just had a fight with his boyfriend, they’re not going to be in the best frame of mind to be open to your talent. This you must just accept, or you will drive yourself crazy trying to second-guess the personal likes and dislikes of those you must impress to promote your work.

However, by being industry-savvy, you CAN make your work less likely to fall prey to an already annoyed reader’s rejection response. If you use standard format in both contest and submission situations, you will substantially reduce the probability that your work will rub a touchy screener the wrong way.

And since there are SUCH strong typeface preferences amongst people who work in the industry, you can’t ever go wrong if you use the typefaces they prefer. To my mind, using Times or Courier instead of, say, Helvetica or Georgia (perfectly dandy fonts, from an aesthetic perspective) is the equivalent of wearing a conservative dark-blue suit to an interview with a bigwig you have never met, rather than a striking designer creation. The designer gown may well be more memorable, but you run the twin risks of (a) your interviewer’s disliking it, and thus you and/or (b) the gown’s being what your interviewer remembers, rather than you.

Stick with standard format and a frankly dull typeface, and let your writing speak for itself.

It is only fair to tell you that not all professional writers would agree with this advice. Because I hold such strong views on the subject, I was gearing up to ask a few of the best writers I know to weigh in, when one of them spontaneously (honest!) posted a comment on the blog, so I am including them here. What follows next are the words of the spectacularly talented Cindy Willis, whose brilliant literary novel, THE LONG THIRST, will stick in your brain forever. You could SING her first chapter — seriously, it’s one of the most beautiful pieces of prose I have ever read, and let me tell you, my eyes have covered a lot of pages in their time. Given how VERY gifted a prose stylist she is, I had rather expected her to come down on the opposite side of the formatting issue, but here is what she posted:

“Bravo! Heed these words well, oh writers! I was awarded the 2004 Zola award for fiction, opposite Anne, and signed with an agent shortly after (though my book has yet to land a publisher.) So many times I have offered similar advice to other writers, to pay attention to the physical details of their submissions. I remember their eyes glassing over–Yeah, yeah, whatever. MY writing will shine through.

“Sadly, they may have a hard lesson to learn. An agent once told me she does her initial weeding of submissions on a purely surface level: clean, neatly printed, white envelope; proper margins; crisp, quality white paper; requested format and materials; absolutely no mistakes – misspellings, etc. – on the first page or into the round file it goes. Since she receives in excess of 20,000 submissions a year, she doesn’t worry too much about letting a “potentially” brilliant writer slip past.

“The message? If you make your submission (whatever kind of submission it may be) a perfect vision of professionalism, you have already vastly increased your chances. This is one area of the process you CAN control. Make sure they get the opportunity to see that brilliant writing!”

Back to me again, so I can say I told you so. (As I just did.) Proper format is king — or at any rate, the key that opens the front door in literary circles.

Before I got too into patting myself on the back, I thought I should ask a screenwriter about formatting as well. I don’t write screenplays myself, so my information on the subject comes from people who do, their agents, directors, and producers.

So I asked the genuinely gifted Kathy Dunnehoff, also a former winner of top novel honors in the PNWA contest, who has recently turned her substantial talents to screenwriting. Kathy has an impeccable eye, a seemingly effortless but tightly-crafted narrative voice, and an absolutely peerless sense of comic timing. Even more importantly for our purposes here, she is a veteran of both the cut-throat mainstream novel market and the notoriously mercurial screenplay market. She has been to the wars, and can give us the skinny on them. Quoth Kathy:

“With screenplays the easy answer is you don’t have to worry about font
because your screenwriting software takes care of it. And you must possess
software or your life will be an indent nightmare!

The software everyone uses is Final Draft. I don’t, though. I’m a frugal writer, and for a mere $39 I bought Hollywood Screenwriter. I managed to write two screenplays, sign with an agent in L.A. and get really great rejections from several production companies and a director I’d actually heard of. No one
apparently cares how much you spend on your writer’s gear.

“That leads me to the hard answer about font. It’s not the font. It’s never
the font. It’s the story. In screenwriting I think this plays out in
writers struggling with the structure of the screenplay. We worry that our
story couldn’t possibly fit into 120 pages because it really needs to be a
four-hour movie. We fight in cutting dialogue because we want to tell
things instead of show them.

“But really we don’t trust our own story to not only find its way in the structure given to us but bloom because of it. For example, in my garden (the actual one. I know how writers assume metaphor) I grow sweet peas. They will start out just fine snaking out along the ground, but you’ll get no flowers. They need a trellis. If you train them to a structure of some kind, they’ll bloom like crazy. Sure, they are in ways limited by what they have to grow on, but what they gain is far greater.

“Trust your trellis, trust your font, trust your cheap
software, and really, truly, deeply trust your story.”

Anne here again: great advice, Kathy, and I think you bring up a HUGELY important issue that writers tend not to discuss much: as a group, we’re not big fans of restrictions. We’re all about expressing ourselves, right? So who the hell are contest judges and agents and editors to tell us that we can only express ourselves within certain rigid confines?

It’s a valid question — but ultimately, Kathy is absolutely right. You can quibble until you’re blue in the face about the need to conform to the strictures of standard formatting; if you are very brave (and have lots of time to devote to the experiment), you can spend years submitting work in wild typefaces, challenging the very notion of a standard format. Be my guest, if that is the way you want to expend your energy. Just be aware that you have made a choice to fight the system, and appreciate your own efforts accordingly.

However, what is important to most writers is talent and story. If you accept from the first minute that you sit down to write a book that it needs to comply with certain cosmetic restrictions, you can free yourself from the necessity of fighting. You can free yourself from worrying about that grapefruit your dream agent’s screener may or may not have had for breakfast on the morning that your work falls upon her desk. You can free yourself from wondering about whether your work has gotten rejected, as even the best writers’ work does, for superficial reasons, rather than because of your writing itself. You can worry instead about how best to express your talent, convey your voice, and tell your story.

You can, in short, place the bulk of your attention where it belongs, on the writing, not on the format. And that, for a good writer, is a much more comfortable way to live a rich, full creative life.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Questions, I get questions

Hi, readers —

I love when this happens — within the past week, I have received several great pieces of feedback through the COMMENTS function. And, as often happens, the comments were grouped around a single issue: this time, it was formatting. So for the next few posts, I shall be revisiting that all-important issue.

(For those of you who have had questions and comments, but have been too shy to post them for all the world to see, the site is soon to be revamped, and I believe that it will become possible for questions to be sent incognito, rather than displayed within the blog. I’ll keep you posted.) .

Dave, a delightfully articulate and observant reader, wrote to ask:

“I do have a couple of questions concerning Standard Format. First of all, is New Courier an acceptable font, especially if one does not have Courier? Secondly, is there an argument for non-proportional fonts (Courier/New Courier) as opposed to proportional fonts (Times Roman/Times New Roman)? It appears to me that with New Courier I get the approximate 250 WPP, but with Times New Roman (set at 12), I get over 300 WWP. Could you clarify sometime, or indicate what “font size” setting to use when selecting Times New Roman?”

Dave, these are great questions, and for my sake, the blog’s sake, and the sake of everyone reading this, I’m glad you asked them. Because, you see, you made me realize something: I have been writing professionally for so long now that there are questions that I no longer remember having had myself — but which actually took me time and effort to find out back in the day. Since a HUGE part of my goal here is to try to save my readers time in what can be a very long road to professionalism — needlessly long, in many cases, because what is standard in the industry both changes every decade or so and is generally counterintuitive AND because professionals seldom take the time to explain the ropes to those new to the biz — it is immensely important that my readers let me know when I haven’t explained perplexing industry logic in enough detail .

To address the first questions first: yes, you may use New Courier as a substitute for Courier; the New part indicates a variation on the font, not an entirely different breed (thus Times New Roman). If you’re writing for the movie or television industries, you basically do not have a choice: the vast majority of script agents will simply reject a submission presented in ANY other font than 12-point Courier without reading it at all.

You have a bit more leeway with the publishing industry, but still, the Times Roman and Courier families will serve you better, always in 12 point. To professional eyes — i.e., precisely the eyes you want to impress with your work in order to get signed by an agent and/or published — these typefaces are standard. And, given a choice, they tend to prefer Times or Times New Roman over Courier — but since the entertainment industry specifies the other, they will accept both.

It is, in short, a matter of tradition in both industries, a throwback to a time before computers, when writers had only two major typeface choices: Pica (10-pt) or Elite (12-pt). Courier is closer to the former, Times to the latter. Call it a sentimental atavism, a longing to cling to a glorious past, but folks who read scripts and manuscripts like ’em to look as though they were written in 1945 on a manual Olivetti. Go figure.

So the distinction is really less about non-proportional vs. proportional fonts than ingrained habit — and standards of estimation. In Courier, a page of script is universally correlated to a minute of film; in Times, a page of writing is considered 250 words in spirit, if not in actual fact. By using the same units of measurement as the big boys, you are translating your work into a language spoken by the people who make decisions in these industries.

The underlying question here, though, as Dave correctly identified, is about the empirical difference between actual and estimated word counts. Why, a reasonable person is certainly entitled to wonder, if the industry standard is 250 words/page in Times or Times New Roman, doesn’t the word count actually work out that way? And why ISN’T that a great big problem for everyone concerned?

It would be — if what agents and editors were interested in were ACTUAL word count when they ask authors for a word count, but they’re not. Allow me to explain.

Agents and editors uniformly demand that authors tell them how long books are, as expressed in word counts. The standard manuscript title page (and yes, Virginia, there IS a single standard, speaking of professional criteria that are seldom explained to those new to the game; I shall revisit that issue soon) INVARIABLY lists a word count. And if you ever intend to write an article for any publication that isn’t run by academics, you will be expected to predict the article’s word count when you pitch the article to an editor. There is a reason for this: the publisher needs to budget production materials (paper, covers, ink, shipping, etc.) and the magazine needs to budget space. Essentially, what they are asking the author to do is to tell them in advance how much space the writing is going to take up.

Let me let you in on a little secret, though: professionals report a book’s word count and an article’s word count quite differently. A book’s word count is, as a rule, estimated, not actual, whereas an article’s is usually literally the number of words in the piece. Historically, there is a reason for the difference: publishers pay book authors a percentage of the cover price of a book, after publication (the much-vaunted advance is in fact an estimate of what that the author’s share of future sales will be) whereas magazines pay article writers in advance (or at any rate, upon publication) by the word. The distinction, then, is accounting-based.

For article-writers, the advent of the computer has been a boon. All you have to do is ask your word processing program to provide you with a word count, and voilà , it is done. A significant saving of time and effort.

If you happen to write books — as many of you probably do, or hope to — availing yourself of this word processing perq is not a particularly good idea. In fact, reporting the literal word count, rather than an estimated one, can actually harm your chances of landing an agent or a publishing contract.

See, that’s the kind of thing I really should remember to mention from time to time.

Before I get into why it’s in your best interests to estimate, I should probably speak a little about why Dave’s actual word count in Times New Roman and the industry estimate did not line up. There’s a pretty good reason: it is pretty much always different. But since absolutely nobody in the book publishing industry is ever going to check that your estimated word count and your actual match up (who has the time?), don’t worry about trying to force them into conformity.

Ready for a real cognitive twist? The word count isn’t about the number of words in a manuscript; it’s about the number of PAGES in it. Again, it’s an accounting-based distinction.

For most fiction writers, this is VERY good news. I have, I blush to say, gotten as many as 380 words per page in TNR, but because I use industry standard estimation rather than actual word count — as book authors do — I get away with cramming in FAR more words into my manuscripts than I would if I used the actual count. And in the industry, this isn’t considered misleading — it’s considered normal. Preferable, even.

Confusing, eh?

This is why I’m really glad that you brought it up, Dave: writers, particularly aspiring novelists, are told all the time to keep their work under certain word counts. For mainstream fiction, we are told at every contest we attend, it should be under 100,000 words; for genre, it should be between 60,000 and 85,000.

And whenever an agent or editor says that from a podium, you can see half the writers in the room sag into little puddles of despair. A very visible thought bubble, of the kind favored by cartoonists, rises about the crowd: “100,000 words?” you can hear everyone thinking. “Chicken feed. What, does everyone in the publishing industry hate words?”

No, they don’t hate words — but the way that writers talk about word counts and agents/editors do often resorts in miscommunication, because they have different units of measurement in mind. To a writer, the word count has to do with the number of words in a manuscript; to an agent or editor, it refers to the number of PAGES in a manuscript — because, you see, everyone in the industry simply assumes that a double-spaced page of text in Times or Times New Roman is 250 words. No one in the industry actually counts to see if that is true.

Again, who has the time?

So when an agent or editor casually remarks that a first novel should be under 100,000 words, he actually means that he expects it to be under 400 pages. (Much less intimidating put that way, isn’t it?) Genre novels, then, should be somewhere between 250 and 350 pages (the actual math would dictate 240 and 340, but everyone prefers the rounder-sounding numbers of 60,000 and 85,000, for reasons I shall get into below).

So when aspiring writers, thinking that they are being oh-so-honest, put ACTUAL word counts on their submissions, they run the risk of an agent or editor’s thinking that the book is CONSIDERABLY longer than it is. Think about it: 120,000 words in actual count could fall on on 382 real pages, but estimated at 250/page would mean 480 pages of industry-standard estimated text. A HUGE difference.

Did a choir of angels suddenly start to sing in the heads of those of you who have been asked to send the first 50 pp. of a novel to an agent, only to be told that the agency can’t sell long works anymore? If so, thank Dave — because, I blush to admit, this is such a truism amongst published writers that it might not have occurred to me to write about it here at all, had he not asked about it.

Honestly, I sometimes think that writers’ conferences should be subtitled, so the writers will know what the agents and editors are talking about.

So unless you are trying to make your book appear longer than it is, always, ALWAYS use industry standard estimation — but to do so, you will need to use the industry-standard fonts.

Once you make the conversion, this will save you a TREMENDOUS amount of time — no more performing a word count on each chapter, adding them all up, and cringing at the ultimate total. Simply place your manuscript in standard format in 12-point Times or Times New Roman, see how many pages it is, and multiply by 250 (if you are using Courier, multiply by 200). And that, my friends, will be your official word count.

One final observation: the more math-oriented among you will have been struck already by the fact that using this system, a professional word count will NEVER be an odd number, like 76,431. Which means, in turn, that if you have been listing actual word counts without rounding, the title page of your manuscript would have automatically told pretty much anyone in the publishing industry that you had never sold a book before. Which means that the manuscript would have been taken less seriously — REGARDLESS OF THE QUALITY OF THE WRITING.


See why I get so miffed about folks in the publishing industry being slow to share the standards by which they judge submissions? This one is so ingrained in professional psyches that I would literally never even consider formatting my work any other way — or presenting any other kind of word count. So much so that I needed reminding that anyone ever does it any other way.

So thanks, Dave! Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Contests, Part XIV: Niceties and tidbits

Okay, time for the final installment of my holiday gift to my readers: an extended series on how to increase your chances in literary competitions. Today’s installment deals with the fun stuff, the last-minute touches that can give your entry an edge. (Incidentally, many of these presentation tips work beautifully with query letters and manuscript submission, too.)

When you first read through contest rules, it may not seem as though they allow a great deal of leeway in how you package your work, but often, there is some wiggle room. If so, proportion can make a difference in how your work is received.

Take a look at your entry: does the synopsis seem disproportionately long? Is there good writing that you would be able to squeeze into the chapter if it were shorter?

If your synopsis runneth over its assigned page limit, try this trick: minimize the amount of space you devote to the book’s premise and the actions that occur in Chapter 1. Yes, you will need this information to appear prominently in a synopsis you would show an editor or agent, but you have different goals here. If you are submitting Chapter 1 (or even beyond) as part of your contest entry, and if you place the chapter BEFORE the synopsis in your entry packet, the judges will already be familiar with both the initial premise AND the basic characters AND what occurs at the beginning in the book. So why be repetitious?

In the average novel synopsis, over a quarter of the text deals with premise and character introduction. Trim this down to just a few sentences and move on to the rest of the plot.

Allow me to use a practical example. Let’s say that you were Jane Austen, and you were submitting the first 25 pages of SENSE AND SENSIBILITY to a literary contest. (You should be so lucky!) For submission to an agent, your query synopsis might look something like this:

ELINOR (19) and MARIANNE DASHWOOD (17) are in a pitiable position: due to the whimsical will of their great-uncle, the family estate passes at the death of their wealthy father into the hands of their greedy half-brother, JOHN DASHWOOD (early 30s). Their affectionate but impractical mother (MRS. DASHWOOD, 40), soon offended at John’s wife’s (FANNY FERRARS DASHWOOD, late 20s) domineering ways and lack of true hospitality, wishes to move her daughters from Norland, the only home they have ever known, but comparative poverty and the fact that Elinor is rapidly falling in love with her sister-in-law’s brother, EDWARD FERRARS (mid-20s), render any decision on where to go beyond the reach of her highly romantic speculations. Yet when John and his wife talk themselves out of providing any financial assistance to the female Dashwoods at all, Mrs. Dashwood accepts the offer of her cousin, SIR JOHN MIDDLETON (middle aged) to move her family to Barton Park, hundreds of miles away. Once settled there, the Dashwoods find themselves rushed into an almost daily intimacy with Sir John and his wife, LADY MIDDLETON (late 20s) at the great house. There, they meet COLONEL BRANDON (early 40s), Sir John’s melancholy friend, who seems struck by Marianne’s musical ability — and beauty. But does his sad face conceal a secret?

Now, all of this does in fact occur in the first 25 pages of SENSE AND SENSIBILITY, as the contest entry would clearly show. So, being a wise Aunt Jane, you would streamline the contest synopsis so it looked a bit more like this:

At the death of their wealthy father, ELINOR (19) and MARIANNE DASHWOOD (17) and their affectionate but impractical mother (MRS. DASHWOOD, 40) are forced to leave their life-long home and move halfway across England, to live near relatives they have never seen, far away from Elinor’s beloved EDWARD FERRARS (mid-20s). At the home of their cousins SIR JOHN (middle aged) and LADY MIDDLETON (late 20s), melancholy COLONEL BRANDON (early 40s), seems struck by Marianne’s musical ability — and beauty. But does his sad face conceal a secret?

Less than half the length, but enough of the point to show the judges how the submitted chapters feed into the rest of the book. Well done, Jane!

Placing character names in capital letters and indicating ages (as I have done above), is no longer standard for querying synopses — but not all contest judges seem to be aware of that. To old-fashioned eyes, a synopsis simply isn’t professional unless the first time each major character is named, HIS NAME APPEARS IN ALL CAPS (age). Here again, you would be perfectly within your rights not to adhere to this quaint practice, but if your work happens to fall into the hands of a judge who thinks it’s mandatory, you’ll be far better off if you stuck to old-fashioned structure.

And naturally, you should read the ENTIRETY of your entry IN HARD COPY, ALOUD, before you send it anywhere. As regular readers of this blog are already aware, my professional editor hat gets all in a twist at the notion of any writer’s proofreading solely on a computer screen.

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

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

Once you have perfected your entry, print it on nice paper. This may seem silly, but it sometimes does make a difference, believe it or not.

By nice paper, I’m not talking about hot pink sheets or pages that you have hand-calligraphed with gold leaf and Celtic designs. Either of those would get your entry disqualified on sight. No, I mean high-quality white paper, the kind of stuff you might print your resume on if you REALLY wanted the job.

If this seems extravagant to you, ask yourself: have I ever walked into an interview wanting the job as much as I want to have my book published?

Using good paper will make your entry stand out amongst the others. Nice paper is a pleasure to hold, but frankly, there’s more to this strategy than giving your judges visceral pleasure. The vast majority of contest entries are printed on very low-quality paper; when multiple copies are required for submission, they generally show up on the flimsy paper so often found in copy shop photocopiers. It tears easily. It wrinkles as it travels through the mail. It’s dingy-looking.

Spring for something nicer, and your entry will automatically come across as more professional to the judges.

It may not be fair, but it’s true, so it’s very worth your while to invest a few extra bucks in a decent ream. 20-pound paper or heavier (I use 24-pound) will not wrinkle in transit unless the envelope is actually folded, and bright white paper gives the impression of being crisper. (Avoid anything in the cream range — this is the time for brilliant white.)

For what it’s worth, I have observed over time that agents and editors, too, seem to treat manuscripts printed in Times New Roman on bright, heavy white paper with more respect than other manuscripts. The only drawback — and it was a significant one — was that when I printed up a draft of my memoir for my editor on lovely cotton 24-pound paper, it came back to me smelling like an ashtray. Turns out cotton paper soaks up ambient smoke like a sponge. My cats shied away from my desk for weeks afterward.

And before you seal the envelope, GO BACK AND REREAD THE CONTEST RULES. Have you met each and every requirement? Have you included every needed element? Are your margins precisely what the contest specified?

It may seem anal-retentive to re-check this often, but as I kept telling you last week, judges are often looking for reasons to disqualify you. It is absolutely imperative, then, that you follow every rule to the letter. And in the average contest, a good 5% of entries show up with something really basic missing, like the check or a second title page.
Good luck with your entries.

Hey, one of my readers suggested to me that it might be a good idea for me to hold a brief seminar on putting the contest entry packet together a week or so before PNWA contest entries are due, to help my Seattle-area readers catch last-minute problems. If you might be interested in such a class, or if you just think it would be a dandy thing to have offered, vote for it by dropping me a line via the COMMENTS function, below, sometime before the end of January. (If you want a personalized notice when it happens, include your e-mail.) If there’s enough interest, I’d be happy to teach it.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Contests, Part XII: Every word is a writing sample

It may seem odd that I hammered so hard yesterday about the importance of a finely-crafted synopsis to a contest entry’s overall chances of winning, but you would be astonished at how often a well-written chapter is accompanied by a synopsis obviously dashed off at the last minute, as though the writing quality, clarity, and organization of it weren’t actually being evaluated at all.

I suspect that this is a fairly accurate reading of what commonly occurs. All too often, writers (most of whom, after all, have full-time jobs and families and, well, lives to lead) push preparing their entries to the very last minute. Frustrated at this crucial moment by what appears to be an arbitrary requirement — it’s the writing in the chapter that counts, right? — it’s tempting to just throw together a synopsis in a fatal rush and shove it into an envelope, hoping that no one will pay much attention to it.

Trust me on this one: judges WILL pay attention to it.

Many a fine chapter has been scuttled by a slipshod synopsis. I won’t go so far as to say that if you do not expend careful consideration over the crafting of the synopsis for a book-length category, you might as well not enter at all. It is entirely fair to say, however, that if you have a well-written, well thought-out synopsis tucked into your entry packet, your work will automatically have an edge toward winning.

Effectively, in a contest situation, the synopsis is the substitute for the rest of the book. The synopsis is where you demonstrate to judges that you are not merely a writer who can hold them in thrall for a few isolated pages: the synopsis is where you show that you have the vision and tenacity to take the compelling characters you have begun to reveal in your first chapter through an interesting story to a satisfying conclusion. The synopsis is where you show that you can plot out a BOOK.

For this reason, it is imperative that your synopsis makes it very, very clear how the chapter or excerpt you are submitting fits into the overall arc of the book, regardless of whether you are submitting fiction or nonfiction. Quite a few contests allow writers to submit chapters other than the first, and if you elect to take them up on this offer, your synopsis had better make it absolutely plain where the excerpts will fall in the finished work.

Truth be told, I think it is seldom wise to submit either non-consecutive excerpts from a book or chapters other than the initial ones, even if later chapters contain writing that is truly wonderful. Non-consecutive excerpts require the judge to make the logical connections between them — which the judge may not be inclined to do in a way that is in your best interest.

An uncharitable judge might, for instance, draw the unkind inference that you had submitted the excerpts you chose because they were the only parts of the book you had written — a poor message to send in a category devoted to book-length works. Or that you simply can’t stand your introductory chapter. Or, a judge may reason, no agent or editor in the world, is going to accept random excerpts from a book for which she’s been queried: she is going to expect to see the first chapter, or first three chapters. Thus, a judge might conclude, the author who submitted this patchwork entry isn’t anywhere near ready to submit work to professionals. Next.

This is not, in short, a situation where it pays to rely upon the kindness of strangers.

If you DO decide to use non-contiguous excerpts, place your synopsis at the BEGINNING of your entry, unless the rules absolutely forbid you to do so, and make sure that the synopsis makes it QUITE clear that these excerpts are far and away the most important part of the book. Basically, the role of the synopsis here is to make the judges EAGER to read these particular excerpts. Obviously, this means that your storytelling skills had better be at their most polished, to meet the challenge.

As for selecting a chapter other than the first for submission, effectively starting midway through the book, I would advise against it, too, even if when contest rules explicitly permit the possibility. In the first place, the judge may well draw the same set of uncharitable inferences as with the non-continuous excerpts, and dismiss your submission as not ready for the big time. (As I have mentioned repeatedly over the last couple of weeks, contest organizers LOVE it when their winners move on quickly to publication. If your work looks like it needs a couple of years’ worth of polishing to become market-ready, it is unlikely to win a contest, even if you are extremely talented.)

In the second place, while your best writing may well lie later in your book, the advantage of starting at the beginning of the book is that the judge and the reader will have an equal amount of information going in. I’ve known a lot of contest judges who resent having to go back and forth between the synopsis and the chapters to figure out what is going on.

There is a sneaky way to get around this — but again, I would have to scold you if you did it. There is no contest in the world that is going to make you sign an affidavit swearing that your entry is identical to what you are submitting to agents and editors; if you win, no one is later going to come after you and say, “Hey, your book doesn’t start with the scene you entered in the contest!”

So? Professional writers change the running orders of their books all the time.

A clever entrant who feels her best writing occurs fifty pages into her novel might, for the purposes of competition, place her strongest scene first by starting the entry on page 50 (presenting it as page 1, of course). The synopsis would have to be revised, naturally, to make it appear that this is indeed the usual running order of the book, and our heroine would have to edit carefully, to make sure that there is nothing in the skipped-over pages that is vital to understanding what happens in the chapters presented in the entry. The job of the synopsis, then, in the hands of this tricky writer, would be to cover up the fact that the entry starts in the middle of the book. It would be just our little secret.

To put it in a less clever way: go ahead and submit your strongest chapter — but for heaven’s sake, do NOT label it as Chapter 8. Label it as Chapter 1, and write a new synopsis for a book where Chapter 8 IS Chapter 1. Just make sure that your synopsis is compelling and lucid enough that it all makes sense as a story.

As a general rule, anything you can do to place your best writing within the first few pages of your entry, you should do. Judges’ impressions tend to be formed very fast, and if you can wow ’em before page 3, you absolutely should.

Actually, just as with work you submit to agents, the first page of your entry is far and away the most important thing the judges see. Unless there is a strong reason to place your synopsis first, put it at the end of your entry, so your first page can jump out at the judges. And if you can include some very memorable incident or imagery within the first few paragraphs of your chapter, that much the better.

And whatever you do, try not to save writing your synopsis for a contest for the very last moments before you stuff the entry into an envelope. Synopsis-writing is hard; budget adequate time for it. And make absolutely sure that the synopsis you submit supports the image of the book you want your submitted chapter to send.

Tomorrow, I shall delve into the little niceties that make your entry look truly polished. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Contests, Part XI: Crafting a winning synopsis

As promised, I am continuing my three-week (give or take a day or two) holiday present to my readers, and continuing to yammer on about tips on how to improve your contest entries. Allow me to reiterate a point I made last week: a single book may benefit from having one version of the synopsis that goes out to agents, and another, more streamlined one that gets tucked into contest entries. The reason is simple: in each context, the synopsis is intended to perform different functions.

Let me back up for a moment and define synopsis, for those of you new to the term:

SYNOPSIS, n.: A brief exposition in the present tense of the plot of a novel or the argument of a book. Typically, synopses run from 2-5 pages (double-spaced), depending upon the requirements of the requesting agent or editor. (See my blogs of Sept. 9 and shortly thereafter for tips how to write a stellar synopsis for querying agents.)

If you are entering a category that covers book-length material, you will pretty much always be asked to submit a synopsis. In general, contests will specify the length of the synopses they would like to accompany your entry; sometimes, the rules merely set a maximum page limit for the entry, and allow the writer to decide how much of it to devote to the synopsis.

Even if the contest rules specify an absurdly short synopsis (or make it sound shorter by calling it a plot outline), DO NOT single-space it or fudge with the margins to make it fit within the specified limits, unless the contest rules say you may. Trust me, if the rest of your entry is in 12-point Times New Roman with 1-inch margins, double-spaced, almost any judge is going to be able to tell right away if your synopsis is presented differently.

NEVER allow a contest synopsis to run over 5 pages or under 2. Since 3-4 pages is industry standard, a synopsis that is much shorter will make you look as if you are unable to sustain a longer exposition; if it is much longer, you will look as though you aren’t aware of the standard.

Also, for fiction entries, avoid the temptation to turn the synopsis into either a back-jacket blurb (“My writing teacher says this is the best novel since THE SUN ALSO RISES!”) or an exposition on why you chose to write the book (“It isn’t autobiographical, but…) For nonfiction, you will want to do some gentle blurbing, to give an indication of why your book is uniquely marketable (see yesterday’s posting), but again, try not to get sidetracked on WHY you chose to write it. A LOT of contest synopses go off on these tangents, to the detriment of the entry.

Just so you know, in the eyes of the industry, there are only three contexts where a lengthy discussion of why you chose to write a book is appropriate. First, within a nonfiction book proposal, where it is a necessary component to making the argument that you are uniquely qualified to write the book you are proposing. Second, within the context of an interview AFTER the book is released. Interviewers LOVE hearing about writers’ motivations — which, I suspect is why aspiring writers so often want to tell everyone they see what is and is not autobiographical in their novels. So you can go to town after the book comes out. Third — and here is where talking about it will help you most — when you are chatting with other writers.

All too often, writers become frustrated at this crucial moment, and just throw together a query letter, a pitch, and a synopsis in a fatal rush, unsure of what they are doing, and dash their work off to agents.

The only exception to this is if you have some very specific expertise that renders your take on a subject particularly valid. If so, make sure that information is stated within the first paragraph of your NF synopsis; if you are writing a novel, and you feel that you have an inside perspective that simply must be mentioned to the judges, stick it at the end of the synopsis, where it won’t be too intrusive.

For a synopsis to accompany a fiction entry, your goal is very, very simple: make it a terrific story. All too often, writers just state the premise of the novel, rather than taking the reader through the plot, blow by blow. If the plot has twists and surprises, so should the synopsis. Show the story arc, and make it compelling enough that the judge will scrawl on the evaluation sheet, “Wow, I want to read this book when it comes out.”

The easiest way to get the judges involved is not merely to summarize the plot as quickly as possible, but to give the feel of a number of specific scenes. Don’t be afraid to use forceful imagery and strong sensual detail, and try to have the tone of the synopsis echo the tone of the book.

Yes, I know: it’s a tall order. But don’t forget that the synopsis is every bit as much an indication of your writing skill as the actual chapters that you are submitting.

For nonfiction, your goal is threefold: to show the argument of the book in some detail, along with some indication of how you intend to prove your case; to show that the book will appeal to a large enough market niche to make publishing it worthwhile, and to demonstrate that you are the best-qualified person in the universe to write the book. In 3-5 pages, no less.

For the first, it is helpful to have an outline of your proposed chapters in front of you, so you can use the synopsis to demonstrate how each chapter will build upon the next to make your overall case. Even if you are writing a self-help book, history book, or memoir, you are always making a case when you write nonfiction, if only to argue that your take on the world around you is interesting, unique, and valid. Be certain that by the time a judge finishes reading your synopsis, s/he will understand very clearly what this argument is — and what evidence you will be bringing in to demonstrate it. (Statistics? Extensive background research? Field experience? Interviews? A wealth of personal anecdotes? Etc.)

If you are pinched for space, you need only devote the first paragraph to marketing information. Say why the world needs your book. If you are writing on a subject that is already quite full of authorial opinion, make it plain why your book is different and better. (“Have you ever wondered what goes on underneath the snow while you are skiing on top of it? Although there are many books currently on the market for snowboarding enthusiasts, MOUNTAINS MY WAY is the first to be written by a geologist.”) If you have statistics on your prospective market, this is the place to mention them. (“There are currently 2 million Americans diagnosed with agoraphobia, yet there are few self-help books out there for them — and only one that is actually written by an agoraphobic, someone who truly understands what it feels like to be shut in.”)

The third desiratum is what is known in the industry as your platform, and admittedly, it is a trifle hard to explain why you are THE expert best qualified to write this book without saying something about yourself. Go ahead and state your qualifications — just don’t slip up and mention yourself by name. (“A well-respected Seattle area caterer for twenty years, the author has extensive experience in crafting meals for the pickiest of eaters.”) No one is going to disqualify you for mentioning that you have a Ph.D. or went to a specific culinary school. (“SHELLFISH AND YOU is the fruit of many years of postdoctoral research. The author, a graduate of the prestigious Scripps School of Oceanography, is recognized worldwide as an up-and-coming authority on mollusk behavior.”)

If your head is whirling from all of this, don’t worry. I’ll go into some tips on how to simplify the synopsis process tomorrow. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Contests, Part X: Entering a memoir

I thought about it over the weekend, and yes, Virginia, I DO have enough left to say on the subject of contests to carry us all the way through Greek Christmas, January 6. Which, as it happens, is the extended deadline for the Holiday Tables contest, sponsored by yours truly. (Entry details in the blog of December 8.) The winner will receive undying glory and the opportunity to post writing both here and on a well-respected literary fiction website. That’s two legitimate publication credits and a boastable contest win, my friends.

You can’t win if you don’t enter.

Having won the PNWA’s Zola Award in the nonfiction book/memoir category last year, I feel that I should add a few category-specific hints for my own kind today. (And have I mentioned recently that THE VERY MEMOIR THAT WON is currently available for presale on Amazon? It’s called A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK now, although when it won, it was titled IS THAT YOU, PUMPKIN? Unfortunately, it will not actually be available to READ the first chapter, which the nonfiction book/memoir judges liked so much, before the upcoming PNWA contest deadline, but hey, think of all the good contest karma you’ll be racking up by checking out the Amazon blurb.)

I have judged in this category before in several contests, and please, I implore you, if you are submitting a memoir entry, FOLLOW THE RULE ABOUT NOT HAVING YOUR OWN NAME APPEAR ANYWHERE IN THE MANUSCRIPT. Yes, I know, it’s very difficult not to refer to yourself by name in the story of your own life, but seriously, I’ve seen entries get disqualified for this.

And for good reason. For a contest to be worth its salt, it must be able to claim that its judging procedures are not biased; the first step to assuring lack of personal bias is to institute blind judging, where no judge knows the name of any given author. Now, as I explained in my first blogs on contests, some competitions are only apparently unbiased, but for the most part, contest organizers take authorial anonymity very seriously indeed.

I went to college with Danny, a very clever, very ambitious writer who periodically contributed pieces to the on-campus humor magazine. Now, it was the practice of the magazine to publish most of its pieces without bylines, to encourage collaboration amongst members of the writing club. But as I said, Danny was ambitious: he, like many of the other writers in the club, was anxious to graduate with clippings he could use to promote his work later on. So Danny did something exceptionally crafty: he inserted his own name into every ostensibly anonymous piece he wrote, much as Jerry Lee Lewis used to refer to himself in his own lyrics, so radio listeners would know who sang the song. Danny’s favorite way of doing this was to have an imaginary conversation with himself, so an alter ego could address him by name.

Danny did in fact land a pretty good writing job after graduation, I am told, but he was relying upon his club’s editorial indulgence to let him get away with breaking the rules. In a contest, this practice would have gotten him disqualified immediately.

Because there are legions of rule-breakers out there, you need to be ultra-careful about not doing inadvertently what Danny did on purpose. Unfortunately, within the first-person narrative common to memoirs, narrators tend to talk to themselves all the time,  à la Hamlet: Danny, you get ahold of yourself, now.

Keep a sharp eye out for that in preparing your contest entries.

Usually, though, the author’s name comes up as an inadvertent slip, where it’s pretty obvious that the author thought she had expunged all relevant references to herself. Even these innocent mistakes can knock your entry out of competition.

Let’s say the author is named Tammy Postlethwaite. Here are the most frequent ways that her name is likely to appear in a memoir. Check for these:

When another character directly addresses the narrator: “Tammy, have you seen the rice pudding?”

When another character is talking about the narrator behind her back: “Ward, I’m worried about the Beaver. He’s paying too much attention to that Tammy next door.”

And, in the VAST MAJORITY of childhood memoirs, when the narrator gets in trouble, some adult says: “Tammy Marie Postlethwaite, you come in this house this instant!”

Remember, in order to violate the rule, even if a character OTHER than the author appears with the author’s last name, it can cost you:

When a family member is addressed by a third party: “Mrs. Postlethwaite, your daughter is under arrest.”

When the narrator refers to her family collectively, or to a possession as theirs: In the Postlethwaite residence, Christmas decorations abounded.

Remember, too, that self-references to EITHER your first or last name, not just to both together, count as rule violations. By all means, do a search-and-replace for BOTH your first AND last names in your entry before you print it up.

Why might this be necessary, you ask, since in most contests, the judges never see your name attached to the manuscript, and thus would not know that the Tammy mentioned is the author? Well, two reasons. First, such is the seriousness with which blindness is taken that if a judge even SUSPECTS that an entry contains the author’s name, the entry may be toast. Second, it is not unheard-of for contests to have initial screeners, whose SOLE function is to check the entries for rule violations before the non-rule breaking entries are passed along. These screeners sometimes do have your entire entry packet — and thus your name.

The easiest way to avoid this problem is to use a pseudonym, of course, within the context of the entry. However, it is well worth your while to add a note to the title page of your entry, STATING that you have changed the names, because, as I mentioned above, the mere suspicion of rule-breaking can harm your chances of winning. How is the judge to know whether you have substituted the names or not, if you do not say so? “For the purposes of this entry,” you could write, “I have changed my family name to Parrothead.”

Yes, it’s kind of silly, but that way, you make it pellucidly clear that you’re not referring to yourself.

Other good tip for memoirists entering their work in contests is to do a bit of market research. (Actually, this is a good idea for anyone writing a book, and everyone who has to write a synopsis for a contest.) Is your memoir in fact unique, or does it fit into a well-defined market niche?

It is a question well worth asking before entering a memoir into a contest. All of us tend to think of our own experiences as unique, which of course they are. Every point of view is to a very great extent original. However, certain life experiences tend to recur, and tender, well-written memoirs about a Baby Boomer daughter nursing her mother through her final illness, for instance, or a former drug addict/alcoholic/workaholic rediscovering the beauty of day-to-day life, or a former hippie/swinger/disco queen recounting his or her glory days are not altogether uncommon. Nor are spiritual awakenings, discoveries that institutions are corrupt, or personal battles against major illnesses. If you check a well-stocked bookstore, or even run your subject matter through an Amazon search, you will get a pretty firm idea of how many other accounts there are that resemble your own, at least superficially.

This is not to say that your personal take is not worth telling — if you’re a good writer with a truly individual take on the world around you, it undoubtedly is. Remember, though, that judges tend to be reading for marketability, and if they perceive that you are writing in an already glutted submarket, your entry may not do as well as an entry on a less well-trodden topic.

Unfortunately, if you are writing about a common experience, you cannot get away with assuming that the writing alone will differentiate it from the other submissions. If there’s recently been a bestseller along similar lines as your topic, you can bet your boots that yours will not be the only entry that resembles it. Think about how many people suddenly started writing accounts of growing up poor immediately after ANGELA’S ASHES hit the big time, or about over-medicated, over-sexed teenagerhoods in the wake of PROZAC NATION.

If you are writing on a common topic, the bar automatically goes higher, alas, for making YOUR story stand out amongst the rest. If there are a whole lot of entries with similar stories, it is just human nature for the judges to get a trifle bored after the second or third one. You really have to knock their socks off, to an extent that you might not if your topic were not popular that year.

The best way to make your work stand out from the crowd is to use the synopsis to show how YOUR memoir is QUITE different than the other memoirs on the subject — and knowing the existing memoir market will be most helpful in figuring out what aspects to stress. What made your experience special, unique, unforgettable from the point of view of a third party? Why couldn’t anyone else on earth have written it, and why will readers want to buy it?

No need to turn your synopsis into a back jacket blurb (of which, more over the next few postings), but do show how your work is UNLIKE anything else the judge is going to read. Yes, each judge will have your chapter, or few pages, or however much the contest allows you to show him, but sometimes, the difference between a “Thank you for entering” letter and one that says, “Congratulations — you’re a finalist!” is a synopsis that makes the case that THIS entry, out of the half-dozen entries on the same general topic, is the one that is going to hit the big time.

But to discuss that, I shall have to get into the issue of how contest synopses differ from query synopses, and that is a project for another day. Tomorrow, to be precise, and perhaps the day after that.

In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini