Self-publishing, Part II: Where to begin?

Hello, readers —

For those of you who didn’t tune in yesterday, we’re in the middle of an exciting series on the ins and outs of self-publishing, courtesy of one who has been there: PNWA member Jim McFarland, self-published author of DO OR DIE: THE BABY-BOOMER MAN’S GUIDE TO REGAINING HEALTH, HAPPINESS, VITALITY, AND A LONGER, FULLER LIFE and and all-around good guy.

Jim has been kind enough to answer a few questions about self-publishing, for the benefit of all of you out there who have considered going the brave route. Our focus today: how does one get started? Jim has come up with some great guidelines to help you through this potentially frightening process.

Anne: How did you go about choosing a publisher?

Jim: Choosing a self-publisher is somewhat akin to selecting a doctor, a lawyer, or an accountant. Why? Because unlike casual other business relationships, working with a publisher, even a self-publisher, is a very personal experience since the work to be done is of extraordinary value to you and is a statement of who you are and what you believe.

So how do you start your search? There are several methods and I recommend you pursue these avenues and more. First, talk with friends or acquaintances that have had work published. Second, look for self-publishers on the Internet and start researching their services and prices. Third, review books and literature that are available to the public.

You might wish to start by checking out a book entitled The Self-Publishing Manual: How to Write, Print, and Sell Your Own Book, 14th Edition (Paperback), by Dan Poynter. I did not read this book when I began my review into self-publishing. And I do not believe his book would have changed my approach or my final decision. That is not to say that it is not a good book. It has received great reviews and you may want to check it out.

(Parenthetically, I should add that I had purchased a book that was designed to help authors prepare proposals for publishers. I did buy this book and found the investment to be useless. The best advice I could have received at the very beginning of my search would have been to bypass publishing houses altogether and move directly to self-publishing.)

An online search for self-publishers is a simple and inexpensive exercise. Certainly, you will have to supplement this search with more work and analysis, but it is a good way to get started.

Another starting point will be to make connections with writers through writers’ associations and groups. You may be able to make contact with people who can give you ideas and suggestions.

Anne: Good ideas, all. But how do you narrow it down to the final choice, and how do you know which companies are legit?

Jim: When you begin your analysis of self-publishers, I recommend that you utilize varying amounts of common sense, caution, research, and intuition to help guide your final decision. Here is how these three areas play out:

1. Be cautious about claims made by any self-publisher. Seek explanations and confirmation for the validity of all claims.

If you visit self-publisher websites on the Internet, you are going to be bombarded with price offers and special promotions. When I began my Internet search, I read and copied each page of every publisher website I visited. In addition, I book marked each site address so I could revisit. This gave me a good base of data and information to review. Since there is no handbook on how to select a self-publisher, I reviewed all this material and began to make intuitive judgments about what seemed believable and what did not.

I compared prices, I looked at draft contracts, I looked at publisher timelines, services offered during and after publishing, customer service and any other information that some self-publishers make available for review. I read their FAQ sections of websites and I always looked for independent third party endorsements of the publisher and any of their claims.

I emailed several of the publishers, asking them for clarification of services offered and prices. That was easy to do and I judged them by their responses. Some responded promptly and some did not. Those that did respond scored points with me and those that did not respond at all or not promptly were crossed off my list.

2. Try to make contact with authors.

I checked self-publisher websites to get the names of authors and their titles. I also searched daily newspapers for author names and their book titles. Using the titles of their books, I did searches to try to find email addresses. This worked several times. I was fortunate to be able to talk with several authors about their self-publishing experience. Through this approach, I have established a friendly business relationship with another self-help author in the Midwest. We discuss issues via email periodically.

3. Use your business instincts as a guide to help in your selection.

My gut instincts told me that there were self-publishers who were primarily interested in making money while there were others who wanted to make money and help authors be successful. Here is a classic example.

I interviewed with one local self-publishing firm in the Northwest that wanted to charge me over $20,000 for publishing 3,000 books and doing the copy editing work. I inquired about the possibility of buying the services individually since I did not have that kind of money. They told me that they did not do business that way. I found that to be outrageous because the likelihood of needing 3,000 books right up front was not very realistic.

Then, after looking at their client list, the business plan for this publisher became clear to me. Many of the authors on their client list were older business executives and educational leaders. Many of these folks were merely using books as elegant and expensive calling cards.

By comparison, the array of services from the publisher I selected would have cost in the range of $35,000 to $40,000, if I had chosen all the same services up front as one complete package. The Northwest firm said I had to buy a $20,000 package or there was no deal. However, I did not want to do that. I wanted a self-publisher that had a menu from which I could select at the time that was best for me. I was able to find the firm with the menu I wanted. As a result, my initial investment is much, much lower than $20,000.

The bottom line was that I had to find what I really felt was the right place for me to be with my book. I followed my instincts and I have been very satisfied. The idea that the final selection decision can be logical and based solely on financial and business data would not have worked for me. At some point, you have to look at all your research and say, “I think I will be more comfortable with this firm.” That is what I did.

As I look back on this process now, I believe there are several key decision points that must have resolved to your satisfaction. They are as follows:

1. The firm must have the experience to do a competent job with your work.

2. The self-publisher should have a record of accomplishment of satisfied authors.

3. The firm should have some way of validating their work quality through referrals or endorsements.

4. The firm’s prices must fit your budget.

5. Make sure the firm offers the array of services you might wish to access.

6. The firm should be able to explain how they service their customers.

Ultimately, you have to review all the information you have received and make a final judgment.

I hope some of my ideas will help you with your decision making process.

Anne: Thanks, Jim. This really helps demystify the process. Tomorrow, we’ll get into a comparison between going the traditional publishing route and self-publishing. I think readers may be surprised by some of the answers.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini


Hello, readers —

I have a real treat for you over the next few days: Jim McFarland, successfully self-published author of DO OR DIE: THE BABY-BOOMER MAN’S GUIDE TO REGAINING HEALTH, HAPPINESS, VITALITY, AND A LONGER, FULLER LIFE, has very graciously agreed to answer a few pointed questions about the process of self-publishing.

Most of us have thought about it, haven’t we? It’s appealing, having control over the publication process. Yet how does one go about it? Even for those of us who’ve spent a lot of time hanging out at writers’ conferences and reading writers’ publications, our information on the subject tends to be sketchy, at best second-hand and anecdotal.

So I asked Jim to give me the lowdown on the practicalities. Over the next few days, I shall be posting the results. Enjoy!

Anne: How did you come to the decision to self-publish?

Jim: At the age of 52, I received a bone chilling call from my doctor following a physical in the spring of 2002. He told me that in addition to my problems with hypertension and obesity, I was now close to having type two diabetes, a chronic condition attacking millions of older Americans.

After the call, I went out searching for resources to help me figure out what to do. Unfortunately, my search left me empty handed. I found nothing because there was no comprehensive “health renewal guide” for older men. Such a resource did not exist. Within weeks, my searches turned into notes and then notes turned into short “how to articles.” After another six to eight weeks of introspection and contemplation, I decided that it was my job to write a guide to help older men with their health.

Entitled Do or Die, my book will help baby boomer men restore health, vitality, happiness, and longevity through fitness, faith, and food. Do or Die helps men figure out how to get out of denial and discover the inspiration and willpower to create a life-changing renewal and a healthy lifestyle.

What motivated me to write is a simple and sad fact. Middle-aged men between the ages of 45 and 64 are dying from cardiovascular disease and stroke at double the rate of women in the same age group. According to the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics in 2002, 79,873 men died from cardiovascular disease or stroke. That works out to 219 baby-boomer men per day. I still find that figure almost too incredible to believe. However, it is true.

Frankly, I simply reached a point in my life where I said, “I am sick and tired of watching and hearing about thousands of men giving up and dying. Men need help and I want to wake them up and tell them their lives are worth living. My book Do or Die will help men begin to make those changes.”

Fast forward to the spring of 2004, nearly 23 months following my physical. I had spent months writing and submitting proposals to agents and publishers. They were turning me down about as rapidly as I could distribute them. I was starting to believe that my idea for the book was just not going to gain any traction. Early one afternoon I opened and read my 34th proposal rejection letter from an agent. I was frustrated, exhausted, cranky, and ready to quit writing.
I decided the medicine that might help me the best was a two to three week hiatus away from anything and everything related to writing.

During this forced vacation, I began thinking about why I had started to work on this project in the first place. What I discovered in the middle of all of this was that I had become a slave to the process that every writer, literary agent and publisher talks about. You know what I am talking about. Of course you do. You may have become a slave to the process and lost sight of why you started this journey in the first place.

This is the grinding and toiling associated with writing proposals and trying to get somebody, somewhere to pay attention to your idea. You work extra hours on weekends, nights, noon hours, before work, and after Church. Whenever you can squeeze another edit out of a proposal, or make another trip to Kinko’s to copy something that has to be mailed the following day. You know the feelings. Your hopes are up; the process enthralls you, because you are making progress. At least you think you are moving forward.

Somehow, somewhere in the middle of writing I forgot about the fact that approximately 200,000 books are published every year. I forgot about the heated competition that exists for ideas that will make the cash registers ring in bookstores. I began to think, as we all do, that my book would own the real estate in an agent’s mind.

My proximity to success was palpable every day I sat at the typewriter. I could see myself on Oprah sharing my story with the masses. I could envision customers lining up in bookstores waiting to have me sign their precious copies. I could see myself on television, giving interviews to local news stations.

Yes, I had already painted the canvas with my success, oblivious to what was really happening with my writing project. I was drunk with bravado, hope, and unabashed egotism. Truthfully and sadly, I had really lost sight of my original mission, which was to write a book that will help older men get healthy again.

What helped me escape the vice-like grip of this confusing mess? It was the re-examination of thinking through why I started in the first place. I asked myself two simple, but powerful questions. Why am I writing this book? What do I want out of it? I really did think about quitting. That was a simple and very clean option. It would have been so easy and simple to delete everything about my project from my two computers at work and home. That process probably would have been completed in about an hour. I could have ordered the computer consultant to dump the backup files and the process would have been complete. It would be over. The chapter would have been closed.

As I examined the idea of dumping all these files, I found myself thinking that such an event would be tantamount to burning down a house that was 70 percent complete. Could I really do it? Just dump everything?

Whenever I get into these situations, I find that you have to let your heart lead you through this thicket of confusion. Using your mind, with all of its intended and rational processes, can often result in bad answers and results. Therefore, I led with my heart.

My heart responded to the question about why I was writing with this answer: “to help people.” On the second question of what I wanted out of it, my heart said “you are writing this to help yourself get healthy and to help others learn from your work.”

Following this trump by the heart over the mind, I resolved to go forward to finish the book. The reflection period was over. I would send out a few more proposals to mainline publishers and if those were rejected, then I would move to the world of self-publishing. And that is what I did.

Anne here again: thanks, Jim. Tomorrow, we’ll move on to Jim’s observations on how to navigate the often-confusing morass of self-publishing options.

In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Contractual fluidity

Hello, readers —

Yes, I know, I promised you an entry today on how to write an author bio, and I assure you that I will give you one soon. Today, however, I feel a very strong compulsion to discuss a severe disadvantage under which writers, particularly first-time ones, suffer: contract fluidity.

There are a lot of truisms in the publishing industry, so I don’t feel that I will be telling tales out of school if I mention that on average, publishing contracts hugely favor the publishing company. The publisher gets to set how much the author is paid per copy, when the deadlines are, when and how the book is published, how it will (or won’t) be promoted, and, to a very great extent, the content. It’s like that old joke:

Q: Where does a 300-pound gorilla sit?

A: Anywhere he wants.

From the author’s point of view, until she is well-established, any publisher is a 300-pound gorilla looking for festival seating at her concert. Few of the salient contract points are truly negotiable, unless the author is already well established or a celebrity in her own right. You could not, for instance, decide unilaterally that since the contract specifies that the author will receive a 12.5% share of the cover price for hardback and a 7% share for trade paper, that your book was going to come out in hardback. The publisher makes all of these decisions, with few exceptions; the contract just codifies them. And we writers, by and large, accept that.

What comes as a shock to most writers — myself included, I’ll admit — is that while the parts of the contract that specify what the author must perform tend to be adhered to with praiseworthy rigidity by all parties, the parts that specify what the publisher will do in return and when tend to be treated as mere guidelines.

An author could not, for instance, refuse to deliver a manuscript by the date specified in the contract, or neglect to perform requested revisions, or back out of touring to promote the book, without being in breach of contract and sued accordingly. A publisher can, by contrast, change or ignore contracted deadlines, not honor agreements set forth in the contract about presentation specifics, and/or not pay the advance and royalties in a timely manner.

Yes, you read that correctly; one of the best reasons to work through an agent is to have an enforcer for the money part of the contract. A standard publishing contract specifies that 1/3 of the advance will be paid on signing, 1/3 upon delivery of the manuscript, and 1/3 when the book is released. However, it is far from uncommon for the advance check not to show up for months after the contract is signed, or for six months or a year to pass between royalty checks.

Let me ground this in practical terms. In my own case, my publisher bought my book just under eleven months ago. Nine months ago, I delivered the manuscript — two weeks ahead of schedule, as a matter of fact. The first installment of the advance arrived three weeks after that, roughly two and a half months after signing. And not a kopeck since.

Shocked? Don’t be. This is a relatively normal state of affairs.

While that’s sinking in, let me hasten to inform you that the contract also specified that the publisher would furnish me with editorial feedback on the book by August 15, two months after receiving the manuscript. I would then have two months, until October 15, to formulate a new draft, after which my publisher could accept or submit new revision requests by December 15.

Tell me, what is today’s date?

The dates I had set my watch by simply haven’t applied. And there was absolutely nothing I could do about it, except to declare the contract broken and cancel publication.

There’s the rub, you see: how many writers would actually cancel a book contract? Would you stop publication on a book you have been slaving over for years, just because of a technicality? Or even something major?

Exactly. Think the inmates of publishing houses aren’t aware of that? Good answer; you’re starting to get a feel for the logic of the industry.

Nor is timing the only common bone of contention. Contractually, as I mentioned back in the fall, I had consultation rights over the cover design and title approval.

You can see this coming, can’t you?

I was simply presented with a new title by the marketing department — which, in case you don’t know, is the norm for first books — and although I kicked and screamed about it, it stuck. I did not even know that a final decision had been made until my book appeared for presale on Amazon under that title, with a book cover that I’d never seen before. And, of course, the release date — which I also have historically learned first from Amazon — has changed so many times that even my relatives have stopped boasting about when my book will hit the shelves.

And this, incidentally, is for a book that everyone at the publishing house purportedly LIKES. They keep telling me what a good writer I am, how compelling the story I’m telling is, and how little revision it needed. I have every indication that they even like me personally, in fact. But that hasn’t necessarily made them stick to the contract, or stopped them from adding conditions to it after the fact.

And how trained are writers to tiptoe around the 300-pound gorilla? You will note, please, that I am still referring to these people as my publishers. Which means that I have not put my wee foot down and said ENOUGH.

Why? Because none of this is particularly unusual, although having all of it happen on one book is. As I said, contractual fluidity is proverbial, at least insofar as it applies to the publishing house’s end of the deal. Because authors do get sued when they don’t live up to their end of the contract; publishing houses, by and large, do not.

You probably already know why. It’s all about reputation. A writer who insists upon the letter of the contract is “difficult,” a surprisingly hard moniker to shake. Difficult behavior runs the gamut from not turning in manuscripts when promised (which particularly annoys agents) to fighting with editors over piddling changes to not answering e-mails. A difficult writer flies into a fury when telephoned a request. Things like that.

Basically, if you’ve ever heard of Norman Mailer doing it, it’s probably what the industry would consider difficult behavior in a writer. If you want to talk proverbial.

They are not nearly so easy to offend as writers’ conference-circuit gossip would have us believe, though; after all, most of the people making the judgment are New Yorkers, who are used to people getting in their faces. Contrary to popular opinion, no one is going to hold a grudge against a writer who picks up the phone and calls an agent who’s had her requested manuscript for two months, for instance. A difficult writer would have called in a week, and every day thereafter, using language generally debarred from PG films.

(In case you’re curious, the reason you have always been told at conferences NEVER to call is that the agents who say it are speaking to a crowd. They want EVERYBODY not to call; in other words, their lives are hell when every writer who sends a submission follows up with a phone call, as if they were selling aluminum siding. They don’t like the hard sell, so it seldom works. But individual writers who have a legitimate concern that the three-week exclusive the agent asked for on the manuscript elapsed two weeks ago certainly should call.)

What will get you dismissed immediately is being unprofessional, not difficult. You generally have to push someone’s buttons mightily to be labeled difficult, like screaming into a telephone, whereas being labeled unprofessional can be as simple as handing someone a manuscript printed in the wrong typeface.

Having a reputation for being difficult can make editors reluctant to pick up your work, certainly. Since writers know that, we tend to be afraid to rock the boat at all. Still, even with all of us holding stock-still in rowboats all over the nation, every so often, a soft-spoken writer will find that she has inadvertently offended someone, simply by innocently asserting that since the contract exists, perhaps it ought to be honored.

Welcome to my day.

Today, I had a vivid flashback to a college production of Peter Pan. I played Nana, the nursemaid dog, in a costume that makes me blush to think of now; because it was one of those highly experimental productions that youthful exuberance makes seem plausible, I also played a pirate on Cap’n Hook’s ship (I was known for my hornpipe), the Never-Never Bird (defies explanation), and a mythical sea sprite who capered in the waves.

You kind of had to be there.

As Nana, as you may perhaps imagine, I spent a whole lot of rehearsal time scuffling about on my unpadded hands, knees, and elbows. Painful, even for a 19-year-old, especially when we moved into our performance space, which for reasons best known to the architect had concrete floors. Naturally, I asked for gloves and knee pads, but somehow, they never materialized. Oh, by dress rehearsal I had some mittens tarted up as paws, but they had no padding.

(Actual quote from the knee specialist who regularly treats Seahawks, gazing intently at MRI pictures of my knees a decade and a half later: “No kidding? I’m amazed you were able to walk after that.”)

The director told me that my requests were unreasonable, that padding was expensive and bulk would spoil the line of my costume. I stood it as long as I could, but eventually, the pain would become too great, and I’d ask again. And thus, my friends, did I attain the reputation of being a “difficult” actress: because I pointed out that permanent damage was being done to my knees.

Not that this has anything to do with my book or anything.

I wish I had some words of wisdom about how to handle contractual fluidity, but today, I honestly don’t. All I can do in this instance is to let you know about it as a phenomenon, so you don’t feel singled out if it happens to you. Which I hope and pray that it doesn’t.

As nearly as I can tell — and this is the voice of experience gleaned over a decade of marketing my own writing and observing the progress of my friends and clients — most people in the publishing industry simply don’t understand that heaping stress upon writers is counterproductive. As any artist could tell them, stress interferes with the creative process. We’re not copy-generating machines; we’re living, breathing people who would like to be treated with respect, not sat upon by gorillas.

This is definitely a business where it behooves you to bring your own knee and elbow pads from home.

My, I’m gloomy today, amn’t I? I’ll try to snap back into cheerful mode again by next week. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

The Novel Project

Hello, readers —

Many, many thanks to the kind souls who have been writing in to let me know how my recent contest postings have (or have not) been helpful in getting contest entries out the door. Part of the difficulties of writing for a nebulous audience with a broad range of experience is that it’s hard to tell if I’m telling readers what they already know, so the feedback’s been very helpful.

For those of you who missed yesterday’s post, a novel of mine is just passing into the submission phase of its existence, the nail-biting period where editors shake their heads over it and, I hope, guffaw from time to time. I thought you might like to hear about what happens to a novel after an agent takes it off the author’s hands. So greetings from the Novel Project, Day 3.

Have you ever wondered what that notation in the agents’ guidebooks, “charges for photocopying” means, and why some agencies seem to do it and some don’t? Are some just nicer to authors than others? And what precisely are they photocopying? The book contract, or the Manhattan phone book?

Actually, the distinction is not between an agency’s charging for photocopying and not; it’s between whether the agency DOES photocopying or not. This may not seem like a major issue, but think about it: these people are dealing with many, many manuscripts. Where does each submission copy come from?

An agency that charges for photocopying will handle producing all of those necessary copies itself. Rather than asking for that money up front (copying deposits from writers used to be not uncommon), the agency will wait until the book is sold, then subtract the copying costs from the first part of the advance. (Depending on the agency, similar arrangements may exist for postage and/or messenger costs.) Basically, this kind of agency is demonstrating its faith in its clients’ books by fronting office expenses.

From the writer’s POV, there are definite plusses to this arrangement. It’s a lot less work, for one thing, than when the author handles making the copies herself. In most cases, if the book does not ultimately sell, the author never gets a photocopying bill. And often, the per-page price is quite reasonable, perhaps a bit more than your local Kinko’s, but then, you save the cost of shipping all of those copies across the country.

Do check before you sign, though, because sometimes it’s quite a bit more. (This is a perfectly legitimate question to ask an agent who is interested in representing you.) I have known authors who have opted out of the arrangement, choosing to make the copies for themselves, because it was cheaper.

There’s another reason that you might want to consider opting out. If you are a writer who is prey to last-minute qualms, rewriting and rewriting, it is not beyond belief that at some point, you will want to make a change after your agency has gone ahead and photocopied a previous draft — which would leave you with a double charge. And if we’re talking about 15 copies of a 300-page book… well, you do the math.

The other kind of agency does not photocopy, except in cases where instant production of a copy is deemed essential. Your agent was pitching something else, realized she was having lunch with the perfect editor for your book, but you were deep-sea diving off Costa Rica and could not be reached… that sort of thing. When this type of agency wants to submit your work, your agent calls you up and says, “Gee, can you send me 20 copies of your book proposal?” You make the copies yourself, then ship the whole shebang to the agency.

Yes, it’s more work, and yes, you do end up paying the shipping costs, which can be considerable. Paper is heavy. However, you have control over the type of paper used, the print quality, and even the number of submissions. When your agent has to ask, you can negotiate. You have absolute control of how much you are out-of-pocket — and even though all of these expenses are tax-deductible (even if you have a day job, writing can technically be your small business), you may very much want to make sure you don’t go too far into debt for them.

I’ve been with both types of agency, and I have to say, I prefer the latter. But then, I don’t feel that the paper generally used for photocopying is high enough quality to present my work well. Unless I’ve been asked to provide a zillion copies, I prefer to print them myself.

My writer friends have a name for this: obsessive. And perhaps it is. But something happened when I photocopied my master’s thesis that shook me to the core: unbeknownst to me, a copying machine ate pg. 42. So I turned in a thesis that was missing a page, one that I like to think was rather important to my argument. Woe and uproar ensued.

At the risk of making everyone paranoid, tell me, when you photocopy a long document, do you generally go through it to make sure that all of the pages are there? That none of them are smudged? Or that there aren’t extra blank pages tucked inside?

So that is why today, after yesterday’s little chat with my agent, I spent today printing up eight copies of my 395-page novel on bright white 24-lb. paper and stuffing them in a great big box. (In case you’re curious, it required an 18″ x 12″ x 10” cardboard crate.) Yes, it would have been substantially quicker just to run up the hill to my adorable little neighborhood copy store, but do you have any idea how much they charge for higher-grade paper? Or how they look at you when you want to go through each copy, page by page?

Okay, so maybe it IS a tad obsessive. But these copies are gorgeous. They feel good in the hand. The paper is blinding white; every letter on every page is dark and sharply-defined. I was able to catch that typo on pg. 361. And I assure you, pg. 42 is in each and every copy.

Besides, all of that printing time gave me leisure to punch up my author bio, which needed to accompany each copy. Of that, more tomorrow.

In the middle of the process, watching myself check margins for stray ink smudges, I had to laugh: after all of my months of urging you all to pay attention to the cosmetic details, this is probably how many of you picture me spending every day. No, just when a submission has to get out the door, but then, I truly do practice what I preach.

Ah, the glamour of a writer’s life…

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

The dawning of a new era

Hello, readers —

I’m going to operate under the assumption that a lot of my regular readers are spending this prototypically gray PNW day frantically proofreading their entries, searching wildly for an envelope large enough to fit two copies, and generally freaking out because it’s deadline day for the PNWA literary contest. (For those of you Seattle-area members who are truly panicking, there’s a post office down near SeaTac who postmarks later than the average — until 8 p.m., if memory serves, but do call ahead of time and make sure. It’s in Burien.)

Remember the feeling of this day: after you win (as I sincerely hope you will), people will ask you about how confident you felt as you passed your entry into the tender care of an overworked postal employee. Just so you know, “I wondered why I put myself through this hell” does not play well as a response. Make up something you’d like your biographers to reprint a hundred years from now.

So now the long wait to hear back begins. Category finalists are generally notified in late May or early June, early enough that they can get good airfares to attend the conference. If your entry does not make the finals, you will not hear back until after the conference, when you receive your feedback sheets.

If you are a finalist, PLEASE, for your own sake, try to make it to the conference. There are scholarships available (check the PNWA homepage for details.) A finalist ribbon dangling over one’s stomach is like a backstage pass at a sold-out rock concert: if you’re brave about it, it really does allow you much more leeway about buttonholing agents and editors in the hallways. Not to mention making it substantially easier to meet other contest attendees; it’s an instant conversation-starter, a variation on the contest-ubiquitous, “So, what do you write?”

In case you’re curious about what will happen to your entry between now and then, first, it will be processed by wonderful, charming volunteers who don’t get nearly enough credit for the hours they put in on all of our behalves. They do the bureaucratic part, separating the entry form from the entries, arranging them by category for blind judging, assigning numbers so they can later figure out whose anonymous entry was whose. Then they go to the category chair, who in turn will assign them to the first-round judges. Two first-round judges will read each entry, filling out complex rating forms. After the entries are ranked, the category chair will tabulate the findings, make ultra-sure that all of the top-ranked entries met ALL of the entry requirements, and come up with a list of finalists. The bureaucratic end will then figure out who those entrants were, and then the finalists’ entries will go on to the category judge, usually either someone prominent in that particular field or one of the agents or editors attending the conference.

With the exception of the final judge, every single person who touches your entry is a volunteer. You should stand and cheer for these people; they are doing us all a great big favor.

If you did not enter this year’s contest, you might want to consider contacting the PNWA and offering to be a first-round judge in your favorite category. I can think of no experience that will educate you faster (short of being a query screener in a top-ranked agency) about what does and does not look professional in a manuscript. You will also get an unparalleled view of the kind of competition you can expect if you enter future contests. It’s also quite interesting, and the joy a judge feels upon discovering a hit-it-out-of-the-ballpark entry really isn’t like anything else. (Except, perhaps, watching your favorite ball player hit a home run. But that lasts for a mere second, while the elation of reading a truly superlative entry lasts for hours. Or maybe I’m just more enamored of good writing than most people.)

As it happens, I am beginning a waiting phase today, too: yesterday, my agent and I decided that the time was ripe to start marketing my novel. Yes, I write fiction, too: very mainstream fiction with a comic twist. Since I’ve been able to fill you in from time to time on the bizarre side journeys a memoir makes on its way to publication (although admittedly mine has had a stranger trip than most), I thought it might be interesting if I tracked the novel’s progress here, too. That way, you could get a sense in real time what it feels like to have a really good agent out there shopping around your work.

Since the decision was made yesterday, let’s call that The Novel Launch: Day 1.

But it’s far from a new book, in real terms. My agent has had a draft of THE BUDDHA IN THE HOT TUB since early September, 2004; when I was deciding between agents for my memoir (such a luxury; it really IS wonderful to win a major category in the PNWA contest!), I asked each of them to read the novel, too, to make sure that they would be open to representing ALL of my work. I took it through another two drafts after that.

So why didn’t it hit the market immediately? This may come as a surprise to some of you, but that there is often long-term discussion between a writer and an agent about timing. (The discussion often runs something like this: the author says, “Is it time yet? Is it time yet?” and the agent says, “Not quite.” Repeat often.)

Remember all of those publishing world planned lulls I told you about last fall? The end-of-summer vacations, which can last from the middle of August until after Labor Day; the Frankfurt Book Fair in October; the Thanksgiving-to-Christmas holidays, when everything slows to a grinding halt, so agents and editors can get back to everything they’ve put off from the rest of the year, and the January combination of “Help! We’re buried under every unpublished writer in North America’s New Year’s resolution submissions!” and “Help! All of our tax information for last year must be in order by the end of the month!” All of these affect timing, as does conference season. One week might be a far smarter time to start shopping a book around than the following one.

Also, in my case, the memoir obviously took precedence. It is quite rare that a writer’s agent will be marketing different projects for her simultaneously, and these two projects are very different indeed: one is a memoir about my relationship with a long-dead science fiction writer, and the other is a comedy about the adult lives of children who grew up on a commune in the Oregon Cascades. Or, as my writing group tends to think of them, my beatnik book and my hippie book. Can flappers be far behind?

We’re going to do a limited submission the first time around, which means 6 to 8 hand-picked editors will get to take a gander at the book, people at publishing houses so perfect for me that my agent and I would dance a little jig if they wanted it. (Not all agents who handle fiction do it this way; in fact, it’s more common for agents handling first-time novelists to send out only one submission at a time.) It may be days, weeks, or months before we hear back from any of them.

In the short run, though, I have a million things to do to prepare for this submission, so I am going to run off and do them. Tomorrow, I shall tell you what they were, so you can see for yourself just how much work goes into getting a novel out the door to editors.

In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Plot Flares

Hello, readers —

I’ve gotten SO many e-mails from stressed-out contest entrants, responding to my weekend posts about formatting, that I’m not going to write about anything contest-related today. I suspect everyone could use the rest, after (or in the midst of) getting that entry postmarked on time. So today, I’m going back to mega-problems, a little number I like to call the Plot Flare phenomenon, something I can tackle in a fun and nonstress-inducing manner.

Before I move on to nice, soothing manuscript mega-problems again, though, I do want to apologize to everyone who had already entered by the time I mentioned a title page for the entry. Let me be clear: the contest rules do NOT require a title page; a judge will not maul your entry if you did not include one with your entry. Relieved? In this instance, the title page was a cosmetic measure, designed to make your entry look more professional.

However, I do have to say, the reason that I did not mention it until this weekend’s posts was that it actually wouldn’t occurred to me NOT to include a title page in ANY packet that included a manuscript of mine or a portion thereof. All of my elementary short stories had title pages, even. Now, admittedly, I grew up around so many professional writers that it is hardly an exaggeration to say that home sweet home was insulated primarily by paper, but in retrospect, I had to wonder: whence the title page impulse?

When in doubt about the source of my literary prejudices (which, as you may have gathered, are legion), I did what I always do: ask my friends who’ve had success hunting down agents and selling books. Without exception, they were all nonplused by the notion of sending out a piece without a title page, too, unless it was a commissioned article for a magazine, but none of us could recall where we’d picked up that useful little habit. But every writer we know does it. Perhaps this indicative of creeping egomania, but even in a contest entry, where the author is not allowed to display her name, all of us felt that the “Ta da!” of the title page was still advisable, and even necessary.

Which leads me to a corollary question, one that had not occurred to me before: have you all been sending title pages with your requested material submissions to agents and editors? I can’t remember ANY instance where an agent’s submission guidelines actually specified its inclusion, but it does most definitely make your work look more professional, if it’s in standard format. (See last week’s posting on the subject, if you’re in doubt.) And, as in a contest entry, anything you can do to your submission to make it resemble what the pros do gets your work taken more seriously.

Okay, on to Plot Flares, an early screaming indication that something specific is going to happen later in the plot. From the author’s POV, these hints are generally subtle, mild foreshadowing of events to come. As character development and background, small hints are often advisable, or even unavoidable. If these hints aren’t AWFULLY subtle, though, they can give away the rest of the book, deflating suspense as surely as helium comes out of a balloon when you jab a needle into it. And to professional readers, who see every plot twist in the book, so to speak, on a literally daily basis, a poorly-done foreshadowing hint glows in the middle of a page like a flare set up around a midnight highway accident: don’t go there.

Once again, this is a phenomenon familiar to all of us from movies: the eventual startling plot twist is revealed in some small way within the first twenty minutes. There are, of course, the classics: if the female lead faints or mentions putting on weight, she’s going to turn out to be pregnant; if any man announces that he’s counting the days until retirement, he’s going to be killed (and, heaven help us, “Danny Boy” will be played on the soundtrack); if our hero is a sad guy, he will inevitably turn out to have had a beautiful (and often, in the flashback, silent) wife and possibly cherubic child who were slaughtered before his eyes while he watched, helpless. Pathos, pathos. And if you don’t believe me that these clichés transcend genre or even writing quality, that last example was the backstory for the Sidney Poitier character in”>GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO (courtesy of Bad Men with Guns). It gets around.

The list is practically endless. In a television detective story, the actor with the best résumé (who therefore cost more than the other players) will turn out to be the murderer; so will Ray Liotta, John Malkevich, Ice-T, and/or Christopher Walken — unless, of course, the directors have elected to incorporate what I like to call the Liotta Lapse, where they use an actor so habitually typecast as the guy you’re SUPPOSED to think did it, so the twist can be that someone else did.

Actually, I’ve always found it rather amusing that people in the movie industry continue to think that we’re all surprised by plot twists set up three miles in advance — in manuscripts, these cliché set-ups tend to be dismissed in the first read-through. I once attended a memorable preview of a forgettable thriller where one of the actors, unfortunately, had shown up to speak to the audience. A fairly well-known TV actor, he swore up and down that the first time he had read the script, he was stunned by the eventual plot twist. When several audience members laughed uproariously (including, I’ll admit it, me), the actor was unwise enough to ask us why. I spoke up: “Because ten minutes into the film, someone mentioned that the guy who turned out to be the murderer ‘had a tough childhood.’ The screenwriter might as well have erected a road sign with a big arrow that read ‘psychopath here.'”

The actor looked at me as if I had just spontaneously derived the theory of relativity from scratch on the spot. “I didn’t catch that,” he claimed.

Now, because I prefer for the sake of the republic to assume that most adults are reasonably intelligent, I assume the actor was lying about his own perceptions in order to protect his film. For such a cause, I can cut him some slack. However, in book form, agents, editors, and contest judges tend not to cut the author of a manuscript any slack at all. Remember, these are not charitable readers, as a rule, but business-oriented ones. They’re looking for plot twists that are genuinely surprising, not set up by plot flares a hundred pages in advance.

Keep your foreshadowing, when you use it, SUBTLE — which means, of course, that unless you’re writing comedy, you might want to avoid having characters say of your politician protagonist in early childhood scenes, “That Harry! Some day, he’s going to be president.: For a hilarious peek at the kind of plot flare to avoid, take a gander at the cult favorite TV series STRANGERS WITH CANDY, a parody of those heavy-handed 1970s Afterschool Specials where a wee Helen Hunt would try drugs once, freak out, and plunge to her death from a second-story window, all to teach us, children, that Drugs are Bad. In STRANGERS, if a pet is going to get killed in order for the protagonist, Jerri Blank, to learn an Important Life Lesson, the script will have Jerri say to her pet, “I would just DIE if anything ever happened to you,” reinforcing it just before the inevitable denouement with “I would like to reiterate that I would just DIE if anything ever happened to you.”

Yes, this is bald-faced, but it’s a fine reminder that good writers let the circumstances lead naturally to dramatically satisfying conflicts and resolutions, rather than sending up plot flares every few pages to make sure that the reader is following along with the point. Because, ultimately, that’s the motivation for plot flares, I think: the author doesn’t trust that the reader is going to be able to figure out the irony.

As a writer, I have to assume that every one of my potential readers is as sharp as I am at picking up those clues. Admittedly, I was the person in the theatre who whispered to my date fifteen minutes into THE SIXTH SENSE, “Why aren’t any of the adults consulting with Bruce Willis about the kid’s case? Totally unrealistic, either in the school system or with the parent. He’s gotta be a ghost,” so we’re talking a rather high bar here, but I like plot twists that make readers gasp ALOUD. If the reader’s been alerted by a flare, that gasp is never going to come, no matter how beautifully the revelation scene is set up. At most, the reader will have a satisfied sense of having figured the twist out in advance.

Keep it subtle, my friends. If there’s a cat in that bag, keep it there until it’s startling for it to pop out. There’s no need to have it meowing all the time first.

And coming off that rather distasteful little metaphor, I bid all of you stressed-out contest entrants au revoir. Get some well-earned sleep, and keep up the good work.

– Anne Mini

Standard Format, AGAIN

Hello, readers —

I am going to revisit standard format again today, to make absolutely certain that every single reader of this blog who plans to enter the PNWA literary contest next week is aware of it. I had dealt with it in December, but those archives aren’t posted yet. So here we go again.

Yes, yes, I know: those of you who are regular readers of this blog now exhibit a conditioned response to the term standard format; Pavlov’s dogs salivated at the bell, and you suddenly sit bolt upright, wondering if there was some unreported technical reason behind your last form rejection letter. You may, in fact, be tired of hearing about it.

However, violations of standard format cost precious points in literary contests; it is often the difference between an entry that makes the finals and one that doesn’t. Put another way, do you honestly think I would be spending a sunny Seattle Sunday inside, going over it one more time for my readers, if it weren’t absolutely crucial to their success?

Here are the rules of standard format, gussied up a bit for contest use. I’ve just quadruple-checked the PNWA contest rules, and I’m going to point out below every area where they are more specific (or different) from standard format.

(1) All manuscripts must be typed and double-spaced, with at least one-inch margins on all sides of the page.

No exceptions, unless the contest rules SPECIFICALLY ask you to do otherwise. Which, lo and behold, the PNWA rules don’t.

(2) All manuscripts are printed on ONE side of the page.

Again, unless you are asked to do otherwise — and yes, this is wasteful of paper. The entire publishing industry is one vast paper-wasting enterprise. Deal with it.

(3) The text should be left justified ONLY.

A lot of writers squirm about this one. They want to believe that a professional manuscript looks exactly like a printed book, but the fact is, it shouldn’t. Yes, books feature text that runs in straight vertical lines along both side margins, and yes, your word processing program will replicate that, if you ask it nicely. But don’t: the straight margin should be the left one.

(4) The typeface should be 12-point Times, Times New Roman, or Courier.

These are plain, not-too-pretty fonts, but they are in fact the standards of the publishing industry; it’s a throwback to the reign of the typewriter, which came in two typefaces, pica (a Courier equivalent) and elite (Times). As I’ve explained before, queries and manuscripts printed in other fonts are simply not taken as seriously. The PNWA rules make this point even more stringently: only entries in these typefaces will be accepted.

If you want a specific font for your finished book, you should NOT use it in your manuscript or contest entry, even if you found a very cool way to make your Elvin characters’ dialogue show up in Runic. That is a matter of discussion between you and your future editor. For the purposes of contest entries and queries, stick to looking like a professional.

If you write screenplays, you may ONLY use Courier. Most screenplay agents will not read even the first page of a script in another typeface — which means that most contest judges will follow suit.

(5) No matter how cool your desired typeface looks, or how great the title page looks with 14-point type, keep the ENTIRE manuscript in the same font and typeface. Do not use boldface anywhere but on the title page.

Industry standard is 12-point. Again, no exceptions, including your title page. You may place your title in boldface, if you like, but that’s it.

There is literally no reason, short of including words in languages that have different scripts, to deviate from this. If you are a writer who likes to have different voices presented in different typefaces, or who chooses boldface for emphasis, this is not a forum where you can express those preferences freely. Sorry.

(6) Words in foreign languages should be italicized.
Including Elvish. You don’t want your judge to think you’ve made a typo, do you?

(7) EVERY page in the manuscript should be numbered.

This one is generally an automatic disqualification offense. The standard way to paginate is in the header, so see point #8.

The PNWA’s contest rules deviate from standard format in one significant respect: they ask that the first page of the manuscript NOT be numbered. (This was more common back in the typewriter days, when the header had to be typed manually onto each page. Skipping one of them actually saved the author some work, back then.) If you don’t know how to tell your word processing program to have a different first page, see yesterday’s blog for instructions.

(8) Each page should a standard slug line in the header, listing ABBREVIATED TITLE/PAGE #. The safest place for this is left-justified, but you can get away with right-justifying it as well.

Okay, here is another area where PNWA rules differ from standard format, which has a strong but not binding preference for left-justified slug lines. But the PNWA’s rules SPECIFY a RIGHT-justified slug line. And since contest rules also specify that the title of the work be on every page, but no number on the first page, your first page’s slug line will simply be the title of the book.

For those of you meeting standard format for the first time, it dictates a slug line that runs thus: AUTHOR’S LAST NAME/ABBREVIATED TITLE/PAGE #. So the third page of my memoir manuscript reads: MINI/A FAMILY DARKLY/3. In contest format, however, the slug line would look like this: A FAMILY DARKLY/3.

(9) The first page of a chapter should begin a third of the way down the page.
That’s twelve single-spaced lines, incidentally. The chapter name (or merely “Chapter One”) may appear on the first line of the first page, but then nothing should appear until a third of the way down the page.

(10) The beginning of each paragraph should be indented five spaces.
Yes, I know that published books — particularly mysteries, I notice — often begin chapters and sections without indentation. Trust me, that was the editor’s choice, not the author’s, and copying the style will surely get your work knocked out of serious prize consideration.

(11) Don’t skip an extra line between paragraphs.

This one is for all of you bloggers out there. The whole darned manuscript should be double-spaced, and paragraphs are all indented, so there is no need to skip a line to indicate a paragraph break.

The ONLY exception is that you may skip an extra line to indicate a section break, but here, too, the PNWA has something specific it would like you to do instead:

* * * * * *

That’s at least three asterisks, centered on the page (which I can’t do in blog format, so you’ll have to use your imagination). No line skipped above, no line skipped below. I use five, because actually, the standard to which this rule is a throwback WAS five, not three.

Again, this is a typewriter-based archaisms, a way to show those crotchety old manual typesetters that the skipped line was intentional; no agent or editor I have met in the last ten years would actually expect you to have asterisked inserts in your manuscript. But where contest rules lead, entrants must follow.

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

Again, this was for the benefit of the manual typesetters, but I actually think this one makes sense. When numbers are entered as numbers, a single slip of a finger can result in an error, whereas when numbers are written out, the error has to be in the inputer’s mind.

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

Yet another signal for ye olde typesetters, archaic but still honored. It was so they could tell when the author intended a dash, and when a hyphen.

Yes, I know that your word processing program will automatically change a doubled dash to a single one. Change it back, because you never know when a real stickler for format is going to end up as your contest judge.

(14) Dashes should have spaces at each end — rather than—like this.

Again, I know: books no longer preserve these spaces, for reasons of printing economy, and many writing teachers tell their students just to go ahead and eliminate them. But standard format is invariable upon this point. It’s a pain, true, but is it really worth annoying a judge over?

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

If you catch a judge under the age of 30, you may get away without including the trademark symbol, but legally, you are not allowed to use a trademarked name without it. Writers — yes, and publishing houses, too — have actually been sued over this within the last couple of years, so be careful about it.

There you have it. If you adhere to these standards in your contest entries (except, of course, where the contest rules specify otherwise), your work will sail past that scourge of entries everywhere, the hyper-nit-picky judge. A manuscript in standard format looks to the critical eye like a couple dressed in formal wear for a black-tie event: yes, it is possible that the hosts will be too nice to toss them out if they show up in a run-of-the-mill casual suits or jeans, but the properly-attired couple will be admitted happily. By dressing as the hosts wished, the couple is showing respect to the event and the people who asked them to attend.

Dress your work appropriately, and it will be a welcome guest in the finalist ring.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Contest Necessities

Hello, readers —

I don’t usually post on Saturdays, but this isn’t just any weekend — it’s the last weekend before entries in the 2006 PNWA Literary Contest are due! I know a lot of you will be spending the long weekend polishing up your entries, so I wanted to get a few last words in before you did.

(Can you tell that I would really, really like for blog readers to take the contest by storm this year?)

First, an oversight in yesterday’s post that several sharp-eyed readers (well done!) pointed out to me: when I refer to skipped lines, I am referring to single lines, not double-spaced ones. And in the two standard title page formats, the name and address info is single-spaced. So thank you to those of you who let me know that I had neglected to mention that.

Okay, let’s assume that you’ve finished the basic writing and paperwork for your contest entry — if not, I can only assume that you are either the world’s fastest writer or an incurable optimist. You’ve read and reread your chapter, and it is both grammatically impeccable and one hell of a good story; John Steinbeck, Mark Twain, and Dorothy Parker would all gnash their venerable teeth, if they still had them, in envy over your storytelling skills. Now it’s time to start asking yourself a few questions, to weed out the more subtle problems that can make the difference between making the finalist list and being an also-ran:

(Some of you may recognize this list from my earlier series on contest entering; yes, I have run it before. However, I noticed that my December postings are not yet archived, so I wanted to make ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN that everyone who could benefit from this checklist gets to see it.)

(1) Is my entry AND the length specified by the contest rules? Is it double-spaced, in 12-point type, with standard margins?

Yes, I know — I’ve been harping on standard format for months. I’ve also seen a whole lot of contest entries in odd formats, or with standard format in the chapters and single-spaced synopses — to be precise, I have seen them be disqualified. Unless the rules specifically state otherwise, keep EVERYTHING you submit to ANY professionally-geared forum in standard format.

(2) Is every page numbered? Does every page (except the title page, or as specified by the rules) contain the slug line TITLE/#?

This is sort of a trick question for those of you entering the PNWA contest: quick, which page do the rules specify SHOULDN’T be numbered?

Kudos to those of you who said pg. 1. How, you ask does one PREVENT a page number from appearing on the first page of a numbered document? Well, in MS Word, under FORMAT, there is a section called DOCUMENT. Under LAYOUT, you may select “Different first page.” Then go into the HEADER/FOOTER and make sure the first page header doesn’t have a page #.

Alternatively, you could just copy the first page of the entry into a separate document and print it from there. Just because technology is rigid doesn’t mean you have to be.

But no matter how you do it, NUMBER YOUR PAGES.

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

Again, this is nit-picky stuff — but people who volunteer as contest judges tend to be nit-picky people. Better to over-identify your work than to under-identify it.

(4) Have I included all of the requested elements on the title page? If it asked me to specify genre and/or target market, have I done that? And is it in the same font and type size as the rest of the entry?

This is not the time to experiment with funky typefaces or odd title page formats. Unless the contest rules specify otherwise, put the whole thing in the same typeface AND TYPE SIZE as the rest of the entry. List only the information you are ASKED to list there. (Although if you want to add something along the lines of “An entry in the X Category of the 2006 Y Contest,” that’s generally considered a nice touch.)

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

Okay, if no one else is willing to call foul on this, I will: writers very often misspell proper nouns, possibly because they tend not to be words listed in standard spell-checkers’ dictionaries. In a contest, that’s no excuse. Check.

And when I say check, I don’t mean just ask your spell-checker. To revisit every editor in the world’s pet peeve, most word processing programs are RIFE with misspellings and grammatical mistakes. I use the latest version of MS Word for the Mac, and it insists that Berkeley, California (where I happen to have been born) should be spelled Berkley, like the press. It is mistaken. Yet if I followed its advice and entered the result in a contest, I would be the one to pay for it, not the fine folks at Microsoft.


(6) Have I spell-checked AND proofread?

Again, most spelling and grammar-checkers contain inaccuracies. They can lead you astray. If you are tired (and who isn’t, by the time she finishes churning out a contest entry?), the path of least resistance is just to accept what the spell checker thinks your word should be. This is why you need to recheck by dint of good old proofreading.

Yes, it is wildly unfair that we writers should be penalized for the mistakes of the multi-million dollar corporations that produce these spelling and grammar checkers. But that’s one of the hard lessons all writers have to learn: the world is not in fact organized on a fair basis. People whose job it is to make sure the dictionaries and grammar-checkers are correct are collecting their hefty salaries and cashing in their stock options without apparently being able to spell Berkeley or hors d’oeuvre. Sorry.

Before you boil over about the inequity of it all, though, think about misspellings and grammatical errors from the contest judge’s perspective. The judge cannot tell whether the problem with the entry is that the author can’t spell to save his life, or he hasn’t bothered to proofread — or if some Microsoftie just couldn’t be bothered to check Strunk and White to see when THERE should be used instead of THEIR. (My grammar checker routinely tells me to use the former instead of the latter in cases of collective possession, alas. Is there no justice in this world?) From the judge’s point of view, the author is invariably the one who looks unprofessional.

This doesn’t mean not to spell-check electronically: you should. But you should NEVER rely solely upon a spell-checker or grammar-checker’s wit and wisdom. They’re just not literate enough, and again, it’s just too easy to accept an incorrect change when you’re over-tired. In my undergraduate thesis, my spell-checker saw fit to change my references to “longshoremen’s coalitions” to “longshoremen’s cotillions.” Lord knows what my readers would have made of that, had I not proofread, too. As it is, I have never been able to get the image of burly stevedores mincing around in sparkly Glinda the Good ball gowns out of my poor brain…

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

As a general rule, I frown upon the use of clichés in print. (You can’t see me doing it, but I assure you, I am frowning right now.) Part of the point of being a writer is to display YOUR turn of phrase, not the thought of others. Occasionally, however, there are reasons to utilize clichés in your work, particularly in dialogue.

You would not BELIEVE how common it is for writers to reproduce clichés incorrectly. (I would not believe it myself, if I had not been a judge in a number of literary contests.) And an incorrectly-quoted cliché will, I assure you, kill any humorous intention deader than the proverbial doornail. So make sure that your needles remain in your haystacks, and that the poles you wouldn’t touch things with are ten-foot, not 100-foot. (Both of these are actual examples I’ve seen in contest entries. How would you pick up a 100-foot pole, anyway?)

When in doubt, ask someone outside your immediate circle of friends — your own friends may well be making the same mistake you are.

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

The synopsis, like everything else in your contest entry, is a writing sample, every bit as much as the chapter is. Make sure it lets the judges know that you can write — and that you are professional enough to approach the synopsis as a professional necessity, not a tiresome whim instituted by the contest organizers to satisfy some sick, sadistic whim of their own. (Even in those instances where length restrictions make it quite apparent that there is behind-the-scenes sadism at work. Believe me, writerly resentment shows up BEAUTIFULLY against the backdrop of a synopsis.)

Don’t worry about depicting every twist and turn of the plot — just strive to give a solid feel of the mood of the book and a basic plot summary. Show where the major conflicts lie, introduce the main characters, interspersed with a few scenes described with a wealth of sensual detail, to make it more readable.

(9) Does this entry fit the category in which I am entering it?

If you have the SLIGHTEST doubt about whether you are entering the correct category, have someone you trust (preferably another writer, or at least a good reader with a sharp eye for detail) read over both the contest categories and your entire entry. Yes, even this close to the deadline. This is a crucial decision.

(10) Reading this over again, is this a book to which I would award a prize? Does it read like finished work, or like a book that might be great with further polishing?

It’s a very, very common writer’s prejudice that everything that springs from a truly talented writer’s keyboard should be pure poetry. Even first drafts. However, there are in fact quantities of practical storytelling skills that most of us poor mortals learn by trial and error.

Although contests tend to concentrate on as-yet unrecognized writing talent, they are simply not set up, in most cases, to reward the writer who is clearly gifted, but has not yet mastered the rudiments of professional presentation. And this is very sad, I think, because one of the things that becomes most apparent about writing after a judge has read a couple of hundred entries is that the difference between the entries submitted by writers with innate talent and writers without is vast. An experienced eye — of the kind belonging to a veteran contest judge, agent, or editor — can rather easily discern the work of what used to be called “a writer of promise.”

In the past, writers of promise were treated quite a bit more gently than they are today. They were taken under editorial wings and cherished through their early efforts. Even when they were rejected, they were often sent notes encouraging them to submit future works. (Occasionally, a promising writer will still get this type of response to a query, but the sheer volume of mail at agencies has rendered it rare.)

Now, unfortunately, writers of promise, like everybody else, tend to have their work rejected without explanation, so it’s extremely difficult to tell — even after months or years of patient querying — where one’s own work falls on the talent spectrum. To put it as kindly as possible, until you have weeded out all of the non-stylistic red lights from your contest entries, you truly cannot gain a realistic feel for whether you need to work more on your writing or not.

If you are indeed a writer of promise — and I sincerely hope you are — the best thing you can possibly do for your career is to learn to conform your work to professional standards of presentation. This is one of the best reasons to enter contests like the PNWA that give entrants feedback, just as is one of the best reasons to take writing classes and join a writing group: it gives you outside perspective on whether you are hitting the professional bar or not.

Oh, and it helps to be lucky, too.

Best of luck, everybody. Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Dressing Up Your Contest Entry to Go Out

Hello, readers —

Crikey! You’re very lucky, my friends, that a client of mine alerted me yesterday to a SIGNIFICANT omission in my pre-contest pep talk: I hadn’t yet discussed how to format a title page for a contest entry, had I? Mea culpa.

Most contests do require submissions to include title pages; as I read the PNWA’s rules, they do not, but still, it’s a nice touch. Among other things, it minimizes the possibility of your entry’s being mixed up with the one directly on top of it in the stack (need I even say that I’ve seen this happen?), and honestly, after you’ve agonized for months over the perfect title, don’t you want to showcase it?

To maximize the usefulness of this post, I’m going to go through the basic title page first, then show you how to narrow it down for a contest entry. Yes, I know: title pages seem pretty straightforward, right? Surely, if there is an area where a writer new to submissions may safely proceed on simple common sense, it is the title page.


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

Here again is an area where I feel that writers are under-informed. Writers who make mistakes are their title pages are very seldom TOLD what those mistakes are. Their manuscripts are merely rejected on the grounds of unprofessionalism, usually without any comment at all. I do not consider this fair to aspiring writers, but as I have been bemoaning all week, I do not make the rules, alas.

On the bright side, properly-formatted title pages are rare enough that a good one will make your manuscript (or your excerpt, if an agent asks to see the first chapter or two) shine preeminently competent, like the sole shined piece of silver amidst an otherwise tarnished display.

In the first place, the title page should be in the same font and point size as the rest of the manuscript — which, as I have pointed out before, should be in 12-point Times, Times New Roman, or Courier. Therefore, your title page should be in 12-point Times, Times New Roman, or Courier.

No exceptions, and DEFINITELY do not make the title larger than the rest of the text. It may look cool to you, but to professional eyes, it looks rather like a child’s picture book. You may use boldface, if you wish, but that is as fancy as you may legitimately get.

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

You’re right — it does, PROVIDED you can get an agent or editor to sit down and read your entire submission. (Or, in the case of a contest, provided that your entry is not disqualified on sight for using a different typeface than the one specified in the rules.) Unfortunately, this is a business of snap decisions, where impressions are formed very quickly. If the cosmetic elements of your manuscript imply a lack of knowledge of industry norms, your manuscript is entering its first professional once-over with one strike against it. It may be silly, but it’s true.

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

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

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

Upper left-hand corner:

Your name (real name, not pen name)

First line of your address

Second line of your address

Your phone number

Your e-mail address

Upper right-hand corner:
Book category
Word count (approximate)

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

Your title

(skip a line)


(skip a line)

Your name (or your nom de plume)

There should be NO other information on the title page.

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

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

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

Do not, under ANY circumstances, include a quote on the title page. Many authors do this, because they have seen so many published authors use quotes at the openings of their books. Trust me: putting your favorite quote on the title page will not make your work look good; it will merely advertise that you are unfamiliar with the difference between manuscript format and book format.

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

Upper right corner:

Book category

Word count

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


(skip a line)


(skip a line)

Your name (or your nom de plume)

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

Your real name

Line 1 of your address

Line 2 of your address

Your telephone number

Your e-mail address

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

Obviously, such a wealth of information is not desirable for a contest title page; in fact, it might get your entry disqualified. The trick is to put all of the information the contest rules require on the title page, and leave out the rest. For instance, the PNWA contest’s rules specify that each entry should be clearly labeled with the category in which it is being entered. For the genre categories, you are also asked to list genre; for the nonfiction categories, market and readership. Piece o’ cake.

Let’s say you are entering a gothic thriller into the Adult Genre Novel category. Your title page should look like this, centered on the page in Times New Roman or Courier 12-point:


(skip a line)

(Gothic Thriller)

(skip 3 lines)

An entry in the Adult Genre Category of the 2006 PNWA Literary Contest

That’s it. Leave the rest of the page absolutely white.

For an entry where you also need to list market and readership, it might look something like this:


(skip a line)

A How-to book aimed at Gen Xers

(skip 3 lines)

An entry in the Nonfiction Book/Memoir Category of the 2006 PNWA Literary Contest

Yes, I know it’s simple, and even a little boring. But it looks professional — and for those of you who missed my December-January three-week series on how to better your chances in a literary contest already know, professionalism is the first criterion contest judges note.

Good luck, everybody. And keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Nonfiction book categories (and no, I couldn’t think of a catchier title for it)

Hello, readers –

Here we are at our last installment of book category choices, the nonfiction array. Granted, most of the sections of the PNWA contest are devoted to various flavors of fiction, but as a memoirist myself, I would be the last to slight all of you brave and excellent writers of nonfiction.

Like genre, NF categories are the conceptual boxes that books come in, telling agents and editors roughly where it would sit in a bookstore. By telling an agent up front which category your book is, you make it easy for her to tell if it is the kind of book she can sell.

In a way, nonfiction writers have an easier time boxing their books, for the nonfiction categories give a much rougher indication of shelf location than the fiction. In fact, the categories used in the publishing industry are not necessarily the same as those used by bookstores. In my own area, for instance, I have noticed that Barnes & Noble tends to shelve biography, autobiography, and memoir together; Amazon lumps memoir into the autobiography category. Go figure.

As when you are querying fiction, the category designation belongs in the first paragraph of your query letter, as well as on the title page of your book and as part of your verbal pitch.
As an aside, do bear in mind that the first things an agent or editor now tends to look for in a NF book query is not just a great idea, but the platform of the writer. Platform is the industry term for a writer’s credentials or background to write a particular book. Your job in the query letter will be to sell yourself as the world’s best-qualified person to write this book.

So if, hypothetically speaking, you were entering the nonfiction/memoir category of a major regional writers’ contest, do you think it would be to your advantage if your synopsis gave some indication of your platform?

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

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

HOLIDAYS: a book about entertaining people at particular times of year.

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

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

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

SELF-HELP: a how-to book for the psyche. If you have ANY platform to write one of these, do so. These are the books that can land you on Oprah if you’re NOT James Frey.

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

NARRATIVE COOKBOOK: where the recipes are presented as part of a story, most often a memoir. Ruth Reichl’s COMFORT ME WITH APPLES is the usual example given, but my favorite narrative cookbook is Sylvia Thompson’s FEASTS AND FRIENDS.

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

LIFESTYLE: Less broad than it sounds.

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

FITNESS: exercise for people who consider themselves to be out of shape. Usually includes diet tips, as well as exercise.

EXERCISE: fitness for people who consider themselves to be in relatively good shape, and thus do not need many diet tips.

SPORTS: exercise for competitive people in all shapes.

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

NARRATIVE NONFICTION: THE hot category from a few years ago. Basically, it means using fiction techniques to tell true stories; while IN COLD BLOOD is the classic example simply everyone gives, it would today be classified as TRUE CRIME.

TRUE CRIME: what it says on the box.

BIOGRAPHY: the life story of someone else.

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

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

ESSAYS are generally published in periodicals first, then collected.

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

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

POLITICS: About partisan ideology.

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

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

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

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

ARTS: a rather broad category, no? Books on the history of painting or ballet go here.

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

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

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

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

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

TEXTBOOK: books written by professors for students. Tend to sell quite well.

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

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

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

PROFESSIONAL: books for readers working in white-collar fields that are not medical, legal, or engineering.

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

COMPUTERS: fairly self-explanatory, no?

INTERNET: again – speaks for itself.

AUTOMOTIVE: I’m guessing these aren’t books for cars to read, but to read about cars. (Sorry, I couldn’t think of anything remotely funny to say about this. I’m pretty stressed today.)

FINANCE: covers both personal finances and financial policy.

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

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

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

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

TRAVEL: books on how to get there and what to do when you do get there. I used to write these, once upon a time, so if you want to know how to scrawl copy for a tight deadline while balancing a camp light on a rickety picnic table and simultaneously watching out for bears, I’m your gal.

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

PHOTOGRAPHY: both books about and books of.

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

GIFT BOOK: small books, intended as impulse buys.

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

One final word on the contest front: typically, nonfiction categories are underrepresented; most of the entries in your garden-variety NF contest will be either memoirs, history, or narrative nonfiction. Where are the cookbooks? the contest judges cry. Where is the really well-written how-to book?

I just mention. Don’t write off literary contests just because your work may not be, well, traditionally literary. A well-written book is a well-written book, and I, for one, would not be inclined to sneeze in its general direction.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Genre Fiction

Hello, readers —

Okay, take a deep breath, boys and girls: we’re going to tackle the rest of the fiction book categories today. For the past couple of days, I’ve been going over these essential labels, both because you will need to designate what kind of book yours is when you query about it, and because most literary contests (including the PNWA’s, whose deadline is next week!) request that you specify your book’s category on the title page of your entry.

Agency standards and contest rules do not impose this requirement in order to torment writers, you know; the category you pick will determine to a very great extent whether any given agent or editor will be even remotely interested in your work. Because yes, Virginia, there are professionals who will simply not read a query or listen to a pitch unless it is for a book in one of their chosen categories.

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

There is an unfortunately pervasive rumor on the writers’ conference circuit that a genre label automatically translates into writing less polished than other fiction in professional minds. No, no, no: genre distinctions, like book categories, are markers of where a book will sit in a bookstore, not value judgments. Believe me, an agent who is looking for psychological thrillers is far more likely to ask to see your manuscript if you label it PSYCHOLOGICAL THRILLER, rather than just FICTION. And an agent interested in psychological thrillers will not even sniff at a book labeled LITERARY FICTION.

Case in point: I once had the misfortune to be assigned at a writers’ conference to be critiqued by an editor who did not handle mainstream or literary fiction, which is what I was writing. We could not have had less to say to each other if he had been speaking Urdu and I Swedish, but as long-time readers of this blog know, I am a great believer in trying to turn these conference matching accidents into learning opportunities. So I listened to what he had to say about my first chapter.

What he had to say, unsurprisingly, was that he found the writing excellent, but he would advise that I change the protagonist from a woman to a man, strip away most of the supporting characters, and begin the novel with a conflict that occurred two thirds of the way through the book, the fall of the Soviet Union. “Then,” he said, beaming at me with what I’m sure he thought was avuncular encouragement, “you’ll have a thriller we can market.”

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

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

I could understand his annoyance: actually, if I had been even vaguely interested in writing thrillers, his advice would have been manna from heaven. As would his 20-minute discourse about how people who read thrillers (mostly men) dislike female protagonists. But ultimately, all I really learned from this exchange was the startling truth that specialists in the publishing biz are extremely myopic: to them, books outside their area of expertise might as well be poorly written.

(A brief plug for the value of being charming to everyone you meet in the biz, though: that near-sighted editor ended up being a high mucky-muck at the publishing house that’s currently handling my memoir. Isn’t it lucky that I was nice to him back in the day?)

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

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

Let me state outright that the major genres all have wonderful writers’ associations which can undoubtedly give you more specific information than I can here. This list is intended to guide people’s first forays into picking a category — or, even more practically, to be a last-minute consultation resource for those of you rushing a PNWA contest entry out the door.

Let’s start with SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY, because it is the genre closest to my heart. (My first writing teacher was an extremely well-known science fiction writer, so my first efforts at short stories were naturally in that genre.) You can, of course, simply list SCIENCE FICTION or FANTASY, if your work does not fall into any of the subcategories, but here the more tightly-focused headings:

SCIENCE FICTION ACTION/ADVENTURE: The protagonist must fight incredible odds or impressive beasties to attain his (or, less frequently, her) goals. Jungian archetypes (and that ubiquitous heroic journey structure that screenwriters have so favored since STAR WARS hit the big screen) abound. Eek — is that an Ewok behind that tree?

SPECULATIVE SCIENCE FICTION (what if X were changed?) and FUTURISTIC SCIENCE FICTION (what if my characters lived in a future society where factor X was different from now?) are often mistakenly conflated into a single category. Here’s how to tell the difference: if your protagonist thinks, “Wait — is this a government plot?” now, it’s the former; if it’s a long time from now, and society has substantially changed in many ways in the interim, it’s futuristic. MINORITY REPORT vs. A CANTICLE FOR LEBOWITZ, essentially.

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

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

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

COMIC FANTASY: Elves on ecstasy.

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

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

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

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

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

HISTORICAL: Fairly self-explanatory, no?

COZY: An amateur sleuth is solving the crimes. (Can anyone say NANCY DREW?) VERY popular: about a quarter of the mysteries sold in North America fall into this category.

POLICE PROCEDURAL: The people who are supposed to be solving the crimes are solving the crimes. Very often (and I hope I am not giving away to much here), the police officer in question is tough, nay, hard-boiled…

LEGAL: A lawyer misreads his or her job description, and gets involved with sleuthing his or her way through a case, as in the practically never-ending PERRY MASON series.

PROFESSIONAL: A doctor, professor, reporter, etc. misreads his or her job description, and gets involved with solving a case. If you’ve never seen a movie with a PROFESSIONAL MYSTERY premise, my guess is that you harbor some deep-seated aversion to both movie theatres and television.

PRIVATE INVESTIGATOR: A PI reads his or her job description correctly, and gets involved with solving a case. There was this MALTESE FALCON, see…

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

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


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

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

COPS AND KILLERS: What it says on the box.

SERIAL KILLER: Baaad people.

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

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

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

NOIR: This loner drifts into town, where he collides romantically with someone else’s wife under magnificently moody lighting conditions. His past is shady, and so is his cheerless hotel room; there is some doubt whether he owns a razor, as stubble tends to accumulate on his rugged cheeks — signifying, no doubt, the absence of a wife and/or gainful employment. What’s the probability that he’ll get fingered for a murder he didn’t commit?

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

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

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

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini
P.S.: For those of you who have been following the saga of my memoir’s path to publication, I am sad to report that once again, A FAMILY DARKLY has relapsed into the LEGAL THRILLER stage of its development; even as I write this, lawyers are scratching their learned heads over it. Of particular interest is the issue of whether my telling the truth about a relationship that has been hush-hush since, oh, before the Bicentennial (yes, one of my offbeat claims to fame is that Philip K. Dick laughed like hell when I told him about having to dress up as a miniature colonial wife and wield a mean flatiron in an elementary school diorama on Housework Before Modern Technology) should seriously bother anyone now. More news as it develops.

My Longest Love Affair

Hello, readers —

Happy Valentine’s Day, writers! I was going to devote today to going through the various subgenres of romance, but then it struck me: for most of us, our love affair with the printed word outlasts most of our person-to-person relationships. Bears consideration, I think. I may live with the person I love, but in my house, it’s the books that have their own room.

When I made my will a few years ago (the natural outcome of having bought a house in which to store my mountains of books), I walked into the lawyer’s office with a list of who would get what books in the event of my untimely demise. The lawyer stared at the list blankly for a few beats, then looked up and asked, “Um, do you care who ends up with your bank account?”

Compared to whose grubby mitts will be fondling my first editions of MUSIC FOR CHAMELEONS, BEING THERE, and POSSESSING THE SECRET OF JOY while I’m wrapped in eternal slumber? Was he mad?

This is not, I am told, the way normal people’s priorities work. (I was told this, as a matter of fact, by the lawyer. At some length.)

I was thinking about this over the weekend, because I finally went and saw CAPOTE, part of my lifetime habit of rushing out and seeing the first movie that grabs me when I just don’t want to think about a real-life situation anymore. This is how, in high school, immediately after going to the hospital to visit a good friend who had tried to slash his wrists, I found myself inadvertently sitting through ORDINARY PEOPLE, a story about a boy who tried to slash his wrists; I once cajoled a friend depressed from a break-up with her womanizing boyfriend into just walking into the movie with the nearest starting time — and subjected her to MRS. PARKER AND THE VICIOUS CIRCLE, which features about four womanizers per square inch of celluloid.

So, naturally, when I was frustrated with a glitch in the publication of my memoir, I rushed right out and saw a film about a writer who gets himself embroiled in hugely emotionally-trying dynamics while writing a book. My guardian angel must be writing her doctoral dissertation on irony.

Truman Capote is one of my all-time favorite writers – as if his sentence structure hadn’t been dreamy enough to catch the eye of a book-loving teenager, he and I share a birthday — so I had rather avoided the movie. I don’t like biopics much in the first place, and biopics about writers tend to gloss lightly over the fact that any good writer spends inordinate amounts of time hunched over a typewriter or keyboard. Hunt, peck; sit motionless, thinking; wiggle fingers furiously while spouse tries to instill some recognition of the passage of time. Not exactly the stuff of high drama.

Before you dismiss this, think about it: did anyone on the planet who saw HENRY AND JUNE walk out of it remembering any scenes of either Henry Miller or Anaïs Nin WRITING? I rest my case.

CAPOTE does in fact show the writer writing from time to time, so it gets brownie points in my book (although I don’t believe for a second that our Truman really had a phone sitting on the corner of his writing desk — and stopped writing the second it rang, every time. I once kept writing through a minor earthquake, because I was too embroiled in a scene to notice.) As the film went on, I found myself feeling very defensive on Capote’s behalf, not so much toward the moviemakers as toward the other characters in the movie. Here was arguably the greatest constructor of sentences in the English language living at the time, and all anyone around him seemed to be able to manage to do was whine at him alternately about not writing fast enough or wanting to see how a story turned out before he finished writing about it.

So, actually, it was a really good movie to see while steaming over editorial suggestions. I highly recommend it.

Now, it may not throw a very flattering light upon my character, but honestly, I don’t think I would have gotten as steamed up by a judgmental biopic about my high school boyfriend as I did by this film about my other great teenage love, a brilliant writer I knew only from the printed page. And that’s the miracle of talent, my friends: its products are adhesive to our souls, and its effects are lasting.

So as part of my long-overdue valentine to Mr. Capote, I am going to talk about literary fiction now — because his is invariably one of the first names mentioned in any definition of it. And deservedly so.

I have yet to meet an agent or editor who can give a definition of literary fiction less than a paragraph long. Like art, they know literary when they see it. Yet ask any three agents whether THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP, THE SHIPPING NEWS, and THE COLOR PURPLE are mainstream or literary, and you will probably get at least two different answers.

Frankly, many of us fiction writers find something very compelling in the label. Let’s face it, most of us like to think our writing has some literary value, and critical opinion about what is High Literature changes with alarming frequency. Time and time again, I meet writers at conferences who tell me, “Well, my book walks that thin line between mainstream and literary.” Without reading all of their work — which is really the only way to categorize it — it’s impossible to tell whether these writers honestly are experimenting with new directions in style and construction (which is not a bad definition of literary fiction), or if they merely want to convey that they believe their work is well-written.

Lest you think, as many aspiring writers do, that all good fiction is literary, let me remind you that these are marketing categories, not value judgments, and mislabeling your work will most likely result in its ending up on the wrong desk. In purely practical terms, literary fiction is quite a small percentage of the fiction market (and one whose buyers are overwhelmingly women, in North America), so do be aware that if you pick that category, you may be limiting your book’s perceived market appeal when you pitch it to professionals.

When in doubt, mainstream fiction is usually safe, because it is the broadest — and most marketable — category. And it’s a fairly all-inclusive category in the PNWA contest, too, one that has historically covered literary fiction, too.

If you are in serious doubt whether your book is sufficiently literary to count as literary fiction, apply one of two tests. First, take a good, hard look at your book: under what circumstances can you envision it being assigned in a college English class? If the subject matter or plot is the primary factor, chances are the book is not literary. If you can honestly envision an upper-division undergraduate seminar discussing your symbolism and word choices, it probably is.

The other test — and I swear I am not suggesting this merely to be flippant; industry professionals do this — is to open your manuscript randomly at five different points and count the number of semicolons, colons, and dashes per page. If there are more than a couple per page, chances are your work is geared for the literary market.

If you don’t believe me, I implore you to spend an hour in any reasonably well-stocked bookstore, going from section to section, pulling books off the shelf randomly, and applying the punctuation test. Mainstream fiction tends to assume a tenth-grade reading level: literary fiction assumes an audience educated enough to use a semicolon correctly, without having to look up the ground rules. If you are writing for most genre audiences (science fiction and fantasy being the major exception), most agents and editors prefer to see simpler sentence structure.

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

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

Okay, now I’ve depressed myself with the image of hundreds of you out there doing a search-and-replace on your collective thousands of semicolons. I’m going to launch into the Romance genre subcategories, to cheer myself up again.

You can, of course, simply label your romance novel as ROMANCE — but if it falls into any of the subgenres, it would behoove you to label it accordingly, as there are both agents and editors who specialize that tightly. In whichever category you pick, however, you might want to go light on the semicolons. In alphabetical order:

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

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

EROTICA is not just a euphemism for pornography aimed at women; it’s sexually-explicit writing where arousal is the point, yet is not specifically pornographic. Basically, erotica has to have some plot and character development, as opposed to the um, more clinical characterization of intercourse one finds in pornography. But, realistically, your grandmother would have considered almost all erotica pornographic. (Well, maybe not, depending upon what your grandmother was into.)

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

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

INSPIRATIONAL: If your romance novel is informed by spirituality, it belongs here. If you have romance-writing gifts, you might want to consider the Christian romance market: it’s been growing by leaps and bounds in recent years. And if you feel inclined to write Christian romances for teens… well, let’s just say that if you’re good at it, you may not need to worry about whether Social Security will still exist by the time you retire.

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

PARANORMAL and GHOST ROMANCE are divided by a distinction I do not understand, because silly me, I always assumed that ghosts were paranormal. Sorry. Check with Romance Writers of America.

ROMANTIC SUSPENSE: this used to be called Women in Jeopardy or, more colloquially, Bodice Rippers. No comment, except to remark that both Lewis “Scooter” Libby and Newt Gingrich have published works in this subgenre.

TIME TRAVEL: Your protagonist has given up on the opposite sex in her own timeframe and goes wandering. I’ve always thought that a steamed-up reworking of THE TIME MACHINE would make a great time travel romance — so please, if you have talents in that direction, take this idea and run with it. Just remember to thank me in your acknowledgments, as a cryptic reference for my biographers to find in years to come.

So have a lovely Valentine’s day, everyone, whether you are curled up in chaste enchantment with your favorite author’s work or road-testing something truly unusual for your erotic novel, to see if it is even physically possible. I’m going to steal an hour from writing this afternoon to re-read BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S, because what’s better on a day like this than a bittersweet visit from one’s long-ago love?

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Picking a Genre

Hello, readers —

Devoted reader Dave has written in with another question (which I encourage all of you to do with your writing-related questions; it I don’t know the answer myself, I shall track down someone who does), and in thinking how to answer it, I realized that I had not grappled with the issue of how to categorize your work in awhile. Since the PNWA contest rules dictate that entrants must label their work to a marketing certainty (YA Romance, etc.), I thought this would be a good time to revisit the issue of publishing categories.

Contest-running bureaucrats are not the only ones who will insist that you declare up front (as in on the title page and in your query letters) into which publishing category your book fits. Labels, like standard formatting rules, are very important to agents and editors: if they can’t place your work within a conceptual box, chances are they will reject your work as weird. (And remember, in industry-speak, weird is bad; fresh is good.) Thus, before you submit your work to any agent, editor, or contest, you will need to decide which box is the most comfortable fit for your book.

Please don’t roll your eyes, as so many aspiring writers do, at the idea of squashing your complex rubric of ideas into a two-word phrase like HISTORICAL THRILLER. No one is asking you to summarize your entire book in a single phrase; this is straightforward marketing information. If you want your work to sit on a bookshelf in a bookstore, someone is going to have to pick a shelf. If you want Amazon to sell it, its patrons need to be able to find it under general search parameters. Librarians will want to know where it fits into the Dewey Decimal System.

Don’t make it hard for all of these fine institutions to get your book into the hands of readers by insisting that your book cannot be categorized. (Do anything you can to avoid irritating librarians. As the daughter of one, I can tell you: the most glowing reviews from THE NEW YORK TIMES cannot sell your book as enthusiastically as a librarian who really loves an author’s work.)

And you don’t get to wait until the book is about to come out to pick a category. You will need to mention your book’s genre in your query letter, on the title page of your manuscript (upper right corner is standard), and anytime you pitch. Hard as it may be to believe, to professional eyes, the category is actually more important than the title or the premise. To an agent, the category determines which editors on her contact list she can approach with your book; to an editor, it determines which market niche it will fill. If your work is difficult to categorize, or straddles two categories, their brains go into a tailspin: on which shelf in Barnes & Noble can it rest?

If you shilly-shally about the category to which your book belongs, or even hesitate when you are asked at a conference, you run the risk of appearing uninformed about the industry. I hate to be the one to tell you this, but there do exist agents so category-minded that they will automatically disregard any query that does not specify the book’s category clearly within the first paragraph.

This is serious business.

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

FICTION: also known as MAINSTREAM FICTION. This is the bulk of the market, so do not be afraid of the plain-Jane moniker — it sells like the proverbial hotcakes.

A contest-related caveat: if you are entering the PNWA’s mainstream fiction category, most adult fiction can be categorized here. Even romance, which has its own category, has in the past won the mainstream fiction category. Go figure.

LITERARY FICTION: fiction where the writing style is the major selling point of the book. (Yes, I know — most writers feel this is true of their fiction, regardless of the category.) Generally, it is character-driven, rather than plot-driven, and assumes a college-educated audience.

HISTORICAL FICTION: You’d think this would be pretty self-explanatory, no? However, quite a bit of historical fiction falls into either the ADVENTURE or ROMANCE category. The dividing lines are wavy enough, though, that no one will blame you much if you guess wrong. Was COLD MOUNTAIN historical fiction or historical romance? Here’s a hint: until it hit the big time, agents went around telling writers at conference that historical fiction was dead. They don’t anymore.)

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

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

CHICK LIT: Assumes a female readership under the age of 40; always has a protagonist who is good in bed. In fact, some agents and editors refer to this category as GOOD IN BED. (I swear I’m not making this up.) The sole example that anyone ever uses is BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY.

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

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

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

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

Which brings me to Dave’s excellent question: “Would C. S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower or Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey/Stephen Maturin books be considered mainstream fiction or genre fiction? Is “naval adventure,” a term I have seen applied to another similar series considered to be a specific genre or not?

The answer is: technically, ADVENTURE isn’t genre, Dave — mostly because it sells so VERY well. But so do mysteries, thrillers, and romances, and they’re all genre fiction. The difference is that ADVENTURE is usually shelved with FICTION, rather than in its own separate section. But like so much in the publishing industry, whether NAVAL ADVENTURE is its own subgenre — and whether it’s genre — depends upon when you ask. At the moment, when it’s popular, it is; ten years ago, it wasn’t.

I find it interesting that naval adventure is its own subgenre now, as I’ve never seen Bernard Cornwell’s immensely successful SHARPE series categorized as MILITARY ADVENTURE. (I’ve seen it categorized as both ADVENTURE and HISTORICAL FICTION — and it’s pretty much always shelved with the mainstream fiction.) Why is fighting at sea worthy of its own designation, and fighting on land isn’t?

SPORTS FICTION: Similar to ADVENTURE FICTION, but focused on conventional sports. BRIAN’S SONG leaps to mind here, or any of those many, many stories about feisty coaches bullying kids with problems into forming a cohesive sports team with heart.

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

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

CHILDREN’S: another fairly self-explanatory one, no? Picture books and easy readers belong here.

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

COMICS: exactly what you think they are.

GRAPHIC NOVEL: A book with a COMICS format, but a specifically adult-oriented plot line. (Hint: BATMAN was COMICS; THE DARK KNIGHT was a GRAPHIC NOVEL.)

Whew! And that’s just the non-genre fiction categories; I shall go into the genre categories tomorrow.

Do allow me to reiterate: you only get to pick one for your book. However, as long as you pick something close, you probably won’t be penalized if you guess wrong, because there’s a lot of genuine disagreement amongst professionals about where to draw the lines.

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

Tomorrow, I shall go into some of the fine-tuning issues, as well as getting a start on the genre categories and subcategories.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Hollywood Narration

Hello, readers —

I’ve chosen a relatively light-hearted topic on this unseasonably sunny pseudo-spring day: today, I am going to introduce you to the Short Road Home’s glamorous first cousin, Hollywood Narration. I was stunned to realize that I had not yet written a whole post on this, because honestly, as far as I’m concerned, Hollywood Narration is one of the scourges of both the modern publishing industry AND the screenwriters’ guild. So dig out your dusty sunglasses from the bottom of your backpack, and we’ll get started.

Hollywood Narration is when information is conveyed by dialogue between persons who both already know the information perfectly well — and thus have absolutely no legitimate reason to be having this conversation at all. As in this little gem of human interaction:

“So, Bob, how was your work at the steel mill today?” Sally asked, drying her rough hands on the fraying dishtowel that served her as a makeshift apron. “Having worked there for fifteen years — one before we married, two more before the twins were born, and five years since our youngest girl, Sammy, fell off the handlebars of Bob Junior’s bike and sustained brain damage, forcing me to quit my beloved teaching job and stay home to help her re-learn basic life skills — I imagine you sometimes get sick of the daily grind. But you are my husband, my former high school sweetheart, so I try to be supportive of all you do, just like that time I went down to the police station in the middle of the night in my pink flannel nightgown to bail you and your lifetime best friend, Owen Filch, out after you two drank too much near-beer and stole us the biggest Sequoia in the local national park — renowned for its geysers — for our Christmas tree.”

Bob shook his graying head ruefully. “Ah, I remember; I had gotten you that nightgown for Valentine’s Day the year that little Betty, then aged six, played Anne Frank in the school play. As you know, Sally, I am committed to working hard to support you and the kids. But since our eldest daughter, the lovely and talented Selma, won that baton-twirling scholarship to State, I have felt that something was lacking in my life.”

“Why don’t you go downstairs to the workshop you built in the basement with the money from that car-crash settlement? You know how much you enjoy handcrafting animals of the African veldt in balsa wood.”

“What would I do without you, honey?” Bob put his arms around her ample form. “I’ve loved you since the moment I first saw you, clutching a test tube over a Bunsen burner in Mr. Jones’ chemistry class in the tenth grade. That was when the high school was housed in the old building, you recall, before they had to move us all out for retrofitting.”

“Oh, Bob, I’d had a crush on you for six months by then, even though I was going out with my next-door-neighbor, Tad Grimley, at the time! Isn’t it funny how he so suddenly moved back to town, after all those years working as an archeologist in the Sudan?” Bob did not respond; he was kissing her reddish neck. “But you always were an unobservant boy, as your mother Gladys, all sixty-four years of her, always points out when she drops by for her weekly cup of Sanka and leftover cookies from my Tuesday night Episcopalian Women’s Empowerment Group social.”

Okay, so this is a pretty extreme example — but honestly, anyone who has read manuscripts professionally for more than a few weeks has seen Hollywood Narration almost this bald.

Generally speaking, in real life, people do not recite their basic background information to kith and kin that they see on a daily basis. Unless someone is having serious memory problems, it is culturally accepted that when a person repeats his own anecdotes, people around him will stop him before he finishes. Yet time and again in print, writers depict characters wandering around, spouting their own résumés without any social repercussions.

I blame television and movies for this — and going back even farther, radio plays. As I pointed out a few days ago, TV and movies are technically constrained media: they can utilize only the senses of sight and sound to tell their stories. While a novelist can use scents, tastes, or physical sensations to evoke memories and reactions in her characters as well, a screenwriter can only use visual and auditory cues. A radio writer is even more limited, because ALL of the information has to be conveyed through sound.

As a result, TV, movie, and radio broadcasts are positively crammed with Hollywood Narration — thus the name. How many times have you spent the first twenty minutes of a film either listening to voice-over narration setting up the premise (do I hear a cheer for THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, where an unseen but undoubtedly huge and Godlike Alec Baldwin in the Sky told us all we needed to know? Anybody?) or listening to the protagonist fill in the nearest total stranger on his background and goals? Here’s a very common gambit:

Pretty neighbor (noticing the fact that our hero is toting several boxes clearly marked ACME MOVING AND STORAGE): “So, are you just moving into the building?”

Hunky hero (leaning against the nearest doorjamb, which happens to be beautifully lit, as doorjambs so frequently are): “Yeah, I just drove in from Tulsa today. This is my first time living in the big city. When my girlfriend left me, I just tossed everything I owned into the car and drove as far as I could.”

Pretty neighbor (stepping into his good lighting as much as possible): “Well, I’m a New York native. Maybe I could show you around town.”

Hunky hero: “Well, since you’re the first kind face I’ve seen here, let me take you to dinner. I haven’t eaten anything but truck stop food in days.”

Now, this economical (if trite) little exchange conveyed a heck of a lot of information, didn’t it? It established that both Hunky and Pretty live in the same building in New York, that he is from the Midwest and she from the aforementioned big city (setting up an automatic source of conflict in ideas of how life should be lived, if they should get romantically involved), that he has a car (not a foregone conclusion in NYC), that they are attracted to each other, and that he, at least, is romantically available. (What will happen? Oh, WHAT will happen?) When the scene is actually filmed, call me nutty, but I suspect that this chunk of dialogue will establish that these two people are rather attractive as well; their clothing, hairstyles, and accents will give hints as to their respective professions, upbringings, socioeconomic status, and educational attainments.

Writers of books, having been steeped for so many years in the TV/movie/radio culture, tend to think such terse conveyance of information is nifty. They wish to emulate it, and where restraint is used, delivering information through dialogue is a legitimate technique.

The problem is, on film, it often isn’t used with restraint — and writers have caught that, too.

I’m not talking about when voice-overs are added to movies out of fear that the audience might not be able to follow the plot otherwise — although, having been angry since 1982 about that ridiculous voice-over tacked onto BLADE RUNNER, I’m certainly not about to forgive its producers now. (If you’ve never seen the director’s cut, knock over anybody you have to at the video store to grab it from the shelf, pronto. It’s immeasurably better.) No, I’m talking about where characters suddenly start talking about their background information, for no apparent reason other than that the plot or character development requires that the audience learn about the past.

If you have ever seen any of the many films of Steven Spielberg, you must know what I mean. Time and time again, his movies stop cold so some crusty old-timer, sympathetic matron, or Richard Dreyfus can do a little expository spouting of backstory.

You can always tell who the editors in the audience are at a screening of a Spielberg film, by the say; we’re the ones hunched over in our seats, muttering, “Show, don’t tell. Show, don’t tell!” like demented fiends.

I probably shouldn’t pick on Spielberg (but then, speaking of films based on my friend Philip’s work, have I ever forgiven him for changing the ending of MINORITY REPORT?), because this technique is so common in films and television that it’s downright hackneyed. Sometimes, there’s even a character whose sole function in the plot is to be a sort of dictionary of historical information.

For my nickel, the greatest example of this by far was the Arthur Dietrich character on the old BARNEY MILLER television show. Dietrich was a humanoid NEW YORK TIMES, PSYCHOLOGY TODAY, SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, and KNOW YOUR CONSTITUTION rolled up into one. (He also, several episodes suggested, had a passing familiarity with the KAMA SUTRA as well — but then, it was the ’70s.) Whenever anything needed explaining, up popped Dietrich, armed with the facts: the more obscure the better.

The best thing about the Dietrich device is that the show’s writers used it very self-consciously as a device. The other characters relied upon Dietrich’s knowledge to save them research time, but visibly resented it as well. After a season or so, the writers started using the pause where the other characters realize that they should ask Dietrich to regurgitate as a comic moment. (From a writer’s perspective, though, the best thing about the show in general was the Ron Harris character, an aspiring writer stuck in a day job he both hates and enjoys. Even when I was in junior high school, I identified with Harris.)

Unfortunately, human encyclopedia characters are seldom handled this well, nor is conveying information through dialogue. Still, we’ve all become accustomed to it, so people who point it out seem sort of like the kid in THE EMPEROR’S NEW CLOTHES:

“Why has Mr. Spielberg stopped the action to let that man talk, Mommy?”

“Hush, child. There’s nothing odd about that.”

Well, in a book, it IS odd, and professional readers are not slow to point it out. It may seem strange that prose stylists would be more responsible than screenwriters for reproducing conversations as they might plausibly be spoken, but as I keep pointing out, I don’t run the universe. I can’t make screenwriters do as I wish; I have accepted that, and have moved on.

However, as a writer and editor, I can make the emperor put some clothes on.

By and large, agents, editors, and contest judges share this preference for seeing their regents garbed. It pains me to tell you this, but I have actually heard professional readers quote Hollywood Narration found in a submitted manuscript aloud, much to the disgusted delight of their confreres. At minimum, it is not going to win your manuscript any friends if your characters tell one another things they already know.

The problem is, we’ve all heard so much Hollywood Narration in our lives that it is often hard for the author to realize she’s reproducing it. Here is where a writers’ group or editor can really come in handy: before you submit your manuscript, it might behoove you to have an eagle-eyed friend read through it, ready to scrawl in the margins, “Wait — doesn’t the other guy already know this?”

In self-editing, there is an infallible device for detecting Hollywood narration: any statement that any character makes that could logically be preceded by the phrase, “As you know…” should probably be cut, or at any rate reworked into more natural dialogue.

I’m off now to enjoy this beautiful day. I’m told that Seattlites lead the nation in sunglass sales, and are right at the bottom in terms of per capita umbrella ownership. (“Rain?” we ask puzzled visitors who timidly suggest that it might be prudent to shade one’s head from a downpour. “THIS isn’t rain. THIS is a thick mist.”) Which means that we are either as a group charmingly optimistic or totally deluded about our climate. Or perhaps merely that, like moles, our long, gray winter renders our eyes unaccustomed to bright light.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

The Virtue of Patience

Hello, readers —

I’m taking a little break from my series on manuscript mega-problems and how to solve them to address one of the great irritations of a writer’s life: having to wait, often for long periods, for someone else to make a decision that has a vital impact upon your life.

Every writer who has ever queried an agent or submitted to a small press knows what I’m talking about, I suspect. You pour your heart, soul, and hopes into that submission, send it off — and then find yourself in a seemingly endless limbo, waiting to hear back. You tell yourself that agencies and publishing houses get stacks of submissions daily, so you should not expect yours to be read right away, but still you hope.

Then, as the days stretch into weeks (and sometimes, into months), you start to fantasize scenarios that explain the long delay, a natural impulse for a creative mind to have. If you were asked to send the first 50 pages or the whole manuscript, you might convince yourself that the agent just can’t make up her mind, and thus needs to have everyone in the agency read the submission, too, or that the editor at the small publishing house has taken the book home, so he can read through it again slowly.

You go through agonies, trying to figure out whether to call or not. But because every writers’ publication you have ever seen and conference speaker you have ever heard has told you that agents and editors positively HATE it when writers make follow-up calls, you sit tight.

As time passes, your fantasies start to take on a more sinister aspect. Maybe a fire broke out, and they’ve lost your address, along with half of your manuscript. (If only you’d put your e-mail address in the slug line, so the charred remains of every page would contain your contact information!) Maybe a first reader at the agency, an aspiring writer himself, was overcome with jealousy at your matchless prose and threw your manuscript away. (The jerk probably did not even recycle it. That type never does.) Maybe your protagonist reminded the agent so forcibly of her late husband, tragically lost a month ago in a freak ballooning accident, that she has not been able to make it through more than five consecutive pages without bursting into tears and needing to be carried bodily to her therapist’s office. Or, still worse, did you forget to send a SASE?

By now, you have bite marks on your hand from forcibly restraining yourself from picking up the phone to ask what’s going on with your manuscript.

In your heart (and from reading this blog), you know that it is far more probable that the delay is not a vacillation problem, but a lack of time: queries, excerpts, and entire manuscripts often languish on the corners of desks for months before the right people have an opportunity to read it. And if they like the first few pages, it is not uncommon for them to take it home, intending to read it in their spare time — where it has to compete with spouses, children, exercise, and all of the other manuscripts that made their way home.

All of this spells delay, and bless your heart, you try to be reasonable about it. Even when the pressure of waiting is migraine-inducing (for some reason that medical science has yet to pin down, writers seem more susceptible to migraines than other people; on the bright side, we seem to be far less susceptible to Alzheimer’s), you keep your little chin up.

And, if you’ve been at it awhile, you bitch to your writer friends about it — because, frankly, after years living with this kind of anxiety, your non-writing kith and kin have gotten a trifle impatient with your delay-induced stress. (If you have not yet discovered the balm of talking through your anxiety with someone who’s been through it herself, run, don’t walk, to your nearest writers’ conference to make some friends.) People at work start to ask, annoyingly, “Why do you put yourself through this?” Your partner suggests tentatively that if you took a third mortgage on the house, perhaps you could self-publish. Anything to end the stress.

But this is how the publishing industry works.

No matter how good your writing is, you must live through these long periods of nail-shredding anxiety. Actually, good writers have to put up with it more than bad ones, and professional writers more than unprofessional ones, because poor writing and poor presentation tends to get rejected at the speed of light. Literally: as soon as the first few sentences of a rejectable piece hit the retina of a screener, that manuscript is toast.

At the risk of depressing you into a stupor, these waiting periods do not go away once you have landed a terrific agent. Nor do they become substantially shorter or less stressful, a fact that has come as a surprise to every successfully published writer I know.

Think about it. Once you sign with your dream agent and whip your manuscript or proposal into fighting trim, the agent will send it out to editors — frequently waiting to hear from one before moving on to the next. Cast your mind back a few paragraphs ago, to all of the things that can distract an editor from reading a manuscript, and it may not surprise you to hear that even great writers with magnificent agents end up waiting for months to hear back from a single editor.

Then, once the editor decides she likes the book enough to acquire it, she has to pitch it to the rest of the publishing house. More delays.

And, as I can tell you from personal experience, great potential for stalling abounds after the publishing contract is signed. Many, many people need to approve each step, from the editor to the publisher to the copyeditor, proofreader, and marketing department. At any stage, the process could stall.

I am telling you this, not to discourage you, but so that you will not feel singled out. Long delays are not a reflection upon the quality of your writing, or even necessarily of its marketability, but rather a function of how the industry works.

Please, please, don’t beat yourself up about it — but do provide yourself with a support group of people who will understand and sympathize with your frustration. Because, like it or not, well-meaning folks who don’t know how the business works will keep peppering you with unintentionally cruel questions like, “So, when is your novel coming out?” They will be astonished when their friendly concern causes you to burst into tears, because some agent has been sitting on your first three chapters for the past nine weeks; other writers will be neither surprised nor blame you for it.

It’s a good idea to start building your support system long before you finish your first book, for otherwise, most of the people around you will have a hard time understanding that difficulty in attracting an agent, or your agent’s having trouble placing the book, is not necessarily a reflection of your talent as a writer. Once you do hook up with an agent, the friendly questions come even thicker and faster. In the popular mind, landing an agent or winning a contest automatically equals instant publication; I’m quite certain that people don’t mean to be nasty when they act as though the writer has done something wrong when the book does not sell right away, but that doesn’t mean their unspoken dismay does not hurt.

The important thing to remember is that while your work is about who you are, the way the industry treats writers isn’t.

When I was a kid, my older brother’s favorite joke was a shaggy dog story about an old man leading his heavily-laden burro from village to village across a long stretch of desert. Every time they near anything that looks remotely like a water source, the burro asks, “May I have a drink now?” Each time, the heartless old man replies, “Patience, jackass, patience.” My brother could keep the patter up for half an hour, weaving it through a lengthy and ever-changing tale about the old man’s adventures: at each stop, no matter where, the same question, the same response: “Patience, jackass, patience.”

What made the joke so appealing to a prepubescent boy bent upon tormenting his little sister, of course, was the ultimate pay-off: after so much repetition, the listener would eventually either express some wonder whether the story was ever going to reach its point, and then the teller could say, “Patience, jackass, patience.” Knowing the point, I tried my best to stay still, to say nothing, to pretend I didn’t even hear him, but eventually, I couldn’t take it anymore. Even running away as fast as possible the moment he uttered the first line of the joke gave him the excuse to shout it after me: “Patience, jackass, patience!”

If only I had known that he was preparing me for a life as a writer. In the face of such relentless taunting, it honestly does take practice to sail through it all with one’s sense of humor intact. Although now, when editors or publishers or marketing people trap me in the same Catch-22 that my brother did, expecting me to wait wordlessly until they decide that the joke has ended, I have a professional advantage: I can sic my agent on ’em. Yet another reason to hook up with an agent you can trust.

Oh, and if an agency’s had your first 50 pages or entire manuscript for a month, it’s perfectly okay to call or e-mail; the rule of thumb is that you SHOULD call if you haven’t heard back in double the time that they specified. Mum’s the word when you’re querying, though, or if you sent an unsolicited manuscript.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

The Short Road Home, Part III

Hello, readers —

As promised, today I am bringing you some practical examples of the subtle form of Short Road Home, so you may see this common mega-problem in action and learn how to fix it. I want to be as clear as possible about this, because there is a reason that most professional readers will dismiss a manuscript that has more than one Short Road Home in the first couple of chapters: it is one of the single most frequently-seen mega-problems in fiction.

Long-time readers of this blog, did a light bulb just appear above your heads? Did it occur to you that, as with nonstandard formats, an ultra-frequent mega-problem in a manuscript might actually be a WELCOME sight to an agent, editor, or contest judge, because it means that the work can be rejected without further ado — or further reading time? Yes, they are always on the lookout for that great undiscovered new talent, but the faster they can sift through the rest, the better they like it.

Or so I’m told.

My point is, you can’t assume that when you submit your work in any professional context, it will meet with readers eager to give it the benefit of the doubt. Seldom does one hear a professional reader say, “Well, there are problems with this manuscript, but I think it’s going to be worth my while to expend my energy on helping the author fix them.” And never does one hear, “This author seems to have trouble moving the plot along, but that’s nothing that a good writing class couldn’t fix. Let’s sign this writer now, and help her grow as an artist.”

Just doesn’t happen, alas, to writers who don’t already have a solid platform — i.e., a special expertise or celebrity status to lend credibility to the book. I suspect that, say, the first readers of Barbara Boxer’s recent novel or Ethan Hawke’s granted them quite a bit of latitude (not to say editorial help), because, in the industry’s eyes, what is being sold when a celebrity writes a book is the celebrity’s name, rather than the manuscript.

As a non-celebrity writer, on the other hand, you can generally assume that the first reader at an agency, publishing house, or contest is looking for reasons to weed your work out. They don’t worry too much about too quickly rejecting the next great American novel — since writers are resilient creatures who improve their skills on their own time (and dime), the publishing industry is fairly confident that the great ones will keep coming back.

For some reason, people in the writing community — especially those who write for writers’ publications and teach seminars — don’t like to talk about that much, I notice. Maybe it’s so they can put a positive spin on the process, to concentrate on the aspects of this honestly hugely difficult climb to publication that are within the writer’s control.

As far as I’m concerned, mega-problems are very much within the writer’s control, as are other rejection triggers — but only if the writer knows about them in advance of submission. So let’s get down to the proverbial brass tacks and see about clearing up this mega-problem.

The subtle flavor of Short Road Home seems to appear most frequently in the work of authors who have themselves spent quite a bit of time in therapy, 12 Step programs, or watching Oprah: the second an interpersonal conflict pops up, some well-informed watchdog of a character (or, even more often, the protagonist’s internal Jiminy Cricket) will deftly analyze the underlying motivations of the players at length. Even when these characters are not therapists by trade (although I’ve seen a LOT of manuscripts where they are), they are so full of insight that they basically perform instant, on-the-spot relationship diagnosis.

Ta da! Situation understood! Conflict eliminated!

No messy loose ends left to complicate the plot here — or to keep the reader guessing. In many instances, this examination is so intense (or lengthy) as to convince the reader that there is absolutely no point in trying to second-guess the protagonist (which is, after all, one of the great joys of reading, isn’t it?), if the author is going to tell her right away what to conclude from what has just passed.

It also creates a problem internal to the book. This kind of instant analysis often relieves the conflicting characters of any urgency they might have felt in resolving their interpersonal issues. Since Jiminy Cricket hops on in and spells out everyone’s underlying motivations, the hard work of figuring one’s own way out of a jam is rendered unnecessary.

If this seems like an exaggeration to you, take a good look at your manuscript — or, indeed, any book where the protagonist and/or another character habitually analyzes what is going on WHILE it is going on, or immediately thereafter. Does the protagonist leap into action immediately after the analysis is through, or wait for new developments? In the vast majority of manuscripts, it is the latter — which means that the analytical sections tend to put the plot on hold for their duration. Where analysis replaces action, momentum lulls are practically inevitable.

Memoirs are particularly susceptible to this type of stalling. Memoirists LOVE foreshadowing, because, obviously, they are telling about their past through the lens of the present. In the course of foreshadowing (often identifiable by the historical future tense: “It was not to turn out as I hoped…”), the narrator will all too often analyze a scene for the reader before showing it, thus killing any significant suspense the reader might have felt about how the scene will be resolved.

Yes, you know the story you are telling very well, but remember, your reader doesn’t. Just because something really occurred does not relieve the writer of the obligation to make its telling vibrant and dynamic. You may be excited to share insights gleaned over the course of a lifetime, but if they are not presented AS the stories unfold in the memoir, the reader may have a hard time tying the lessons to the anecdotes.

In other words: show first, conclude later.

Sometimes, foreshadowing tension-killers are apparently inadvertent in a manuscript, mere matters of transition: “On the day my brother shocked us all by running away from home, I woke with a stomach ache…” Think about this from the reader’s perspective — yes, there would be a certain curiosity as to why your brother ran away from home, perhaps, but why not let the reader experience the shock along with the family? Start off with a description of a normal day, and let the events unfold dramatically, rather than giving away the ending.

The subtle flavor turns up especially often in memoirs and novels where the protagonist has a troubled child, particularly if it’s a teenager. With the fictional child, the protagonist (or his wise second wife, or her experienced mother) will frequently give (at least in his or her own head) the pat psychological explanation for the child’s attitude, thus diffusing what might have been an interesting scene that either showed the conflict (instead of telling the reader about it), provided interesting character development, or moved the plot along. Effectively, it stops the story cold while the analysis is going on.

For example, Tom’s teenage daughter Tanya refuses to speak to her father when he comes home late from work; she rushes into her room and slams the door. Instead of following her into her room, Tom just hangs out in the kitchen with his wife, Mary, who obligingly relieves him of his anxiety by explaining what has just happened: “Well, Tom, Tanya’s felt abandoned since her mother, your ex-wife, ran off with that bullfighter three months ago. She doesn’t have any safe outlet for her anger, so she is focusing it on you, the parent she barely knew until you gained custody. All you can do is be patient and consistent, earning her trust over time.” End of scene.

Now, this story has all of the elements of a good character-driven novel, right? There’s a wealth of raw material here: a new custody situation; a teenager dealing with her mother’s madness; a father suddenly thrust into being the primary caretaker for a child who had been living with his ex; a stepmother torn between her loyalty to her husband and her resentment about abruptly being asked to parent a child in trouble full-time.

But when instant therapy intervenes, all of that juicy conflict just becomes another case study, rather than gas to fuel the rest of the book. Had Tom and Mary just gone ahead and BEEN patient and consistent, earning Tanya’s trust over the next 200 pages, the reader would have figured out, I think, that being patient and consistent is a good way to deal with a troubled teenager. But no, the subtle Short Road Home demands that the reader be told what to conclude early and often.

Whenever you notice one of your characters rationalizing in order to sidestep a conflict, ask yourself: am I cheating my readers of an interesting scene here? And if you find you have a Jiminy Cricket character, for heaven’s sake, write a second version of every important scene, a draft where he DOESN’T show up and explain everything in a trice, and see if it isn’t more dynamic. Do this even if your book’s Jiminy Cricket is the protagonist;s therapist.

Perhaps ESPECIALLY if it’s the therapist.

If you are writing a book where the protagonist spends a significant amount of time in therapy, make sure that you are balancing two-people-sitting-in-a-room-talking scenes with scenes of realization outside the office. And make sure to do some solid character development for the therapist as well, to keep these scenes tense and vibrant.

If you are in doubt about how to structure this, take a gander at Judith Guest’s ORDINARY PEOPLE, where most of the protagonist’s breakthroughs occur outside of the therapist’s office. The therapist appears from time to time, punctuating young Conrad’s progress toward rebuilding his life after a particularly grisly suicide attempt with pithy questions, not sum-it-all-up answers.

Which brings me to a final prescription for subtle Short Road Home plotting and pacing: make sure that your protagonist learns his lessons primarily through direct personal experience — or through learning about someone else’s direct personal experience told in vivid, tension-filled flashbacks.

At least in your first book, where you really need to wow the professionals to break in. After you make it big, I give you permission to construct a plot entirely about a couple of characters sitting around talking, motionless.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

The hard way every time

Hello, readers —

For those of you just tuning in, I have been writing a lot lately about mega-problems in writing, the kind of troubles that only become apparent when a manuscript is read front to back. It’s not entirely coincidental that I have been bringing up these seldom-discussed topics in the weeks leading up to the deadline for PNWA literary contest entries: while many aspiring writers develop strong enough self-editing skills to rid their entries of micro-problems — grammatical errors, clarity snafus, and other gaffes on the sentence and paragraph level — when they’re skidding toward a deadline, they often do not make time to catch the mega-problems.

Let’s all chant the mantra together: Before you send it in, read it OUT LOUD and IN HARD COPY.

Okay, it has too many syllables to be a proper mantra. Chant it anyway, so you don’t forget the night before the deadline. Although, if you want to leave time to fix mega-problems, waiting until the night before the entry needs to be postmarked probably isn’t prudent.

Before that last read-through, however, I hope you will take time now to consider whether your manuscript has any mega-problems. Any one of them can be enough to knock you out of finalist consideration in a contest or turn an enthusiastic “Yes — send us the first 50 pages!” into “Your manuscript does not meet our needs at this time.”

So let’s roll up our sleeves and weed ’em out.

Today’s mega-problem is the Short Road Home, and it comes in two flavors, full-bodied and subtle. Today, I shall focus on the full-bodied version.

The Short Road Home is when a problem in a plot is solved too easily for either its continuance or its resolution to provide significant dramatic tension. In its full-bodied form, characters may worry about a problem for a hundred pages — and then resolve it in three. A character conflict seems insurmountable —and then it turns out that all one character needed to do all along was admit that he was wrong, and everything is fine. A decade-old mystery is solved by the first outsider who walks into town and asks a few questions.

Ta da! Crisis resolved.

The fine film critic Roger Ebert calls films with such easily-resolved conflicts Idiot Plots: if the fundamental problem of a story could have been solved if just one character had asked just one obvious question early in the plot (“Wait — HOW will our wandering unarmed into the murder’s lair lay a trap for him?”), it’s an Idiot Plot. Sitcom episodes very, very frequently have Idiot Plots, presumably so any given issue can be resolved within 22 minutes.

Bear in mind that a story does not have to be inherently stupid to feature an Idiot Plot — or a Short Road Home, for that matter. Remember in TOM JONES, where the heroine spends half the book angry with Tom because she heard a single rumor that he had spoken of her freely in public — and so, although she has braved considerable dangers to follow him on his journey, she stomps off without bothering to ask him if the rumor were true?

Generally speaking, Idiot Plots are light on character development, but Short Roads Home tend to be a matter of the author’s not dealing with actions necessary to resolve a conflict and/or the action’s messy and page-consuming results. They are shortcuts.

“Wait a darned minute,” I can hear some of you say, “The very fact that Mssr. Ebert has a pet name for it means that Idiot Plots are widely accepted in the moviemaking industry. I have seen the Short Road Home used countless times in books. How can a trait knock my manuscript out of consideration when so many prominent authors do it routinely?”

True, you have probably seen the Short Road Home a million times in published books, and a million and twelve times in movies, so you may not have identified it as a manuscript problem. I would suggest that the main producers of Idiot Plots and Short Roads Home are NOT first-time screenwriters and novelists, though, but ones with an already-established track record. Generally speaking, the longer ago the writer broke in and/or the more successful he has been, the greater latitude he enjoys.

In other words, I know you’re better than that.

As good is not necessarily good enough. Writers who have already broken into the business can get away with many things that a brand-new writer cannot. There’s even an industry truism about it: to break into the business, a first book has to be significantly BETTER than what is already on the market.

Often, Short Roads Home are small shortcuts, rather than extensive plot detours, which renders them more difficult for the author to catch. I ran into such a Short Road Home just the other day in my writers group: one of my colleagues, a genuinely fine writer of many published books, showed us a chapter where her protagonist escapes from a choking situation by kneeing her attacker in the groin. The attacker slinks off almost immediately; conflict resolved.

Now, three aspects of this scene set off Short Road Home alarm bells for me. First, my self-defense teacher taught me that a man will instinctively move to protect what she liked to call “his delicates,” so it was not a good first-strike target when you were defending yourself. So why didn’t the chapter’s attacker automatically block the blow? Second, the attacker is able to walk out of the room right away, with no recovery time — which simple playground observation tells us is seldom true in these instances. Third, this scene ended a relationship that had been going on for two-thirds of the book; one swift jab, and both sides spontaneously agree to call it a day.

Now, to be absolutely honest, because my colleague is an established writer, she would probably be able to get this Short Road Home past her agent and editor if I hadn’t flagged it. However, it’s the kind of logical problem reviewers do tend to catch, even in the work of well-known writers — and thus, it should be avoided.

I brought up this example so you would have a vivid image in your mind the next time you are reading through your own manuscript or contest entry: if your villain doesn’t need recovery time after being kneed in the groin or the equivalent, perhaps you need to reexamine just how quickly you’re backing your protagonist out of the scene. One true test of a Short Road Home is if a reader is left wondering, “Gee, wouldn’t there have been consequences for what just happened? Wasn’t that resolved awfully easily?” If you are rushing your protagonist away from conflict — which, after all, is the stuff of dramatic writing — you might want to sit down and think about why.

Another good test: does the problem get solved by the FIRST effort the protagonist makes? If your heroine is seeking answers to a deep, dark secret buried in her past, does the very first person she asks in her hometown know the whole story — and tell her immediately? Or, still better, does each minor character volunteer his piece of her puzzle BEFORE she asks?

You think I’m kidding about that, don’t you?

It may surprise you to hear that editors (and presumably agents as well) see this kind of Short Road Home on an almost daily basis. All too often, mystery-solving protagonists come across as pretty lousy detectives, because evidence has to fall right into their laps, clearly labeled, before they recognize it. A simply astoundingly high percentage of novels feature seekers who apparently give off some sort of pheromone that causes:

a) People who are hiding tremendous secrets to blurt them out spontaneously;

b) Local historians (disguised as shop keepers, grandmothers, and other old folks) to appear as if by magic to fill the protagonist in on necessary backstory;

c) Crucial characters who have suffered in silence for years suddenly to feel the need to share their pain with total strangers, and

d) Diaries and photographs that have been scrupulously hidden for years, decades, or even centuries to leap out of their hiding places at precisely the right moment for the protagonist to find them.

Here’s a good rule of thumb for whether your story is taking the Short Road Home: at every revelation, ask yourself, “Why did that just happen?” If your answer is, “So the story could move from Point A to Point B,” and you can’t give any solid character-driven reason beyond that, then chances are close to 100% that you have a Short Road Home on your hands.

If you get stuck, try having your protagonist track down a false lead or two. Trial and error can be a great plotting device, as well as giving you room for character development.

Have you ever seen an old-fashioned Chinese action movie, something, say, from the beginning of Jackie Chan’s career? In such films, the hero is almost always beaten to a pulp by the villain in the first half of the film — often more or less simultaneously with the murderer’s gloating over having killed the hero’s father/mother/teacher/best friend. (In Western action films, the same array of emotions tends to be evoked by killing the hero’s beautiful wife, who not infrequently is clutching their adorable toddler at the time.) This establishes the motivation for the hero to acquire the skills, allies, and/or resources he needs in order to defeat the villain at the end of the film.

The point of the story is not to get your protagonist from the beginning to the end of the plot as fast as possible, but to take your readers through an enjoyable, twisted journey en route. Short Roads Home are the superhighways of the literary world: a byway might not get you there as fast, but I guarantee you, the scenery is going to be better.

Take your characters down the side roads every once in awhile. And keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

The Short Road Home, Part II

Hello, readers –

Yesterday, I told you about another manuscript mega-problem — i.e., a writing problem that is difficult to catch unless you sit down and read the work straight through, as a reader would, rather than on a computer screen, as most writers do — that I like to call the Short Road Home, too-quick major problem resolution. I brewed it for you in its full-bodied version, where it directly affects the plot in a notable way: “What’s that, Lassie? Timmy’s fallen into the well?”

Today, I am going to deal with the subtle flavor of Short Road Home, scenes where character development or conflict is curtailed by too-quick analysis. Like the full-bodied version, this mega-problem is not limited to works of fiction, but runs rampant through narrative nonfiction and memoir as well. I see it in my freelance editing practice all the time, and literally every time I have been a judge in a literary contest, I have seen otherwise excellent manuscripts infected with it — and, inevitably, penalized for it.

(Not that the other judges have called it that when they see it. Just so you know, the names I have been bestowing upon mega-problems — and the terms mega-problem and micro-problem themselves — are of my own making. If you use them with an agent or editor, you will probably be rewarded with a blank look. I am used to this.)

The subtle flavor of the Short Road Home is easy for the author to overlook, particularly in a first novel. First-time novelists tend to be so pleased when they develop the skill to pin down an emotional moment with precision that they go wild with it for a little while. The instant a solidly conflictual moment peeps its poor little head above ground, these eager beavers stop the plot cold to devote themselves to analyzing it. With the vim of medics rushing into a disaster area, they staunch the flow of speculation practically before it seeps from the body of the work.

I’m sure that I could come up with many more colorful mixed metaphors for what is going on, but I suspect you get the picture.

Why is this a problem? Well, when situations and motivations are over-explained, the reader does not have to do any thinking; it’s like a murder mystery where the murderer is identified and we are told how he will be caught on page one. Where’s the suspense? Why keep turning pages?

And that’s just the problem from a reader’s POV; from an agent, editor, or contest judge’s POV, it is still more serious. Professional readers’ first experience any given writer’s work is in sizeable chunks — the first 50 pages, say, or a chapter submitted to a contest. If a subtle Short Road Home appears once in that brief a portion of a book, the agent, editor, or contest judge is left to speculate whether this is a writing habit, or a one-time fluke. The agent or editor may choose to take a chance that it is a one-time gaffe, and ask to see the rest of the book — although, more frequently, they pass with thanks.

A contest judge, on the other hand, does not have the option of asking to see the rest of the work. Generally, she will conclude that this is a recurring writing problem, and score the piece accordingly. And, naturally, if more than one subtle Short Road Home occurs in either a submission or an entry, chances are that the professional reader will not read beyond the second one. The writer is labeled as promising, but needing more experience in moving the plot along.

Vague, isn’t it, given that what is occurring is a very specific mega-problem? Subtle Short Roads Home often trigger the feedback, “Show — don’t tell!” But frankly, I think that admonition does not give the writer enough guidance. There are a lot of ways that a writer could be telling the reader what is going on; a subtle Slow Road Home is only one of many, and I don’t think it’s fair to leave an aspiring writer to guess which rule she has transgressed.

But then, as I believe I have pointed out before, I don’t rule the universe. If I did, though, every writer who was told “Show — don’t tell!” would also receive specific feedback on where and how. Because, frankly, subtle Short Roads Home bug me. As anyone who has ever been in a writers’ group with me can tell you.

For me, seeing a subtle Short Road Home stop the flow of a wonderful story reminds me of the fate of the migratory birds that used to visit my house when I was a child. Each spring, lovely, swooping swallows would return to their permanent nests, firmly affixed under the eaves of the house where I grew up, invariably arriving four days after their much-publicized return to Mission San Juan Capistrano, much farther south. For me, it was an annual festival, watching the happy birds frolic over the vineyard, evidently delighted to be home.

Then, one dark year, the nasty little boy who lived half a mile from us took a great big stick and knocked their nests down. The swallows never returned again.

Unfortunately, once the underlying emotional rubric of a relationship has been laid too bare by in-text analysis, the rhythm of a story generally has a hard time recovering momentum. Readers of good writing don’t want to be passive; they want to get emotionally involved with the characters, so they can inhabit, for a time, the world of the book. They want to care about the characters — that’s one big reason for turning page after page, to find out what happens to them. And when a writer over-analyzes, the reader is left with nothing to do.

Essentially, subtle Short Roads Home are about not trusting the reader to draw the right conclusions about a scene, a character, or a plot twist. They’re about being afraid that the reader might stop liking a character who has ugly thoughts, or who seems not to be handling a situation well. They’re about, I think, a writer’s being afraid that he may not have presented his story well enough to prove the point of his book.

And, sometimes, they’re just about following the lead of television and movies, which show us over and over emotions analyzed to the nth degree. But TV and movie scripts are technically limited to the sensations of sight and sound: they cannot tell their stories any other way. A writer can draw upon the full range of sensations — and show thoughts. A book writer who restricts herself to using only the tools of TV and movies is like a pianist who insists upon playing only the black keys.

Live a little. You have a lot of ways to show character development and motivation; use them.

Consider your manuscript for a moment: does it contain scenes where, instead of interaction between characters showing the reader what the conflicts are and how the protagonist works through them, the protagonist sits around (often in a car) and thinks through the problem to its logical conclusion? Or sits around drinking coffee with her friends while THEY come up with analysis and solution? Or — and this one often surprises writers when I bring it up — sits around with her therapist, dissecting the problem and coming up with a solution?

If you can answer yes to any of these questions, sit down right away and read your book straight through. Afterward, consider: would the plot have suffered tremendously if those scenes were omitted entirely? Are there other ways you could convey the same points, through action rather than thought or discussion?

A very powerful agent who specializes in genre fiction once told me that he stops reading a submitted novel as soon as he encounters a scene where characters are drinking coffee, tea, or any other non-alcoholic beverage, because he has found over the years that those scenes almost always involve the characters sitting around and talking about what’s going on. To him, such scenes are the kiss of death: they indicated, he said, that the author did not know how to maintain tension consistently throughout a book.

I would not go so far — since I edit primarily for Seattle-based writers, if I advised them to skip every possible coffee-drinking opportunity in their works, I would essentially be telling them to ignore a fairly significant part of local community culture. However, I do suggest that authors flag any lengthy let’s-talk-it-over scenes — then go back and read the entire manuscript with those scenes omitted. Nine times out of ten, the pacing of the book will be substantially improved, with little significant loss of vital information.

The moral: pacing is HUGELY important to professional readers. If it slows the book down, consider cutting it out.

Lest you think I am asking too much, or that massive cutting is an easy suggestion to make about someone ELSE’s manuscript, let me share an early debacle of my own: in my first novel, I wrote 300 pages of therapy for my protagonist; ultimately, I threw out all but three scenes. Writing the therapy scenes was a great writing exercise, necessary for me to understand what my protagonist was going through, but once I understood her emotions, I was able to show (not tell about) them throughout the book. And, you know, while it was pretty spectacularly painful to throw out 300 pages of quite good writing, the book was better for it.

Please do think about it. Tomorrow, I shall load you with practical examples of subtle Short Roads Home, and discuss how to work with them.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Every bookstore you have ever visited

Hello, readers —

Yes, I skipped a day of posting yesterday, but no, I was not playing hooky; I was filling out the author and book questionnaire for my memoir, A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK, due out in May. Since the book was originally due out in March, you would think that the marketing folks would have wanted some information about the book before now, but no: if you have been paying attention to all of my months of railing about how conceptions of time are different in the publishing world (whose heartbeat runs “I NEED IT NOW!” —wait — “I NEED IT NOW!” — wait—), you may perhaps understand why.

The author questionnaire is an in-depth analysis prepared by a book’s author for the sales and marketing departments of a publishing house so they have some idea how to sell the book to booksellers and consumers, respectively. Although we writers tend to focus on the big sale moment, where the agent (or the author herself, in the case of small publishing houses) sells the book to the editor, any book needs to be sold many, many times before it reaches the shelves at your local bookstore. If you go through an agent, first the author has to sell the book to the agent; the agent or author sells it to the editor; the editor sells it to the higher-ups in the publishing house, often department by department; the sales department goes out and sells it to buyers for bookstore chains; the marketing department sells it to consumers, and finally, the bookseller sells it to the customer.

The next time you hear a writer at a conference complain about how much time and energy authors now have to spend on marketing, recall that necessary chain of sales.

The argument the sales department will make to booksellers is all about the book’s selling points and target market. Even in the case of literary fiction, it is seldom sufficient for the sales crew to say merely, “Hey, we’ve found this great new author — her writing is wonderful,” because there are so many great new authors out there who write well. The sales crew needs to be able to talk about who will buy this book and why — specifically, why THIS book as opposed to any of the others on the shelves at the same time.

The marketing department, on the other hand, will need to sell both you and the book to potential readers, so they need to know about your every quirk. What makes you different from any other author? Are you personable? What about your life story is unusual? With so many other books on the market, what drove you to write another? What makes your book special, unique, the only book on the subject anyone should buy?

In the author’s questionnaire, the writer is expected to provide all of that information, at least in embryonic form. This comes as a surprise to many fiction writers, who are often laboring under the charming impression that all that a book has to be is a good read in order to sell; it’s the nonfiction writers who have to come up with target market demographics and selling points in their book proposals, isn’t it?

In a word, no. In the author questionnaire, you will be asked to answer questions like this:

What are the main points about you and/or the book should be emphasized to the media?

If you could stress only one or two points about your book, what would they be?

Whom do you think will buy your book (i.e., your market)?

What other books similar to yours are on the market? How does your book differ from them?

Hard to imagine more direct appeals to your marketing sense than these, isn’t it? And often, the writer is not given a tremendous amount of time to answer such pointed questions. Not to frighten you, but I was given only a week to fill out my author questionnaire (“I NEED IT NOW!” — wait — “I NEED IT NOW!” — wait—). If I had not given serious thought to the market prospects of my book, I doubt I would have been able to complete it in time.

As it was, it was difficult to prevent my written answers to such broad-ranging questions from extending to the length of the Bible. These are difficult, soul-searching questions for a writer — because, admit it, deep down, each of us wants to believe that readers will buy our books simply because WE have written them. The author questionnaire forces you to confront that embarrassing belief, and quickly, so you can sound like a professional-minded adult in response.

How difficult were the questions, you ask? Well, for one of them, I was asked to conduct an interview with myself, where I provided both the questions and the answers. Instead of copping out with Barbara Walters-style softball questions (“Have you always wanted to be a writer? Was this a fulfilling book to write?”), I was asked to be a hard-bitten, unsympathetic interviewer. So I spent several hours last night engaged in a fight with myself.

This kind of thing doesn’t happen much to people in other lines of work.

And if you thought that all of that tedious synopsis-writing would end once you got an agent and sold a book, think again. How’s this for a doozy of a writing assignment?

“Please give a brief (200 words) description of your book. If fiction, please provide us with a brief plot summary and, if appropriate, your intention in writing the story. If nonfiction, discuss your basic approach to the subject, emphasizing how your book differs from the competition.”

200 words is not a lot of space: in case you are curious, the first paragraph of this post plus the first two sentences of the second paragraph add up to 201 words. Brevity is tough. I’ve known writers who have worked for years to get their synopses down to 3-5 pages!

Oh, and they asked me to give the name, address, and phone number of every bookstore where I had ever spent a significant amount of time. I swear, I am not making this up. As anyone who has ever visited my house can tell you, there is hardly a wall in it that isn’t lined with books, so this list was bound to be lengthy.

I am passing these questions along, so you can start to think about them now, early in your writing process, rather than having them sprung upon you a few months before your first book comes out. I know, I know, practically every writing guide on the planet will tell you not to concentrate too much on your eventual success, expending energy daydreaming about what you’ll wear to eventual book signings, but honestly, coming up with ways to package yourself and your books is part of the work of being a professional writer.

This is work, not self-indulgence.

Thinking about marketing issues now can also help you produce more effective query letters and synopses. Does the query letter you’ve been sending out give any indication of who is in your target market — or how big that market is? (I have written the phrase “47 million Gen Xers” so many times in the last week that I can see it imprinted on the inside of my eyelids when I try to sleep.) If you don’t know, doesn’t it make sense to do some research now, so you can sell your book to an agent or small publisher more effectively?

Even if you write fiction, you should be thinking now about your target market and how to reach it — and conveying that information in your query letters. If your protagonist is a mountaineer, you might want to find out how many North Americans habitually go hiking. If your story takes place in some vacation hotspot, you might want to find out how many tourists visit every year. (Hey, tourists have been known to buy books while on vacation. It’s a proven fact.) If your plot concerns an agoraphobic, you might want to find out how many of them there are in the country these days. Basically, if any part of your pitch is dismissible with the response, “Well, how many people can there possibly be interested in that sort of thing?” it would behoove you to provide precisely that information up front.

If you can’t find the information on the Internet, call your local library and ask for research help. If you live in the greater Seattle metropolitan area, it couldn’t be easier — the Seattle Public Library runs a free Quick Information Line; since so many of the questions they get are mundane (“What’s the capital of Paraguay?”), a genuinely interesting research question will often generate a flood of helpful information. Longtime readers of this blog may remember my account of the time I called Quick Information to ask where I would find out what kind of grammatical mistakes a native English speaker fluent in Russian might make while learning to speak Lithuanian — and ended up having a half-hour discussion with a Baltic language expert who hadn’t been asked a question by a lay person for years. All for free.

And when you find this information, work it into your query letters, pitches, and synopses. That is your marketing material; the more lucid you are about the target market for your book, the more professional you will sound to agents and editor — and the better prepared you will be when the time comes to fill out your own author questionnaire.

May that happy (but LONG) day come soon.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

A book’s yours until it’s bought

Hello, readers —

As you may have noticed, I’ve been on a kick lately of gabbling here about common writing problems — not the micro-problems, the sentence- or paragraph-level blunders we tend to hear about in writing classes, but mega-problems, the chapter- and book-level gaffes that most writers hear nothing about until their manuscripts have been rejected by an editor at a major publishing house. The Frankenstein phenomenon is a ubiquitous mega-problem, and so is self-plagiarization.

Mega-problems are unlikely to be caught by the author, or indeed by anyone who isn’t reading the manuscript the way agents and editors do: starting at the beginning, straight through, in hard copy. If you are not entrusting your work first to a really tough-minded writing group (and one that keeps reading consistently and critically all the way through your book) or a professional editor, the only way to catch mega-problems on your own is to make a serious, sustained commitment to reading EVERY draft of your manuscript as the agents and editors do.

When in Rome, etc., etc.

I don’t mean that you need to perform a dramatic reading of your entire text every time you change so much as a comma, of course. Once per revision is fine, as long as you do not succumb to the insidious temptation to skip over parts of the text where you know you have not changed much. To keep the work consistent (and to avoid the Frankenstein nightmare), you need to read the whole thing, every time.

Also, once you are at the stage when your agent is shopping your book or proposal around (or you are submitting it to small publishers yourself), bite the bullet and ask for specific rejection criteria, so you can spot mega-problems that may be scuttling your work and revise accordingly before it is sent out again. Surprisingly few authors ask for feedback from rejecters; I think this is a mistake. Here you have an editor at an honest-to-goodness publishing house, taking the time to sit down and read your work — and you DON’T want to know what he thought of it?

Yes, in one sense, an editor’s reaction to a book or proposal is binary: either he buys it or he doesn’t. Your agent will probably report it to you that way. However, if you are in the writing biz for the long haul, the submission process is not just about how the publishing world responds to this particular book; if you are clever, it can also be about teaching you what you need to know in order to sell your next book, and the book after that. Start to think of your writing as a lifetime endeavor, and not asking for feedback begins to seem downright silly.

The easiest way to solicit feedback you can use is to request it in advance; if you wait until after the book is rejected, you will probably not be able to get it. Tell your agent that you will want to hear any specific criticisms editors might have. (Trust me, if your agent believes in your work, the first words out of her mouth will be, “But WHY?”)

If you are going it alone, submitting to small publishers (most of the majors as a matter of policy will no longer read an unagented author’s manuscript, alas), state in your “Gee, thanks for agreeing to read this” cover letter that you would appreciate getting feedback, regardless of the ultimate decision. Deep down, most editors like writers; if you are polite and straightforward, they will generally grant this request.

Inherent in this request is the understanding that you will NOT take this feedback as an invitation to debate the merits of your book after it has been rejected. If you have been dealing with the editor directly, a simple thank-you note is a nice touch, but otherwise, leave the advice-giving editor alone. He passed on your book; he told you why; end of transaction, because he has another 25 books to read this week.

And while naturally it is tempting to horde all of the negative feedback you ever get, so you can throw it in your critiquers’ faces when you eventually make it big, don’t. It’s a waste of energy, and in any case, it’s unlikely that the targets of your wrath will remember you or your work well enough to say three years from now, “Wow — touché. I wish I’d given that author a chance, boy oh boy.”

Sad but true: the book so close to your heart is, after it is rejected, just another stack of paper that needs to be stuffed in a SASE, from the publishing house’s perspective. Most editors at major houses read so many manuscripts in a given year that expecting them to be able to connect your name with it years down the line is like asking most of us who sat in the second desk on the left-hand side of the classroom when we were in the third grade. (Maryann Olguin, in my case. But then, I have an unusually good memory for manuscripts, too.)

So what should you do with the feedback when you get it? Mostly, look for patterns. Chances are, your agent will have picked editors with similar tastes (who thus might all be interested in your book), so it is very likely that they will object to similar patterns in the book. If two or more editors expressed the same quibble, it is probably worth your while to fix it.

Talk the results over with your agent before you do anything radical, though; remember that editors are just people, and thus could be wrong. If one editor says she loved X but hated Y, and another as confidently asserts that she could never get X through an editorial meeting, but would be willing to fight to the death for a work that concentrated on Y, you probably should not revise X or Y at all.

Ditto with feedback from contest judges. I like that the PNWA contest gives entrants two sets of feedback, rather than one, because while there are indeed literary rules that must be followed, sometimes a work is rejected simply because a single reader did not like it. Again, sad but true. Hearing from two helps the author tell the difference between a book that just happened to have a character who reminded a judge of someone she could not stand in high school (or, still worse, an ex) and a character that is incompletely realized.

However, regardless if the feedback is from a contest judge or an editor, if even one of them points out a significant structural problem, take it seriously. Go back and take a look at the manuscript — but don’t do it right away. Even when criticism is dead-on accurate, it tends to sting. Perhaps even more so than when it is off-base.

Give yourself some time to sit with it, to figure out if making the suggested change feels right to you. After all, it’s your book, not the editor’s — if he had bought it, then you would have needed to make the change he recommended immediately; since he did not, it’s up to you.

If I seem as though I’m being wishy-washy about whether you should follow the feedback you receive or not, it’s because I’ve seen too many good writers take editorial advice — yes, and advice from prospective agents, too — as if it were the revealed word of an omniscient god. (I’ve done it, too: in my naïve days, I once turned a perfectly fine novel into a trilogy, just because my agent-at-the-time blithely suggested it. Which left me with three unsold books on my hands when I broke off my relationship with her, instead of one. It’s one book again now, because she was WRONG.)

In a way, the instinct to please is a sign of understanding the market: a writer unwilling to revise her work in accordance with editorial guidance tends to get a bad reputation very fast. We know this, so we tie ourselves up in knots to be accommodating. But if we do not stop to reflect before we scramble to put every last recommendation into effect, we run the risk of mistaking well-meant, off-the-record advice to an up-and-coming writer for a tacit promise to sign the author once the changes were made, creating a false hope likely to end in devastating disappointment.

And that, incidentally, is a major reason why agents and editors do not automatically give substantive feedback unless they are asked for it. They’re aware that their opinions carry more weight with writers than other readers’; the next time you see an agent or an editor avoiding contact with writers at a conference (yes, it does happen), consider the possibility that this person is not drunk with the power she holds over aspiring writers, but instead trying not to utter a syllable that might be construed as a promise.

If you can treat editorial feedback for what it is, noncommittal commentary from someone presumably well-informed about what kind of writing is selling these days, it can be extremely useful, especially for catching mega-problems. Just take a deep breath first, remember whose book it actually is, and treat it as an opinion.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini