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

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