Practical exercises in keeping the faith. Hypothetically.

Hello, readers —

Well, after spending all week writing about ways for writers to keep their spirits up while slogging their way through the long path to publication, I got a perfect opportunity today to put it into use. Surprise, surprise, once again, all is not well with my book on its meandering path to publication. Not because of the book itself this time, but how it is being marketed.

PLEASE NOTE: due to the many complex and contentious issues swirling around the publication of my memoir, I must tell you that the story that follows is ONLY HYPOTHETICAL. It is merely the type of thing that might happen to any memoirist with a book headed for publication, and thus of educational interest to my readership. Any similarities between this scenario and my actual life are purely coincidental, and should not be taken as indicative of the really very interesting behind-the-scenes story that I’m dying to tell you. Really.

Everybody got that straight? Okay, then, on with the story. Hypothetically:

Picture me this morning, groggily making tea after a late night spent working on the new novel. Yes, I already have a novel at my agent’s, ready to be sprung upon editors everywhere, but hey, I’m not one to allow grass to grow under my creative feet, as it were. I keep moving forward from project to project — thus staying up until 4 a.m. writing on the new project.

So there I am at 11 a.m., peacefully trying to decide between orange blossom oolong and lavender Earl Grey, when my phone rings. It’s my agent, asking me excitedly if I have received her e-mail. Well, no: I’ve just gotten up, but as East Coast people always seem astonished that folks out in our time zone aren’t up early enough to catch the sunrise and witness the opening of the NY Stock Exchange, I don’t admit that. I just tell her I was writing — she knows by now that writing time means I’m oblivious to the world around me, anyway.

Well, she says (hypothetically), she has bad news. After 6 full months of silence, the fine folks who spent the summer threatening to sue my publisher over my memoir have abruptly sent another letter. Still no list of what they want changed in the book, of course; instead, this threat complains about — brace yourselves, because this part really is going to read like utter fiction — the marketing blurb on my publisher’s website (which has appeared there in its current form since July, 2005, I believe, with scarce a hypothetical murmur from the current complainers) and a picture used on the cover (ditto).

I am beginning to wonder if I am still asleep. I gulp my ultra-hot tea with unwise haste, to try to wake myself up. “Wait,” I say with hypothetically scalded tongue, “I didn’t write the blurb, and I had absolutely no say over the jacket design. Why is this my problem?”

Alas, it is, my agent explains, because in the post-James Frey environment, even the hint of a problem with a memoir can send a publisher running for cover. Memoir sales in bookstores remain strong, but just try selling a memoir to an editor at a major publishing house these days. He’ll look at you as though you have asked him to stick his hand in a vise.

So once again, my project is, in theory, on hold. Picture my hypothetical anguish.

I’ve told you about my memoir, right? A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK was first supposed to come out this month, and then got pushed back to May, due to a threatened lawsuit. Hypothetically, the people who are suing, the estate of the late lamented gentleman of the title, have never specified what in the text they want changed; or rather, they did specify about a dozen minor changes they wanted, but immediately AFTER I had made them, they threatened to sue my publisher. Go figure.

To this day, I am (hypothetically) not sure what they hate so about the book, since up to the point when they started threatening (and thus we had no further direct contact), they had never breathed a word about not believing I was telling the truth. (If you would like a bit more background on this saga, check out the one and only interview I have given about it. If you want to hear the other side’s version, you could also go to the estate-owned fansite; hypothetically, I am told, one of the claims there is that I have given many interviews on the subject — and written extensively on this blog about it. You could also, in theory, see there the claim that this blog is not even vaguely useful to aspiring writers. Or so I am told.)

Like so many memoirs out there, mine for virtually the entirety of the writing process ostensibly had the full support of the very people who are trying to block it now. (Shortly after I sold the book, they sent me a lovely bouquet of hypothetical flowers, in fact.) I am writing about my own experiences with someone who is no longer living, so technically, I did not need anyone’s permission to write it, legally — especially as in this case, all of the still-living people concerned have been yakking their heads off to biographers and reporters for over two decades now. I’m actually the only one who has held her tongue to date. Hypothetically.

It’s not as though the prospective suers haven’t had a chance to tell their side of the story, or indeed, haven’t been telling it pretty industriously. If you’re giving interviews to national and international magazines, chances are that you are a public figure, and thus available for scrutiny by other writers. You can’t write a book about your relationship with a celebrity, or give extensive interviews on that relationship, or maintain a website that presents yourself as the public spokesperson for that celebrity, and then claim that your privacy has been violated if someone mentions your existence in passing. Or so I’m told by people who follow the law.

That’s part of what gives this situation its rich, ironic hypothetical undertones: to the best of my knowledge, the Philip-related part of my storyline has been written about in at least a dozen books, including ones by Philip himself AND a memoir by one of the currently complaining parties’ mothers. The continents positively ring with versions of stories about my kith and kin.

I guess I didn’t get the memo that said I was the only person on earth not entitled to write about it — or about my own life story. The funny thing is, hypothetically, I DID have permission from the two primary complaining parties to write this book. In writing. Which might be difficult for them to explain should this eventually come to court. (Of course, I speak only of theoretical possibilities here.)

Of course, anybody’s statements are open to interpretation. Let’s try a little exercise, to sharpen your wits for the practical application of the theory we have been discussing here. Hypothetically, let’s say after you had told some affected parties that you had a book contract, they sent you an e-mail that said something like:

…we both really appreciate your offer for our thoughts on “challenging embroideries in print” in your PKD bio. However, both of us feel that this should be your PKD story and that we should not influence your creative efforts in any way. We believe you need to be as free as your predecessor biographers to approach your project in your own way. That’s not to say that we don’t care because we do of course, but it wouldn’t be fair to you for us to in any way hobble your efforts.


Would you:

(a) take this statement at its face value, and believe your book had the senders’ support?

(b) instantly stop writing the book, because a lawsuit is clearly imminent?

(c) thank the senders for the sentiment, but make many copies of the e-mail and cling to it like a leech, in case the senders later changed their minds about the value of freedom and creative efforts?

If you chose (c), you are better prepared than most to write nonfiction; alas, it is only in theory that such promises provide protection. It is a myth that releases from people mentioned in a book will protect the writer; they are only a deterrent as long as the signers believe them to be. There is absolutely no way that anyone can legitimately promise never to change his mind. Most of the sued memoirists of my acquaintance (and many published memoirs generate at least one lawsuit threat on their way to publication) had obtained such releases; the paper those releases were written upon later made useful handkerchiefs and kindling.

Hypothetically, more or less until the moment now-condemners started threatening my publisher, they were overtly supportive of the project — volunteering material for inclusion in it, even, and praising the only draft they ever read — but ultimately, all of that comradely vim did not make any difference in the long term. Because this is the post-James Frey environment, where anyone who wants to derail a book project need not produce any actual proof that the author is not telling the truth, or even any legally-demonstrable reason that the complainer would be harmed by the book’s being published. They need only threaten; they need only have money enough in their pockets to make that threat credible. And publishers quail.

Hypothetically, however, truth is an absolute defense against slander and libel. Hypothetically, any writer has the right to tell her own life story, the complete freedom — how did they put it? — “to approach the project in your own way.” And hypothetically, a publisher who has tangible proof that a writer is telling the truth will stand by her book.

I have no idea at this point how this theoretical tale of publishing stop-and-start will turn out. Maybe the hypothetical publishers will stand by the author; maybe the hypothetical complainers will remember that they sent the author a whole lot of e-mails, confirming the truth of quite a bit of what’s in the book. And maybe the author will turn the whole thing into a novel, where she can tell the absolute truth without fear of reprisals. That’s the trouble with hypothetical people: you never can predict to a certainty what they will do.

Oh, dear, I am looking forward to the non-hypothetical day when I can fill you in on what is really going on with my book. It really is quite a story; perhaps some day, I shall write about it.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Yet another pep talk

Hello, readers —

One of the great luxuries of being a writer, as opposed to any other kind of artist, is that a competitive market doesn’t mean that it pays to be nasty to others. We have our readers to thank for that, to a very great extent: bless their warm and fuzzy hearts, few of them walk into a bookstore so determined to buy only ONE book that they won’t at least LOOK at the rest. (Unlike, say, an art gallery, where the patrons tend to zero in on just one piece.) If another writer is super-successful, why, we should be grateful — s/he is pulling potential buyers for our books into the bookstore.

I, personally, am hugely grateful to Anchee Min, Lydia Minatoya, and Susan Minot, the authors whose books would most closely border mine on the average, alphabetically-arranged bookstore fiction shelf. These fine writers have already trained aficionados of good fiction to keep checking the mid-range Ms every time they wander into a bookstore. Thank you very much!

If you have not already taken up the delightfully furtive habit of checking where your future books will fall on bookstore shelves, I highly encourage you to start indulging in it as soon as possible. As daydreaming exercises go, it’s rather practical: after a few dozen bookstores, you will start to get a sense of the specialized problems of your part of the shelf and your section of the bookstore.

Authors whose last names begin with Z, for example, often find their books on floor-level shelves, due to the tyranny of the alphabet, whereas in a big bookstore, the A authors might well discover that their books are shelved above the average reader’s eye level.

Ideally, you would like to have your books displayed at eye level or just below. Flat on a prominently-placed table or face-out on a shelf is even better, of course, but in major bookstore chains, that display space is bought by the major presses, to display their current offerings. (Disillusioning, isn’t it?) In a smaller bookstore, or in a bookstore with well-read staff, good display space goes to the books they like, as well as the bestsellers.

Remember my mentioning yesterday how easy it is for a writer to get a poor reputation by being rude to readers and/or people who work in bookstores? One of the tangible ways in which dislike manifests is through misshelved books. This may seem on its face like a trivial gesture, but people who spend a lot of time in bookstores know better: even if a book is a bestseller, if it isn’t where it’s supposed to be on the shelf, readers aren’t going to be able to buy it.

The flip side of this is the relative ease of moving books that deserve greater visibility into more prominent locations. Bookstore employees read a lot, and most of them are glad to promote the work of authors whose work they like — or are particularly nice to them at readings. (Hint: bring cookies.) Even the lowest-rung employee has the power to, say, slip an underrated book onto the bestseller table for an afternoon.

Store this nugget for when you’ve got a book out: buying a copy of your own book in a bookstore, signing it, and handing it to the clerk as a present is a stylish and effective method of enlisting unofficial behind-the-counter help. Even if the clerk doesn’t instantly fall in love with your writing, everyone in the store will be talking about the incident for weeks.

Bookstore employees are not the only ones who can perform subtle marketing for a book. Why, any private citizen can help make a book more appealing to buyers, although you didn’t hear that from me. Turning a volume face out on the shelf rather than spine out, for instance. Or moving a Z book up a few shelves, perhaps into the middle of a shelf crammed with the bestseller of the day, such as THE DA VINCI CODE. One could even conceivably pick up a book, walk around with it for awhile, then set it down on one of those display tables near the front of the store while you’re leafing through something there.

If you forgot the first book on the table, who could blame you?

This form of guerilla marketing takes practice, and you will want to be really good at it by the time you have a book out. Pick a couple of favorite authors and appoint yourself publicity agent for their books now, to get a head start. Don’t get yourself in trouble by moving armfuls of volumes; one or two per bookstore will do. Just enough to make a small but palpable difference in what bookstore patrons see first when they scan the shelves.

Don’t just confine yourself to minor rearrangement of bookstore shelves, either: get into the habit of logging onto Amazon and Barnes & and writing glowing reviews of books you like. Set up a list on Amazon. Gush in a chat room. Start a book club and introduce people to your favorite underappreciated authors’ work. These small efforts really do add up in the long run — and just think of all of the good writerly karma you’ll be racking up on the cosmic registers!

Yes, turning a book face out on the shelf is a little thing, but every book sale counts. The writer who first tipped me off about how much better face-out books sell than their spine-out counterparts is now a major international bestselling author. For whom kith and kin still turn volumes face out every time they walk into a bookstore. Heck, I do, too.

This is another reason to cultivate other writers as friends: we make great salespeople for one another’s work. Who loves good writing more than we do? Well, okay, librarians, but who else?

I’m a notoriously shameless promoter of writing I admire; the staffs of my local bookstores stopped bothering to follow me around to replace books on the shelves years back, once they figured out that I had good taste. I’m always chatting with other browsing patrons, soliciting recommendations and pushing mine. (While I’m at it: Bharti Kirchner’s incomparable PASTRIES has one of the best-written endings I have ever read — and I’ve read MADAME BOVARY in the original French.)

Why expend so much energy in promoting other people’s work? Because it’s an economical and effective way to fight back against a publishing industry that is emotionally hard on writers. If you can tip the scales just a tiny bit, even for a moment, in our direction, you are not powerless. Your opinion is not going unheard today. And in a writing life, feeling empowered is one of the best ways of staving off battle fatigue.

Quoth Alice Walker: resistance is the secret of joy.

Seem a trifle silly? Don’t underestimate how important it is to blow off steam, if you want to stay in the writing biz for the long haul. We writers spend so much time being obedient — adhering to the rigors of standard format, sending agents exactly what they have asked to see and no more, enclosing SASEs, so we may pay the postage on the rejection letters we receive — that the occasional act of resistance is healthy, perhaps even necessary, to maintaining one’s equilibrium.

One last suggestion on how to keep your spirits up: keep moving. Don’t get so wrapped up in marketing your completed work that you stall on the next. Yes, you need to keep sending your work out, but don’t let that endeavor suck up all of your creative energy. Get to work on your next writing project right away.

And don’t send out only one query letter at a time, unless an agency actually specifies that it will not accept simultaneous queries. One by one, it may take years to go through your top choices; the vast majority of agents understand that, so you do not need to fear their yelling at you down the line if several are interested in it. (Actually, agents’ ears tend to prick up when they learn that they have competition — it can speed up the decision-making process quite a bit.)

Try keep 5-10 queries circulating at any given time (maintaining impeccable records of who has what, of course). Yes, it may mean receiving a couple of rejections on the same day, but it will also mean that your work is being seen by a whole lot of potentially impress-able eyes. Trust me, if you get started on a new query the moment the most recent rejection letter hits the recycling bin, you will feel better than if the rejection letter sits on your desk for a week or two.

Above all, don’t be too hard on yourself for getting depressed occasionally. It’s genuinely hard to find an agent and/or publisher, and rejection really does hurt. Talk about it with people who understand, and keep moving forward.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

More chin-lifting exercises

Hello, readers —

Yesterday, I wrote a rather long and impassioned piece on the vital importance of making friends with other aspiring writers. It’s a great way to help keep you from feeling isolated during the long, slow writing process, the often as long and even slower revision process, and the can-I stand-another-day-of-this querying process. When each of us is barricaded in her own studio, revising like mad and mailing out queries, it feels as though each of us is fighting a singular battle. We’re not — there are literally millions of aspiring writers out there, and getting to know a few dozen of them will help you sort out what is genuinely unique to your experience and what is just a trend in the way agents are reading queries this month.

Today, I would like to talk about other means of keeping your spirits up, but most of them will tend toward the same message of yesterday: become part of a community of writers in some manner. Not everyone is an organization-joiner, writers perhaps less than most. We’re a cussedly independent breed, and there’s a certain satisfaction, isn’t there, in starting from a blank page and running all the way to publication alone?

All right, go ahead and finish that chorus of “I Did It My Way” that’s floating in your mind right now. Be my guest. I’ll wait.

Alone is appealing as a concept, but to paraphrase Laurence J. Peter, author of THE PETER PRINCIPLE, push is usually not as effective as pull. Most of us have had the fantasy of meeting a famous author or hotshot editor, being quietly impressive, and having our work lauded by this influential individual. A sort of literary Horatio Alger story — John Irving drops his briefcase in an airport, you pick it up for him, and the rest is literary history, right?

In real life, the writers who are probably going to help you most are not the super-famous ones (they’re too busy, and besides, there are probably throngs of aspiring writers lunging after Mssr. Irving’s every dropped crumb these days), but the ones slightly more experienced than you are at querying. These are the people who can take a quick look at your query letter and point out that you left out your most impressive credential altogether. These are the people who have already gone to the conferences you are thinking about attending, and can tell you which speakers suck and which speakers sing. These are the people who know from experience which agent only speaks to authors under 40, which tends to use conferences primarily as singles bars (yes, it happens), and which will be happy to refer you to other agents, if they are not interested in your work themselves.

I like to think of this blog as providing such an experienced friend’s voice to my readers, but the more friends, the merrier, I always say.

Don’t make the mistake, though, of finding the most important person in the room at a conference and latching onto him as though you are his long-lost dog. For one thing, there are always a lot of people suing for the attention of a conference bigwig, and for another, over-eagerness can make it appear to said bigwig that you are offering something you are not in exchange for a little professional advice, if you catch my drift.

I once made the tactical error of striking up a conversation (about Charles Dickens, as I recall) with the book review editor of a major East Coast newspaper, only to spend the rest of the conference dodging his suggestions that we visit his room for a little in-depth editing. All I did was express an opinion on A TALE OF TWO CITIES, for heaven’s sake! Once I made more experienced friends at that conference, I was able to learn that this well-respected journalist habitually dons his black leather jacket and trolls writing conferences for Sweet Young Things, promising fame and fortune to those too inexperienced to know better. Now, whenever I spot him on the speaker’s list for a conference I’m attending, I make a beeline for the nearest Sweet Young Thing and mention his, um, editorial preferences.

That is what being a good community member means.

Most writers, even well-established ones, are genuinely nice people, interested in others and happy to help those whom they like. I once had a tremendous conversation with Jean Auel (of CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR fame) about guerilla marketing, full of tips I cherish to this day. If you’re polite, there’s no reason not to walk up to a famous writer at a reading and strike up a conversation. However, there is a right way and a wrong way to do it.

RIGHT: Hello, I’ve read several of your books, and I love the way you handle dialogue. How did you train your ear so well?

WRONG: Hello, I would like to be as successful as you. Give me tips.

The first is a compliment; the second is a demand, and it’s important to remember which is which. Being specific in your questions helps:

RIGHT: Hello. I’m delighted to meet you, as I am a big fan of your work. (Insert conversation here about why.) I write work similar to yours. If you had to do it over again, would you pick the same agent? Are there other agents specializing in our area whom you would recommend to a writer just starting out?

WRONG: Hello, I’ve written a book, but I can’t seem to find an agent for it. Will you recommend me to yours?

Or, the granddaddy of all wrong approaches:

WRONG: (Pulling 500-page manuscript out of backpack.) Here, I wrote this. Read it and tell me what I should do with it.

Writers tend to err more on the side of shyness than of boldness, in my experience, which is why it is a great idea to get in the habit of going to public readings (which are usually free; check your favorite bookstore or library for calendars), so you can learn how to walk up to an author you admire, stick out your ink-stained hand, and say proudly, “Hi, I’m a great fan of yours. I’m a writer, too.”

I just felt a great shudder go through some of you, but trust me, the average author is flattered when people recognize her (yes, even at a book reading, where she will be pretty clearly marked). Every established author I know has a cocktail party story about some wonderful encounter with a fan at a signing, a real tear-jeaker about how some total stranger walked up and said exactly the piece of praise the author had been waiting since the age of 8 to hear.

Go for it. Don’t start out with your favorite authors, if it makes you too nervous — head on down to Elliott Bay Books or Powell’s and listen to a reading by an author whose work you don’t know. Ask an intelligent question about the reading. Heck, if even that seems too threatening, turn out for one of the PNWA’s The Word Is Out events, where members read their work, and get some practice talking to authors after readings that way. Work your way up to when you will really need to be charming; really charming takes practice.

If this sounds too public for you, take Carolyn See’s advice (if you haven’t read her marvelous MAKING A LITERARY LIFE, run, don’t walk to your nearest bookstore or library and nab a copy) and write letters to your favorite authors. Compliment them; tell them a little bit about your work. If you’re nice, they’ll be thrilled — trust me, the vast majority of letters a well-known author receives are a trifle creepy, so a sane, polite missive from an aspiring writer might well make the author’s day, too. A surprisingly high percentage of them will write back — and believe me, the day you find a handwritten postcard from someone you’ve admired for years in your mailbox is sure to be a red-letter day.

If all of this seems a bit pushy to you, well, we’re in a business that rewards  polite pushiness. It’s also a business where established authors are expected to be nice to their fans. When’s the last time you heard about a writer punching a photographer in the face? We almost never even overhear them saying to the last person in line at the bookstore, “I’m sorry, but I’m pooped. Sign your own damned book.” (Hemingway and Mailer don’t count; I have always suspected that they got into barroom brawls with critics primarily as a means of boosting their reputations as he-men.)

In fact, a habitually stand-offish writer will garner a negative reputation at bookstores and conferences with a speed that the Pony Express would have envied. Moral: never, ever be snappish with anyone who works behind the counter at a bookstore where you’re reading. That person might well be a writer — either of books that will one day be successful, or of blistering e-mails sent all around the country. Legends are made this way.

Be kind, be respectful, be polite, and you might just meet a friend with some real pull. However, don’t assume that a nice conversation at a conference or a bookstore means you’re suddenly the best of friends; don’t push for favors unless you actually establish a relationship. And, of course, be sensitive to hints to back off.

Remember that whenever you are around writers, established or aspiring, you are walking through a community. Be a charming addition to the community, not a liability, and other writers will always be glad to see you. Behave yourself, because your reputation now may come back to haunt you later on — or perhaps even sooner. As my good friend Philip K. Dick used to say, never be gratuitously nasty to a living writer. You might end up reincarnated as the villain in the insulted party’s next book. Or as the corpse in her next murder mystery.

Actually, come to think of it, that book critic would make a pretty good character in my current novel…

And, again, try not to become so focused on the famous person at the front of the room that you forget to introduce yourself to the people seated to your left and your right. If one of them is another writer, you may make another useful friend.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Rave rejections — and keeping your chin high

Hello, readers —

Pardon me if I am a trifle giddy today — my good friend Jordan Rosenfeld (whose excellent blog on writing is well worth checking out)has just sold a book on scene writing to Writer’s Digest Books. It’s due out in January, 2007, and I’ll try to blandish her into sharing some of her insights here between now and then. This is definitely a book that deserves to be read, by a writer who genuinely knows her way around a scene.

Hooray for virtue rewarded!

There’s nothing like having writing buddies for mutual support, is there? This is such an isolating craft, and heavy competition makes it feel even more so: for me, keeping in close touch with friends who write has been essential for keeping my chin up for the long haul. Not just as first readers (although I do rely upon my sterling writing friends for that), but as mirrors of my own experience, to help remind me that the path of good writing to publication is seldom smooth. My hopes are multiplied many times over, following my friends’ manuscripts on their travels.

In other words, they help me remember that it’s not just me; the publishing world really is wacky. Talent and luck must go hand-in-hand in order to bring success, along with a healthy dollop of persistence. A sense of humor helps, too.

The more writers you know, the easier it is to keep the process in perspective. Since conference season is coming up, I can’t urge you strongly enough to consider conferences as possibilities not just for meeting agents and editors and taking classes, but also for making friends with other writers. Heck, you could even walk in with the intention of meeting enough new friends to start a critique group.

There will be rooms and rooms of people who share your passion to create — this is no time to sit in a corner and keep to yourself. Seriously, no matter how shy you are, you will already be armed with the best possible opening line for starting a conversation with a stranger: “So, what do you write?”

In addition to building a support group, these conference meetings can lead to a wealth of mutual aid. A few minutes of social effort can bring a lifetime of glowing back jacket blurbs and Amazon reader reviews. In a crowd of eager aspirants to publishing fame, all clamoring for the attention of a few agents and editors, it’s easy to forget that some of your now-unknown writer peers are going to make it, but some undoubtedly will.

You never know who might end up as, say, the resident writer on a major writing association’s website. Talk to the person sitting next to you at the conference.

I am harping on connections today, because I received a wonderful e-mail from talented and insightful reader Janet, asking for my thoughts on how to maintain hope during the long wait for recognition even the best writers face. I say talented not only because she wrote me a lovely missive, but because she mentioned that she has been receiving encouraging feedback from agents, what we in the biz call Rave Rejections. These days, when most agencies use form letter rejections for literally every query they reject (which did not used to be true), the fact that someone at an agency took the time to make an individualized comment is actually a very strong sign that Janet’s work is impressing people.

I know — it’s perverse. But since writers get so little feedback from agents and editors in the query process now, we have to take our comfort and encouragement wherever we can find it.

Rave rejections are a double-edged sword. They are flattering, of course, because they are so rare, but by the same token, they are in fact rejections, and thus depressing.

For many years, I was the queen of the rave rejection: I’ve had agents hand-write, “Hey, this is one of the best query letters I have ever read, but I’ll have to pass!” in the margins of form letter rejections; editorial assistants would praise my work to the skies in long letters of regret. I once had a novel make it all the way to an editorial meeting at a good small publishing house; apparently, there was quite an argument about it. The subsequent rave rejection letter gave the details of that argument, along with a review of my book that was so glowing that it shouldn’t merely have been on the back jacket of the book — it should have been on my tombstone. I’ve heard less glowing eulogies.

And yet it was rejected. Maddening. The editor even sent me a present, another book from the publishing house, as sort of a consolation prize.

It is at times like these that a writer needs her writing buddies. Who but another writer would really be able to sympathize with a near miss — or, indeed, with the quotidian difficulties of keeping one’s chin up throughout the querying process?

Yes, other kith and kin can be helpful, even wonderful, but it may not always be apparent to those unfamiliar with the vagaries of the publishing industry that the book itself may not be at fault. Although, to be fair, my sense of this problem may well be heightened at the moment, as I have just returned from having dinner with my brother-in-law, who is famous for bouncing up to me like a golden retriever on speed every time he sees me and barking, “So — when is your book coming out? What’s going on? Why isn’t it published yet?”

I appreciate his concern, of course, and I certainly understand his confusion — my memoir has now been available for presale on Amazon and B & N for more than 7 months, so I suppose it is only natural for a layperson to expect that the book itself might appear in print sometime in the near future. What he can’t seem to understand, what most of my non-writing friends can’t seem to understand, is that the publication date is, like so much else in the publication process, utterly outside the author’s control, and barking at me about it only makes me feel worse about that.

Other writers, bless them, do understand that salient fact.

Because I am lucky enough know so many writers at all levels of success — and honestly, some of the best writers I know have not yet been able to find the right agent — I know that the problem of the well-meaning but ignorant friend’s badgering is in fact endemic to the writing life. As anyone who has ever sold a book can tell you, starting from the moment you sign with an agent, eager non-writer friends will badger the author about the book’s progress, as though any delays or problems must be the author’s fault. Or as if the only possible reason that a book has not yet been delightedly scooped up and championed by the publishing world is that it isn’t very good.


As anyone who has spent much time around a group of good writers knows, there are plenty of great books out there that have trouble finding agents and/or editors. And as writers with querying experience, we know that. Other people don’t, and on our bad days, their kindly-meant questions can feel like deliberate cruelty.

Down, boy!

Often, too, our non-writing kith and kin do not understand the publishing world well enough to support us in our triumphs, either. It is far from uncommon — I tremble to report this, but it’s true — for authors over the moon about being signed by a great agent to be deflated by the following exchange with non-writing friends:

Writer: My dream agent just signed me!

Friend: That’s great! When’s your book coming out?

Writer (a little uncomfortable): Well, it doesn’t really work like that. The agent markets the book to editors, you see, and the editors are the ones who actually buy the book.

Friend (disappointed): Oh. So you really aren’t any closer to the book’s being published.

Writer (now sorry that he brought it up at all): No, it’s a necessary step toward being published.

Friend (now utterly confused): Well, let me know when the book comes out.

As someone who has both won a major literary contest AND has a book contract in hand, I can tell you with absolute assurance that well-meaning non-writers will take ANY announcement of a significant step forward in a writer’s career as identical to a book contract. The working writer spends a LOT of time explaining the process to these people, just as the agent-querying writer does. In fact, other than when my work has actually appeared printed on paper (or here in this blog), I’m not sure that my non-writing friends have any idea why my work does not instantly appear on bookshelves across the nation the moment it falls off my fingertips.

In my dark days, before I was getting much recognition, I even had good-hearted friends sit me down, with all of the seriousness of an intervention, and beg me to stop wasting my life in the pursuit of a constantly disappointed dream. They meant well, so I did not throw things at them.

They all mean well; I know that. I fully realize that to someone who has not felt the birth pangs of a manuscript first-hand, or known what it is to rush to the mailbox every day, searching for a positive response to a query, what we writers do can look suspiciously like masochism. Or self-delusion. Or pursuit of a very time-consuming, very demanding hobby.

To quote the very talented, very persistent Louisa May Alcott, who had been working in the writing trenches for a decade and a half before LITTLE WOMEN hit the big time: “I shall make a battering-ram of my head, and make my way through this rough-and-tumble world.”

To a writer, that sounds like a brave and realistic approach to a life entertaining the muse and courting the publishing world. To a non-writer… well, see my earlier remark about masochism.

This is why I highly recommend to anyone who is in the writing business for the long haul to make as many good writing friends as possible. People who speak the same language you do, peers who can sympathize with your trials and cheer your triumphs with clear understanding. Join a writers’ group; go to conferences. Participate in an online forum. Share what you’ve learned, and hear what others have to say.

And, perhaps most importantly for your own sanity and well-being, learn to derive joy from the progress of others. Help them where you can; allow them the pleasure of helping you. It will help sustain you as you push forward.

The more writing friends you have, the higher the probability that on the day when you are feeling most discouraged, you will open your e-mail to find the glad news that a friend has landed a great agent. Or sold a book. Or finished a novel. Or really nailed that short story. Because you are a writer, and one of the many special skills you possess is the ability to understand better than the rest of the population why these interim achievements — the ones the golden retrievers of the world have trouble seeing as anything but delays on the road to success — are in fact very, very worth celebrating.

So here’s to Jordan for putting in all of the years of hard work that lead to this book contract — well done! Here’s to Janet, too, for garnering that hard-to-get encouraging feedback — great job! And here’s to all of you out there who have the courage, tenacity, and faith in your own talent to keep sending out queries, using your words as a battering ram against the slow-opening doors of the industry — good for you!

Let’s help one another keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Scoring Criteria, Part XI: Logic, Provoking the Genuine Laugh, and the Ta Da! Factor

Hello, readers —

Today really will be the last installment of my series on literary contest judging criteria, I promise. This topic has been hard to leave, because it really is a microcosm of how books are viewed by publishing professionals. However, I promised you blogs on how to write a bio, and those you shall have.

Back to Presentation category problems. Another common problem in contest entries, one that affects both coherence and continuity, is skipping logical steps in arguments or plots, assuming that the reader will simply fill in the gaps for herself. This results in logic that appears from the reader’s POV to run like this:

1. Socrates was a man.

2. Socrates was wise.

3. Therefore, men who want to be wise should not wear socks.

Clearly, there is some logic missing here, right? In order to prove Proposition 3, the writer would first have to show that (a) Socrates did not wear socks (I have no idea if this is true, but hey, Greece is a warm country, so bear with me here), (b) non-sock wearing had some tangible and demonstrable effect upon his mental processes that cannot be explained by other contributing factors, such as years of study or having a yen for conversation, and (c) the bare ankle experiment’s success was not dependent upon some exogenous variable, such as the fact that socks would have looked really stupid worn with a toga. It would make sense, too, to establish that Socrates is a proper role model for modern men to emulate, as opposed to scruffy old sock-wearing moral thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau or Mary Wollstonecraft. Perhaps the book could even include a compare-and-contrast of the intellectual achievements of famous sock-wearing individuals versus those of the air-blessed ankles. By the end of such a disquisition, the reader might well become converted to the author’s premise, and cast his footwear from him with a cry of liberation.

Think this seems like a ridiculous example of skipped steps, one that could not possibly occur in a real manuscript? Oh, my poor friend, bless your innocent eyes: you’ve obviously never been a judge in a nonfiction contest or advised an undergraduate thesis.

In nonfiction, I can do no better than to refer my faithful readers to Nietzsche’s THUS SPAKE ZARATHUSTRA as an illustration of this phenomenon. (I know, I know; I’m on a philosophy kick today, but it’s such a sterling example that I simply can’t resist.) Following the narrative of this book is like watching a mountain goat leap from crag to crag on a blasted mountainside; the goat may be able to get from one promontory to another with no trouble, but those of us tagging behind actually have to walk up and down the intervening gullies. The connective logic between one point and the next is frequently far from clear, or even downright wacko — and in a book that proposes that the writer and reader both might be logically superior to other people, that’s a serious coherence problem.

Okay, Nietzsche allegedly wrote the work in a three-day frenzy while confined to an insane asylum, so perhaps it is not fair to expect world-class coherence from him. The average literary contest entrant, however, does not have so good an excuse.

If a judge ever has the opportunity to write “connective logic?” in one of your margins, your presentation score is sunk. Make sure you’re filling in the relevant gullies.

Nietzsche did one thing in THUS SPAKE ZARTHUSTRA that would help him win back points in the Presentation category: include genuinely funny lines. It’s actually quite an amusing book, coherence problems aside (and not only because of them), and very, very few contest entries are funny. A funny manuscript, or even a funny joke in a serious manuscript, feels like a gift to your average tired contest judge. A deliberately-provoked laugh from a judge can result in the reward of many Presentation points, and often additional points in the Voice category as well.

Notice that I specified a DELIBERATELY-PROVOKED laugh. An unintentional laugh, what moviemakers call “a bad laugh” because it springs forth from the audience when the filmmakers do not want it to occur, will cost points. We’ve all recognize bad laughs in movies (my personal favorite was in the most recent remake of LITTLE WOMEN: Jo, played by Winona Ryder, has sold her long, lovely hair in order to help the family, and one of her sisters cries out, “Oh, Jo! Your one beauty.” The theatre positively rocked with laughter, because Ms. Ryder possesses the kind of face that artists over the centuries have willingly mortgaged their souls in order to depict accurately), but literally the only way for an author to discover them in her own book is to have someone else read it.

Do not, whatever you do, make the extremely common mistake of including guffawing onlookers to mark where the reader is supposed to laugh, as that will cost you points as well. This is another one that writers seem to have picked up from movies or television: whenever a joke appears in the dialogue, the reader is told that someone nearby laughs in response. Contrary to the author’s apparent expectation, to an experienced professional reader, this additional information detracts from the humor of the scene, rather than adds to it; the bigger the onlookers’ reaction, the less funny it seems.

Why? Well, to a judge, agent, or editor who has been around the block a few times, the onlooker’s guffaw is a flag that the author has some doubt about whether the joke is actually funny. It’s a marker of discomfort, a peek behind the scenes into the writer’s mind, distracting from the story at hand. And once the reader suspects that the writer isn’t amused, it’s only a small step to the reader’s not being amused, either.

The moral: you can lead a reader to funny, but you can’t make him laugh.

Finally, there is one more criterion that falls into the Presentation category, what I call the Ta da! factor. It’s hard to define precisely, because it’s when a manuscript exudes the sort of mercurial charisma that Elinor Glyn dubbed It when it occurs in human beings. (Thus Clara Bow, the It Girl.) Like It, the Ta da! factor makes a manuscript shine, practically demanding that the judge give the entry high marks. In fact, a healthy dose of the Ta da! factor might even prompt a judge to fudge a little in the other categories, so as to assure the entry a point total that will launch it into the finalist round.

To achieve the Ta da! factor — well, if I could tell you that, I would chuck the blogging business entirely and establish myself as the world’s most expensive writing guru. I do know that mere professionalism is not enough. Yes, all of the technical aspects of the work need to be right, as well as the execution. The writing style needs to be strong and distinct, and it helps a lot if the story is compelling. Beyond that, it’s a little hard to say how precisely the Ta da! factor gives a manuscript its sheen, just as it’s difficult to pin down just what makes a great first line of a book so great. Perhaps it’s rhythm, and a certain facility for telling detail:

“I am always drawn back to places where I have lived, the houses and their neighborhoods. For instance, there is a brownstone in the East Seventies where, during the early years of the war, I had my first New York apartment. It was one room crowded with attic furniture, a sofa and four chairs upholstered in that itchy, particular red velvet that one associates with hot days on a train.”

That’s the opening of BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S, Truman Capote’s masterpiece that incidentally someone really ought to make into a movie some day, because the Audrey Hepburn version bears only a passing resemblance to it. (For instance, the original novella concerns a friendship between a woman and man in their late teens; the movie is about a love story between a man and a woman in, if you look at George Peppard charitably, their late thirties. Oh, and the endings are quite different.) But just look at the use of language here. You could sing this opening; it’s positively bursting with the Ta da! factor.

Perhaps, too, a certain sense of showmanship is required. Bask in this one:

“He was a very good-looking young man indeed, shaped to be annoyed. His voice was intimate as the rustle of sheets, and he kissed easily. There was no tallying the gifts of Charvet handkerchiefs, art moderne ash-trays, monogrammed dressing-gowns, gold key-chains, and cigarette-cases of thin wood, inlaid with views of Parisian comfort stations, that were sent him by ladies too quickly confident, and were paid for with the money of unwitting husbands, which is acceptable any place in the world.”

That, my friends, is the opening to Dorothy Parker’s DUSK BEFORE FIREWORKS, and let me tell you, if a short story like that fell onto my desk as a contest judge, I would not only shower it with the highest possible marks (yes, even though I do not agree with all of Ms. Parker’s punctuation choices in this excerpt); I would nag the category chair about pushing it into the finalist round. I would go to the awards ceremony, cheer if it won, and make a point of meeting the author. I might even introduce the author to my agent. Because, my friends, it exudes the aura of the Ta da! factor as distinctly as a Buddhist temple exudes incense.

I mention this, not to cow you with examples of writing by extremely talented writers, but to fill you with hope, after this long discourse on all the technical ways you can gain or lose points in the contest judging process. Ultimately, talent does supersede almost every other consideration, as long as the work is professionally presented.

This is not to say that you should not go to great lengths to avoid making the point-costing mistakes I have pointed out in the last two weeks — you should, because genuinely talented writers’ work is knocked out of competition (and into agents’ rejection piles) all the time for technical reasons. When talent is properly presented, though, the results are magical.

A few years ago, a member of my writing group, a mystery writer, submitted a chapter, as we all did, for the group to read. In this draft (we has seen earlier ones), the first two paragraphs were gaspingly beautiful, so full of the atmosphere of the Sierra Nevada mountains that I not only to this day picture his opening in my mind as clearly as a movie — I feel that I was actually there. After reading this opening, the group grew rather quiet, so we could all chew on the imagery, the sentence structure for a while. It was so imbued with the Ta da! factor that there hardly seemed to be any point in discussing the rest of his chapter.

“One of the miracles of talent,” Mme. de Staël tells us, “is the ability to knock your readers out of their own egoism.” (Another favorite writer of mine; every woman who writes should read her brilliant novel CORINNE at some point. She wrote it in 1807, but apart from the travelogue sections, it’s still fresh as piping-hot cinnamon rolls today.) The Ta da! factor does just that, grabs the reader’s attention and simply insists upon this book’s being read, right now.

Under the sway of all of the publishing fads continually buffeting us, it’s all too easy for writers to forget what power really good writing has. If only the publication of a truly exciting book were taken up with the verve and intensity that the media has devoted to the controversy over James Frey’s A MILLION LITTLE PIECES. “But is it well written?” the commentators should cry, and then go into questions of factual accuracy.

Publishing fads, like fashions in beauty, come and go. Talent doesn’t. Just as so many of the actors held up as exemplars of beauty now would not have been considered especially attractive in, say, the Italian Renaissance, or even a hundred years ago, I believe that many of the books published today will not be considered essential reading a hundred years from now. But the work of some authors — Truman Capote, Dorothy Parker, Mme. de Staël, for instance — has something about it that elevates it above the passing fad, just as there are some actors who, it is perfectly obvious to us all, would have been considered absolutely lovely in any period of human history.

“Oh, Jo! Your one beauty!” notwithstanding.

Keep your chins up, my friends, through all the hard work of perfecting your manuscripts and contest entries; you’re toiling in a noble vineyard. Real talent is not necessarily measured in the short term. Keep up the good work.


– Anne Mini

Scoring Criteria, Part X: Scoring Criteria, Part X: Continuity, Coherence, and the Big Surprise

Hello, readers —

Today, I think, will be the last installment of my series on what contest judges use as evaluation criteria; I want to move on to my long-promised tutorial on how to write an author bio. Like so much else, constructing an author bio is a skill that every writer is expected to have in her tool bag, regardless of what else she writes. I don’t want you to get blindsided by this routine request down the line, so I’ll show you how to write one.

Yesterday, I talked about how issues of coherence and continuity can cost entries points in the Presentation category, including a spirited complaint about how movies and television prompt us not to explain motivations and to perpetuate clichés. I pointed out how the good writer should be wary of the unanswered question the story may raise for the reader, particularly if it is a rather obvious one. I implied, and none too gently, that watching low-quality screenwriting in action has led many writers to be lazy on these points.

It serves me right, therefore, to have seen a very good movie last night that prompted a very, very big unanswered question. Screenwriters everywhere have my apologies: maybe it has something to do with the medium. Thank you very much for providing me with such a marvelous example of how unanswered questions can vitiate even the best-crafted story.


The film was LOVE LIZA, with the generally excellent Philip Seymour Hoffman (of CAPOTE fame; I still haven’t recovered from THAT screenplay’s changing the identity of the murderer from the one who committed the bulk of the mayhem in the book IN COLD BLOOD) and the dependably wonderful Kathy Bates. As the movie makes clear over and over, the title refers to the closing of a letter — so if you’re wondering why the title is missing the grammatically necessary comma in the middle, you’re in good company.

Maybe it’s a command.

The approximately two-minute silence that opens the film (I didn’t realize at first that I should be clocking it, so pardon my imprecision) let the viewer know that this was going to be Art with a capital A, so I settled in for a good, old-fashioned depressing film about the human experience. And boy, did I get it: the protagonist (Hoffman), who has just lost his wife to suicide, takes up sniffing gasoline and related petroleum products with a vim that most people reserve for the first course of Thanksgiving dinner. So engaged is he in mourning-through-inhalants that he cannot manage to open the suicide note his wife left for him, cleverly hidden under the pillow of a man who obviously thinks laundering sheets is for sissies. Because he’s afraid that the letter will blame him in some way that he cannot imagine (it’s hard to imagine much with a gasoline-soaked rag clutched to your face, I would guess), he carries the note with him everywhere he goes for most of the film — and believe me, he gets around.

Okay, a quick quiz for all of you novelists out there: what’s going to happen in the final scene? What, in fact, did we know was going to happen in the final scene as soon as he did not open the letter the first time it appeared?

But as I say, this was a good film, so I was willing to waive objections on this point. However, the moment he slit the envelope open, my writer’s mind went haywire. Why, I asked myself, would a woman bent upon doing herself in within the next minute or two have bothered to fold up the note and stuff it in an envelope? She and her husband lived alone; he was equally likely to be the first to see it if she had left it unfolded on the kitchen counter as hidden under a pillow in an envelope.

Those of you who read yesterday’s post already know the answer, don’t you? BECAUSE THE PLOT REQUIRED IT, that’s why — how could the protagonist tote around the Visible Symbol of His Loss for an hour and a half UNLESS it was in a sealed envelope? Evidently, the late lamented Liza was considerate enough to have read the script before doing herself in.

Thus was yet another good story well presented scuttled by the unanswered question. Remember, “because the plot requires it” is never a valid motivation; stories are invariably improved by ferreting out the answers before showing the work to an audience.

In this case, for instance, if someone — say, the unbiased reader I always recommend you show your work before loosing it upon the world — had asked the screenwriter the unanswered question, a genuinely touching scene could have been added to the movie: the letter is sitting on the kitchen counter (or under the unwashed pillowcase still, if you prefer); the protagonist takes those full two minutes at the top of the movie to become aware enough of his environment to find it, and when he does, the prospect of being blamed terrifies him so much that he uses kitchen tongs to stuff it into a Manila envelope, unread. Then HE could seal it, thus giving further resonance to his inevitable decision to unseal it in the final scene.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a demonstration of what a good editor can do for your story. Or a good writing group, or indeed any truly talented first reader. Not only can outside eyes alert you to problems you might not otherwise catch; they can help suggest specific ways to make your book better.

Okay, time to move on from unanswered questions. Often, writers fail to provide information necessary to understanding a situation until after it has occurred, resulting in many lost points in contest scoring and rending of readers’ garments. One of the most common of lapses is the post-explained joke, a surprise or one-liner that is only funny if the reader knows certain information in advance — but the reader is not given that information in advance. There are vast graveyards of jokes that died hideous and protracted deaths because their authors did not set them up properly — and then sought to save the situation by adding a line or a paragraph of explanation afterward.

I don’t quite get this — does the author intend that the joke will be funny the SECOND time someone reads the book? Or is it in response to some kind reader having pointed out that the joke sans explanation was not at all funny? Or — and a creeping sensation up my spine tells me that this is the most plausible explanation of all — has the author just read over that particular scene so many times that the time-space continuum in which a reader would experience it has dissolved as a consideration?

However it may be, it’s a sure way to lose points in the Presentation category.

Jokes, alas, are not the only writing phenomena where the set-up tends to come after the fact. I tremble to tell you this, but often, big surprises pop up in entries without any prior indication that (a) this is not the outcome the characters were expecting, (b) this was not the logical outcome of events thus far, and/or (c) how such a turn of events might affect other people or events in the book.

“But it’s a SURPRISE,” writers will often whine when people like me (kindly souls devoted to improving the art form) gently suggest that perhaps a skillful writer might want to reveal some inkling of (a), (b), or (c) in advance, so the reader’s sense of the import of the moment will be greater. “I don’t want to give the whole thing away.”

Obviously, a writer who says this is not thinking of doing as my ilk and I advise, introducing the relevant information in a subtle manner, perhaps even piecemeal, in the pages prior to the big revelation. I say obviously, because if she were thinking of being subtle about it at all, the surprise would not be spoilt. No, she is thinking of what I like to call “a lazy man’s edit,” just lifting the explanation she’s already written and plopping it down earlier in the text, as is.

It never fails to astonish me just how far some writers will go to avoid real, in-depth revision. They fall so deeply in love with their own sentences that the very idea of cutting some of them and revising others seems like sacrilege.

That’s fine, if it makes them happy to approach their work that way, but it is an attitude that judges, agents, and editors can spot a mile away. They can sense it in a manuscript, pouncing on it like a drug-sniffing dog zeroing in on trace amounts of heroin. “Whoa,” they say, quickly pushing the manuscript aside. “This is an author who would be difficult to work with.”

I’m not saying that all writers who give after-explanations are impervious to input, of course, but it is a fairly common conclusion for professional readers to draw. This is why it is so important to avoid making this mistake in a contest entry: it doesn’t come across as a simple editing problem, but as a matter of authorial choice. For some reason of his own, they conclude, the author chose to minimize this joke or that dramatic moment. Go figure.

Why would they leap to such an extreme (and writer-hostile) conclusion, you ask? Come closer, and I’ll tell you a little secret: many, if not most, judges, agents, and editors assume that by the time they see a piece of writing, it HAS received feedback from other people.

Clearly, then, if such a glaring continuity problem as after-explanation was not corrected, one of two things must have happened: either the author got bad feedback (in which case the manuscript should be rejected until such time as the author learns to get better at her craft) or the author got good feedback and ignored it (in which case the author is difficult). Either way, they’re not rushing to embrace the author who does it.

So, for your contest entries, if it is comically or dramatically necessary for the reader to have some piece of information in order to be able to have a spontaneous reaction to a given line, make sure that the reader has the information first.

Well, I guess I shall have to push off my treatise on crafting the author bio until next week, because I find that I have a lot more to say about continuity and coherence in contest entries. Not to mention the fact that I seem not to have gotten to the promised topic of humor in entries at all. Here is one distinct advantage the blogger has over the contest entrant: what the entrant promises in the synopsis, she must deliver in the chapter, at least in part.

As a blogger, though, I can merely retreat to the tried-and-true methodology of the old serials: tune in tomorrow to find out how the story ends. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

P.S. to Bob and all of the others out there who have tried without success to find links to my October, November, and December archived postings: no, there is not a link to them yet; they disappeared into the ether when the website switched servers. More news as it develops. But if I can’t figure out how to remedy the problem soon, as a personal favor to you, Bob, for bringing it to my attention, I’ll post the piece on Point of View Nazis again.

Scoring Criteria, Part IX: Coherence and Continuity

Hello, readers —

In yesterday’s post, I discussed the role that tone can play in a Presentation category score. In reading it over, I realized that I might have been a trifle harsh on contest judges. I’m sure that there are many who don’t transmogrify into fire-breathing dragons after intensive screening of entries. Many do, however, and my underlying point is that as a contest entrant, you can never be sure which will end up judging your manuscript. Best to be on the safe side.

As they tell children in England, manners cost nothing.

The Presentation category is also where questions of continuity and coherence are rated. Continuity covers two major issues, consistency (on all levels, from tone to what the protagonist’s sister is called by intimates) and flow. Does the argument unfold in the manner it should, or does it stop cold from time to time? Here again, a pair of outside eyes screening your entry for continuity problems can be extremely helpful.

Coherence is an easy one to double-check before submitting an entry: just have a third party who knows nothing about the story you are telling read through the entry. Then have this generous friend tell the story back to you. If any of the essentials come back to you garbled (or worse, missing), there are probably some coherence problems.

95% of the time, coherence issues stem from the enthusiasm of the writer. The writer so longs to convey the story or the argument to the reader that he rushes on, willy-nilly, all caught up in the momentum of communication. Tight pacing is great, but all too often, explanation — and yes, even meaning — can fall along the wayside. Judges feel bad subtracting points from such entries, because the writer’s passion for the material comes through so clearly, but subtract they must.

Pieces stuffed with jargon almost invariably end up with low Presentation scores. Here, the writer walks a fine line: yes, it is wonderful when you can present people in a field as they really talk, but as the author, it’s your job to make sure they are comprehensible to the lay reader. If not, the reader has to spend additional time on each jargon-ridden sentence, trying to figure out from context what those bizarre phrases could possibly mean. Within the context of a contest entry, every extra second spent in translation will be costly to your Presentation score.

Define your terms. Provide subtitles, if you must. Think about it: Anthony Burgess’ A CLOCKWORK ORANGE would have been well-nigh incomprehensible without the glossary in the back, wouldn’t it?

And please don’t make the mistake of thinking that using lots of jargon makes the book come across as smarter. Judges — yes, and most agents and editors, too — are generally quite aware that it is significantly harder to describe a complex process in simple terms than in obscure ones. The appeal of Stephen Hawking’s A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME was not merely the platform of the writer, which is undoubtedly impressive, but the fact that he was able to describe theoretical physics in layman’s language.

In a nonfiction piece, you need to make sure that every plank of your argument is sound and comprehensible to someone who knows NOTHING about your subject matter. Literally nothing, as in perhaps never even suspected that such a topic might exist. This assumption may seem like an invitation to talk down to the reader, but actually, it’s just realistic. While you may be writing for a target market crammed to the brim with specialists in your area (or people who think they are, always a prime market for books), a new writer can NEVER assume preexisting expertise on the part of a judge, agent, or editor.

This is true, amazingly enough, even if you are writing on a subject that has already been well-traveled in the popular press. You may be writing about the single most common social phenomenon in the country, but that does not mean that NYC-based publishing types will have heard of it. Publishing is a rarefied world, in a sense quite provincial, insofar as its denizens tend to be very much absorbed in their own culture, often to the exclusion of others. It’s a complex and extraordinarily diverse culture, yes, but still, an inward-looking one.

If statistics would be helpful to conveying how large the market for your book is, or how common a phenomenon is, go ahead and include them in the synopsis. Trust me on this one — I’ve seen books about conditions that affect 20% of the population of the United States dismissed by publishing professionals as appealing to only a tiny niche market.

Coherence problems are not always a matter of unduly presuming familiarity with the subject matter and not explaining enough, however. Unanswered questions can cause coherence difficulties as well, particularly if those questions arise fairly naturally from the action of the piece: why, for instance, does a character in a horror story wander, alone and unarmed, into a house she knows to be haunted? Why didn’t the family in THE AMITYVILLE HORROR just invoke the state’s lemon law and cancel its contract to buy the house? And why oh why doesn’t the local bored housewife in a thriller take up crochet or gardening, instead of lusting after the town’s newest stubble-encrusted drifter?

Remember, “because the plot requires it” is never a valid answer. Give the reader some sense of your characters’ motivations.

Yes, I know — in a contest, where you might be allowed to show only a single chapter of a 400-page novel, you may not have room to establish motivations for every major character. You can in the synopsis, though, and you certainly can show off your ability to convey motivation in the actions the protagonist takes in that first chapter. Don’t underestimate how much handling small events well will demonstrate your acumen in handling the bigger ones later on in the book.

A quick aside about entering the first chapter of a novel in a contest: this is an arena where following that shopworn advice about taking your protagonist through the steps of a Jungian hero’s journey can really cost you.

You’ve heard of this plotting device, right? Screenwriters have inundated us with it since the success of the original STAR WARS; in recent years, many advice-givers on the writers’ conference circuit have been advocating it as well. The hero starts out in his (almost never her), normal life, hears the call of a challenge, gets drawn into a challenge, meets friends and advisors along the way… and so forth, for three distinct acts. It’s not a bad structure, although it has gotten a bit common for my taste.

The problem is, this structure more or less requires that the opening of the book (or, more commonly, movie) open with the protagonist’s mundane life, before the excitement of the drama begins. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that — but it does tend to lead to a first chapter heavy on background and light on action. And the problem with THAT in a contest is that the first chapter is usually all the judges see.

I’ve written about this before, and recently, so I won’t expend energy now retracing the many, many reasons to start your contest entries and agency submissions with a bang. Suffice it to say that in this instance, sticking too rigidly to a predetermined structural formula may leave you with little action for which to provide motivation.

Okay, back to unmotivated actions. As you may see from the examples above, the problem of unexplained motivation is another area where I think many writers — and readers, too — have had their senses of proportion semi-permanently twisted by television and movies, so much so that they sometimes forget that characters NEED motivations in order to take action.

One of the surest signs that a story has fallen into a cliché is when the story gives the impression that there is no need to provide a motivation: in a cliché, the motivation is just assumed. Few of us actually have a thing for real-life drifters, for instance, at least not so much that we instantly fling ourselves into torrid affairs with them a few days after they first slouch into sight, yet we’re evidently willing to believe that characters in film will.

And not just in film noir, either: this scenario described is essentially what happens in SIDEWAYS. These two wine-tasters drifted into town, and the local bored women took up with them without knowing anything, really, about their backgrounds… having grown up in California wine country, I can assure you that the fine folks who pour sips at the local wineries are not prone to flinging themselves at every drifter who asks for a refill. Unless a lot has changed since I left town.

The constant barrage of this kind of story has indelibly stained most people’s sense of the plausible, but you’re better than that, aren’t you? You’re not going to be seduced by this charming willingness on the part of the audience to suspend disbelief into believing that they don’t need to establish realistic motivations for your characters, will you?

The judges of literary contests are hoping that you will resist the siren songs of cliché and unmotivated action with all of your might. To put it another way, in print and to professional eyes, unmotivated action comes across as literary laziness. Scads of points lost this way.

Plausibility is a coherence problem, at base; memoirs and fact-based novels are particularly susceptible to plausibility problems. Yet another writing truism: just because something really happened doesn’t necessarily mean it is plausible. It is the writer’s job to make it SEEM plausible.

Once, in college, my roommate and I managed to adopt a wandering Irish theatre company accidentally. A long story, and not a very plausible one: believe it or not, we just came home one day to find that the college officials had given the traveling thespians the keys to our dorm suite. Not very plausible, is it? Yet true. Being sensitive to issues of plausibility, I have never written about it, because it’s rather difficult to explain why we didn’t just throw them out — or why I suddenly felt compelled to cook Thanksgiving dinner (my first time as cook) for 16 total strangers. (As I recall, it had something to do with the fact that none of them had ever before experienced the bliss that is lemon meringue pie.)

To a contest judge, it doesn’t matter whether a depicted event really happened (can you hear James Frey breathing a sigh of relief?), but whether the author has made it feel real to the reader. If not, off with the Presentation points.

Tomorrow, I shall talk about one of the most effective Presentation point boosters in the writer’s tool bag: humor. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Scoring Criteria, Part VIII: Tone

Hello, readers —

I’ve really been warming to the topic of presentation, haven’t I? As long-time readers of this blog already know, few things get my proverbial goat more than standards to which writers are held without being informed of them first… and the Presentation category of contests is often where such standards are applied most strenuously. So let’s dive right back in.

For those of you who missed yesterday’s installment, the Presentation category is where the judge assesses how well the author addresses the main question or subject of the piece, as well as how clearly the author makes a case for it. In order to determine the latter, many judges — however charming, erudite, or generous they are in their daily lives — metamorphose into that nasty third-grade teacher who claimed that your correct math answer did not count if part of your numerals strayed outside the little box where you were supposed to write it.

Imagine, if you will, the least charitable reader in the universe, a sort of inverse Santa Claus, someone who loves great writing but snarls at any deviation from perfection. Okay, maybe that’s putting it a bit strongly: that reader would be the query screener at a really popular agency, or perhaps the editor’s assistant at a major publishing house. The contest judge would be the snarler’s mother, or father, or college roommate. Suffice it to say, the judge and the screener would get along great around a Thanksgiving table; they could swap manuscript horror stories over drumsticks and stuffing.

Now, in real life, most contest judges are lovely people: intelligent, learned, giving of their time. This last is the most important point, of course, as the vast majority of first-round judges in literary contests are volunteers — including, usually, yours truly. The organizers are often paid (although not always, and seldom very much), and if the final-round judge is a celebrity, or as commonly happens, an agent or editor attending a conference attached to the contest, he or she is often paid as well. But bet your bottom dollar that the people deciding whether your entry will be seen by that final-round judge are volunteers.

Why take this into consideration? Well, these people are taking time out of their lives to judge a small mountain of entries. They want to be the very first person to discover that fabulous new writer. As I said, they tend to be lovely people with fine intentions. They truly do want each entry to be a winner.

So how do they end up as snarling nit-pickers? After slogging through entries that don’t follow the rules, entries with severe mechanics problems, entries barely coherent, their enthusiasm for the project tends to wilt. It’s not as though they can simply discard entries with too many problems to make finalist, as an agent or editor could; no, they must read them in their entireties. They must evaluate them in detail. They even, in some contests, must write up substantial commentary for the entrants.

Is that picture firmly in your mind? Now envision the next entry from the pile, an over-explaining manuscript that does not trust the reader to draw fairly straightforward inferences, or a manuscript that is not clearly argued. Or a manuscript full of clichés (yes, it happens), or full of characters adopted directly from an array of popular sitcoms.

Okay, now picture this: your entry is the one after that. Do you think your judge is going to be in a good mood? Or do you think your judge — that kind, generous, noble person who volunteered her time to help writers everywhere succeed beyond their wildest dreams — is going to fly into a tizzy at the first misplaced comma?


Which brings me to the issue of tone. Narrative tone is nearly always rated in the Presentation category: is it appropriate to the story being told or the argument being made? Is the narrative voice pitched at the proper level for the target audience, or would it make more sense for an older or younger readership? (Sarcasm, for instance, is seldom appropriate for books intended for very young children.) Is the narrative voice trustworthy, or does it talk down to its audience? Is the manuscript jargon-laced?

And so forth. Allow me to suggest, as gently as possible, that you have a third party — preferably someone from your target demographic — read your entry for tone BEFORE you submit it to a contest. Or, for that matter, before you submit it to an agency or publishing house. Writers are not always aware of the tone implications of their work; that’s one reason that we all need feedback.

The other reason is that your garden-variety judge, much like an agent or an editor, may be very touchy by the time she gets to your entry. You may have intended no insult, but even a subtle nuance may cause her to rear back like Godzilla and engulf your entry in flame.

I discussed yesterday the dangers of assuming that one’s judges will share one’s point of view, ethnicity, sex, political affiliation, etc. These assumptions often appear most strongly in the tone of the book, regardless of whether the argument acknowledges such assumptions overtly or not. A book by a children’s writer who believes that most children are intelligent, for instance, will read quite differently than one by a writer who believes that they are merely small, ill-informed adults. An essay on job choices in the 20th century by someone who believes that women should not work outside the home will read quite differently than one on the same subject by someone who would like to see at least half the Supreme Court made up of women.

It’s inevitable — so make sure that when you enter your work in contests, there’s nothing in it that will gratuitously offend a judge who is not from your background. Or class. Or sex. Or generation. The chances that your entry’s first-round judge will resemble you demographically are not very high, but the chances that the judge, whoever it may be, will be a tad cranky by the time he reads your submission are close to 100%.

This is not to say that contest judges do not make a substantial effort to think like your ideal reader: they do, given half a chance. But if the writer does not specify clearly who that target reader is, it is hard for the judge to make that cognitive leap.

Just so you know, when a contest’s rules ask you to specify target audience and category, it is doing the writer a FAVOR: this device carries the two-fold benefit of allowing the savvy writer to show she’s done her homework (by picking marketing categories and demographics that already identified by bookstores; if you’re in doubt about your book’s category, check out my posts for February 13-15) AND to allow the judges the opportunity to say, “Well, this isn’t the book for me, but I can see its appeal for its target audience.” The more niche-specific your work is, the greater the favor this is to you. Trust me.

As a nonfiction judge, I have noticed in recent years the rise of a tone problem probably attributable to the way commentators argue on television, as if only a dangerous maniac would disagree with their interpretation of events. In print, this manifests as a tendency to treat all other arguments (and argument-makers) as idiotic.

As Mark Twain said: In all matters of opinion, our adversaries are insane.

This is a problem that crops up most often in the synopsis. Clearly, the tone implies, any person of sense will instantly recognize the argument in this book as the sanest piece of advice since Mrs. Disney prodded Walt to stick some great big ears on that rodent. Everyone else who has ever written on the subject (at least, anyone who disagrees with the author’s point of view) is certifiable, and probably dangerous to the republic to boot.

As a judge, I always wonder what the entrant was thinking when submitting such an entry. Obviously, it never occurred to him that any right-thinking judge might disagree with him, but that’s not why such entries generally get such low marks in the Presentation category. It’s the utter lack of consideration for the reader. For necessarily, if the piece castigates everyone who does not agree with the author, the reader — any reader unfamiliar with the argument, and thus available for conversion to the book’s point of view — falls into the predetermined idiot category. And calling your readers stupid is just poor strategy, if you want people to appreciate your work.

It’s easy to dismiss this kind of presentation, which (as you have probably already guessed) appears most often in entries that aspire to social or political commentary. You can never, ever assume that in a blind readership situation, the judge (or agent’s assistant, or editor’s assistant) will automatically be or think like you. In fact, it’s not a bad idea to assume that the judges will NOT be like you in several important respects, including sex, race, socioeconomic status, generation, educational background…

You get the idea. If you’ve got a point of view, by all means, be up front with it, but a general contest may not be the best place to air it, if you need to be judgmental.

Again, I’m not positive that all writers who produce entries in this tone are aware of how it may come across to others, so the safest thing to do is to get feedback from an independent source who does NOT agree with your worldview. This is the best way to weed out implications that may incense your unknown judges. (I’m just going to leave the probable response to your imagination. Suffice it to say that if you’re picturing a little old lady flinging flaming darts at a manuscript, you’re not far off.)

Although there really is no substitute for getting outside feedback, there is one flag that you can look for as a signal that you might want to reexamine your entry’s tone: what’s known in the biz as the Dreaded “We,” an almost invariable indicator of unexamined underlying assumptions in an argument. As in, “We burn fossil fuels indiscriminately, without regard to their effects on the ozone layer,” or “We all think of love as being about equality, but is it?”

Who are we here? Americans? North Americans? Residents of industrialized countries? Everyone standing on the planet?

Users of the Dreaded “We” seldom specify. Presumably, “We” used in this way is a pseudonym for pop culture, rather than the mindset of individuals, but this is inherently problematic. “We” may be described as monolithic, but no society is actually made up of people who think identically. Certainly, North American culture isn’t, and not every reader is going to appreciate being lumped in with everybody else. It may not be the author’s intention to imply sheep-like thinking and behavior, but that is in fact the underlying implication of the Dreaded “We.”

If the argument in the last three paragraphs seems like an extreme reaction to a relatively innocuous word choice, let me tell you, it’s a complaint I’ve heard dozens of times from both contest judges and editors of various stripes. Because, you see, these fine readers honestly do pour themselves heart and soul into reading entries and manuscripts. They are rooting for magic to happen. When it doesn’t, they are naturally disappointed — and take it out in the scoring.

It may seem a trifle strange that judges and other professional readers care so much about word choice in a manuscript (conceivably, more than the author does), but often, it is true. If you were entering a cooking contest, you would expect the judges to care whether you tossed in a pinch or a tablespoon of salt, wouldn’t you? A literary contest is no different — no detail is too small to escape scrutiny.

Try to find this flattering, rather than annoying: imagine, your writing being taken so seriously that total strangers argue over the strength of your narrative voice! We — in the dreaded version or not — should be pleased about that.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Scoring Criteria, Part VII: The most important thing you’ll ever read (or is it?)

Hello, readers —

Today, I am going to begin to talk about the final formal category of contest scoring, Presentation. The Presentation category is where, for instance, a judge might evaluate whether a fiction entry engages in too much flashback, or whether a nonfiction essay speaks too much in generalities rather than concrete examples. It is where the judge will ask herself: “What is the central problem of this piece? Is it well drawn? If this is a first chapter, do I have any idea where the novel is taking us in order to solve the problem?”

Put another way, in order to evaluate a manuscript for this category, the judge must ask herself how well she thinks the entry says what the author wants it to say.

As in other categories, while how well a problem is presented or an argument laid out is very much in the eye of the beholder, there are technical criteria that judges consult. In general, though, they concentrate on a single question — is it coherent? — and work outward from there. The harder it is for a judge to figure out what is going on in an entry, the lower its presentation score will be.

This is the single biggest reason not to enter an excerpt from the middle of a book, or splice together an entry from non-consecutive chapters. Even if the contest’s rules say you may do this, the mere fact of beginning anywhere but the beginning signals the judges that (a) the book is probably not finished and (b) that the author may have some personal doubts about the coherence of the opening. It invites speculation about motivation — which almost never ends well for the entrant.

Beyond the coherence issue, there are the small matters of how evidence and details are, well, presented — which is why a lot of writers confuse Presentation with Mechanics, or even Technique. The fault for this confusion lies not entirely with the writers, but in those who give advice to writers: outside the contest milieu, the issues of the Mechanics category — such as typeface, margins, proofreading, even paper choice — are often described as presentation problems. Within the context of a contest, however, Presentation is more about structure, argumentation, and detail than getting your margins in the right place.

The single place where entries are most likely to lose presentation points is the synopsis. Mostly, as I pointed out back in January, contest synopses simply SCREAM at the judges that the writer considers having to summarize the plot or argument of his book an intolerable and unreasonable burden. Resentment shouts from practically every line, which certainly does not make the book sound as though it would be enjoyable to read. Sometimes, this resentment is carried to such an extreme that an entry omits to include a synopsis at all, or merely provides a single-page one plus a table of contents. Instant loss of almost all presentation points.

It is also astonishingly common for the included synopsis to be nothing but a marketing blurb, a phantom jacket blurb for an as-yet-to-be-published book. While it is indeed useful for judges, agents, and editors to have some idea of who the target market is for a proposed book, the synopsis is not generally considered the proper place to talk about it, at least for fiction. (In a contest that asks you to specify target market, put the information on the title page.)

I have written at length in this forum before about how to write a synopsis, and I shall probably write about it again, so I shall not go into the nitty-gritty here. Suffice it to say, the MINIMUM requirements for a successful synopsis include, for fiction, telling the story of the plot in such a way as to indicate that the author has some skill as a storyteller; a nonfiction synopsis should give a brief, coherent indication of the argument to be made in the book and how the author proposes to prove it, also in a style that indicates the book will be a good read.

The operative concepts here are SUMMARY and BOOK THAT A READER MIGHT CONCEIVABLY ENJOY READING. The puff-piece method of synopsis generally omits the summary entirely, preferring instead to tell the reader (in this case, the judge) that there are 47 million Gen Xers, many of whom will feel resonance with the book’s argument; it’s great if you can work that information in to a NF synopsis ALONG with an overview of the case you are making in the book, but it is never a substitute.

Nor is an outline (or, worse still, a bulleted list — and yes, Virginia, I HAVE seen this done in many contest entries) ever an adequate substitute for a well-argued synopsis, because this method gives absolutely no indication of whether the author can WRITE or not.

I know I told you last time that if you take nothing else away from my blog, you should take away the importance of not editing your own work on a computer screen, but today, I am going to add a second commandment (drum roll, please):

Thou shalt regard EVERY line of EVERYTHING you submit to a contest, agency, or publishing house as a writing sample.

No exceptions. Your goal in a contest, as well as in a submission to an agent or editor, is to convince the judges that you can write well. Exceptionally well, in fact, well enough to render it a pleasure as well as a duty to recognize your talent with a place in the finalist category. So when you provide outlines instead of straightforward English prose, or a table of contents instead of a thoughtful exposition of your ideas, you are taking pages and pages of opportunity to prove your writing acumen and simply setting fire to them.

Using the synopsis and/or introduction as marketing copy does give you an opportunity to show you can write, true, but let’s face it, ad copy is not generally considered the highest form of mortal self-expression. Think about it — did your high school English teacher hold up “Coke adds life” to you as an example of prose to emulate? Did your first screenwriting instructor sigh over the persuasive magic of Ricardo Montalban’s poetic musings over the fine Corinthian leather of the Chrysler Cordova, pensively noting that we would never see the like of THAT kind of Shakespearean passion again in our lifetimes?

What ad copy does teach writers to do, alas, is exaggerate. To speak in gross overgeneralizations for a moment, it is HUGELY common for synopses (and first chapters) in nonfiction books to boast about the vital importance of the book the reader holds in her trembling hand. (Do my aged eyes see before me yet another book on the differences between men and women that proposes to solve the battle of the sexes in 250 pages — and that without once addressing the problem of pay differentials?) This, in fact, is the book that the world has been waiting for since the beginning of time. Every incident in my life led directly and inevitably to my writing this book. Honest. Every North American between the ages of 10 and 72 needs to read it within the next year, or I can’t be responsible for the consequences.

In nonfiction, a correlated tendency is to present the book’s argument as if it were the missing link, the single set of logic that will end world hunger, reconcile those who hate one another, and render such minor inconveniences as civil wars and border disputes things of the past. I wish I had a quarter for every first page that told me my life would be changed by this book — because, then, my life would have been changed by all of those books.

I would send you all a postcard from Tahiti, I promise.

The trick here is to avoid hyperbole, particularly in describing your intended audience. Frankly, there is NO book that appeals to everyone — and yes, entrants do actually make that claim fairly regularly in contest submissions. Even if you have identified your target demographic with praiseworthy precision, no reasonable contest judge, agent, or editor is seriously going to believe that everyone in the demographic is going to buy your book, no matter how apt it is. So don’t claim that they will.

Why should such claims harm you in the Presentation category? Because they betray, just as incorrect book categories do, a certain lack of familiarity with the lingua franca of the publishing world. No one in the publishing world would seriously argue that everyone in a demographic would buy a book, even about books that large percentage of a given demographic actually did buy. Remember, contest judges want to reward authors whom they believe can take the win and parlay it into publishing gold, not those who do not yet know the ropes.

When in Rome, speak as the Romans do.

And take my word for it, if you use language to describe your target market that reads like marketing copy, it will cost you many points in the Presentation category. A great big red flag: a demographic statement that includes the phrase “anybody who” or “everybody that,” as in, “anybody who knows and loves a cancer victim will want to buy this book,” or (heaven help us), “everybody that votes in presidential elections needs to have this information.” It doesn’t matter if you think it is true: it will come across as ill-informed boasting (yes, even if it’s true; sorry about that), and will be graded down accordingly.

Tomorrow, I shall delve into more of the nitty-gritty of the Presentation category. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Scoring Criteria, Part VI: Style, continued

Hello, readers —

Yesterday, I went on a rampage about the difference between basic good, clear writing (as expected as a minimum by judges, agents, and editors) and personal style. I argued that these professional readers are only going to give you brownie points for your writing style after your manuscript has proven itself to have surpassed that fundamental bar of correctly-formatted, grammatically impeccable, clear writing. The rest is gravy, but without the meat, professionals seldom bother to notice the deliciousness of the sauce.

Today, I am going to discuss how contest judges evaluate the gravy. Since literary style is so much a matter of personal taste, do these evaluations really reflect much more than the judges’ individual preferences and reading habits?

In a word, yes. There are technical elements of style that can be broken out and rated comparatively, over and above the base-level criteria.

One of these is pacing. Have you ever heard an agent or editor joke at a conference, “I’ve never read a first-time author’s work that went too quickly?” There is a reason they find this funny: most submissions slow to a standstill after a page or two. In a way, this is a boon to them; it gives them an excuse to stop reading and move on with their busy schedules.

Partially, spicy openings followed by tepid pages are the fault of the agents and editors themselves: have they not been telling us all for years and years that far and away the most important part of a submission is the first page, or even the first paragraph? So we all write our little hearts out to make those initial lines sing. Unfortunately, not every writer treats the rest of the first chapter, say, or the first 50 pages as a writing sample; after the initial push of excellence, the pace slows. Writers like stunning endings, though, so the pace tends to pick up toward the end of the book. Call it the little tip we give ourselves for finishing.

The result is a phenomenon the pros call “sagging in the middle.” When confronted with a book (or first 50 pages, or first chapter) that sags in the middle, agents and editors report feeling cheated, as if all of that fancy writing on the first and last pages were some sort of camouflaging trick writers used to fool them into thinking the books in question are better than they are.

Rejection almost invariably follows.

In contests, judges get to see only the first chapter of a book, so they are treated to post-intro sag. It is disappointing, to see an obviously talented writer back off from the intensity of a fine beginning. It may not be fair, any more than the agents and editors’ response to sag is fair, but sloping-off pace tends to be rated pretty harshly by judges. Sorry.

Then, too, there are the entries that never really get off the ground, or that wait until page three to start. These, too, are pacing problems, and the Technique category is where authors are penalized for them.

If you are in doubt about your pacing, try reading your work aloud to a third party. Mark on the manuscript whenever your listener starts to fidget; there may well be a pacing problem there. You can replicate this experiment less reliably on your own, by reading your submission straight through in a single sitting, and marking every place where your eyes left the page, even for a moment, without the outside stimulus of something dramatic, like a fire alarm or neighborhood insurrection. This experiment is valuable, because it will show you precisely how an unclear or ambiguous sentence stops a reader in her tracks, puzzling out meaning.

What you cannot do to catch pacing problems is read your work on a computer screen. Research has shown (how’s THAT for a vague statement?) that the average reader skims 75% faster on screen than on paper — it’s just does not give you a valid sense of actual book-in-hand reading rates. Long-time readers of this blog, let’s all say it together: read your own work OUT LOUD and IN HARD COPY before you even think about submitting it to professional readers.

If you really want to be sophisticated in your pacing, try a trick of the trade that contest judges love: at exciting moments, have the sentence structure shorter than at more meditative times. That way, the rhythm of the punctuation echoes the increased heart rate of the characters. Nifty, eh?

Another ratable aspect of technique is running order. Would the story have been more compelling told in a different order? Did the narrative stop dead because of the insertion of a paragraph of background information? Is the author telling too much, or too little?

In a nonfiction piece, running order is even more important than for fiction. Are the planks of the argument presented in an order that makes sense, where each one builds on the one before, leading up to a convincing conclusion? Are the examples frequent and appropriate enough? Did the author slow down the argument by over-emphasizing points that could have been glossed over quickly, to move on to more important material?

And so forth. Often, contest judges respond even more harshly to problems in running order than agents and editors do, because unlike the latter, judges cannot just draw a box around the misplaced part and scrawl in the margin, “Move to X, two pages back.”

At the risk of sounding like your 9th-grade English teacher, if you are in ANY doubt about the running order of your NF argument, take a blank sheet of paper and sit down with your manuscript. Read it straight through. As you make each major point in the text, write a summary sentence on the piece of paper, in order. After you finish reading, go back over that list: taken together, in that order, does the argument make sense?

In a fiction piece, it is a little more difficult to ferret out problems for yourself; an extra pair of eyes can be very helpful here. However, if you are left to your own resources, try outlining the plot. On a blank piece of paper, not dissimilar to the one described above, write down all of the major plot points in order. After you have a complete list, go back and ask yourself about each, “Why did this happen?” If the answer is along the lines of, “Because the plot required it,” rather than for reasons of characterization, you might want to recheck the running order; something is probably amiss, if you can’t justify an occurrence otherwise.

The final major component of Technique is freshness. Freshness is one of those concepts that people talk about a lot, without ever defining with any precision. A fresh story is generally not an absolutely original one, but a new twist on an old: BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, for instance, is certainly not the first tragedy ever written about socially frowned-upon love, or even the first one involving either a cowboy or two men. The combination of all of these elements made for a fresh story.

It is interesting that when people in the industry talk about freshness, they usually resort to other media for examples. WEST SIDE STORY was a fresh take on ROMEO AND JULIET; RENT was a fresh retelling of LA BOHÉME, which was in itself a retelling of an earlier book; almost any episode of any sitcom originally aired in December is a fresh take on A CHRISTMAS CAROL. Or maybe not so fresh.

The point is, folks in the publishing industry just love the incorporation of contemporary elements into classic stories. There is just no other way to explain industry enthusiasm for BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY, which reproduced the plot of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE so completely that many of the characters’ names remained the same. I’ve even heard publishing professionals describe THE COLOR PURPLE as THE UGLY DUCKLING with racial issues added, which I consider something of a stretch. (Besides, THE UGLY DUCKLING in its original form is absolutely about race, isn’t it?)

So in evaluating an entry for the Technique category, the judge will ask herself: if the story is a familiar one, is it being told in a new voice? If the story is surprising and new, are there enough familiar stylistic elements that the reader feels grounded and trusts that the plot will unfold in a dramatically satisfying manner? (And yes, they will probably ask these questions even if your entry is SF and takes place on Planet Targ.)

As you may see, even in rating an area as potentially nebulous as style, the judge will often adhere to (or be given outright) a set of formal evaluation criteria. By asking yourself a few of these questions in advance, before you submit your entry, you can often find ways to raise your work in the rankings.

Tomorrow, I shall discuss the Presentation category, which encompasses more than merely following the formatting rules of the contest and the industry. It is where the ta da! element comes in, especially for nonfiction entries.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Scoring Criteria, Part V: The Technical Part of Technique

Hello, readers —

Happy Ides of March! Caesar, beware!

Today, I shall tackle the difficult subject of how technique tends to be scored in literary contests. In many ways, this is the toughest category for which to set standards, partially because every judge — just like every writer, every agent, and every editor in North America — was taught something slightly different about what makes a paragraph well-written.

The problem is, not only do we all THINK we are right about this — we all actually ARE right about it.

Sounds paradoxical, doesn’t it? It should sound particularly odd to those of you who have taken a whole lot of writing classes or attended writers’ conferences. There, you were probably told that there is actually not a whole lot of variation amongst different styles of good writing, just what each particular market will embrace. Good writing, writers are given to understand, is good writing, across venues.

Translation: standard format is standard format across venues. Not a whole lot of variation there: specific structures, norms for spelling and grammar, preferred typefaces. And, of course, clear writing that says what the writer wants it to say AND is easily comprehended by others.

Go back and read that last paragraph again. It’s awfully important: these, my friends, are the minimum standards for professional writing. If a contest entry (or agency submission, or publishing house submission) does not come up to this standard, it will invariably score low in the Technique category.

Beyond these basics lies style. I cannot stress this enough: no amount of personal flair or innovative insight will permit a technically problematic manuscript to score well in the Technique category. Scoring rules are almost invariably set up to prevent it. So let us talk about base-level good writing before we discuss personal style, because frankly, the basics are where most points are lost in the Technique category.

Writers quibble a lot amongst themselves over whether being a good writer can be taught. I have always thought that this question is formulated incorrectly: it really should be whether style can be taught, or whether talent can be learned. Certainly, the mechanics and forms of the base level of good writing can be taught, or at any rate learned: it is hard to imagine someone absolutely new to the craft spontaneously electing to set up a manuscript in accordance with standard format. And everyone can learn to be a clearer writer through feedback.

While this base level of good writing may not seem particularly ambitious, it is a truism of the industry that the VAST majority of submissions agencies and publishing houses receive do not rise to this level. This is where the often-draconian policy of automatically rejecting manuscripts with technical problems comes from; writers with promising style, unfortunately, often get caught in this net as well.

How does this happen? Well, the formatting is the tiresome part, right? Most writers are in the biz for the self-expression, not the hours of bringing their thought into lockstep with the rules of the industry. Those who are in it for the money are either incredibly lucky or have yet to notice that writers suffer from an even higher unemployment rate than actors, which is indeed saying something. Every time some well-meaning novice asks an agent at a conference, “So, what kind of an advance can a book like…” (insert here hypothetical description of what is quite obviously to professional ears a description of the speaker’s book) …expect to receive?”, everyone on the agent panel cringes, picturing just how steep the questioner’s learning curve is likely to be. But I digress.

Since for most of us, getting our thoughts, stories, and worldviews out there is the primary goal of writing a book, many writers skip over the technical acumen-gaining step and move directly to unfettered self-expression — and then are surprised and frustrated when the resulting book has difficulty finding an agent, getting published, or winning contests. Concentrating almost exclusively on the self-expressive capacity of the book, we tend to read rejection as personal, rather than professional. Naturally, it is painful.

However, it’s usually a misunderstanding of what actually occurred. Ask any publishing industry professional, and they will tell you: 99% of rejections are technically-based; the rejection usually isn’t of the submitter’s style or worldview, for the simple reason that those are not considerations unless the basic signs of good writing — in the sense of professional writing — are there.

This can be a very empowering realization. Once a writer grasps the difference between technically good writing and stylistic good writing, rejections become less a personal insult than a signal that there may be technical problems with how she is presenting her writing. The question turns from, “Why do they hate me?” to “What can I do to make this submission read better?”

Yeah, I know: it’s not much of a promotion, emotionally. But at least when the question is framed in the latter manner, there is something the writer can DO about it.

This is also true of contest scoring, particularly in the Technique category, where clarity is the sine qua non. Technical problems usually make it very, very easy for judges to rule out entries; as I mentioned last time, judges agonize over rating the relatively small percentage of entries that reach and surpass the basic clarity bar, not over the majority of entries that do not reach it.

So without a doubt, absolutely the best thing you can do to increase your score in this category is to make sure that your entry is crystal-clear. Pass it under other eyes, preferably those of other writers, people who both know basic good writing when they see it AND have some idea how to fix it. A writers’ group is ideal for this.

What is not ideal is showing your work only to your kith and kin while you are trying to catch technical problems and increase its clarity. It needs to be seen by human eyes that do not belong to oneself, one’s mother, one’s partner, or one’s best friend. Longtime readers of this blog, chant with me now: as marvelous as these first readers may be, they are unlikely to give one unbiased feedback — and only unbiased, knowledgeable feedback is going to help hoist your work up over the professional bar.

There is another reason to go to emotionally independent sources for your feedback: you will not feel compelled to take their advice. Lovers, relatives, and friends are less likely to understand your book as a professional endeavor, a product being perfected prior to marketing, than as an extension of you, the person they love — which in turn makes it harder, if they are the primary first readers of your work, to keep that preliminary goal of professional presentation firmly in mind.

Lest you think that this is an easy thing for a professional writer and editor to recommend to those who may not have literary connections, I do practice as I preach here. I have built a small circle of first readers, people that I know for a fact have good literary judgment and will tell me the truth when my work falters. My boyfriend — a lovely person and a sterling intellect in his own right — is not allowed to read my first drafts; the closest he gets to the early stages of my work is when I read him freshly-minted comic scenes aloud, to see where and whether he laughs. Apart from that, his role in my life is not as literary critic, but part of my support system, as is sensible and appropriate.

If I seem to be harping on the necessity for impersonal feedback, it is because every time I have served as a judge in a literary contest, I have been struck by just how obvious it is that most entries have never been seen by human eyes other than the author’s. This sad fact really does stack the deck against those entries, because clarity is so heavily weighted in judging.

Tomorrow, I shall discuss other aspects of the Technique category, such as pacing and freshness. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Scoring Criteria, Part IV: God is in the details

Hello, readers —

I am going to move on to the technical parts of contest judging, the Technique, Presentation, and Mechanics categories. To the uninitiated, these all can sound very much alike, so I shall take them one at a time. The most important thing to understand right off the bat is that they all are, irrevocably, detail-oriented.

It seems to come as a surprise to a lot of entrants that much of contest judging turns on tiny details, but actually, it’s true of agency and editorial decisions as well. It may appear silly that having a slug line in the wrong place (centered in the middle of the footer, for instance, instead of right- or left-justified in the header), would weigh heavily enough in a reasonable reader’s consideration that it might knock an entry out of finalist consideration or prevent an agency’s first reader from asking to read the rest of the book, but it does happen.

Why? Well, contests are really intended to reward manuscripts that do not require significant additional work; agents and editors prefer to see manuscripts as close to print-ready as possible. From their points of view, rejecting a well-written but unprofessionally formatted work is akin to a fisherman throwing back a too-small fish: they would like to catch it again after it has grown a little more.

And no, as nearly as I can tell, not one professional reader sits up nights, gnawing his fingernails and worrying that he’s let the next great American novel slip away over a technicality. The pool of applicants is simply too large; if he misses one, he reasons, there will always be another. It’s like applying to an Ivy League school: Harvard could fill every year’s freshman class with applicants with near-perfect SAT scores from Manhattan alone, so how much consideration do you think the admission office gives an application whose essays were obviously not proofread? Or ones that did not adhere to the application’s requirements?


Similarly, in a contest — particularly a highly competitive one, such as the PNWA’s — there are pretty much always many more entries from talented writers than there are spaces on the finalist rolls in each category. However, as I have mentioned before, a good 80% of entries will contain at least one major contest rule violation, and roughly 90% will feature non-standard format. With so many other talented writers to reward with precious finalist status, most judges are not going to worry a great deal about the promising writers who have yet to learn how to format a manuscript properly; they want to recognize and laud the writers who are ready to hit the big time.

This is one reason that I advise writers to enter contests where entrants get actual feedback on their entries: if you’re the fish that’s thrown back, you would like to know why, so you can grow big enough to stay in the net next time.

The major exception to this technical selectivity (and I hesitate even to mention it) is the kind of contest where they tell every entrant that she has won, and for only $500, she can attend an award ceremony where she’ll be given a ribbon! Or for only $200, she will be able to buy a book with her poem in it, along with 4700 others! This kind of contest, much like a vanity press, makes its money from stoking the egos of submitters.

Which is fine, as long as everyone concerned realizes that it’s a non-competitive situation. Such contests, however, are seldom upfront about this fact, for it would make what they are offering for their $500 or $200 appear less valuable, so do be careful about where you enter your work. In a legitimately competitive contest, details will be scrutinized closely and scored accordingly — which makes those contests worthwhile to win.

The Mechanics category is where the least subjective of these details are evaluated. Is the punctuation correct? Is the spelling? (You would be astonished at how few contest entries appear to have been adequately proofread.) Are the margins as they should be? Does the entry adhere to the contest’s formatting rules?

While spelling and grammatical errors can be a matter of mere oversight, not adhering to contest rules is generally a matter of not having read them — and accordingly, these latter violations tend to be scored more harshly than proofreading problems. Often contests will tell judges to mark down habitual mistakes and consistent grammatical errors — punctuation that reveals that the writer is not sure how to use a possessive correctly, for instance, a surprisingly common phenomenon — more heavily than ones that appear to have been inadvertent, single-instance lapses. The hope is that the writer who does not know the rules will go out and take a writing class, but that the inadvertent error-maker will simply proofread better in future.

As nearly as I can tell, there is a single, easily fixed reason that so many entries do not adhere to requested contest formats: in the book categories, at least, most entrants apparently just print up the first chapter of their book and submit it as is, without taking the time to check whether its current format even remotely resembles what the contest organizers have seen fit to specify. This scares contest judges a little, frankly, because almost invariably, the basic formats requested by contests are slight variations on standard format — which means that the oddball manuscripts the judges see are being seen by agents and editors, too.

Again, if you have any doubt about this, or are clinging to the atavistic notion that the publishing industry cares only about writing quality, and not about format — please, for your own sake, volunteer to be a first-round judge in a competitive literary contest as soon as possible. After reading just a few entries, it will become abundantly apparent to you why the professionals insist upon standardization: there is so very much variation in what is submitted that comparison would be impossible without the imposition of some rules.

To give one common example (and one that I have actually seen get contest entries disqualified), many writers have picked up from printed books the practice of not indenting the first paragraph of a chapter, or they have (again, having seen this done in printed books?) decided that each paragraph should be indented either 3 or 7 spaces, instead of the standard 5. But (and regular readers of this blog should stop up their ears now, having heard this rant before) MANUSCRIPT FORMAT AND BOOK FORMAT DIFFER IN MANY SIGNIFICANT WAYS. Formatting a manuscript (or an entry) like a book does NOT make it look like a book, to professional or judging eyes; it merely makes it plain that the writer does not know much about the publishing industry.

It may seem a trifle silly that a judge (or agent, or editor) would take umbrage over something so simple as a couple of spaces missing at the front of a paragraph, but think about it: all literary contests have page limits for entries, right? When an entry does not indent the first paragraph, the writer gets five extra characters; when indentation is truncated for every paragraph, that’s two extra characters available per paragraph. While that may not seem like much, over the course of a 20-page entry, it might well add up to an extra paragraph or two of additional writing space for the fudging entrant. When someone is trying to make a long chapter conform to space requirements, that’s a lot of leeway. Similarly, an extra-long habitual indent, like an extra-large typeface, might be a means of making a scanty manuscript appear longer.

Thus, even if (as is generally the case) an entrant made this formatting choice out of simple ignorance of standard format, a judge may be instructed to read it as a deliberate attempt to cheat. It may be unfair, but it does happen.

This is not 9th-grade history class, people. Spelling, grammar, and format do count, and no one gets to fiddle with type size (or print at 98%) in order to fit within the stated guidelines. If you try it, I can guarantee that your entry will lose points in the Mechanics category.

Another popular way to lose points in the Mechanics category is through too-light photocopying or printing. Just as when you submit work to an agent or editor, every page of a contest entry should be clearly printed in dark ink on brilliantly white paper. Yes, this does discriminate against poorer entrants, who may not have access to good printers, but then, so do job interviews: it’s significantly more difficult for people with smaller incomes to scare up a suit in order to make a good first impression on a prospective boss than it is for more affluent people.

As I believe I may have mentioned before, I don’t run the universe, so I can’t address the underlying socio-economic injustices that may be leading entrants to mail in fuzzy photocopies. If you want to win a contest, you will need to dress up your work. Suffice it to say: if you are able to pay $50 for an entry fee, it is worth the extra few dollars to have decently readable copies made.

Long-time readers of this blog may recognize many of these Mechanics factors: they are essentially the provisions of standard format. (If you are in ANY doubt about the strictures of standard manuscript format, rush right to my post of February 19th for a refresher.) It just goes to show that I have been telling the truth all along: it really will save you time in the long run if you just adhere to standard format from day one of writing your manuscript. You may have to tweak it slightly in order to make it conform with the formatting regulations of wackier contests, but seldom much.

Tomorrow, I shall move on to the Presentation and Technique categories. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Scoring Criteria, Part III: Voice

Hello, readers —

I’m feeling a bit stuffy-headed today, perhaps due to the fact that the great big crabapple tree in my backyard has suddenly burst into magnificent masses of pink blooms. Very beautiful, very pollen-laden.

It reminds me of the small town — a village, really, ensconced within an agricultural preserve — where I grew up, in the Napa Valley. (Note to outsiders: PLEASE don’t refer to the entire area as Napa; it makes the locals apoplectic. Napa is a city; the Napa Valley is the winegrowing region.) Tourists overrun the Napa Valley in the autumn, when the grapevines sport leaves of many colors, but my favorite time there has always been the early spring, this time of year, when the vines are dormant and the vineyards are full of knee-high fluorescent yellow mustard flowers. Acres and acres of neon brilliance. The local truism runs that if you don’t suffer from pollen allergies then, you never will.

Because I am inherently contrary, I never suffered from pollen allergies until years later, when I moved to Washington. Go figure.

I bring this up, not merely because my head is stuffy, but as an apt metaphor for today’s topic. Authorial voice can’t really be taught (although there are writing teachers who would disagree with me on that point): it arises organically, often after years of cultivation. It’s extraordinarily rare that an author’s distinctive personal voice shows up in her first writing projects, except perhaps in flashes. No, for most good writers, one day, after seemingly endless writing, a personal voice abruptly emerges and takes over the narration, like all of those crabapple and mustard flowers bursting into bloom.

And like those early spring flowers, a strong, original voice will not appeal to all readers. The more distinctive the voice, the greater the risk, in a way — it can irritate in a way that a merely clear, pleasant voice will not. So how on earth can a contest judge rate voice on anything but personal preference?

Basically, by concentrating on the appropriateness of the chosen voice for the story it is telling. Not all voices fit with all material. At the moment, I work in three distinct voices: in descending order of perkiness, my blog voice, my fiction voice, and my memoir voice. (My memoir is funny, too, but as a great memoirist once told me, part of the art of the memoir is feeling sorry enough for yourself NOT to make light of your personal tragedies, for there is your subject matter.) If I used my memoir voice here, in discussing the sometimes-grim realities of how the publishing industry treats writers, I would depress us all into a stupor. Because my goal is to motivate you all to present your work’s best face to the world, I use a cheerleading voice.

Minion, hand me my megaphone, please.

One of the great things about gaining a broad array of writing experience is learning how to switch voices. I’ve written back label copy for wine bottles, for heaven’s sake, as well as political platforms and fashion articles. Obviously, tone, vocabulary choice, and cadence needed to be different for all of these venues. I firmly believe that all of my current voices owe a great deal to this experience, just as playing a lot of different roles in high school or college drama classes might give a person poise in real life.

One writing experience in particular prepared me for dealing with the horrible in a light-hearted way. Right after I graduated from college, I landed a job writing and researching for the LET’S GO series of travel guides. The series’ method of garnering material, at least at the time, was to pay a very young, very naïve person a very small amount of money to backpack around a given area. The job was jam-packed with irony: I was supposed to do restaurant and motel reviews, for instance, but my per diem was so small that I slept in a tent six nights per week and lived on ramen cooked over a campfire. That sort of thing.

However, the tone of the guides is very gung-ho, can-do kids having the time of their lives. But when one is visiting the tenth municipal museum of the week — you know, the kind containing a clay diorama of a pioneer settlement, a tiny, antique wedding dress displayed on a dressmaker’s form, and four dusty arrowheads– it is hard to maintain one’s excitement. Yet I was expected to produce roughly 60 pages of copy per week, much of it written on a picnic table by candlelight.

I can tell you the precise moment when I found my travel guide voice. It was the evening of July 3, a few weeks into my assignment. The date was important, because my publisher had not yet sent my overdue paycheck, and the banks would be closed the next day. I had precisely $23.15 in my pocket; it was raining so hard that I could barely find the motel I was supposed to be checking out, and when I stepped into the lobby, I was informed that the management did not allow outsiders to work there.

“Excuse me?” I said. “I just want a room for the night.”

The desk clerk was so astonished at the request that she ran and fetched the manager. Apparently, no one in recent memory had wanted to rent a room there for more than an hour at a stretch. The clerk did not even know what to charge.

I ran to the nearest pay phone (the room was phoneless) and called my editor in Boston. “I have $8.15 to my name,” I told him, while the rain noisily drenched the phone booth, “the banks are closed tomorrow, and you have sent me to a house of ill repute. What precisely do you want me to do?”

“Improvise?” he suggested.

I elected to find a campground that night, so I spent Independence Day huddled in a rapidly leaking tent, scribbling away furiously. I had found my travel writing voice, a sodden, exhausted traveler so astonished by the stupidity around her that she found it amusing. My readers — and my warm, dry editor back in Boston — ate it up.

I told you this story not merely because it is true (which, alas, it is; ah, the glamour of the writing life!), but to make a point about authorial voice. A contest judge would look at the story above and try to assess whether another type of voice might have conveyed the story better, as well as whether I maintained the voice consistently throughout. How would a less personal voice have conveyed the same information? Would it have come across better in the third person, or if I pretended the incident had happened to a close friend of mine?

Appropriateness of viewpoint tends to weigh heavily in judges’ assessments, and deservedly so. Many, many contest entries either do not maintain the same voice throughout the piece (apparently unintentionally) or tell the story in an absolutely straightforward manner, with no personal narrative quirks at all. So the same story might end up reading like a police report:

A 22-year-old woman, soaked to the skin, walks into a motel lobby. The clerk asks her what she wants; she replies that she wants a room for the night. When the clerk tells her they do not do that, she responds with incredulity. The clerk gets the manager, who repeats the information. Noting the 7″ x 10″ wall of pornographic videotapes to her right and the women in spandex and gold lame huddled outside under the awning, flagging down passing cars, the young woman determines that she might not be in the right place. She telephones her editor, who agrees.

Not the apex of colorful, is it? A contest judge would read this second account and think, “Gee, this story has potential, but the viewpoint is not maximizing the humor of the story.” She would then subtract points from the Voice category, and rightly so.

One pet peeve of contest judges, as well as agents and editors everywhere, is when the narrator reports things s/he could not possibly know. This is VERY common in first-person narratives — where necessarily, all the reader should hear about is what the narrator can observe or recall. So why is the reader hearing other characters’ thoughts, or seeing incidents that occurred when the narrator was not present?

I blame television and movies for this. Just as their limitations have told writers that all human experience should be conveyed merely through the audible and the visible, leaving out other stimuli except as verbally described by the characters, they have also instructed us that where the camera can go, so can the narrator. But in a first-person piece, this logically is not true.

Another technical factor in evaluating voice is consistency, as I mentioned quickly above. Once a narrative choice has been made, does the author stick to it? Are some scenes told in tight third person, where we are hearing the characters’ thoughts and feelings, while some are told in a more impersonal voice, as though observed by a stranger with no prior knowledge of the characters? Judges tend to like to see a point of view held throughout an entry; they will often award points for this, even when they disagree with the choice of voice or point of view.

Judges also take freshness of voice and POV into account. How often has this kind of narrator told this kind of story before? (You wouldn’t believe how many stories were told by the deceased in the years following the success of THE LOVELY BONES, for instance, or how many multiple-perspective narratives followed hot on the heels of THE POISONWOOD BIBLE.)

This is often a tricky one for authors, for there is no denying that being able to say that your work is like a well-known authors is definitely a useful hook for attracting agents’ and editors’ attention. (“My book is Sarah Vowell meets household maintenance!” “My book is BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY set in a rehab clinic!” “The story is SCHINDLER’S LIST, only without the Nazis or all the death!) However, as the late great Mae West liked to point out, while copies may sell in the short term, for the long haul, what is memorable is originality.

Perhaps that is one of the best measures of how effective an entry’s narrative voice was: three days after the judge read it, will he remember how the story was told?

Of course, after all of these factors are taken into account, whether the judge happens to like the narrative voice still weighs heavily into the calculations. That’s inevitable, and there’s nothing a writer can do about it — except to make her narrative voice as strong and true and individually hers as she can possibly can.

Next week, I shall tackle the more nitty-gritty aspects of judging. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Scoring Criteria, Part II: Revenge of the Premise

Hello, readers —

I started yesterday down the long and twisting road of how precisely contest judges judge, discussing the premise category at length. Naturally, every contest on earth hands its judges slightly different criteria for judging, but (in case you missed yesterday’s post) there tend to be five major categories of scoring criteria: Premise, Voice, Presentation, Mechanics, and Technique. Today, I shall wrap up the topic of Premise.

Before I launch, however, a quick aside to those of you following my Novel Project, where I try to give a sense of what it is like to work with a good agent in real time. It’s been just over two weeks — 16 days, to be precise — since my agent and I agreed that it was time to start submitting my novel, THE BUDDHA IN THE HOT TUB, to editors at publishing houses. I sent 8 copies of my manuscript to her precisely two weeks ago, give or take an hour or two, and she received them 9 days ago.

So where are my manuscripts now, you ask? Sitting in my agent’s office, of course.

Surprised? I’m not — but this is an area where most new writers simply don’t speak the same language as their agents, and thus go into agonies of worry about WHY the manuscripts did not get submitted right away. Writers who went to the pointless trouble and expense of overnighting them (something I never do unless the other party is footing the shipping bill; I’ve literally never encountered a situation in the publishing world where USPS Priority Mail didn’t get it there in ample time) end up feeling even worse.

In actual practice, manuscripts seldom pass immediately from agent to editor. (Moral: NYC-based people ALWAYS make their desires sound urgent. Don’t listen to them.) Agents almost never send out manuscripts without pitching them to editors first, and pitching to 8 editors takes time. So does picking which editors would be the best fits for the book — here is where it really pays off to have an agent with good connections, to be able to know who is likely to want a book about the adult lives of kids who grew up on an Oregon commune. Actually, I would be surprised if there weren’t still a few copies sitting in my agent’s office at the end of the month.

I’ll keep you posted, of course. But it just goes to show you, agency and publishing house clocks apparently do not run at the same rate as clocks in writers’ humble domiciles. Which is a nice way of saying: it’s not just you; writers being left in limbo while others judge their work is the nature of the beast. Try not to panic as the days and weeks tick by.

All right, back to the Premise category. In addition to evaluating whether the premise is a marketable one, clearly presented and carried consistently throughout the submitted chapter AND the synopsis, this category is also where judges grade how well the author convinced the reader that this will be a great book. This is not just a matter of how lucidly the premise is presented in the entry; it’s also how quickly the reader is sucked into accepting the premise.

In other words, is there a hook?

As an experienced contest judge and editor, I can tell you outright: the vast majority of entries (and manuscripts, for that matter) do not have a hook. In fact, most entries and manuscripts, even those written by very good writers indeed, tend to do what is known in journalism as burying the lead: they often take a few pages to warm up before starting the book. Or a few paragraphs before getting into the premise in the synopsis.

I can’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve found a TERRIFIC first line for a novel on page 4. Or 6. Or 17. It’s almost as though some writers are afraid to wow their readers before they get to know them a little. Drink a little wine, maybe go dancing first.

And I’m here to tell you, not only will this practice cost you vital points in the Premise category, it will also harm you in agents’ offices and publishing houses.

To anyone who has read more than a couple of British novels written in the last 30 years, this should be a jaw-dropping observation. Pick up almost any novel that’s won an award in the British Isles recently, and you’ll notice something: by North American standards, the action does not start until at LEAST 10 pages in. Sometimes, it doesn’t start for the first 50 pages. Over there, this rather coy approach to the reader is apparently considered rather stylish.

In the good old U.S.A., however, such a leisurely approach in a first book is considered deadly. (As we all know, established writers have infinitely more leeway.) If nothing dramatic happens in the first 5 pages, chances are very high that the average reader in an agency or publishing house simply will not continue reading. I’ve spoken with agents who say — and I swear I’m not making this up — that if nothing happens on the FIRST page, they stop reading and move on to the next submission.

Yes, yes, it’s grossly unfair. But as I believe I may have pointed out before, if I ran the universe, things would be organized rather differently. As I do not, I can only pass the unpleasant truth on to you.

Contest judges are structurally constrained to be quite a bit more generous — they actually are required to read all of each submission. However, as I mentioned yesterday, perceptions of marketability tend to weigh rather heavily in judging assessments. So when confronted with an entry that seems likely to be set aside for slowness by professionals… well, let’s just say it might be graded down.

As I mentioned in January, this is why it is a good idea, both for a contest entry and a first novel, to position a strong, memorable, active image as close to the beginning of your submission as possible. It’s astonishing how often the active scene on pg. 8 does not need 7 pages of explanation to occur first. Try constructing a first chapter — or short story beginning, or memoir opening — so it starts off with a bang, and hurls itself forward into the plot. Often, it’s the backstory that is best told on page 8, rather than the attention-grabbing action. It is one of the best ways I know to make a good writer’s first work seem to leap out of a pile of contest entries or agency submissions. Give it a try.

And, at the risk of sounding cynical about the industry (me? Perish the thought!), you do not ultimately have to use the action-packed opening in your finished book. Jump-starting the work is a trick of the trade, a sales tool, a means of getting a judge, agent, or editor to keep reading long enough to come to the realization that you can write.

Tomorrow, I shall delve into the issue of Voice, possibly the most subjective of the judging categories. Everyone defines good authorial voice differently (like the Supreme Court’s famous pronouncement about pornography, we may not be able to agree upon what it is, but we all know it when we see it), so does it all just come down to a matter of personal taste?

In a word, no. Tune in tomorrow to find out how and why.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Scoring Criteria

Hello, readers —

Miss me? No, I did not take a long weekend; I had a mountain of time-consuming stress suddenly come up around my memoir. Not overwhelmingly productive, but necessary; it has had almost exactly the same effect upon the other aspects of my life as a particularly virulent bout of flu. Isn’t the writing life glamorous? I barely had the strength to deplore the apparently newly fashionable I’m-a-corpse-in-a-champagne-colored-dress look popular at the Oscars this year. Or to muse upon the irony that while the publishers are freaking out in this James Frey period over whether it’s still safe to publish memoirs, three of the four winners in the acting categories were playing real people — and no one seems to be suing THEM.

For those of you new to this blog, I was supposed to have a book coming out this month, but it has been pushed back to May at the earliest. My continuing apologies for not being able to fill you in more fully (still!) about the book’s continuing travails, but (a) legal issues still abound and (b) my feelings about what is going on cannot be described in the language used in children’s books, if you get my drift. If you’re curious about why a squabble about whether it is permissible to tell one’s own life story takes eight months (and counting) to resolve, well, so am I.

I’ll fill you all in about the whole saga the moment I may, of course: it’s a story that reveals a lot about the publishing industry. At each new turn of events, my agent keeps saying, “Wow, this would make a great screenplay!” All very dramatic, in other words, but not much fun. I did an interview about the book recently, where I was able to speak a bit more freely than I can in the PNWA’s forum, but otherwise, I can’t give any specifics about what is holding up production.

I’m back today, though, and eager to tackle a great question about contest entries from insightful and curious reader Marcille:

You mentioned the contest first-round judges evaluate the entries using a complex rating form. Can you explain more about what they are rating and what weighs heaviest in their evaluation?

Happy to oblige, Marcille; I’m sure a lot of people out there are curious. Every contest gives its first-round judges slightly different criteria for determining which entries should move on to the next stage (in most contests, the next stage is the finalist round); each category may have its own criteria and weighting rules. In a mystery category, for instance, maintaining suspense would count more heavily than in a mainstream novel category.

However, the general criteria tend to fall into five categories: Premise (also known as Core Idea or Theme, although each of these actually means something different. Go figure.), Presentation, Voice (also known as Viewpoint), Technique (sometimes collapsed into the same category as Voice), and Mechanics (and yes, this is different from Technique or Presentation). Usually, these categories are either weighed equally (as is the case for the PNWA contest), or Voice and Technique are given slightly more weight.

I’ll go through each category and discuss what judges tend to look for within it, but I want to pause first and call your attention to something significant: three of the five categories are heavily reliant upon not just craft, but nit-picky details. This emphasis means that even a “Wow! What a spectacular idea for a book!” entry with a strong, likeable narrative voice that’s full of technical problems CANNOT score particularly well.

Seem a trifle counterintuitive? Actually, the contest organizers are trying to help writers by weighting it this way — they are trying to reward manuscripts that are free of the type of mistake that tends to get submissions tossed by agents and editors. Emphasizing the cosmetic aspects in the first-round judges maximizes the probability that any entry that makes it to the finalist round will be absolutely ready for professional eyes.

And in the long run, this is good for both the writer and the contest — every writing contest organizer loves to boast about how this or that prize winner went on to publication success. Contest organizers wanting to be able to point to successful writers in later years and say, “See? Our contest discovered her/him.” Why, just look at how the PNWA bills me; I have relatives who boast about me less.

However, it could be argued that it would be BETTER for the entering writers if they were told this upfront. Remember how, in the weeks leading up to the contest deadline, I kept both yammering at you to proofread AND make sure your entry adhered to standard format? This was why.

The Premise category encompasses more than whether the entry is a cool idea for a book. Usually, the judge will be asked point-blank to assess the basic idea’s market appeal. (Do I hear the literary fiction writers out there moaning aloud?) Why? Well, see argument above about what the contest organizers like to have happen to their winners; a great little book with only tiny niche appeal will generally gain lower marks in this category than a less well-written entry with broader market potential.

This is important for writers to know, especially those marketing work with atypical attributes, such as a nonlinear plot or Socratic method argumentation. One of the questions judges are almost invariably asked to evaluate is, “Was the premise carried out consistently throughout the entry?” In order to answer this, all of the judges will have to
(a) understand your structural choices and underlying assumptions, and
(b) agree that they’re a good idea.
The more out there the entry, the chances that one or more of the judges will not embrace either (a) or (b).

There is an organizational reason for this: anyone who has been judging literary contests for awhile has seen a LOT of nontraditional entries, many of which are apparently the result of the authors’ not being aware of standard format or rules of argumentation. Sad but true, the more of these a judge has seen, the warier he is when he is confronted with the next one. To put it bluntly, your decision to omit punctuation because your narrator is illiterate may well be brilliant, but the last poorly-punctuated submission probably was not. Your entry is likely to suffer by association.

I have met many, many writers who have insisted that the nontraditional elements in their work were selling points. They cite example after example of major bestsellers with similar attributes, and have a hard time believing me when I point out that Mark Twain was hardly an unknown writer when he wrote HUCK FINN and Alice Walker was well enough established by the time she published THE COLOR PURPLE that no one seriously believed that she didn’t know how to use a semicolon properly. Yet at literally every writers’ conference I have ever attended (and believe me, I’ve been to plenty, all over the country), I have met at least one eager writer who informed me very earnestly that his or her book was far too out there for the mainstream. The publishing world, I am invariably informed, is probably not ready for a book this profound/innovative/insightful and/or political.

I have a couple of pieces of advice for people with genuinely startling projects. First, tip number one for pitching your work: DON’T give your hearer all the reasons that the book will have a hard time finding its audience! Second, a contest probably isn’t the best forum for getting your work discovered. In a contest, your entry has to make it past many sets of eyes, all of which will be attached to brains with their own strong opinions about what is and isn’t marketable. When you are querying, you generally need to convince only one person — most often, the agency’s designated query screener — to get past the first stage, but in a contest, it’s a group decision. Individuals are more likely to take a chance on something legitimately wacky than a contest committee.

If you take nothing else away from today’s discussion of premise, remember this: it is the writer’s responsibility to make the premise clear, not the reader’s to figure it out. Yes, the first chapter of a novel or nonfiction book is not a whole lot of time to establish a complex premise, but it is what the contest format offers you. Contests judges are not evaluating the overall merit of a book, even in categories that ostensibly do exactly that — they are judging how well the entry performs its self-assigned task of presenting its premise within the portion of the book that they SEE. This distinction sometimes renders writing a good contest entry and writing a good book different tasks.

There is more to the Premise category than this, of course, but that is material for tomorrow’s blog. I shall continue going over the contest judging categories in the days to come.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

P.S.: If you want a crash course in evaluating your own work as a contest judge, agent, or editor would, as one of a broad array of submissions, you could do no better than to volunteer to be a contest judge yourself. The PNWA is still looking for a few judges for this year’s contest — why not drop ’em an e-mail? Even if you entered the contest, you could still be a first-round judge in another category. It honestly is a learning experience like no other.

Self-publishing, Part V: Final thoughts

Hello, readers —

Today is the last in our series on self-publishing vs. traditional publishing, with our guests 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 Gary Graf, author of Ligouri’s AND GOD SAID, “PLAY BALL!”: AMUSING AND THOUGHT-PROVOKING PARALLELS BETWEEN THE BIBLE AND BASEBALL.

Before we begin, I would like to address an excellent observation that intelligent and insightful reader Pam sent in: yes, our guest Jim did decide to go with a print-on-demand company, which is one currently common way to self-publish. So how is this different from old-fashioned self-publishing?

For those of you unfamiliar with the terminology, self-publishing refers to any publishing project where the author pays the cost of producing and promoting the book. The author pays for (and often does herself) the marketing, and gets to keep all the money made. It’s a straightforward contractual arrangement, where the author takes on the financial risks personally. Even if a self-published book goes on to sell millions of copies (as with the case of Kevin Trudeau’s NATURAL CURES “THEY” DON’T WANT YOU TO KNOW ABOUT, the most successful self-published book in history), the publisher does not make more money, except insofar as it is paid by the author to produce more copies.

In the past, a self-published author’s only option was to pay the printer to produce a print run of predetermined size. The author then lugs the books around to bookstores and other venues where he hoped to sell them. This is a great option for people with strong sales skills, and a fabulous option for people who teach seminars — the book is right there for students to buy. (My brother, for instance, self-published a couple of books and promoted them on his lecture tours.) If the sales are good, and the author wants more books to sell, he would contract for another print run. Any unsold books, though, are left on his hands.

Technological advance has made another option possible, however: print-on-demand is a popular form of self-publishing. With print-on-demand, the author contracts with a publisher who specializes in such books, who agrees to print up new copies as they are ordered. This means that the author only has to pay for the copies he actually needs (although most POD authors do have many copies printed up at first to use in promotion and to sell in the usual self-publishing manner).

Jim, our guest who has kindly offered to share his experience, went the latter route. If there’s a reader out there who has gone the pre-order self-publishing route lately, I’d love to hear from you. (My feelings about nepotism prevent me from asking my brother to do it.) How was your experience different from Jim’s?

One last note, for those new to the concepts we’ve been bandying around this week: self-publishing is often confused by laypeople with subsidy publishing, also known as going through a vanity press. Subsidy publishing is when an author pays a press to produce his work, over and above the actual printing costs; superficially, subsidy press books resemble books produced by traditional publishers, but there is no competition involved in the author getting his work published.

Subsidy publishing is generally quite a bit more expensive for the writer than self-publishing, and certainly infinitely less well regarded. Why? Well, a subsidy press makes its profits exclusively from writers’ payments, so they will generally accept any manuscript submitted (which is not always true of self-publishing presses). They tend to assume that the writer has not done much comparative research, and charge a premium. That, and vanity presses often produce very nice volumes, tooled leather and such.

My hope is that this week’s posts will help clarify what is at stake in the decision about how to publish one’s work. Each of us has to take a good, hard look at her own abilities, desires, and work, and decide what method is best for us.

Okay, on to our guests. Gentlemen, any final thoughts on the differences between self-publishing and traditional publishing?

Jim: Self-publishing and traditional publishing are both very hard work. In my opinion, the biggest and most profound differences are:

The level of experienced support you receive from a traditional publishing house is substantial as compared to a self-publisher. Why? Because their primary interests are very different.

First, the self-publisher wants to get your book printed, while the traditional publisher wants to get your book printed, in bricks and mortar distribution and have the initial print level sold through at retail. Remember, the self-publisher makes money off printing your book. The traditional publisher makes money off selling your book through at retail.

Second, the self-publishing experience is much like the experience you have at a buffet, while the traditional publishing experience is more like having a waitperson help you through a five-course meal. The self-publisher lets you choose services and you pay as you go, while the traditional publisher works with you all the way through the process with a full complement of services.

Gary: Looking back, I realize that I did some things incorrectly, just as I did things well. My first and biggest mistake was to treat the submission process as lightly as I did. Given that anyone from agents to publishers on the manuscript side, and bookstores on the book side, receive thousands of properties vying for attention, an author has only one chance, and a brief one at that, to make a good first impression.

The difference between my first submission proposal and my second was akin to that of a little leaguer and a major leaguer.

Learning from this mistake, I was able to craft a much stronger submission proposal, lessons I also applied to any query letter to book reviewer, radio programmer or parish administrator. Though slow on the uptake, I finally took heed of one of my advertising profession’s basic creeds: know your audience. Thus, while sports radio stations showed no interest whatsoever in my interview proposals, syndicated Christian stations did.

Having gone through this experience once, I now realize that there are three parts to being an author. First, you must write your book. Next, you must sell your book. Finally, you must market your book.

Obvious, you say. True, but when writing the book, I was only concerned with that aspect, not what it would take to sell and, if sold, market the work. Each of these components requires discipline and an ability to learn from mistakes or failure, whether its comments from a developmental editor, a letter of refusal from an agent or publisher, or disinterest on a marketing proposal. Take a lesson from baseball. Only by going to bat time after time can you ever get a hit. Don’t forget, that in baseball, hitters who are considered the best in the game fail seven out of ten times at bat!

Anne: Thanks, Jim and Gary, for sharing your experiences with us. I hope both of your books continue to sell well!

I cannot stress this enough, readers, either in the context of this discussion or others about the traditional publishing industry: it is very, very helpful to know before you get embroiled in the process that the deeper you get into it, the less control you as the writer tend to have. It’s just the nature of the beast — as Jim pointed out, it’s in the publishing house’s interest to get your work to sell in the retail market. However, the author’s view of the best means of accomplishing that and the publisher’s often do not coincide, and in traditional publishing circles, it is rare that the author’s view triumphs in such a conflict.

The same holds true for working with an agent, to a lesser degree. The agent has a stake in selling her authors’ works to the publishing house she believes will do the best job promoting it. To that end, most agents will ask their clients to modify their work to meet what they perceive to be the up-to-the-minute needs of the market. The artistic or self-expressive reasons that the author wrote the book in the first place tend not to trump market interests in these discussed changes, alas.

The final choice between self-publishing and traditional publishing, it seems to me, is about who has control of the book before and after it is published. There are, of course, considerable financial and marketing differences, but fundamentally, a self-published author gets to make the important decisions about what will happen to the book, and a traditionally published author does not. There are compensations for giving up control, but make no mistake, when you sell a book to a publisher, giving up control is what you are doing. All of us need to figure out for ourselves how we feel about that, and choose accordingly.

Have a lovely weekend, everybody, and keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Self-publishing, Part IV: The nitty-gritty

Hello, readers —

I’ve been THRILLED with the extremely positive response to this week’s series on self-publishing vs. traditional publishing for nonfiction books. Turns out that a lot of us were curious.

Once again, I am pleased to be able to present the fascinating insights of 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 Gary Graf, author of Ligouri’s AND GOD SAID, “PLAY BALL!”: AMUSING AND THOUGHT-PROVOKING PARALLELS BETWEEN THE BIBLE AND BASEBALL. Today, our good friends will be discussing production and marketing.

Anne: Was the actual editing process much different?

Jim: Again, I paid for an editorial review and did not have my publisher edit the material. The self-publisher did offer publishing services for a reasonable fee. My editor actually charged me about the same price.

I had received cost estimates for both options prior to making a decision and just felt more comfortable having my editor nearby where we could discuss the material. I am now very glad that I did that.

Anne: That was really smart!

Gary: To be able to publish the book at a page count and price point that made economic sense, I was asked to cut about 10% of my content. Liguori left it to me as to which portions would be sent to the minors. Everything from contract talks to edits to galley proofs took place via telephone or email. Such is the nature of our cyber society that I did not meet my editor face to face until the book had already been printed!

Anne: That’s not uncommon at all anymore. I’ve never met my editor in person. The only reason I could pick him out of a police lineup is that I’ve seen a newspaper clipping of him playing bass in a band. But do go on, please.

Gary: While I was busy making edits, Liguori used its contacts to collect a set of wonderful vintage baseball photographs by Jack Zehrt, a St. Louis photographer. From Mr. Zehrt’s personal archive we were able to include rare photos of Joe DiMaggio. Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Jackie Robinson, Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle and more. Not only did the shots add a great deal of richness to the book, they were something that on my own I would not have had access.

Anne: Tell us how the cover design process worked. For my memoir, I didn’t have any say over it at all. I felt very lucky that I ended up with a cover I liked.

Jim: For a fee, my publisher would have designed the cover. Fortunately, I work in a marketing communications company and our creative director designed a very striking cover. My cover depicts an overweight man with a robust stomach, wearing a pear of cut-off jeans, washing his 1965 white Bonneville car. My company designed the front of the cover, the spine and the back cover under guidelines provided by the self-publisher. I have received many compliments on the cover of my book.

Anne: Including from me! It’s incredibly evocative, such an appropriate choice for the book. I wish I could post it here, but here’s a link to it.

Jim: If you have competent design capability within your circle of friends or co-workers, then this is a viable option. If not, then work with the self-publisher.

Cover design is a very special art form. Frankly, I am not convinced that the self-publishing industry has highly competent cover design capability. However, finding alternatives can and is difficult. The easiest course of action is to pay your self-publisher for the service if you cannot find a suitable cover designer.

Gary: Per the contract, my publisher had the final say on the cover art and overall book size, page count, graphic treatment, photography, typography and content. Fortunately, not only were we on agreement on content and writing style, we both had the same idea for the cover art treatment.

Anne: That WAS fortunate! Again, I wish I could display the cover here, but I seem to lack the technological ability. Here’s the link.

Gary: Using the image of God touching the hand of Man from the Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel as inspiration, Liguori’s graphic artist developed a version where God is handing a baseball to mankind. Liguori was gracious enough to consult with me during all phases of production and thoughtfully considered my input. At the end of the day, however, while I wrote the book, they had the final word on all decisions regarding production and publishing.

Anne: Let’s turn to marketing. Big differences here, right?

Jim: With my self-publisher, you are able to purchase various kinds of marketing services. I purchased (a) an editorial review, and a (b) marketing workbook. I could have purchased various kinds of publicity services, but I elected not to, due to budget considerations.

Please also note that the majority of large daily newspapers do not review self-published books. As a result, you need to be very creative with your publicity approaches to get attention.

Anne: Yes, not everyone knows that; it’s actually policy. It’s a big consideration. But then, not all traditionally published books get reviewed in the large daily newspapers, either. So how did you get creative?

Jim: In October of 2005 I sent out 145 books to opinion leaders and health and fitness reporters throughout the U.S. I received publicity coverage in Washington, DC, Seattle, Michigan and other markets. I have been interviewed on one local Seattle TV station, as well as on two Seattle radio stations. One radio station and the TV interview were for _ hour each and one radio station was an hour.

In February of 2006, I created a “Fattest Male Baby Boomer Markets in U.S.” list and have been featured in the Cincinnati Inquirer and as I am writing this, I am forwarding out another 20 releases to media outlets around the country.

Anne: What a great idea! Publicists always tell writers to find a way to sell their books as tie-ins to news stories. What about you, Gary?

Gary: While Liguori had final say over production and marketing issues, they did allow me quite a bit of input based upon my advertising and publicity experience.

Anne: Really? Most traditionally published authors merely get to fill out author questionnaires. They were smart to recognize your expertise.

Gary: One key element of marketing was the securing of favorable quotes from sporting and spiritual sources. I had sent review copies to various book reviewers, sportswriters, and clergy in the area. Fortunately, a well-known Seattle baseball columnist, as well as the Archbishop of Seattle offered kind words about Play Ball. For their part, Liguori enlisted a senior editor at The Sporting News to write the foreword. These testimonials were used in any and all inquires to media, bookstores, and church groups.

Anne: A very good idea. Readers, that’s a good thing to bear in mind when you’re pulling together a NF book proposal: do you know any big names who would be willing to provide a blurb? Is there any way you could get the blurb in advance, so you can include a glowing blurb page in your book proposal?

But I digress. Do go on.

Gary: We jointly conceived of a launch event at the owner’s box at Safeco Field, home of the Seattle Mariners. Local press, media, bookstores, and friends were invited to an evening of books, brats, and beer.

Anne: I assume that brats refers to sausage, not to children.

Gary: Both Liguori and I were successful in setting up syndicated radio interviews with local and primarily Catholic/Christian radio stations. I taped a TV show for the Archdiocese of San Francisco. Together we sent review copies to mainstream and archdiocesan newspapers all across the country. My two alma maters, the University of San Francisco and the University of Washington, ran blurbs on the book. I also have participated in signing and speaking events at various Christian churches in my area.

I am happy to report that sales were such that the hardcover edition begat (to use a Biblical expression) a paperback version to be released in time for the 2006 baseball season.

Anne: I noticed that on Amazon. Congratulations!

Gary: From press reviews, I had collected a list of favorable quotes, the best of which will adorn the book’s back cover. To paraphrase Chicago Cub great Ernie Banks, “Great book for baseball, let’s publish two!”

Anne: Again, thank you so much for sharing your experiences, Jim and Gary. Aspiring writers tend not to hear very much about the post-contract aspects of the publication process, so I am delighted that you were willing to give us so many interesting insights.

Tomorrow, we’ll wrap up self-publishing week with a few final thoughts. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Self-publishing, Part III: Compare and Contrast

Hello, readers —

Today, we continue our series on the pros and cons of self-publishing with an interesting discussion between two published nonfiction authors:
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 Gary Graf, author of AND GOD SAID, “PLAY BALL!”: AMUSING AND THOUGHT-PROVOKING PARALLELS BETWEEN THE BIBLE AND BASEBALL, published by Liguori/Triumph last year. (Both of these fine titles are available on Amazon at this very minute. Just think of THAT!)

Jim and Gary have been kind enough to share their respective publishing experiences with me, so readers of this blog can see for themselves the differences between pursuing the traditional publishing route and going it solo. As those of you who have been following Jim’s adventures over the last couple of days and this blog over the months know, either way a nonfiction author chooses to go has inherent benefits and risks. Here, we are lucky enough to be able to listen in on an intelligent, thoughtful discussion between two writers who have been there.

So, apart from throwing out the first ball and the occasional follow-up pitch, I’m going to back off and let them speak for themselves. Enjoy!

Anne: How was the writing process different for each of you?

Jim: I had total control over my material. The publisher with whom I worked offered an editorial evaluation for a price. I paid for this evaluation and received a very candid and honest assessment from the self-publisher. I am glad that I purchased this service.

Gary: By way of contrast to Jim’s experiences about self-publishing let me offer my thoughts on following the traditional publishing path. Like Jim, I too am a first-time author. In fact, when he was working on his book, DO OR DIE, I was writing mine, AND GOD SAID, “PLAY BALL!” — AMUSING AND THOUGHT-PROVOKING PARALLELS BETWEEN THE BIBLE AND BASEBALL.

As you might guess from the title, my book blends aspects of the Good Book with those of the great game. In it, I explore themes of forgiveness, reconciliation, prayer, redemption, service and more through connections the sport and scripture share. For instance, I examine the Book of Ruth with the career of Ruth (Babe), Joseph of Egypt and Joe DiMaggio, Moses and (Hank) Aaron. Admittedly, some sections are definitely tongue in cheek, yet most take serious spiritual themes and make them much more accessible by associating them with the game of baseball.

Oftentimes in the non-fiction arena, books are purchased based on outlines and sample chapters, depending upon the perceived interest and marketability of the subject matter and/or author. In my case, I had a completed manuscript to submit. As such, I had complete control over the initial draft. Working off and on at nights and on weekends, the book took between 12 and 18 months to write. Upon completion of the manuscript, I engaged in a developmental edit to prepare my rough draft for submission. This added another six months to the process, resulting in a 10% reduction of content.

Anne: How was the contract process different?

Jim: My contract provides me with (1) total ownership and copyright of the material, (2) My granting of licensing rights to the publisher to have the book printed and be made available in e-Book formats, (3) payment of royalties in several different and optional plans, (4) requirements for proofing material, and other minor provisions.

I had my contract approved by an intellectual property lawyer and he said the contract was very common and acceptable in the publishing industry and afforded me the proper protections.

Gary: Never having published a book before, everything about the process was new to me. Most daunting was the contract. I assume most publishers have a boilerplate agreement that they issue to their authors. Seeing so many clauses and contingencies was enough to boggle the mind. Issues presented were ownership, timing of ownership, royalty rates, rights and permissions, the publisher’s rights of production and more.

I had to weigh my desire to be published against what I was willing to give up in terms of rights and royalties. I must say that Liguori was quite amenable to most of my suggestions and we arrived at a contract with which we both could live. To be honest, as a first time author with only one publisher interested in my work at that point, I had little if any leverage in negotiations!

In my particular instance — a non-fiction book that occasionally excerpts from or refers to other sources — I was responsible for obtaining author/publisher permissions to reprint. This was an arduous task entailing a number of phones calls, faxes, emails, and the like to track down the proper people to contact, negotiate reprint fees, and sign agreements. A number of my references, being 300 words or less, fell under a free use category. Even so, I needed to obtain the appropriate permissions. I have to say, that while time consuming, the effort proved worthwhile. The only unfortunate aspect of it, obviously, was the out of pocket expenses. Fees ranged anywhere from $20 to $250. Depending upon how many sources you need permissions for, these fees can add up.

Anne: Tell us about how you submitted your work.

Jim: The publisher spelled out the submission process to me in advance. My responsibilities and their work were clearly defined in terms of task and timeline. I found this to be very helpful and desirable for making it through this process in a timely manner.

Essentially, they would send me a PDF copy of the book for review along with a word template review form. I would review the PDF copy page by page and then submit review changes. They would then update the manuscript and send another copy for review within several days. I went through several PDF copy reviews from mid-June to early August 2005. Then I submitted final approval and moved on to having the book published.

Gary: Initially, I put together a letter of inquiry, an outline of my book, and a sample chapter and sent it off to a handful of agents and a couple of publishers. Like many naïve authors, I waited for the bidding war to begin. No such luck. To an agent, all passed on representing me. The two publishing companies also declined to pursue my work.

At this point, I decided I had better do a better job of marketing my book. Given that both Jim and I are partners in a Seattle advertising agency, you would have thought that I would have taken a much more careful and professional approach the first time around. No doubt, I fell under the false notion that my book would sell itself. Not so.

Anne: A lot of first-time authors are under that impression, alas.

Gary: I suspect that the agents I queried decided that my book would appeal to too narrow an audience to be worth their time, if it appealed at all. So my new first task was to determine who the best market would be for my work. Given that PLAY BALL explored two subjects, baseball and the Bible, I figured it would appeal to those fans and faithful alike. However, in marketing, you really need to prioritize your target audience. Chances were that PLAY BALL would appeal more to people interested in the Bible who also enjoyed baseball, than to fans of the game and wanted to learn more about the Bible.

With this in mind, I sought to find publishers who specialized in works of a spiritual nature. To do this, I researched Catholic/Religious publishers via Jeff Herman’s GUIDE TO BOOK, PUBLISHERS, EDITORS, & LITERARY AGENTS. From the many such publishers he profiled, I selected my Top Ten.

Next, I prepared a proposal that not only well represented my manuscript but also showed why there was a market for it. I referenced how well Mel Gibson’s PASSION OF THE CHRIST did at the box office as well as how many millions of fans attended baseball games each year. I included an outline of my book, three sample chapters, marketing approaches, publicity ideas, and personal information. Then I waited.

Over the next few months, I received a variety of responses. There were those who stated that the book did not fit their publishing criteria. One editor at a well-known publisher commented that they took both content and marketability into consideration when weighing a proposal. And while he found the premise creative, he noted that I was neither a theologian nor a baseball player (items I noted myself in my book) and thus lacked a platform from which to launch the book. Another publisher decided that the book was not something they would pursue but thought enough of my proposal to offer the names of two other publishers that they thought might be interested.

In the midst of all these replies came a phone call from Liguori Publications. Located outside of St. Louis, they expressed initial interest and asked that I send a complete manuscript. Some weeks later, an editor called and left me a message that he had some good news. They wanted to publish the book!

Little did I know how rare a decision this was. My book had come “over the transom.” In other words, it was unsolicited. Liguori publishes only 30 books a year and reviews 12 times that number of submissions. What’s more, they review proposals on twin tracks: the economics of production and the potential of sales. Fortunately, both review committees wanted to PLAY BALL.

Anne: I’m going to stop us here for today, because this is a LOT of information for those new to the process. I suspect that readers who had not yet learned from personal experience just how much work is involved in getting a book to press — through either the self-publishing or traditional publishing routes — might be a trifle stunned.

Thanks, Jim and Gary! Tomorrow, we shall move on to the nitty-gritty, the practical details of the two types of publishing.

Before I sign off for today, here are a couple of things I would like to underscore here. First, obviously, neither route is for the lazy, as I think their respective stories abundantly illustrate.

Second, as Gary points out, it is extremely rare for an unsolicited manuscript to be picked up by a publisher. Gary did it the right way, submitting a proposal first, but still, most NF books come to traditional publishers via agents or by solicitation. Before you go to the time and trouble of submission — which, as you may see, is considerable — do check that the publisher will consider unsolicited manuscripts.

And if your book is fiction, don’t try this trick at home. Never send an unsolicited manuscript for a novel; always, always, ALWAYS query first.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

P.S. to Marcille: Excellent question! I shall tackle it next week.