Very practical advice, Part III

Hello, readers —

Welcome back to my multi-part series on how to figure out which agent on the PNWA conference guest list (or listed in any conference’s brochure, for that matter) is one you should rank first on your registration form. Assuming, of course, that you’re coming to this summer’s conference — but naturally you are, if you live within driving distance: I’m counting on lots of good conversations over tea with my readers there. One of the perqs of extremely minor celebrity is tea conversation, and plenty of it.

(Incidentally, if you will need financial aid to attend the conference, check out the scholarship form on this website as soon as possible.)

All right, on to the next agent in the alphabetical hit parade: Arielle Eckstut of the Levine Greenberg Literary AgencyApart from the fact that her name’s pretty fabulous in print — don’t you wish you had invented it for a character? — what can we learn from her official blurb, cribbed from elsewhere on this very website?

  •  Arielle Eckstut (Agent) is a literary agent who runs the West Coast office of the Levine Greenberg Literary Agency. She is also the co-author of three books including, Putting Your Passion into Print (Workman, 2005) and Pride & Promiscuity: The Lost Sex Scenes of Jane Austen (Simon & Schuster, 2001).


  • Whether working with a medical doctor or an interior designer, an academic or a poet, Arielle is most excited by ideas that expand our consciousness, challenge our assumptions and seek to make our world a more visually exciting place. Her clients include New York Times bestselling author, Larry Dossey; Bellwether Award-winner, Gayle Brandeis; James Beard Award-winners, Laura Schenone and Georgeanne Brennan; While You Were Out star, Mark Montano; and numerous others. The Levine Greenberg Literary Agency represents a wide range of fiction and nonfiction clients. Their bestselling authors include The Onion (Our Dumb Century), Geoffrey Moore (Crossing the Chasm), Chuck Klosterman (Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs), Roslyn Wiseman (Queen Bees and Wannabes), and Patrick Lencioni (The Five Dysfunctions of a Team).


  •  A voracious reader of 19th century novels and a wide range of nonfiction, Arielle has always been a lover of books. Her “Great Books” major at the University of Chicago focused on only six texts in four years–which lent a whole new meaning to the words “close reader”. Before she became an agent, Arielle baked for Madonna, performed improvisational comedy at the Edinburgh Theater Festival Fringe, and cut karyotypes.

A karyotype, in case you were wondering, is an individual’s set of chromosomes. So I gather that the lady’s sliced up some DNA in her time, not a usual credential for an agent. And WHAT, one wonders, does one bake for someone as skinny as Madonna?

The lady also evidently wants to put out a call for quirky books, I would conclude from this blurb. Nineteenth-century storytelling is not much in vogue these days, alas; in fact, it is sort of an industry code word for REALLY LONG BOOK. So if Herman Melville is your role model (of John Irving, or Jeffrey Eugenides, or…), I think Ms. Eckstut would be a great first pick for your list.

I notice that the agents’ list for this year’s conference includes two agents who hail from the University of Chicago, Ms. Eckstut and {name removed at agent’s request; apparently, although where he went to school is in his standard blurb, that information is not to be reproduced.} . I got my master’s degree at the U of C (the unofficial motto: Hell does freeze over), and I’m here to tell you, Ms. Eckstut is not kidding about the 6 books in 4 years. I knew people there who read only a scant dozen books on the ways to their Ph.D.s. They train their students to be CLOSE readers.

Translation: do not even DREAM of handing so much as a business card to either Ms. Eckstut or {name removed} until it has been proofread 45 times. I am absolutely serious about this. Be prepared to discuss the nuances of every comma.

Also — and perhaps this goes without saying — if you are serious about wanting Ms. Eckstut as your agent, read at least one of the books she has published before the conference. Human nature being what it is, I’m betting that a graceful, informed compliment on her insights into Jane Austen will go a long way toward helping her remember who you are amongst the literally hundreds of aspiring writers she will meet at the conference. (As always, though: give only compliments that you sincerely believe. Not only is it far better karmically, but also, insincere flattery is usually pretty apparent.)

What else can we learn from her blurb? Focus in on Gayle Brandeis, author of SELF STORAGE, “a humorous story of a young mother of two who loves to attend self storage auctions, and then sells her winnings at yard sales.” There are a couple of reasons to pay attention to this particular book: Ms. Eckstut sold it to Anika Streitfeld of Ballantine; significant, because it was Ms. Streitfeld’s her first acquisition there. A two-book deal, no less. If you have aspirations for publishing with Ballentine, signing with an agent with such a good in with a relatively new editor isn’t a bad idea.

The more important thing to notice is that Ms. Eckstut represents a Bellwether Prize winner — so if your work has feminist sensibilities, or deals with issues of race or class, run, don’t walk, to make an appointment with her. The Bellwether Prize was established by Barbara Kingsolver (of THE POISONWOOD BIBLE fame) to encourage novels aimed at spurring social change. Social problem novels are not very popular these days — but they certainly were in the 19th century.

Hint: if you have the opportunity to pitch to her, work a sentence or two into your pitch showing how your book might help its readers. Just a suggestion. She is telling you something here: she wants to represent novels whose importance is more than literary.

She also mentions representing James Beard Award winners — this means that she is interested in cookbooks. (Georgeanne Brennan, incidentally, has also won the Julia Child Award.) Looking over her recent sales, I notice has been selling quite a few cookbooks of late, but it seems to be a relatively new interest of hers. If this is your area, run with it: pick her as a top choice. You might even want to bring her a homemade cupcake.

Her most recent cookbook sale (to Random House) sounds like so much fun that I can’t resist including it here: THE GREEN EGGS AND HAM COOKBOOK, by Georgeanne Brennan and Frankie Frankeny (author of THE STAR WARS COOKBOOK), “an official Dr. Suess (sic!) cookbook filled with delectable treats such as Pink Ink Drink and Solla Sollew’s Chocolate Rocks.”

Ms. Eckstut has added another interesting element here: “The Levine Greenberg Literary Agency represents a wide range of fiction and nonfiction clients,” followed by a list of some of the authors the agency (which is a very solid, large one) represents. I would assume, based upon this, that she is coming to the conference ready to pick up clients not only for herself, but for others at the agency. So a smart conference-goer might want to check out the agency’s website in advance, in order to be able to ask Ms. Eckstut for an invaluable introduction to one of her colleagues.

Looking over her recent sales, I notice that she represents a lot of journalists, so if that’s your background, definitely mention it to her. Also, her agency represents a fair amount of humor — so if your novel is funny, I would recommend that you make your pitch to her funny, too.

But now that you’ve had a little practice deriving insights from agent info, let me just give you a list of some of the major sales she has made in the last few years that are not in her blurb, so you can check them out for yourself. (The dates listed are when the presses bought them, not when the books were published, incidentally.)

Chris Baty, NO PLOT? NO PROBLEM! (Chronicle; sold 2003); Shawn Carlson, CHASING FRANKLIN’S KITE (Little, Brown; sold 2001); Paul Davidson, CONSUMER JOE (Broadway; sold 2002) and BLOGOSPHERE (Warner, sold 2005);Dan Kennedy, EVIDENTLY I KNOW EVERYTHING (Crown; sold 2001) and an as-yet untitled narrative NF book (Algonquin, 2005); Nancy Levine, HOMER FOR THE HOLIDAYS (Viking; sold 2004), as well as LETTERS TO A YOUNG PUG and “an untitled pug romance” (Viking, sold 2005); Rabbi Alan Lew, THIS IS REAL AND YOU ARE COMPLETELY UNPREPARED (Little, Brown; sold 2002); Beth Lisick EVERYBODY INTO THE POOL (Regan Books; sold 2004); Andrew Newberg, WHY WE BELIEVE WHAT WE BELIEVE (Free Press; I couldn’t find the sale date); Kent and Keith Zimmerman, MYTHBUSTERS: The Explosive Truth Behind the 30 Most Perplexing Urban Legends of All Time (Simon Spotlight Entertainment, 2005).

Okay, pop quiz: what did you learn from this list?

If you said that Ms. Eckstut might be a good choice for pitching a spirituality book, well done! By my count, there are 2 on this list. You also score high marks if you noticed that Ms. Eckstut’s taste is pretty eclectic, as is her agency’s, and her sales are pretty consistent from year to year. If you are a producer of offbeat prose, she may well be the agent for you, but if your work is very solidly mainstream, she might not be your best top choice. (If you do mainstream, check out my write-ups on Loretta Barrett and Stephen Barbara.)

You get extra credit if you also noticed that she sells to a broad array of publishers, rather than concentrating upon a few. Why should you care about this? Because you should be thinking now about whom you would like to have publish your book, that’s why. An agent who already has connections at the press you want through previous sales will probably be more helpful to you than an agent who doesn’t, right?

If this does not seem completely self-evident to you, think a bit about the stages of marketing a book. Your target market isn’t just the group of readers you ultimately envision buying your work; it’s also agents who represent that kind of book and editors at publishing houses who sell to that market. Start trolling bookstores, paying attention to who publishes work like yours, and think about querying agents who have a successful track record of selling to those publishers.

If you learn nothing else from this series, learn this: agents are not a monolithic group, a collection of people with identical tastes. They are individuals, with individual tastes.

Let me say that again: every agent has an array of individual tastes.

Think about the implications of this. Let’s say you send out ten queries to ten agents, and receive ten rejections (not uncommon at all). You are sure that your queries contain none of the standard mistakes (I blogged about many of these in August and September), and you are not marketing a book that is terribly out of fashion at the moment (like, say, a memoir set in a rehab facility, a travelogue about eating your way through some well-traveled part of Europe, or a how-to book on reading the tarot). Should you conclude that the entire agenting community has rejected your work with one voice?

No: ten agents, with ten individual sets of criteria have — and that is a MAJOR distinction. Thinking that it doesn’t matter who reads your queries is like believing that it doesn’t matter who sits on the Supreme Court on the day you happen to be arguing your big case: what will strike Antonin Scalia’s fancy will not, I assure you, generally make Ruth Bader Ginsberg chuckle. Individual agents look for different things in submissions, and what’s more, they look for different things at different times.

Reminding yourself of this from time to time throughout the often long and drawn-out querying process is very, very good for your sanity. These people are not all ganged up against you: you just have not hit a good match yet. Keep on querying until you do.

And keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Very practical advice, Part II

Hello, readers –

For those of you who missed yesterday’s post, I’m in the midst of doing a series on how to read agents’ blurbs in conference brochures, as well as giving you some idea what you can turn up on agents through standard industry background research. I’m hoping that this will save you some time (and give you easier access to some of this information) as you are carefully considering your rankings for your agent appointments at this summer’s PNWA conference. The wonderful volunteers at the PNWA honestly do screen potential agents very carefully before inviting them; I just thought those of you new to querying could use some help telling them apart.

Again, some standard disclaimers: I am listing the agents scheduled to attend this summer’s conference in alphabetical order here, not ranking them. I am not going to give you a thumbs-up or thumbs-down on any individual agent; my dual intent here is to teach you how to read a blurb and to give you enough background, wherever possible, so you can weigh your options. (My agency is not represented this year, alas, so I have no stake in pushing one or another.) I have gathered this information from the standard industry databases, and so cannot be sure that it is all 100% up-to-date. So if you find out that I’ve conveyed some misinformation here, please let me know, so I can pass the correct information on to my readers.

Okay, next on the alphabetical Loretta Barrett of Loretta Barrett Books. Here is her official blurb, lifted from the PNWA website:

”Loretta A. Barrett (Agent) is a literary agent and president of Loretta Barrett Books, Inc. in New York. She founded the agency in 1990. Prior to that she was Editor-in-Chief of Anchor Books and Vice President and Executive Editor at Doubleday. She is a member of AAR, and has representation in every major foreign market, East and West.

”Ms. Barrett’s nonfiction interests cover a wide range of topics. These include psychology, science and technology, religion, spirituality, current events, biography and memoir. She represents the New York Times bestseller Symptoms of Withdrawal, by Christopher Kennedy Lawford; the New York Times bestseller Mother Angelica, by Raymond Arroyo, the national bestseller The Singularity is Near by Ray Kurzweil, and Stressed-Out Girls, by Roni Cohen-Sandler, Ph.D. Other notable clients include George Weigel, Ann Douglas, Wayne Muller and Stephen Levine.

”Her fiction preferences are largely mainstream and contemporary. She is particularly drawn to women’s fiction and thrillers. Her current fiction list includes the New York Times bestseller Cold Truth, by Mariah Stewart, and national bestseller The Lake of Dead Languages, by Carol Goodman. In addition, she represents noteworthy novelists such as Gary Birken, MD, Laura Van Wormer, M.J. Rose and Dora Levy Mossanen. For a complete list of clients, as well as submissions guidelines, please visit .”

What can we learn from this blurb? First of all, when an agent gives her website in her blurb, VISIT IT BEFORE YOU SELECT HER AS ONE OF YOUR TOP CHOICES. I would bet a nickel that there is information there, particularly in the submissions guidelines, that will prove useful to you in both your decision-making process and in prepping for your meeting at the conference.

(Fear not; as the conference draws closer, I shall be giving you tips on how to pitch your work more impressively in these meetings – and in hallways. They are very different venues, and require different approaches!)

Second, judging from this blurb, I would suspect that Ms. Barrett is pretty sympathetic to writers: she has gone to the trouble of including enough information here that an aspiring writer could glean a sense not just of the genres she likes, but of the kind of WRITING. If you will be listing her as a top choice, it will be well worth your while to spend a few moments in the big bookstore nearest to you, reading a few pages from the works of the authors she lists.

Why? I’m guessing that you’re going to see some stylistic patterns amongst her clients. And if you can walk up to an agent and say, “My writing style is very similar to that of your client, X,” the agent’s eyes will generally light up.

See, I’m trying to make the conference a better experience for the agents, too. I’m just generally hospitable.

She has also, I notice from checking her recent sales, provided in this blurb quite a nice mix of very recent sales and ones made longer ago, to give a better impression of her interests as they stand now. No book on this list, as nearly as I can tell, was sold more than 5 years ago, and she has sold books by some of these clients within the last few months. Nice of her; it saves you some trouble in your research.

Third, she mentions that she’s a member of AAR, which saves you the effort of looking it up. Why should you care? Well, AAR members agree to adhere to certain professional standards in dealing with writers – most notably, members cannot charge reading fees. (They can, however, charge editing fees. For a list of other membership restrictions, see most of the standard agent guides.) Also, AAR members are not supposed to do nasty things like sell lists of authors who query them to editing services or writers’ publications, nor are they allowed to make working with a particular editing service a precondition of their reading your work.

The idea here is that an AAR member agency will make the bulk of its income through commissions on sales of its authors’ writing, rather than by charging eager aspiring writers for the opportunity to have an agency screener read a chapter of the book. In the long run, this is for your benefit: if an agency cannot sell your work, being signed with it will not help you much.

Not every non fee-charging agent is a member of AAR, of course, so you should not necessarily write off any agent who is not. (Especially if you write screenplays: many, many screenplay agents are not AAR members.) Some agencies choose not to become members because they are set up as management agencies, which means that they reserve the right to bundle their clients into package deals (novelist + screenwriter + director, for instance).

Being an AAR member does not guarantee that an agent is a decent human being (although it helps), but it does guarantee that if something goes terribly wrong down the line, you will have a court of appeal. For instance, AAR specifies that its members can charge only reasonable fees for photocopying, so if you signed with an agent, and then found you were being charged $2.00/page, you could pick up the phone, and AAR would straighten it out for you.

Ms. Barrett has also been kind in defining her interests with precision: in fiction, mainstream, contemporary, women’s, and thrillers (translation: novels with wide market appeal); in NF, psychology, science and technology, religion, spirituality, current events, biography, and memoir. If you have even the vaguest doubt about the category into which your book falls (and, no, Virginia, “it’s sort of a cross between thriller and literary” isn’t going to fly here; we’re talking where your book would be shelved in a bookstore), check out my blogs for February 13-16. And if you have any doubt about whether your work is mainstream enough for Ms. Barrett, check out her website and her authors’ work for comparison.

A quick aside about pitching NF at a conference: there are usually fewer NF writers at a literary conference, which does make one stand out a bit. However, the first thing that ANY agent will ask a writer pitching NF is, “What is your platform?” In other words, what background do you have that makes you a credible author for this book?

(And P.S., you need to be able to state your platform for a memoir, too. Yes, it’s your life, but memoirs are generally about something else, too. Why are you the best person to write on that secondary topic? And why is your life so compelling that it needed to be turned into a memoir?)

I bring this up in the context of Ms. Barrett’s blurb, because I notice that many of the areas she lists are ones that generally require professional platforms: people who write psychology, science, or technology books tend to have Ph.D.s after their names, for instance; religion and spirituality books tend to be written by those with extensive experience with their subjects, and current events books are generally written by journalists. Not that this should discourage you from pitching these kinds of books here – just be very, very well prepared to answer the platform question before you walk into the meeting.

If you are planning to be pitching fiction, do be aware that Ms. Barrett represents many heavy hitters in the industry, and thus may be rather difficult to impress. (One reason I think so: I noticed only one fiction sale in the last three years specifically identified as a debut novel, anthropology professor Lila Shaara’s debut literary thriller “about a former model turned college professor whose scarily obsessed students create a website of doctored photos from her previous career, and soon the danger they pose to her and her two young sons becomes shockingly real.” However, this Feb. 2005 sale was part of an apparently terrific two-book deal to a major publisher.)

I think it’s safe to assume, then, that she may not be as hungry as a less well-established agent. (Hungry is an industry term: it means to be very, very eager to sell books; typically, the better-heeled agents are less hungry than those newer to the game.) So if you’re going to pitch to Ms. Barrett, I would suggest taking the time before the conference to make your book sound as appetizing as possible. Plan to walk into your meeting with her very, very prepared to make your book sound like the best novel since, well, ever.

More agent blurb deciphering follows in the days to come, but before I end today, let me add what I’ve heard on the writers’ grapevine: I have heard from many who have pitched to her (as I have not) that she is a good person to ask for recommendations for OTHER agents who might be interested in a particular book. That, too, is a good thing to know before you walk into a pitch meeting.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Some very, very practical information, or, you WERE planning on attending the PNWA conference this summer, right?

Hello, readers –

I feel as though my blogs have been waxing a bit theoretical lately, so I thought I should concentrate on some very, very practical information for awhile. In fact, it’s hard for me to imagine information more practical than today’s, at least for those of you who are planning to attend this summer’s PNWA conference: it’s information that will help you decide how to rank your agent choices on the conference application.

And you thought I didn’t love you.

It can be quite hard to tell the agents apart, based just upon their write-ups, can it not? Some agents choose to share a little, some share a lot; there seems to be no standard for an agent blurb in a conference brochure. A lot of them are quite vague, and others merely list the agents’ best-known clients. Usually, the titles included were sold quite some time ago, so you can’t always be sure that the agent still represents that kind of work.

In case you were curious, the agents don’t list old sales in blurbs and agent guides to be misleading: they are trying to use titles that a prospective client might be able to find in a bookstore. Because the fact is, if an agent sold a book within the last year and a half, it almost certainly is not in bookstores yet for you to find.

For those of you who were shocked my last statement, let me fill you in on why: unless a press is trying to coincide with a specific event (such as a presidential election) or capitalize on a major catastrophe (such as Hurricane Katrina), the MINIMUM time between a book’s sale and its release is generally a year. Often, it’s longer. And you have only to talk to virtually any agented author to learn that the length of time between signing with an agent and the first sale is frequently as long or longer than production time after the sale.

So, realistically, the books you are seeing on the shelf today are probably much more representative of what any given agent was interested in three or four years ago than today. A lot can happen in a person’s life in three years, and even more in the publishing industry. (Three years ago, for instance, memoirs were not primarily regarded as potential lawsuit traps — thank you, James Frey — but as rich sources of highly reader-grabbing material.)

Sometimes, too, we misread the specialties listed in the blurb, rushing to read through all of them before making ranking decisions, or do not know that a particular agent does not want to see certain kinds of work at all. Yes, it seems a little nasty when an agent says he won’t even consider certain genres, but once you’ve been at it awhile, you’ll come to recognize that those who are upfront about their dislikes are giving you a gift: you know not to waste your time, or theirs, if you write work they do not like.

At the risk of sounding jaded (and who wouldn’t, after a decade of attending writers’ conferences all over the country?), it’s been my experience that in reading these blurbs, it’s a good idea to remember that these people sell things for a living. Sometimes, an agent who sounds warm and friendly on paper turns out in real life to be…well, let’s be charitable, shall we, and say unwelcoming?

Sometimes, the opposite is true, where a hostile-sounding blurb conceals a warm and wonderful agent. And often, it’s hard to tell whether an agent sounds eager to find new talent because she genuinely is, or because that’s her standard line, or because she’s brand-new to the publishing world and hungry for sales.

Again, how can you tell who is a good bet for you?

For all of these reasons, it’s often quite a jolt when you get to the conference, appointment card in hand, and hear your assigned agent speak at the agents’ forum: you catch yourself thinking, if only I knew all this a few months ago, when I made my agent choices. So you scramble around, trying to switch your appointment with others’. The best way to avoid this situation, of course, is to do advance research on the agents who will be attending.

It also makes possible a very graceful opening line for your meeting: “You represent so-and-so, don’t you? I just love his/her work!” Trust me, there isn’t an agent in the world who doesn’t like to hear that. A word to the wise, though: if you use that opener, you had better be familiar with any book you mention. Because a significant proportion of the time, the agent so accosted will want to talk about it. Go figure.

So doing your homework about agents is smart conference preparation. Sometimes, however, finding out which writers they represent can be hard work. Agents often seem amazingly unaware of this, or even incredulous when writers point it out: it’s a relatively small industry, so everyone within it knows who represents whom. But if you, like pretty much every aspiring writer who did not go to school with someone in the industry, don’t know the affiliations, how are you to find out?

More to the point, how do you find out what the agent in question is selling NOW, rather than a couple of years ago?

I’m going to tell you how I handle it, personally: I check industry publications to see not only who and what the agent represents, but also what books the agent has sold recently. As in this year and last, the stuff that isn’t on the shelves yet. While all of that information is a matter of public record, not everyone has access to it easily.

But I do. And I’m going to share it with you, so you can make informed decisions, as well as gaining some insight on how to read agents’ blurbs productively. Please note, though: this is information based upon publishing databases, so it may not be entirely up-to-date or totally accurate. Also, it will reflect only those clients for whom these agents have actually sold books, rather than their entire client lists, which may not give a truly representative (so to speak) picture.

Please note, too, that I am presenting these agents in alphabetical order, not ranked in any sort of hierarchy of excellence or interest, and over enough days’ blogs to justify the length of time it took to track the information down. (Seriously – I hadn’t gone through this process in a couple of years, and time had whitewashed my sense of how time-consuming the research is.) And since I have spent so much space today explaining why I think this is a good idea in the first place, I’m only going to go over one agent today, Stephen Barbara of the Donald Maass Literary Agency, tops in the alphabetical list. Here’s his official blurb, gleaned from elsewhere on this very website:

”Stephen Barbara (Agent) is an agent and contracts director at the Donald Maass Literary Agency. Prior to this, he worked as a junior agent at the Fifi Oscard Agency, an editorial assistant at Regan Books, and an intern at the Kaplan Agency. He is interested in literary fiction, YA and middle grade novels, narrative non-fiction, historical and topical non-fiction, and a variety of commercial fiction genres.”

Okay, this is a good one for starters, because our good Mr. Barbara has given the savvy reader quite a bit of information in this blurb that might not be apparent to the less experienced eye, and his solo sales record is recent enough that searching the bookstores for his clients might not have been too helpful. So what can we learn here?

First, he works at an immense and prestigious literary agency, one very well known for genre fiction (it would make sense to ask him in a meeting who ELSE at his agency might be interested in your work), but he has not worked there very long (if my information is correct, he switched over within the last 6 months). This is probably a good sign: going from being a junior agent at one big agency to being an agent at another probably means that he didn’t bring a whole lot of clients with him. Translation: he needs a list.

Second, he is relatively new to agenting: if he were more advanced in his career, he probably would not have listed his editorial assistant or intern jobs. (Although actually, having an in at Regan Books is a definite asset.) Now, I can feel some of you turning off, wanting to hold out for a bigger-name agent, but think about it: who is more likely to sign a new writer, a hungry new agent or the head of an agency?

Long-time attendees of the PNWA conference may have already pitched to the boss in this case: Don Maass has honored our conference many times. And he is a BUSY man. He used to be president of AAR , the agents’ professional association, and he goes around the country, giving seminars on how to write better novels. He has written several books on same. It’s just my gut feeling, of course, but I suspect that such a busy agent doesn’t have a whole lot of spare time to lavish on previously unpublished writers at this point in his career. But an agent new to his agency might.

Aspiring writers, please be aware of this: a relatively junior agent at a major agency can be a very good bet for a first-time author. The agency will provide connections that a smaller agency might not, yet unlike the big-name agents, a relative newcomer may well have both more time and greater inclination to push a new discovery. (Remember, with a big-time agent, you may well end up being her 105th client, and thus perhaps a rather low priority.)

What else can we learn from this blurb? Well, the agent has told us what kind of discovery he hopes to make at PNWA: literary fiction, YA and middle grade novels, narrative NF, historical and topical NF, and commercial fiction. Not a lot of big surprises here — the Maass agency is known for commercial fiction; in fact, in the past, they’ve signed the winner of the PNWA mainstream novel category. Mssr. Maass has been telling conference-goers for years that he would like the agency to handle more literary fiction, and Mssr. Barbara has a solid track record in sales for the middle grade market.

How do I know that? Because I looked at his recent sales, that’s how. In the past two years, I was able to find three of his sales, which incidentally confirm our sense that he switched agencies recently:

In March, 2006, as an agent at the Maass agency, he made an impressive three-book deal with Margaret K. McElderry Books for middle grade author P.J. Bracegirdle’s THE JOY OF SPOOKING, “in which a girl must save her beloved hometown, Spooking, from being turned into an amusement park by a villain.”

His previous two sales (both in July, 2005) are listed under the aegis of the Fifi Oscard Agency. The first is a set of two middle grade books (with QUITE the impressive advance, I notice), Lisa Graff’s THE THING ABOUT GEORGIE, (“a young boy learns to overcome his small stature and his fears of being a not-so-big brother”) and BERNETTA WALLFLOWER: THE PROS AND CONS “about a 12-year-old girl in the summer after she gets kicked out of private school for running a cheating ring — the only problem being it isn’t true”). Oh, and in case you were wondering how his connections at Regan Books might help his clients, these works were sold to a subsidiary of HarperCollins; Regan Books is also a subsidiary of HarperCollins.

So I would estimate, based upon what we see here, that if you write for middle grade readers, this would be a GREAT agent appointment for you to have. Sign up for an appointment with him, pronto.

The other listing seems on its face as if it couldn’t be more dissimilar, a history/politics NF book by a retired Marine, defense analyst, and former professor, about the future of the draft and military service. This clearly fits under the rubric of historical and topical non-fiction, so we know that Mssr. Barbara already has some connections in that direction.

You may have noticed that the blurb mentioned a few other types of work Mr. Barbara is seeking; I was not able to find a history of sales in those other areas. (As I said, though, my databases aren’t infallible.) But, as I said, the Maass agency does have a very good track record in commercial fiction. My suggestion would be that if you write literary fiction, narrative NF, or genre fiction, you should go to the agency website and take a look at their overall client list, to see if your work would fit into their areas of demonstrated interest.

One more piece of advice: if you intend to list Mr. Barbara as one of your top agent picks for the conference (or plan to accost him after the agents’ forum or in the hallway), do bring a copy of the first 5 pages of your book. If memory serves, agents from the Maass agency routinely ask pitchers and queriers for a writing sample, and it’s best to be prepared, right?

Whew! That was a lot of information, wasn’t it? But I would urge you, if you do decide that Mssr. Barbara is going to be one of your top picks, to do additional research for yourself before the conference. The more you know before you walk into your appointment with an agent, the better you can refine your pitch for his ears.

If doing this level of background research on an agent with whom you may be having a 15-minute meeting three months from now seems nutty to you, let me remind you again that the publishing world actually isn’t terribly big. Agents and editors are used to the writers soliciting them knowing who they are; keep an ear out at the agents’ forum at the conference, and you may notice an edge to their voices when they speak of writers who have not done their homework. Think of being familiar with their recent sales as a gesture of respect to their professional acumen, a way you can step most gracefully into their world, to present your book as effectively as you can.

More info on agents scheduled to attend the conference follows over the day to come. Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

What the customer wants

Hello, readers –

Clearly, I’m taking everything too seriously at the moment, a recognized symptom of being an author with a novel circulating amongst editors. Completely normal, I tell you.

Case in point: the other night, some non-writing friends (yes, I do have them) and I went to see Book-It’s stage version of Edith Wharton’s THE HOUSE OF MIRTH. Since THE HOUSE OF MIRTH is a favorite book of mine, one I first read in the heady days right after I discovered MADAME BOVARY, I dragged my friends to opening night. The world premiere, no less.

If you live in the greater Seattle metro area, and you’re not familiar with the Book-It Repertory Theatre,do yourself a favor and check them out. Their work is intensely gratifying for writers, because they don’t do plays per se – they adapt their favorite short stories and novels for the stage. Their two-night production of John Irving’s THE CIDER HOUSE RULES was so impressive – and so faithful to the book – that it made the movie version that came out a few years later seem as though the screenwriter had only skimmed the original. And who wrote that screenplay, you ask? John Irving. He won an Oscar™ for it.

Have you ever read THE HOUSE OF MIRTH? It’s about a very beautiful woman, Lily Bart, a gem of the right kind of parentage to get invited to the right parties in New York in the 1890s. Lily has no money of her own (and no one in her social circles would dream of working, or even dressing badly), and so must marry well. But Lily really doesn’t like the prospect, and so keeps messing up her increasingly depressing prospects by strategically unwise decisions, such as speaking her mind occasionally and not blackmailing people she really should be blackmailing in her own self-interest. I don’t want to spoil the ending for you, because it is genuinely touching, but suffice it to say, it’s not a laugh riot.

Wharton was, among other highlights in her long literary career, the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, for THE AGE OF INNOCENCE, and is cherished by those who know her writing as the mistress of repressed passion. Unfortunately, her work tends to be dismissed by those who have NOT read her as prissy, an assumption that tends to cover the work of most women writers prior to Anaïs Nin, alas, as though the Victorian Age retroactively threw a blight over the sensibilities of all females from the beginning of time to the 1920s, at least those who might conceivably have picked up a pen.

This is a pet peeve of mine, so I’m going to digress for a moment. The #1 best-selling novel of the 19th century, Mme. de Staël’s CORINNE, concerns a struggle between two lovers: he wants her to give up her career (she’s a celebrated poet) before he marries her, and she refuses; the novel is so sexually charged that it was Lord Byron’s standard gift to his lover du jour.
The modern potboiler was invented by Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823); her work was such a cultural phenomenon that Jane Austen wrote a parody of it, NORTHANGER ABBEY. Actually, if you are looking for lurid subject matter, look no farther than the works of Aunt Jane: if memory serves, her novels include at least three illegitimate children (two in SENSE AND SENSIBILITY, one in EMMA), four illicit sexual affairs (one in MANSFIELD PARK, one in PERSUASION, two in SENSE AND SENSIBILITY), a couple who lives together without being married (PRIDE AND PREJUDICE – yes, you read that right)… And if you really want to see bawdy, check out the work of Aphra Behn, 1640-1689!

Okay, that’s out of my system now. Suffice it to say, our time does not have a monopoly on sexy writing, and I have scant patience with people who dismiss anything written before they were born. So there.

Now, I know THE HOUSE OF MIRTH very well; I am a huge fan of how Wharton uses details about clothing and room décor to convey both internal emotion and collective notions of propriety. (Her first publication was a nonfiction work on interior design.) I was prepared, therefore, to have an emotional reaction to the story, especially the part where Lily stands up for her own principles, is misunderstood by the people around her, and refuses to stoop to their level in order to save her own pretty skin. Like most readers, I suspect, I would like to think I would have done the same thing in similar circumstances.

So I was all busy meditating upon my own virtues, as one does, after the show was over, when it hit me very hard: when I first read this book when I was in junior high school (Robert Louis Stevenson Middle School, no less; yes, the Stevenson who once memorably compared writers to filles de joie), one of my big fears was that I was going to grow up to be merely what was then beginning to be called a people-pleaser, someone who was entirely dependent upon what other people thought of her. Essentially, Lily Bart made her living as a people-pleaser, an occupation that can eviscerate the soul in the long run.

And it struck me that in a lot of ways, writers are like those decorative women of the 1890s, constantly primping in order to attract the right husband. Only in our case, we dress up our work to catch the interest of agents and editors. We need to get married to them, contractually, in order to have even a chance of success. But the agents and editors are not, by and large, looking to fall in love with a book when they first encounter it, but only for its potential market value.

They want a mercenary marriage, whereas we do it for love.

It’s hard to accept that about one’s own work, isn’t it? But it’s true: even the agents and editors most devoted to the literary arts are not in a non-profit business; they will only take on what they think will sell, and sell quickly. And to writers, who often devote years or even decades to polishing their works of art, that can seem a little, well, sordid. We want to be loved for our talent, not just our momentary market appeal.

And that’s why, I think, so many writers come away from their first writers’ conferences seriously depressed. Almost everybody walks in wanting to believe that the agents and editors are there to fall in love with talent. But the only way to fall in love with a writer, really, is to read her work on the page. Instead, you get judged on a three-minute verbal pitch; essentially, it’s the publishing world’s version of speed dating.

It’s a little hard on anyone who walks into a conference expecting romance, rather than commerce.

That’s not to say that there aren’t agents and editors out there who love good writing, and are eager to find the next great talent — there are many who answer that description, and those most serious about it often attend conferences. But one of the most sensible things you can do for yourself before your next conference, one of the best ways to keep yourself from feeling hurt in what is invariably a very stressful situation, is to figure out how to describe your work not as someone who loves it would, but as a marketer would.

I know; it’s crass, and I hate to recommend it to you. But it will help you get a fairer hearing for your ideas. If you step into a meeting with an agent or editor without knowing who your target audience is, for instance, or why your book would appeal to that market better than any other book currently on the market, you will not be pitching in the language of the industry. You will be speaking the language of love, and that does not necessarily translate well.

Again, I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings, but now that agents are every bit as tough to court as editors have ever been (and in some cases, significantly tougher), a writer has to be more than a talented wordsmith: a writer has to be bilingual, able to talk about her work both as art and as commercial product. And being a smart marketer, contrary to popular opinion amongst the unpublished, does not make a writer either a sell-out or a bad person: it merely makes her more likely to succeed.

Fear not, my friends: between now and the PNWA conference, I’m going to be giving you tips on how to speak that language. Perhaps not fluently, but enough to get your foot in the door.

In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Author Bios Revisited

Hello, readers –

I got very excited this weekend, because after my disquisition a couple of weeks back on the need for producing an intriguing author bio that piques the reader’s curiosity, leading to suspicions that perhaps here is an interesting person, I found what may perhaps be the Platonic bad author bio, the one that most effectively discourages the prospective reader from perusing what is within. And to render it an even better example for my purposes here, this peerless bio belongs to one of my all-time favorite authors, Rachel Ingalls. As I have read every syllable she has ever published, I can state with confidence: never have I seen an author bio less indicative of the quality of the writing.

Yes, dear readers, that is what writing this blog for the last nine months has done to me: discovering a specimen that might do you good, even if it disappoints me personally, now makes me cackle with glee.

I don’t feel bad about using this bio as an example here, because honestly, I think everyone on earth should rush right out and read Rachel Ingalls’ BINSTEAD’S SAFARI before they get a minute older. (In fact, if you want to open a new window, search for the Powell’s website, and order it before you finish reading this, I won’t be offended at all. Feel free. I don’t mind waiting.) Here is the specimen, lifted from the back of her newest book, TIMES LIKE THESE:

”Rachel Ingalls grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She has lived in London since 1965 and is the author of several works of fiction — most notably MRS. CALIBAN — published both in the United States and United Kingdom.”

Just this, accompanied by a very frightening author photo, one that looks as though she might take a bite out of the photographer. I have no problem with the photo — after all, this is a writer who gave the world a very beautiful story in which the protagonists are consumed by carnivorous toads, so a sense of menace seems downright appropriate.

But have you ever seen a piece of prose less revealing of personality? Admittedly, British author bios tend to be terse, compared to their American brethren (as H.G. Wells wrote, “the aim of all British biography is to conceal”), but even so, why bother to have a bio at all, if it is not going to reveal something interesting about the author? It actually made me angry, because this is an author whose work I love. I want to see her writing well promoted.

I have particular issues with this bio, too, because of the offhand way in which it mentions MRS. CALIBAN (1983), which was named one of America’s best postwar novels by the British Book Marketing Council. Don’t you think that little tidbit was worth at least a PASSING mention in her bio?

In fact, I learned about Rachel Ingalls’ work in the first place because of the BBMC award. We’re both alumnae of the same college (which is to say: we both applied to Harvard because we had good grades, and both were admitted to Radcliffe, because we were girls), and during my junior and senior years, I worked in the Alumnae Records office. Part of my job was filing news clippings about alumnae. In the mid-1980s, the TIMES of London ran an article about the best American novels published since WWII, using the BBMC’s list as a guide. Rachel Ingalls’ MRS. CALIBAN was on it, and the American mainstream press reaction was universal: Who?

Really, a novel about a housewife who has an affair with a six-foot salamander is not likely to slip your mind, is it? The fact is, her work was almost entirely unknown — and undeservedly so — on this side of the pond.

Naturally, I rushed right out and bought MRS. CALIBAN, followed by everything else I could find. Stunned, I made all of my friends read her; my mother and I started vying for who could grab each new publication first. She became my standard for how to handle day-to-day life in a magical manner.

The TIMES story was picked up all over North America, so I ended up filing literally hundreds of clippings about it. And, I have to confess: being a novelist at heart in a position of unbearable temptation, I did read her alumnae file cover to cover. So I have it on pretty good authority that she had more than enough material for a truly stellar author bio — if not a memoir — and that was almost 20 years ago.

And yet I see, as I go through the shelf in my library devoted to housing her literary output, that she has ALWAYS had very minimal author bios. Check out the doozy on 1992’s BE MY GUEST:

”Rachel Ingalls was brought up and educated in Massachusetts. She has lived in London since 1965.”

Occasionally, the travelogue motif has varied a little. Here’s a gem from a 1988 paperback edition of THE PEARLKILLERS:

”Rachel Ingalls, also the author of I SEE A LONG JOURNEY and BINSTEAD’S SAFARI, has been cited by the British Book Marketing Council as one of America’s best postwar novelists.”

Better, right? But would it prepare you for the series of four scintillating novellas inside that book jacket, one about an apparently cursed Vietnam widow, one about a long-secret dorm murder, one about a failed Latin American exploratory journey turned sexual adventure, and one about a recent divorcée discovering that she is the ultimate heiress of a plantation full of lobotomized near-slaves? No: from the bio alone, I would expect her to write pretty mainstream stuff.

Once, some determined soul in her publisher’s marketing department seems to have wrested from her some modicum of biographical detail, for the 1990 Penguin edition of SOMETHING TO WRITE HOME ABOUT:

”Rachel Ingalls grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. At the age of seventeen, she dropped out of high school and subsequently spent two years in Germany: one living with a family, the second auditing classes at the universities of Göttingen, Munich, Erlangen, and Cologne. After her return to the United States, she entered Radcliffe College, where she earned a degree in English. She has had six books published, including BINSTEAD’S SAFARI and THE PEARL KILLERS (sic). In 1964 (sic) she moved to England, where she has been living ever since.”

Now, typos aside, that’s a pretty engaging personal story, isn’t it? (And doesn’t it just haunt you, after having read the other bios: why does this one say she moved to London a year earlier than the others? What is she hiding?) Doesn’t it, in fact, illustrate how a much more interesting author bio could be constructed from the same material as the information-begrudging others were?

I was intrigued by why this bio was so much more self-revealing than the others, so I started checking on the publication history of this book. Guess what? The original 1988 edition of this book had been released by the Harvard Common Press, located easy walking distance from Radcliffe Alumnae Records. Evidently, I was not the only fan of her writing who had gone diving into her personal file.

”Talent is a kind of intelligence,” Jeffrey Eugenides tells us in MIDDLESEX, but all too often, writers’ faith in their talent’s ability to sell itself is overblown. Good writing does not sell itself anymore; when marketing even the best writing, talent, alas, is usually not enough. Especially not in the eyes of North American agents and editors, who expect to see some evidence of personality in prospective writers’ bios. If they didn’t want the information, they wouldn’t ask for it.

Think of it as another marketing tool for your work. They want to know not just if you can write, but also if you would make a good interview. And, not entirely selflessly, whether you are a person they could stand to spend much time around. Because, honestly, throughout the publication process, it’s you they are going to have to keep phoning and e-mailing, not your book.

Meet ‘em halfway. Produce an interesting author bio to accompany your submissions. Because, honestly, people like me can only push your work on everyone within shouting distance AFTER your books get published.

Speaking of which, if I have not already made myself clear: if you are even remotely interested in prose in the English language, you really should get ahold of some of Rachel Ingalls’ work immediately. You don’t want to be the last on your block to learn how to avoid the carnivorous toads, do you?

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

The myth of objectivity

Hello, readers –

I have received some interesting responses to Monday’s post about the relative weight public and private history should bear within the context of a memoir or novel (Getting the Balance Right, April 17). A couple of people have asked: what about objectivity? Aren’t there times when an objective statement of what is going on in a situation is appropriate?

A good question, and one that certainly deserves discussion.

Obviously, there are writing situations where a certain narrative distance from the subject matter is helpful to telling the story, but I’m not convinced that narrative distance, even far narrative distance drained of personal commentary, is inherently the best way to describe anything. Nor is it actually objectivity. Objectivity, it seems to me, does not lie in discounting the personal experiences of the individuals actually affected by the larger phenomenon being described, or in stripping a story of emotional content; these, too, are reflective of the storyteller, conscious choices in selecting a style of narrative. True objectivity, I think, consists of showing a complex story in all of its emotional roundness without judging the characters.

Or, as Mme. de Staël put it, “Philosophy is not insensitivity.”

I know, I know: this is most emphatically not how we generally hear the term objectivity bandied about. Most often, we hear it when the news media praises itself: they like to plume itself on presenting stories objectively. However, as anyone who reads a newspaper regularly can tell you, how journalistic objectivity tends to be more about balance than distance.

The imperative to balance, as if there were two – and only two – sides to any issue, often results in articles that are only superficially objective, or in presenting only the extreme ends of the opinion spectrum. In an effort to be fair to both sides, both of the sides presented are depicted as equally reasonable, and often as though humanity itself were split absolutely 50-50 on the point. Which in turn often gives the impression that every group involved is equally large. (I’m not giving the obvious example here, just in case any future president should want to appoint me to the Supreme Court.) And while the journalists who write such articles seem to be adhering strictly to the rules of objectivity they were taught in journalism school, the necessity of selecting which two POVs to highlight as the only two relevant arguments, and which to relegate to obscurity, is in itself a subjective choice.

We’ve all seen such articles, right? The structure is invariable: begin with personal anecdote about Person A on Side 1; move to description of overarching phenomenon; state what the government/institution/neighborhood proposes to do about the phenomenon; bring in the opinion of Person B on Side 2; discuss what that side would like to see done; project future. Then end with an emotion-tugging paragraph on the lines of, “But for now, Person A must suffer, because of all of the events mentioned in Paragraph 1.”

Now, is that truly objective? It is balanced, sure, insofar as Side 1 and Side 2 are both presented, but since the structure dictates that the reader gets more personal insight into Person A’s plight, doesn’t the choice of which side to highlight first dictate where most readers’ sympathies will tend?

How a journalist or any other writer – or a researcher, or a pollster, for that matter — chooses to frame a question is necessarily subjective. Heck, how we decide what is important enough to write about is a subjective decision. If you doubt this, I suggest an experiment: the next time a telephone pollster calls, pay attention to how the questions are worded. Are they encouraging certain answers over others? How many questions does it take you to figure out who commissioned the poll?

I’m not saying that writers should throw objectivity out the window; far from it. However, I think we are all better writers when we recognize that how we choose to define an objective stance is in itself a subjective decision. Once a writer acknowledges that, taking authorial responsibility for those choices rather than assuming that distance equals objectivity, and that objectivity is good, all kinds of possibilities for nuance pop up in a manuscript.

Which bring me back to my original point: from the reader’s POV, the objective facts of a story are only important insofar as they affect the characters the reader cares about – and that can be liberating for the writer.

Movies and television have encouraged the point of view of the outside observer in writing, because no matter how close a close-up is, the camera is always separate from the action it is filming to some extent. But not every story is best told from the perspective of a complete stranger standing across the room from the action; even in an impersonal third person narrative, the author can choose, for instance, to take into account the observations of the crying toddler being held in the arms of the protagonist. It is not better or worse, inherently, than the detached, across-the-room perspective; it is merely different. Considering it as a possibility, along with a wealth of other perspectives, gives the writer much more control in producing the desired emotional impact of the scene.

Not all editors, writing teachers, or readers would agree with me, of course, but as there were so many writers trained in the early-to-mid 20th century that a Graham Greene-like narrative detachment was the best way to tell most stories, resulting in a generation and a half of schoolchildren being taught that the third person SHOULD mean complete narrative detachment, I’m not too worried that all of you out there won’t hear the other side’s arguments.

I’m not a journalist, after all; I am under no obligation to show you Side 2.

One final word on objectivity for those of you who write about true events: many, if not most, members of the general public confuse their individual points of views with objectivity, as if we all went through life testifying in an endless series of depositions. They insist that their individual, subjective POVs are the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and therefore the only possible version of events.

I bring this up, because literally every author I have ever met who has published a book about real events that took place within living memory (myself included) has been accosted at some point by someone whose life was touched by the events depicted in the book. These accosters then summarily inform the author that she is WRONG; the events certainly did not take place that way, and no reasonable person could possibly think that the author’s POV on the subject was accurate. Obviously, then, the author must have maliciously twisted the facts on purpose, to create a false impression. Because facts are objective, by gum: in a well-ordered universe, everyone would tell every story exactly the same way. And the author is left standing there, open-mouthed.

I just wanted you to be prepared.

Sadly, there is little the author can do in response to this sort of attack. It’s been my experience, and my true story-writing friends’, that it does not aid matters to try to explain the basic principles of subjectivity vs. objectivity or point of view to people who insist there can be only one POV. It’s easiest to treat such vehement amateur readers as you would a professional POV Nazi: thank them warmly for their input and get out of the room as fast as you can. If you see them in future, run the other way. (For further tips on handling the POV-insistent, see my posting, Help! It’s the Point-of-View Nazis!, April 4 and 5.)

I honestly do wish that I could give all of you who write about real events a talisman that would protect you, but this is one of those areas where writers tend to view the world very differently than others. If you doubt this, just try explaining to someone who has never tried to write what it’s like to be so grabbed by a story that you feel compelled to lock yourself up for months on end to get it on paper, without anyone paying you to do it. By non-artistic standards, the creative drive just doesn’t make sense.

I say that we should just embrace the fact that we think differently from other people. Let’s revel in our subjectivity, because insightful subjectivity is the cradle of original authorial voice. Let’s not be afraid to tell stories from various subjective POVs, where that’s appropriate. And above all, let’s not fall into the trap of believing that there is only one way to look at any given event. Or even two. Because that kind of attitude robs writers of the power to choose how best to tell the story at hand.

As Flaubert tells us, ”One does not choose one’s subject matter; one submits to it.” Let the story’s complexities dictate how it needs to be told.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

The Grand Silence

Hello, readers –

When I was a kid, I lived out in the middle of a vineyard, literally. In three directions, our nearest neighbors were half a mile away, and wildlife abounded. I learned to stomp hard when I walked anywhere near where rattlesnakes might be taking a mid-afternoon snooze, to avoid picking up rocks that might conceal sting-happy scorpions, and to use gloves when I cleaned out the garage, lest a territorial black widow jump out at me. They are known for their bad tempers, you know. I learned to walk with care, respecting their habits and preferences, and to jump away quickly, almost without thinking about it, at the first sound of a rattle or move indicative of cold-blooded annoyance.

All of which, of course, was terrific training for when I grew up and started dealing with people in the publishing industry. It’s easy to forget, in the throes of querying and submitting, that these people aren’t mean, for the most part: they, like the beasties of my youth, just are very, very particular about having their boundaries respected. Sometimes, you stumble over a boundary unawares, and then, all you can do is get out of their way.

Remember, this, please, the next time you get a scathing rejection letter or a publishing professional snubs your pitch at a conference. It usually isn’t aimed at you personally; you’re just the one the venom hits. They’re usually not doing it to be mean — you just inadvertently pushed the wrong conversational button. How were you to know that the agent snarling before you had a memoir deal go sour the week before — and yours was the next memoir pitch he heard? How were you to know that the protagonist of your novel bore a startling resemblance to the agency screener’s nasty ex-boyfriend?

But that wasn’t why I started to tell you about my youthful life amongst the beasties. There was a lot of warm-blooded wildlife, too, bears and foxes and deer. And, of course, masses of jackrabbits. So on any given Easter morning of my childhood, my mother could be observed pointing out a window at a racing rabbit and crying, “Look, kids! There goes the Easter Bunny!”

Do you think it actually was?

Now, I’m not here to speculate on whether the Resurrection Rabbit actually exists or not; that is a question, I feel, best left to the great philosophers of our day. I’m telling you this story to remind you of a cardinal rule of dealing with the often writer-insensitive publishing industry: not everything is always what it appears to be from where you’re standing.

Case in point: over the last three days, I have had conversations with four different writers (talented writers, all; three agented, one on the verge of being so) who were racked with worry because their respective agents had been sitting on manuscripts of theirs for so long. In two of the cases, the agents had promised to read the manuscript by a certain deadline, which had passed; in another, the author had performed a major revision, and the book had ostensibly been seen by a number of editors, yet the agent had not said word one for weeks; in the last, the agent had told the author a few weeks ago that the first two readers at the agency absolutely loved the book, and that she herself was reading it now and was hooked, but had gone mum ever since. What could it all mean?

Okay, I don’t want to upset anyone’s relationship with the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus here, but I’ve been in the industry long enough to tell you with a good deal of certainty what it means: these delays have nothing to do with the books. Nor are they indicative of how the agent feels about the author’s work, particularly. They do not mean, in all probability, that the agent is considering dropping/not signing the author, and they do not mean that the agent has been sitting around for weeks now, trying to figure out how she can possibly tell the author that her work is terrible. And they most emphatically do not mean that these gifted writers should give up the craft entirely.

I would bet my last kopeck that the delays in question are indicative of none of these things — all of which, incidentally, were suggested to me by the authors themselves. No, all of my years of experience shout to me that there is another, completely different reason behind each and every one of these delays.

Brace yourself, bunny lovers: the reason is that none of the agents have read the manuscripts yet.

The notion that a manuscript, the result of countless hours of the author’s hopeful effort, could conceivably sit on an agent’s (or editor’s) desk for weeks or months unread is a frightening one, isn’t it? But the sad fact is, it happens all the time.

I hear you rend the skies with your cries: Why?

Well, most agents and editors are really, really busy people; during the day, they work on manuscripts from writers they have already signed, go to meetings, argue with publishers over advances and royalties slow to materialize, pitch new books, etc. Which means that for manuscripts they have not yet accepted, or writers not yet signed, their reading time tends to be limited to a few stray moments throughout the day — and whatever time they can snatch during evenings and weekends.

So your manuscript may well not be gathering dust on a corner of the agent or editor’s desk; it may be gathering dust on in her kitchen, or on her bedside table, or on the floor next to her couch. And that’s the manuscripts she likes enough to want to read beyond the first few pages; few make it as far as being lugged home on the subway.

Think about this for a moment. A manuscript read at home is competing for the reader’s time and attention with any or all of the following: the reader’s spouse or partner, if any; the reader’s kids, if any; going to the gym; giving birth; AMERICAN IDOL; following current events; taking mambo lessons; trying to talk her best friend through a particularly horrible break-up; her own particularly horrible break-up; Jon Stewart on THE DAILY SHOW; grocery shopping; a teething infant; a date with someone who acts like a teething infant; personal hygiene, and voting in local, state, and national elections.

Honey, you shouldn’t be surprised that your manuscript has been sitting in limbo for a month; you should be surprised that it gets read in under a year.

The truth is, agents and editors tend to make decisions very quickly, once they have actually read the manuscript. There is a good practical reason for this: they read far, far too many manuscripts to be able to rely on their memories of the sixteen they read last week. In the long run, a snap decision saves time. However, it may take them a long while to find a moment in which to make that snap decision.

In other words: it’s not about you.

Knowing this doesn’t make the wait any easier, of course, but it might help stop you from indulging in that oh-so-common writers’ mental tic: compulsively wondering what is wrong with you and/or your manuscript. After awhile, that wonder starts to grow, nagging at you, urging you to revise your opening paragraph for the seventeenth time, or making you decide that the agent hates your work and is never going to contact you again. Or – and this one is particularly nerve-wracking – convincing yourself that the agent or editor is sitting up nights, vacillating about whether to go with your book or not. If only there were something you could do to push the decision in your favor…

Yes, I know: there is a rabbit running through those grapevines, and there is a basket of goodies on your doorstep. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the rabbit carried the basket there, does it?

For your own sake, nip this kind of enervating speculation in the bud. It is harmful to your self-esteem, and it honestly doesn’t help your book move through the process. Yes, it is tempting, in a situation where you have absolutely no control over the timing of a decision that will necessarily change your life, to think that there is something you can do to change the outcome. But the instinct to tinker with the manuscript to that end is attractive only because it is one of the few aspects of the situation that you CAN control.

When you feel yourself giving way to this type of thinking (as I do, too, occasionally), don’t let it dominate your life. Pick up the phone or e-mail a writer friend in a similar situation, or someone who is farther along in the process, to reassure yourself that you have not been singled out. Talk to someone who has read your manuscript, to be reassured that it is good. Take up needlepoint. Go to the gym. Start your next novel. But whatever you do, don’t sit around and brood about it, for that way lies great unhappiness.

And if an agent has been sitting on your manuscript for a month, it is perfectly acceptable to send a cheery, non-confrontational e-mail or call for an update. If the agent in question is reading your work with an eye to signing you, it is perfectly legitimate to send an e-mail after three weeks or a month, politely saying that you’re still interested in working with her, but that other agents are now looking at it, too. In fact, the knowledge that another agent is interested in the manuscript might even move you up in the queue.

If you are really afraid of annoying the reader, double the promised amount of reading time, THEN call or e-mail. Don’t whine, and don’t try to persuade; just calmly ask for an update on when you can expect to hear back.

And don’t be surprised if, when you do hear back, it turns out that the agent or editor hasn’t read it yet. She’s been too busy, leaving those baskets of eggs on other writers’ doorsteps.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Taxing experiences

Hello, readers –

Hey, I just realized – this is my 150th blog posting for the PNWA! Who’d have thought I’d have so much to say about getting work published, eh?

I promised to talk about what tax time is like for a working writer, and I shall, but first, I would like to address a few words to the very kind souls who have been e-mailing me lately about my memoir, A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK, slated to come out next month.

First, I really do appreciate your support; it has been a long process, and an unusually emotionally trying one. I would hate to have any of the NF writers out there think that my experience has been typical. As my longtime readers are already aware, the Dick estate has been threatening my publishers with legal action since last July. Nine interminable, stressful months. To add to the festivities, even though I do write this blog virtually every weekday, with the specific brief of filling you in on what it is like to be a writer in the throes of bringing a book to publication, I have been advised to comment on the specifics of the case as little as possible here.

To this end, I have been quite circumspect — which has been hard, as there is much in this situation that would be of real interest to aspiring writers. I’ve written about it when I could, and as I could, which is to say: not very much, considering how much of my time and energy it occupies. This has apparently generated quite a bit of curiosity amongst my readers, which I can certainly understand. I honestly don’t mean to tantalize you, but I am operating under constraints here.

For the same reason, I have been avoiding visiting the Dick estate’s website and fan forum during these months, although nice friends do occasionally fill me in on the debate about my book that has been going on there on and off since September. However, a number of you have e-mailed me this week, to ask about a formal statement that “the family” has posted about my book. In the interests of giving a fair view of what is going on, here is the link.

It is difficult to address this statement without going too far into the specifics of the case, but because people have asked, I am going to give it a try. First, it is a little strange that the estate is defining Philip’s family as excluding my mother. My mother was married to Philip K. Dick for 8 years; they were a couple for 10, and this period happens to be when he first started writing professionally. Their marriage, in fact, lasted longer than his three subsequent marriages combined, and she is obviously the best living source for information about Philip from that period.

Second, Philip remained a dear friend of both of my parents for most of his life, and he and I were also close, so he was a major force in my life until his death when I was 15. It would have been completely impossible to write a truthful memoir about my childhood or adolescence that did not include a fairly extensive depiction of our interactions, and the suggestion that I did not have the right to write about my own life is logically absurd. And even if it were not, Philip’s daughters gave me written permission to write the story of my interactions with their father from my own perspective. Where’s the problem here?

Third — and this is important — the Dick estate has never, as it claims in this statement, provided my publisher with a list of factual errors they believe to be in my memoir. They provided me with such a list last June; this list most emphatically did not include any request that I remove any section of the book dealing with my personal interactions with Philip. They were mostly extremely minor points, including demands that I change individual words that they did not like. I made the requested changes immediately, despite the fact that the people who conveyed them to me refused to answer follow-up questions on these points or provide me with evidence of any of their contentions.

The estate’s response to this cooperative attitude has been to send my publisher a series of attacks on my character, not requests for particular changes in the book; indeed, the only book-specific objection in the threats has been to the use of a particular photograph. I have asked three times in writing for a list of additional line changes they would like to see, and the estate promised twice to provide such a list, but it has never materialized. To this day, I remain mystified as to why the Dick estate considers this book so harmful, aside from the fact that I knew Philip and I wrote it.

I hope this sets some minds at ease. I honestly do appreciate the good intentions of the people who have written in, suggesting that I just go ahead and make the changes in the book the Dick estate wants in order to remove the problem, but honestly, the situation is far from that straightforward. Believe me, I spent months last summer trying to come to some sort of reasonable accommodation that would have made everybody happy without sacrificing the truth.

Okay, on to the topic du jour. Working writers — which is to say, those of us who actually get paid for doing it — usually treat their writing as a small business, for tax purposes. This means filing a Schedule C with one’s federal tax return — a lot less intimidating than it sounds, if you keep good records of your writing-related expenses — and, if one makes enough, a schedule SE, to pay self-employment tax. You should talk over what you need to file with your tax advisor, of course, but do make sure to find one with experience in preparing artists’ tax returns, because the common wisdom on what we can and can’t claim is not necessarily always accurate.

One very common misconception is that a writer must have made money from writing in a given year, or at any rate have made more money than she expended in toner cartridges and reams of paper, in order to claim writing as a small business. This is not true, and since the rules governing this have changed fairly recently, a non-specialist tax advisor might not be aware of it. As I understand it (but again, talk to a professional before you file, please), the fine folks at the IRS now recognize that writing a book can take a long time, and that it is legitimate to regard the writing time as business time, as long as the writer approaches the project AS a business: writing on a regular schedule, engaging in professional development to increase the likelihood of commercial success (such as attending conferences and taking classes), networking with other writers (another perq of joining a writers’ group!), etc.

It may seem a little silly to file a small business return when the totality of your writing income was $15 for a 400-word article in your local community newspaper, true, but personally, I have always found it empowering to write “Writer” on the occupation line of tax forms, even when, in the interests of strict truth, it was necessary to write in the occupation that actually paid the bills that year as well.

Think of it as getting in practice for when you hit the big time. This is not just wishful thinking; it is practical advice. Some of the deductions are counterintuitive. Since the writing life is unpredictable (unless you have published a perennial seller, a book that remains in demand consistently for years), a writer often does not know early in any given year whether she will be generating writing income by the end of it. It’s a good idea to get into the habit of keeping track of your writing expenses now, so you are prepared for the day that you suddenly sell a book in December.

It also gives you good ammunition when you are negotiating with your partner(s) about setting aside dedicated writing space where you will not be disturbed. (Hey, I said I was going to be practical here.) I believe that every serious writer should have a writing studio, someplace where she can close the door on the outside world and concentrate for significant chunks of time. Yes, plenty of wonderful books have been written on computers wedged between the refrigerator and the kitchen table, but most of us work better in a committed space.

And what do you know, the tax people can help you out here: in order to deduct the costs of a home office for your business, it has to be used ONLY as a home office. No using it as a guest room for relatives, a place to dry flowers, or a place for your sweetie’s seldom-used power tools; it must be dedicated space.

I can feel some of you out there smiling already. “I’m sorry, dear,” I hear you say as you close the door gently but firmly upon your kith and kin. “The federal government says that you’re not allowed into my writing space during my writing time.”

And you thought I was kidding about how you fill out a tax form’s being empowering!

As it turns out, an awful lot of what a writer spends is tax-deductible: the percentage one pays one’s agent, for instance, is completely deductible; there’s actually a line on the Schedule C for commissions and fees. There’s also a space for legal and professional services, so if you hire a freelance editor or consult a tax advisor who specializes in artists, you can deduct that, too.

Ditto with office expenses, so make sure to save all of those receipts for paper, toner, and computer repair. Any supplies (including postage for those SASEs) you use to query agents or editors are potentially deductible, as are long-distance phone calls for the same purpose. If you decide that you would like to send your queries out on nice custom letterhead, or hand out snazzy business cards to everyone you meet at writers’ conferences (you should and you should, if you can afford it; it makes you appear more professional), save those receipts, too.

And, not to plug my boss, but what about professional memberships, such as joining the PNWA?

I’ve noticed, in both myself and my successful author friends as we’ve made the transition from being people who write to people who make a living writing, that the realization that professional development expenses are usually tax-deductible makes a subtle difference in how we choose which writers’ conferences, seminars, and retreats we attend. Frankly, I think it gets us out of the house more. The expensive ones are sometimes worth it, although it’s been my experience that cost is not necessarily a reliable indicator of the quality of a professional development experience. (Oh, the conference stories I could tell you!)

Don’t forget, too, to save receipts for those cookies you bought when your writing group met at your house, because that is a writing-related entertainment expense. So is meeting a writer friend for lunch to discuss which agents you should query. Heck, I’ve been known to dispense publishing advice over a cup of coffee and keep the receipt. Just make sure that you write on the receipt RIGHT AWAY who was there, what you talked about, and how it related to your writing. You’re not going to remember the specifics come next April.

And what about market research? Do you buy WRITER’S MARKET every year? Subscribe to POETS & WRITERS magazine? (As you should, if you are interested in entering contests; they are good at screening out disreputable ones from their lists.) What about buying books in the area in which you hope to publish? This may seem a trifle far-fetched, but listen: how are you going to know what’s selling in your area unless you read what’s coming out now? How else would you learn what the industry standard for your genre is, or find an agent who represents exactly the kind of work you write, without buying and reading a few books?

Get the idea?

Do force yourself to keep impeccable records, however. It is something of a myth that freelance writers get audited more than most people (1% of the filing population is always audited every year, regardless, so the probability of being audited is higher for everyone than most people think), but hey, better safe than sorry, eh? Grab the nearest shoebox (even if it still has shoes in it), label it “WRITING EXPENSES, 2006,” and get into the habit of tossing every relevant receipt into it as soon as the money is spent. I even track my writing hours on a weekly basis, so I can show, if necessary, hard evidence that I approach writing as my primary business.

Again, when in doubt, consult a tax professional, and it’s actually not a bad idea to have a an experienced professional walk you through the Schedule C and SE step-by-step before you file them for the first time, to make sure that you understand what is a legitimate expense and what isn’t.

But, please, don’t let doubts about your own professional status make you hesitate about whether you are really writer enough to declare your efforts as a business. It is not sales that make a real writer, but talent and industry, regardless of what insensitive friends may tell you. If you are writing regularly on specific projects, with specific markets in mind, and taking logical steps to make your work more professionally viable (such as reading a professionally-oriented writers’ blog on a regular basis for tips, for example), technically, it isn’t just a hobby.

Don’t take my word for it; the government says so, too.

Happy 150th, everybody. Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Getting the balance right

Hello, readers –

I don’t want to disturb you, if you are one of the countless many rushing to get your tax forms postmarked by the time the post office closes, so I shan’t burden you today with a description of what tax time is like for the full-time writer. There will be time enough for that tomorrow, after everyone’s had a good night’s sleep.

In the meantime, please be extra-nice to postal employees today, because this is one of their most stressful workdays of the year — would you want hundreds of panicked last-minute filers rushing up to your workstation all day? — and I shall devote today’s posting to a writing insight I had over the weekend.

As many of you know, I have a memoir in press and a novel on the cusp of making the rounds of editors. In my freelance editing business, I regularly edit both, as well as doctoring NF books, so I consider myself pretty savvy about the tricks of the trade. This weekend, as if to remind me that I should always keep an open mind, a deceptively simple but undeniably useful rule of thumb popped into my mind while I was editing (drum roll, please):

The weight a given fact or scene should have in a manuscript is best determined by its emotional impact upon the book’s protagonist, rather than by its intrinsic or causative value.

Is that too technical? In other words, just because an event is important in real life doesn’t mean that it deserves heavy emphasis in a story. In a memoir, events are only relevant as they affect the central character(s); in a first-person novel, this is also true. Even in a third-person narrative told from a distant perspective, not every fact or event is equally important, and thus the author needs to apply some standard to determine what to emphasize and what merely to mention in passing.

To put this in practical terms: if you were writing about characters who lived New York in September of 2001, obviously, it would be appropriate to deal with the attacks on the World Trade Center, because it affected everyone who lived there. To some extent, the attacks affected everyone in the country, and in the long term, people in other countries as well. However, not everyone was affected equally, so not every book written about New Yorkers, Americans, or world citizens during that period needs to rehash the entire 9/11 report.

This may seem obvious on its face, but in practice, writers very often misjudge the balance between personal and public information in their manuscripts, as well as between historical backstory (both impersonal and personal) and what their protagonists are experiencing in the moment. In fact, it is a notorious megaproblem of memoirists and first-time novelists alike.

Sometimes, balance issues arise from a genuinely laudable desire to ground the story believably in a given time period. Memoirs about the late 1960s and early 1970s, for example, tend to include extensive disquisitions on both the Vietnam War and hippie culture, the writerly equivalent of director Oliver Stone’s amusing habit of decorating crowd scenes from that period with a visible representative of every group in the news at the time, regardless of whether members of those groups would ever have attended the same event in real life: a protest march including Abbie Hoffman flanked by Gloria Steinem and several Black Panthers, for instance, with perhaps a Rastafarian, two of the Supremes, and Cat Stevens thrown in for good measure.

I bring up movie-style time markers advisedly, because, as I have pointed out before, how movies and television tell stories has seeped into books. On a big screen, stereotypical images are easier to get away with, I think, because they pass so quickly: have you noticed, for example, that virtually every film set in a particular year will include only that year’s top ten singles on the soundtrack, as though no one ever listened to anything else?

Frankly, I think this is a lost opportunity for character development, in both movies and books. Music choice could tell the reader a lot about a character: the character who was listening primarily to Smokey Robinson in 1968 probably thought rather differently than the character who was listening to the Mamas and the Papas or Mantovani, right? Even if they were smoking the same things at the time.

To use an example closer to home, in high school, if my cousin Janie and I walked into a record store at the same time, she would have headed straight to the top 40 hits, probably zeroing in rather quickly on big ballad-generating groups like Chicago. She was always a pushover for whoever used to warble the “I’m all out of love/I’m so lost without you” equivalent du jour. I, on the other hand, would have headed straight for the razor-cut British bands with attitude problems, your Elvis Costellos and Joe Jacksons. I am quite sure that I was the only 7th-grader in my school who was upset when Sid Vicious died.

Quick, which one of us was the cheerleader, me or Janie? And which one of us brought a copy of THE TIN DRUM to read on the bleachers when the football game got dull? (Hey, it was a small town; there was little to do but go to the Friday night high school football game.)

Such details are very useful in setting up a believable backdrop for a story, but all too often, writers spend too much page space conveying information that might apply to anyone of a particular age or socioeconomic group at the time. It’s generic, and thus not very character-revealing.

If I told you, for instance, that Janie and I both occupied risers in the first soprano section of our elementary school choir, belting out numbers from FREE TO BE YOU AND ME, much of the Simon & Garfunkel songbook, and, heaven help us, tunes originally interpreted by John Denver, the Carpenters, and Woody Guthrie, does this really tell you anything but roughly when the two of us were born?
Okay, the Woody Guthrie part might have tipped you off that we grew up in Northern California, but otherwise?

When books spend too much time on generic historical details, the personal details of the characters’ lives tend to get shortchanged. (And, honestly, can’t we all assume at this point that most readers are already aware that the 1960s were turbulent, that people discoed in the 1970s, and that it was not unknown for yuppies to take the occasional sniff of cocaine in the Reagan years?) It’s a matter of balance, and in general, if larger sociopolitical phenomena did not have a great impact upon the protagonist’s life, I don’t think those events deserve much page space.

I think this is also true of minutiae of family history, which have a nasty habit of multiplying like weeds and choking the narrative of a memoir. Just because the narrator’s family did historically tell certain stories over and over doesn’t mean that it will be interesting for the reader to hear them, right?

You would be amazed at how often memoirists forget this. Or so agents and editors tell me.

This is particularly true of anecdotes about far-past family members. If your great-grandmother’s struggle to establish a potato farm in Idaho in the 1880s has had a strong residual impact upon you and your immediate family, it might be worth devoting many pages of your memoir or autobiographical novel to her story. However, if there is not an identifiable payoff for it from the reader’s POV — say, the lessons she learned in tilling the recalcitrant soil resulting a hundred years later in a certain fatalism or horror of root vegetables in her descendents — the reader may well feel that the story strays from the point of the book. James Michener be damned — consider telling Great-Grandma’s story in its own book, not tacking on a 200-page digression.

I think we all know that the earth cooled after the Big Bang, Mr. Michener. Let’s move on.

Because, you see, in a memoir (or any first-person narrative), the point of reference is always the narrator. Within the context of the book, events are only important insofar as they affect the protagonist. So even if the story of how the narrator’s parents met is a lulu, if it doesn’t carry resonance into the rest of the family dynamic, it might not be important enough to include.

In my memoir, I do in fact include the story of how my parents met — not because it’s an amusing story (which it is, as it happens), but because it is illustrative of how my family tends to treat its collective past primarily as malleable raw material for good anecdotes, rather than as an unalterable collection of hard facts. “History,” Voltaire tells us, and my family believed it, “is a series of fictions of varying degrees of plausibility.”

I don’t say whether this is actually true or not; as a memoirist, my role is not to make absolute pronouncements on the nature of truth or history, but to present my own imperfect life story in a compelling way. So in my memoir, I reproduce the three different versions of the story of how my parents met that I heard most often growing up, with indications of the other dozen or so that showed up occasionally at the dinner table during my most impressionable years. I include them, ultimately, because my family’s relationship to its own past was a terrific environment for a child who would grow up to be a novelist.

Most of us are pretty darned interesting to ourselves: it’s hard not to have a strong reaction to your own family dynamics, whether it be amusement, acceptance, or disgust. That’s human; it’s understandable. But as a writer dealing with true events, you have a higher obligation than merely consulting your own preferences: you have a responsibility — and, yes, a financial interest, too, in the long run — to tell that story in such a way that the reader can identify with it.

Remember, fascinating people are not the only people who find themselves and their loved ones interesting; many a boring one does as well. And if you doubt this, I can only conclude that you have never taken a cross-country trip sitting next to a talkative hobbyist, a fond grandmother, or a man who claims his wife does not understand him.

Quoth D.H. Lawrence in SONS AND LOVERS: “So it pleased him to talk to her about himself, like the simplest egoist. Very soon the conversation drifted to his own doings. It flattered him immensely that he was of such supreme interest.”

So if you are writing about your kith and kin, either as fiction or nonfiction, take a step back from time to time and ask yourself: have I gotten the balance right?

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Author bio, Part III: Say cheese!

Hello, readers —


Yesterday, I was discussing the importance of making your author bio as entertaining as possible. Have it reflect your personality, and the book’s personality as well. It needs to show two things: that you are an authority with a background that makes you the perfect person to write this book, and that you are an interesting, engaging person with whom publishers might like to work — and whom readers would like to know.

Piece o’ proverbial cake, right?

Well, no, but certainly doable. You should mention what you are doing now for a living — unless it is temp work or secretarial, in which case you should say you are a freelance writer (which, as long as you write and no one is employing you full-time to do it, you are!)

This is a good place, too, to showcase any background you have that makes you an expert in the area of your book. You need not have been paid for the relevant experience in order to include here. Definitely mention any long-term interests connected to your book, even if they are merely hobbies (as in, for a book about symphonies, “George Clooney has been an avid student of the oboe since the age of three.”)

List any contests you have won or placed in. If you like, you may also include any venues where you have published, paid or not. Even unpaid book reviews in your company’s newsletter are legitimate credentials, if you wrote them.

You need not limit yourself to your professional achievements, either, in your quest to sound interesting. Adding a quirky hobby often works well, as long as it is true; actually, it’s a good idea to include one, because it tells agents and editors that you have broad enough interests to be a good interview subject down the line. Ditto with wacky family background: my great-grandmother was an infamous Italian opera diva, for instance. Relevant to what I write? Seldom. But incredibly memorable? Definitely.

If you are in doubt about whether a certain tidbit is appropriate to include, use this test: would you be comfortable having that fact displayed on the dust jacket of this particular book? Even if your mother were to pick up a copy? More importantly, is it a detail that would help build the reader’s confidence that the author of this book is has credibly mastered its subject matter?

Note that I specified THIS book. It is perfectly legitimate to have different bios for different projects; in fact, it’s sometimes advisable, if your different projects have very different emphases or target markets, to highlight the relevant parts of your character in each.

I used to do quite a bit of food writing (under an alter ego). That bio emphasized the fact that I grew up on the second floor of a winery in the Napa Valley. For my memoir, though, the winery connection is less relevant, and my credibility more, so that bio gives greater prominence to the fact that I hold degrees from some pretty prominent and snotty schools.

Get it? Remember, this is the document your agent will be using in order to describe you to editors, and editors to other editors at editorial meetings while arguing in favor of buying your book. It is perfectly acceptable to make it funny, especially if your book is funny.

My comic novel, currently cooling its heels in my agent’s office, relies heavily on my quirky sense of humor, so I was able to pull out all the stops and gear the accompanying author bio for maximum comic value. It mentions, among other things, that I learned to run a still when I was in elementary school and that when I was a delegate to a national political convention which shall remain nameless, an over-eager cameraman chasing a minor candidate knocked me over, spraining both my ankles. The next day of the convention, I covered my bandaged limbs with political stickers and propped them up on a rail; the AP spread photographs of this, billed as evidence of the dangers of political activism, all over the globe.

Think editors who read my bio are going to remember me?

As you may see, I think it is of paramount importance for an author’s bio not to be boring, as long as everything said there is true. (Yes, my father really did teach me to make brandy.) If you honestly can’t think of a thing to put, try asking a couple of friends to describe you. Chances are, they will mention the top few things that should be in your bio.

There are two standard formats for an author bio. The first is very straightforward: a single page, double-spaced, with the author’s name centered on the top of the page. The next line should read: “Author bio.” Not a startlingly original title, it’s true, but certainly descriptive.

Personally, I use the other type of bio format: half a page, single-spaced, with a 4×6 black-and-white photograph of me centered 1 inch from the top of the page, above the text. In between the photo and the text, my name appears, centered.

The easiest way to do accomplish this is to get a friend with a digital camera take a picture that you like, then use the image as clip art to be inserted on your author bio page. Otherwise, take the photo to a copy center and ask them to arrange a color copy so that the picture and the text are on the same page.

I can tell you from experience, though: it will take many tries to obtain a photograph that you like enough to want to see mass-produced. This is one reason that you don’t always recognize your favorite authors at book signings, incidentally; established authors’ photos are often a decade or more out of date. Not merely out of vanity, in order to appear more youthful to their readers (although I could name some names here), but because the photo-selecting process can be tedious and expensive.

Another excellent reason not to leave the construction of your author bio to the last minute, eh?

I speak with aspiring writers all the time who are shocked — shocked! — to learn that the author is responsible for obtaining the photograph that graces the dust jacket. In the bad old days, publishers would often pay for the photo session, since this photo is usually also reproduced in the publisher’s catalogue, too. They are the clear beneficiaries. Now, it is often posted on their website as well, but chances are that they’re still not going to pay anyone to take a picture of you until you are very well established indeed.

Yes, you’re right: this is yet another expense that the publishing world has shifted onto writers. Sorry.

If you tend to find potential agents and editors by accosting them at conferences and/or classes, it is worth your while to shell out for the small additional expense of producing an author bio with a photo of you on it. The reason for this is simple: it makes it easier for agents and editors to remember having spoken to you. Not in a “my, but that’s an attractive writer!” sort of way, but in a “hey, I have a distinct recollection of having had a rather pleasant conversation a month ago with that person” manner.

(I hate to be the one to tell you this, but the average agent at the PNWA conference speaks to somewhere between 50 and 200 eager writers. The chances of his remembering your name in retrospect are rather low. This is true, even if the agent in question appeared to be foaming at the mouth with greed when you pitched your project. Again, sorry.)

It is less important to look pretty in your author photo than to look interesting, generally speaking. Unless your book’s subject matter is very serious, try not to make your bio picture look like a standard, posed publicity shot. It is amazing how many author photos look like senior class pictures, devoid of personality. Try to not to look as though you were voted Most Likely to Write a Book.

Bear in mind that the photo is another opportunity to express your personality — which, lest we forget, is part of what you are selling when you pitch a book, like it or not. You might want to surround yourself with objects associated with your topic for the photo, but avoid making the picture too busy. You want the viewer to focus on your face.

One of the best author photos I ever saw was of an arson investigator; far from being airbrushed and neat, he was covered in soot, crouched in front of the ashes of a burned-down building out of which he had apparently recently crawled. Did I believe instantly that he knew his subject? You bet.

I know that pulling this all together seems daunting, but trust me, the more successful you become, the more you will bless my name for urging you to put together a killer bio, with or without photo, in advance. Once you start getting published, even articles in relatively small venues or on websites, people in the industry will start asking for your author bio and photo. At that point, when editors are clamoring to hear your — yes, YOUR — magical words, I can absolutely guarantee that the last thing you will want to be doing is sitting hunched over your keyboard, trying to summarize your entire life in 200 words.

I look forward to that day, and so should you. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Author bio, Part II

Hello, readers —

I missed posting yesterday — no, not because of a miraculous breakthrough with my memoir, alas, but due to one of the nice-but-stressful phenomena intrinsic to life represented by an agent: on Tuesday afternoon, I was asked if I was still interested in writing a book I had mentioned casually, almost in passing, months ago. (One of the cocktail party tricks one rapidly learns as a working writer is to propose any idea for a publishable work to one’s agent as soon as it occurs to one.) Well, apparently, this one stuck, and now, a publisher is moderately interested in it. Interested enough, at least, to ask to see a proposal.

For the sake of giving you an accurate impression of what to expect from the publishing industry, let me also add: it is my understanding that a certain amount of this interest stemmed from the publisher’s anticipating being confined to bed for some time with a lingering head cold, and thus bored; he wanted something to read. Hey, we take our opportunities as we find them.

In any case, my agent and the publisher’s both being New Yorkers, they asked if they could have the proposal by the end of business (East Coast time, natch) Wednesday, to catch the publisher’s cold-induced reading time before it expired. So, being a good little writer, I sat down and churned out a proposal in a day.

For the record, I do not recommend this. Thank goodness, I caught myself thinking while my fingers blurred across the keyboard, that I already have a usable author bio!

I had to laugh, remembering how I spent Tuesday’s blog haranguing you about the vital importance of being an upbeat, can-do kind of writer, the sort who says, “Rewrite WAR AND PEACE by Saturday? No problem!” Here was a perfect real-life illustration of the importance of conveying that kind of attitude. It enabled my agent to jump on an opportunity as soon as it appeared, for both of our potential benefits.

As the late great Billie Holiday so often sang, “The difficult/I’ll do right now./The impossible/will take a little while.” (Will it vitiate my moral too much if I add that the name of the song was “Crazy, He Calls Me”?)

While I was writing like crazy yesterday, I also thought about how lucky I was to have enough experience with the trade to be able crank out the requisite pieces of a formal book proposal with the speed of a high school junior BSing on her English Literature midterm. That facility is definitely a learned skill, acquired through having produced a whole lot of promotional materials for my work over the last decade. At this point, I can make it sound as if all of human history had been leading exclusively and inevitably to my acquiring the knowledge, background, and research materials for me to write the project in question.

The Code of Hammurabi, you will be pleased to know, was written partially with my book in mind.

A word to the wise: any promotional material for a book is a creative writing opportunity. Not an invitation to lie, of course, but a chance to use your writing skills to paint a picture of what does not yet exist, in order to call it into being. For those of you new to the game, book proposals — the good ones, anyway — are written as if the book being proposed were already written; synopses, even for novels, are written in the present tense. It is your time to depict the book you want to write as you envision it in your fondest dreams.

That I have this skill in my writer’s tool bag is very valuable to my agent — because actually, she is too prudent a character to have told the publisher he could have the proposal that quickly if she didn’t know from past experience that I could pull it off. (Agents tend to be prudent people; the publishing world is surprisingly full of risk-averse souls, as you may already know if you’ve been querying with a particularly innovative book lately.)

I mention all of this not for self-aggrandizement purposes (although I am pretty pleased with myself for finishing it in time, I must confess), but as inducement to you to write up as many of the promotional parts of your presentation package well in advance of when you are likely to be asked for them. This is a minority view among writers, I know, but I would not dream of walking into any writers’ conference situation (or even cocktail party) where I am at all likely to pitch my work without having polished copies of my author bio, synopsis, and a 5-page writing sample nestled securely in my shoulder bag, all ready to take advantage of any passing opportunity.

Chance favors the prepared backpack.

Okay, so after all of this build-up, I hope you are chomping at the bit to get at your own author bio. First of all, let’s define it: an author bio is an entertaining overview of the author’s background, an approximately 200-250 word description of your writing credentials, relevant experience, and educational attainments, designed to make you sound like a person whose work would be fascinating to read.

Let me get the standard advice out of the way: use third person. Start with whatever fact is most relevant to the book at hand, not with “The author was born…” Mention any past publications (in general terms), columns, lecturing experience, readings, as well as what you were doing for a living at the time that you wrote the book. Mention any and all educational background (relevant to the book’s subject matter or not), as well as any awards you may have won (ditto). If your last book won the Pulitzer Prize, for instance, this is the place to mention it.

To put the length in easier-to-understand terms (and so I don’t get an avalanche of e-mails from readers worried that their bios are 15 words too long), this is 2-3 paragraphs, a 1/3 — 1/2 page (single-spaced) or 2/3 — 1 full page (double-spaced). And, as longtime readers of this blog have probably already anticipated, it should be in 12-pt. type, Times, Times New Roman or Courier, with 1-inch margins.

Yes, you read that bit in the middle of the last paragraph correctly: unlike positively everything else you will ever produce for passing under an agent or editor’s beady eyes, it is sometimes acceptable to single-space an author bio. Generally speaking, though, bios are only single-spaced when the author bio page contains a photograph of the author. I shall talk about this contingency tomorrow.

Got that length firmly in your mind? It should seem familiar to you — it’s the length of the standard biographical blurb on the inside back flap of a dust jacket. There’s a reason for that, of course: increasingly, the author, and not the publisher’s marketing department, is responsible for producing that blurb. So busy writers on a deadline tend to recycle their author bios as jacket blurbs.

Before you launch into writing your own bio, slouch your way into a bookstore on your day off and start pulling books of the shelves in the area where you hope one day to see your book sitting. Many of my clients find this helpful, as it assists them in remembering that the author bio is, like a jacket blurb, a sales tool, not just a straightforward list of facts. If you write funny novels, read a few dozen bio blurbs in funny novels already on the market. If you write cyberpunk, see what those authors are saying about themselves. Is there a pattern?

In good bios, there is: the tone of the author bio echoes the tone of the book. This is a clever move, as it helps the potential book buyer (and, in the author bio, the potential agent and/or editor) assess whether this is a writer in whose company she wants to spend hours of her life.

Now, I should warn you now about a disappointment you are likely to encounter as you read through book jacket blurbs: there are a LOT of lousy bios out there, littering up the dust jackets of otherwise perfectly fine books. Reading these may seem like a waste of your time, but actually, you can learn a lot from the bad ones, which typically share some common traits. You can learn what to avoid.

What makes them bad quickly becomes apparent. The bad ones are too similar, which makes them inherently dull. At their worst, they are merely lists of where the author went to school, if anywhere, what the author did (or does) for a living before (or besides) writing, where they live now, and their marital status. So scores of writers end up sounding something like this:

“Turgid McGee was born in upstate New York. After attending the Albany Boys’ Reformatory, he served a term in the U.S. Air Force. After graduating from Princeton University, McGee attended law school at the University of Oklahoma.

“Now retired, McGee now lives in Bermuda with his wife, Appalled, and his three children, Sleepy, Dopey, and Sneezy. He is currently working on his second book.”

Yawn. But inducing boredom is not ol’ Turgid’s worst offense here — the biggest problem with this blurb is that it’s poor marketing material. Quick, based solely on that bio:

What is Turgid’s book about?

Why is he uniquely qualified to write it?

If you picked up this book in a used bookstore years from now, would you have any interest in checking the shelves to see what his second book was?

Turgid also made a subtle mistake here, one that perhaps only those who have read a whole lot of author bios — such as, say, an agent or an editor — would catch. Turgid says he attended the University of Oklahoma, not that he graduated from it. This is the standard industry euphemism for not having finished a degree program, and thus problematic, since (and knowing dear old Turgid so well, I can say this with authority,) he actually did obtain his law degree. But when a publishing professional reads “Daffy Duck attended Yale University” in an author bio, she is automatically going to assume that poor Daffy dropped out after a year.

Moral: if you graduated from a school, say so. (And as a personal favor to me, never, ever say that you graduated a school; retain the necessary preposition. I can’t tell you how many times I have been introduced as the speaker who “graduated Harvard.” It makes my molars grind together.)

Looking at my own bio on this website, I’m not sure that I’ve avoided all of Turgid’s mistakes, but as far as the industry is concerned, the 50-word bio and the 250-word bio are entirely different animals. The former does tend to be a list, but the latter is the author’s big chance to prove to the publishing industry that she is not only a talented writer, but a person who might actually be interesting to know. My personal rule of thumb: if the full-fledged author bio doesn’t give the impression that if you were trapped in a snowstorm for three days with the author, the author would be capable of keeping you entertained with anecdotes the whole time, the bio isn’t interesting enough.

And, perhaps, if you’re lucky, something in your bio will stick in your agent’s mind enough down the road that it will occur to her to pitch your offhand reference to it to a sniffly editor in an elevator. That’s the kind of thing that happens to interesting people.

I’ll go into the mechanics a bit more tomorrow. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

The author bio: who needs it, anyway?

Hello, readers —

I’m feeling fairly optimistic today — and, as we all know, a tendency toward cockeyed optimism is an invaluable trait in a writer in the biz for the long haul. Today, though, I am optimistic for a reason — but because things are going better, I can’t tell you about them. Ironic, no? Once again, my memoir’s doings are shrouded in legally-induced secrecy (hypothetically, of course): shadowy behind-the-scenes negotiations are taking place in far-away rooms. Options are being discussed, you will be pleased to hear.

And all the while, yours truly, bedraggled champion of what I honestly do believe is a hell of a good story, keeps pushing for the right to have that story heard. The memoir’s saga is beginning to feel to me like a surrealistic update of one of those chivalric romances — you know, the ones where Sir Gawain or Lancelot have to undergo a seemingly endless series of tests before falling exhausted into the arms of their respective ladyloves and being offered a goblet of mead. Medieval ladyloves, like NYC-based publishers, are a testy lot: they liked to have their champions prove their devotion over and over and over again.

Yes, a writer’s life is indeed a romantic one. Just not the kind of romance most of us envision.

A few weeks ago, I had promised to talk about how to write an author bio, so you could have one all ready when an agent or editor asks to see it — at, say, a major conference taking place near SeaTac in a few months’ time. Or as a supplement to the rest of your novel, after someone at an agency has already fallen in love with the first 50 pages and asked to see the rest.

They will ask, in short, when your mind is on other things, like doing a lightning-fast revision on your book proposal so you can send it to that nice editor who listed to your pitch.

The request for a bio often catches writers by surprise. Agents and editors tend to toss it out casually, as if it’s an afterthought: “Oh, and send me a bio.” The informality of the request can be a bit misleading: your one-page author bio is actually a very important tool in your marketing kit.

How important, I hear you ask? Well, it’s not unheard-of for editors, in particular, to decide to pass on the book they’re being offered, but ask to see other work by the author, if the bio is intriguing enough. So actually, it is not a tremendously good idea just to throw a few autobiographical paragraphs together in the last few minutes before a requested manuscript, proposal, or synopsis heads out the door.

Which is, I am sorry to report, precisely what most aspiring writers do.

Big, big mistake: if the bio sounds dull, disorganized, or unprofessional, agents and editors tend to assume that the writer is also dull, disorganized, or unprofessional. Publishing types tend not to be the most imaginative of people. After all, they reason (or so they tell me), the author’s life is the material that he should know best; if he can’t write about that well, how can he write well about anything else?

A good bio is especially important for those who write any flavor of nonfiction, because the bio is where you establish your platform in its most tightly-summarized form. All of you nonfiction writers out there know what a platform is, don’t you? You should: it is practically the first thing any agent or editor will ask you when you pitch a NF book. Your platform is the background that renders you — yes, YOU — the best person on earth to write the book you are pitching. This background can include, but is not limited to, educational credentials, relevant work experience, awards, and significant research time.

For a NF writer, the author bio is a compressed résumé, with a twist: unlike the cold, linear presentation of the résumé format, the author bio must also demonstrate that the author can put together an array of facts in a readable, compelling fashion.

Tall order, no?

Lest you fiction writers out there think that you are exempt from this daunting challenge, think again. At least NF writers know in advance when they will be expected to produce an author bio: it’s typically the last piece of the NF book proposal. (For an overview on the basics of writing a book proposal, please see my blogs from August 23rd -29th, stored in the handy archives displayed on the right-hand side of this page.)

Fiction writers, on the other hand, are seldom warned in advance that they will have to write an author bio at all, much less that they will probably need it before anyone in the industry actually reads their work in its entirety. “A bio?” novelists say nervously when agents and editors toss out the seemingly casual request. “You mean that thing on the back cover? Won’t the marketing department write that for me?”

In a word, no. And readers, if you take nothing else from today’s blog, take this enduring truth and clutch it to your respective bosoms forevermore: whenever you are asked to provide extra material whilst marketing your work, train yourself not to equivocate. Instead, learn to chirp happily, like the can-do sort of person you are, “A bio? You bet!” Even if the agent or editor in question has just asked you to produce some marketing data that strikes you as irrelevant or downright stupid. Even if what you’re being asked for will require you to take a week off work to deliver. Even in you have to dash to the nearest dictionary the second your meeting with an agent or editor is over to find out what you’ve just promised to send within a week IS.

Or, perhaps more sensibly, drop me an e-mail and inquire. That’s what my blog is here for, you know: to help writers get their work successfully out the door.

Why is appearing eager to comply and competent so important, I hear you ask? Because professionalism is one of the few selling points a writer CAN’T list in an author bio — and to most people in positions to bring your work to publication, it’s regarded as a sure indicator of how much extra time they will have to spend holding a new author’s hand on the way to publication, explaining how the industry works.

How much extra time will they want to spend on you and your book, I hear you ask? (My readers are so smart; I can always rely on them to ask the perfect questions at the perfect times.) It varies from agent to agent, of course, but I believe I can give you a general ballpark estimate: none.

Yes, I know — all the agent guides will tell the previously unpublished writer to seek out agencies with track records of taking on inexperienced writers. It’s good advice, but not because such agencies are habitually eager to expend their resources teaching newbies the ropes. It’s good advice because such agencies have demonstrated that they are braver than many others: they are willing to take a chance on a new writer from time to time. Provided that writer’s professionalism positively oozes off the page and from her manner.

Trust me, the writers these agencies have signed did not respond evasively when asked for their bios.

Professionalism, as I believe I have pointed out several hundred times before, is demonstrated by manuscripts that conform to standard format. (And if you’re new to this blog and don’t know what standard format for manuscripts is, get thee hence without delay to my blog of February 19th. Submissions that are not in standard format tend to be rejected out of hand, without the courtesy of a full reading.) It is also, unfortunately for those new to the game, demonstrated through familiarity with the basic terms and expectations of the industry. Which most people only learn from experience.

So, as you have probably already figured out, “Bio? What’s that?” is not the most advisable response to an agent or editor’s request for same. Nor is hesitating, or saying that you’ll need some time to write one. (You’re perfectly free to take time to write one, of course; just don’t say so.)

Why is even hesitation problematic, I hear you ask? (Another terrific question; you really are on the ball today.) Well, let me put it this way: have you ever walked into a deli in New York unsure of what kind of sandwich you want to get? When you took the requisite few seconds to collect your thoughts on the crucial subjects of onions and mayo, did the guy behind the counter wait politely for you to state your well-considered preferences, or did he roll his eyes and move on to the next customer? And did that next customer ruminate at length on the competing joys of ham on rye and pastrami on pumpernickel, soliciting the opinions of other customers, or did he just shout over your shoulder, “Reuben with a pickle!” with the ultra-imperative diction of an emergency room surgeon calling for a scalpel to perform a tracheotomy with seconds to spare before the patient sustains permanent brain damage?

If you frequent the same delis I do, the answers in both cases are emphatically the latter. Perhaps with some profanity thrown in for local color.

NYC agents and editors eat in these delis, my friends. They go there to RELAX.

This regional tendency to mistake thoughtful consideration, or even momentary hesitation, for malingering or even idiocy often comes as an unpleasant shock to those of us who are West Coast bred and born. Here in the Pacific Northwest, we like to encourage meditation in daily life; there are emporia in the greater Seattle metropolitan area where the Buddha himself could happily hold a full-time job with no significant loss of contemplative time. “I’m here if you need anything,” the Buddha would say, melting into the background to think. “Just let me know if you have questions about those socks. Take your time.”

This is why, in case you are wondering, NYC-based agents and editors tend to treat all of us out here like flakes. In their minds, we’re all wandering around stoned in bellbottoms, offering flowers to strangers at airports and spreading pinko propaganda like, “Have a nice day.” I’ve met agents who are astonished that any of us out here have the mental capacity to type at all, much less write an entire book. I think my agent thinks I live in a yurt.

What does all of this mean, in practical terms, I hear you ask? That you should have an author bio already written by the time you are asked for it, that’s what, so you will not hesitate for even one Buddha-like moment when the crucial request comes. And that is my long-winded explanation of why I am going to spend the next few days teaching you how to write one. Write one now.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Keeping the plot moving

Hello, readers —

No, I didn’t go quiet at the end of last week due to an excess of memoir-blockage-induced woe: I had an awful head cold. My ears kept squealing like a hog-calling convention, and I lost my voice for a few days.

Now, if my life were a short story written for a high school English class, this voice loss might pass for legitimate symbolism — or even irony, in a pinch. A bit heavy-handed, true, but certainly situationally appropriate: villains move to silence protagonist’s voice through censorship = protagonist’s sore throat. Both New Age the-body-is-telling-you-something types and postmodern the-body-is-a-text theorists would undoubtedly be pleased.

But the fact is, in a novel, this cause-and-effect dynamic would seem forced. Just because something happens in real life doesn’t necessarily mean that it will make convincing fiction.

My sore throat is precisely the type of symbolism that comes across as ham-handed in a novel. It’s too immediate, for one thing, too quid pro quo. Dramatically, the situation should have taken time to build — over years, perhaps — so the reader could have felt clever for figuring out why the throat problem happened. Maybe even anticipated it.

How much better would it have been, fictionally, if I weathered the storm now, not coming down with strep throat until just before the final crisis? That way, in fine melodramatic style, I would have to croak my way through testimony on the witness stand, while my doctor stood by anxiously with antibiotics.

The possibilities make my novelist’s heart swoon. Just think how long it would extend a courtroom scene if a key witness were unable to speak more than a few emotion-charged words before her voice disappeared with a mouse-like squeak. Imagine the court reporter creeping closer and closer, to catch the muttered words. Or just think of the dramatic impact of a high-stakes interpersonal battle where one of the arguers cannot speak above a whisper. Or the comic value of the persecuted protagonist’s being able to infect her tormenters with strep, so they, too, are speechless by the end of the story.

Great stuff, eh? Much, much better than protagonist feels silenced, protagonist is silenced.

Then, too, readers like to see a complex array of factors as causes for an event, and an equally complex array of effects. Perhaps if I had been not speaking about my subject for a lifetime (which, actually, is quite true: I had never shared the core information in my memoir before a couple of years ago), then I would be fictionally justified in developing speech-inhibiting throat problems now, or a childhood of chronic sore throats (also true in real life, as it happens).

But a single event’s sparking a severe head cold? Dramatically unsatisfying. Makes the protagonist seem like a wimp. Because, frankly, readers, like moviegoers, like to see protagonists take a few hits and bounce up again. Even better is when the protagonist is beaten to a bloody pulp, but comes back to win anyway.

One of the great truisms of the American novel is don’t let your protagonist feel sorry for himself for too long. We see this philosophy in movies, too. Think about any domestic film with where an accident confines the protagonist to a wheelchair. Got it? Now tell me: doesn’t the film include one or more of the following scenes: (a) some hale and hearty soul urging the mangled protagonist to stop feeling sorry for himself, (b) a vibrantly healthy physical therapist telling the protagonist that the reason he can’t move as well as he once did is not the casts on his legs/total paralysis/missing chunks of torso, but his lousy attitude, and/or (c) the protagonist’s lecturing someone else on his/her need to stop feeling sorry for himself and move on with his/her life? Don’t filmmakers — yes, and writers, too — EXPECT their characters to become better people as the result of undergoing life-shattering trauma?

Now, we all know that this is seldom true in real life, right? Generally speaking, pain does not make people better human beings; it makes them small and scared and peevish. That sudden, crisis-evoked burst of adrenaline that enables 110-pound mothers to move Volkswagens off their trapped toddlers aside, few of us are valiantly heroic in the face of more than a minute or two of living with a heart attack or third-degree burns. Heck, even the average head cold — with or without a concomitant voice loss — tends to make most of us pretty cranky.

And dramatically, we as readers accept that the little irritations of life might seem like a big deal at the time, even in fiction, because these seemingly trivial incidents may be Fraught with Significance. Which often yields the odd result, in books and movies, of protagonists who bear the loss of a limb, spouse, or job with admirable stoicism, but fly into uncontrollable spasms of self-pity at the first missed bus connection or hot dog that comes without onions WHEN I ORDERED ONIONS.

Why oh why does God let things like this happen to good people?

One of my personal favorite examples of this phenomenon comes in that silly American remake of the charming Japanese film, SHALL WE DANCE? After someone spills a sauce-laden foodstuff on the Jennifer Lopez character’s suede jacket, she not only sulks for two full scenes about it, but is seen to be crying so hard over the stain later that the protagonist feels constrained to offer her his handkerchief. Meanwhile, the death of her dancing career, the loss of her life partner, and a depression so debilitating that she barely lifts her head for the first half of the movie receive only a few seconds’ worth of exposition. Why? Because dwelling on the ruin of her dreams would be wallowing; dwelling on minor annoyances is Symbolic of Deeper Feelings.)

Edith Wharton remarked in her excellent autobiography (which details, among other things, how terribly embarrassed everybody her social circle was when she and Theodore Roosevelt achieved national recognition for their achievements, rather than for their respective standings in the NYC social register. How trying.) that the American public wants tragedies with happy endings. It still seems to be true.

I have heard many, many agents and editors complain in recent years about too-simple protagonists with too-easily-resolved problems. I have heard in conference presentation after conference presentation the advice that writers should give their protagonists more quirks — it’s an excellent way to make your characters memorable. Give ’em backstory, and if you want to make them sympathetic, a hard childhood, dead parent, or unsympathetic boss is a great tool for encouraging empathy. Provided, of course, that none of these hardships actually prevent the protagonist from achieving his or her ultimate goal.

In other words, feel free to heap your protagonist (and love interest, and villain) with knotty, real-life problems; just make sure that the protagonist fights the good fight with as much vim and resources as someone who did not have those problems.

Again, this is not the way we typically notice people with severe problems acting in real life, but we’re talking fiction here. We’re talking drama. We’re talking about moving a protagonist through a story in a compelling way, and as such, as readers and viewers, we have been trained to regard the well-meaning soul who criticizes the recently-bereaved protagonist by saying, “Gee, Erica, I don’t think you’ve gotten over your father’s death yet,” as a caring, loving friend, rather than as a callous monster incapable of reading a calendar with sufficient accuracy to note that Erica buried her beloved father only a couple of weeks before. Why SHOULD she have gotten over it already?

Let’s move the plot along, people.

I don’t think that the agents, editors, and readers who resent characters who linger in their grief are inherently unsympathetic human beings; they are just easily bored. In a short story or novel or screenplay, people who feel sorry for themselves (or who even possess the rational skills to think at length over the practical ramifications of obstacles in their paths) tend to be passive, from the reader’s POV. They don’t do much, and while they’re not doing much, the plot grinds to a screaming halt. Yawn.

Or to express it in the parlance of agents and editors: next!

This is a very, very common manuscript megaproblem, one about which agents and editors complain loudly and often: the protagonist who stops the plot in order to think things over, rather than taking swift action. Or stops to talk the problem over with another character, rehashing the background information that the reader already knows. When you see these pondering scenes in your own work, even if the project in question is the most character-driven literary fiction imaginable, pause and consider: could the piece work without the pondering scene? Often, it can, and brilliantly.

A more subtle form of this megaproblem is the protagonist who waits patiently for all of the pieces of the mystery to fall into to place before taking action. Why, the reader wonders, did the protagonist NEED to know the entire historical background of the problem before doing something about it? Because the author thought the background was interesting, that’s why.

Longtime readers of this blog, chant with me now: “because the plot requires it” should NEVER be the only reason something happens in a story. Wouldn’t it be more interesting, and substantially more active, if the protagonist acted on PARTIAL information, and then learned from the results of what she had done that she needed to learn more?

In the midst of manuscripts where 2/3rds of the book is spent hunting down every last detail before the protagonist acts, I often find myself wondering: is it really such a good thing that HAMLET is so widely taught in high schools? Yes, many of the speeches are mind-bogglingly lovely, but here is a protagonist who more or less sits around feeling sorry for himself and not acting until the final act of a very, very long play — is this really the best exemplar of how to construct a plot? Yes, it’s beautifully written, but honestly, by the middle of Act III, don’t you just want to leap onto the stage, shake Hamlet, and tell him to DO SOMETHING, already?

Oh, yeah, right, as if I’m the only one who’s had THAT impulse…

One form that the passive protagonist often takes is the lead who interviews relevant players not by asking questions, but simply by showing up and waiting for the bad guys — or whoever has the necessary information — to divine psychically what the protagonist is after and spill their guts spontaneously. Amazingly enough, they always oblige. (A common corollary is the villain who casually retails background information while the protagonist is at his mercy. Villains are SUCH nice fellows; they are always more than willing to kill a little time while waiting for the protagonist’s rescuers to show up.)

So, for reasons of drama, I apologize for how slowly events have been unfolding in the saga of my memoir’s path to publication. If the saga’s a comedy, it’s moving way too slowly, and if it’s a tragedy, it should have had at least a hint of a happy ending by now. Nine months — yes, the threats against the book really have been coming in for longer than I have been writing this blog — really is far too long for the plot to have paused.

I assure you, behind the scenes, this protagonist really has been taking action. Soon, I hope, the Medusa’s head will be successfully lopped off, and everyone concerned will stop acting as though he has been turned to stone. Because this is an American drama, damn it: we need to move the plot along.

There endeth today’s attempt to derive something from my ambient reality that will help at least some of you in your writing efforts. Okay, so it wasn’t a particularly subtle connection — but hey, I still have a sore throat. Cut me some slack for a minor annoyance.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Bundle up — the climate for writers is mighty chilly just now

Hello, readers —

Today has been a real learning experience for me, chatting with various experts about my options for defending my memoir. (If you’re just tuning in, check out my post for March 30th for a hypothetical explanation of what’s going on.) It’s beginning to look as though the only way I can stop the people who have held my book in limbo for so many months now by threatening to sue (without ever filing any actual legal paperwork) would be to sue them. I had been hoping to avoid this, for reasons both obvious and not (I had thought for quite some time that these people were my friends, after all), but if you see me holding a bake sale on a street corner, it will be for my legal defense fund.

I wonder: how many blueberry muffins are there in a lawsuit?

I am mentioning this, not just to keep you informed about what is going on in my working life, but for the benefit all of you out there who write about reality, both as memoir and as fiction. The publishing environment has changed radically since the James Frey (A MILLION LITTLE PIECES) scandal; I hope it’s a temporary change, for the sake of writers everywhere, because it has tipped the scale even farther in favor of publishers. Basically, the mood of the industry is pretty hostile to authors right now; this is undoubtedly not the best time to be querying agents with anything based upon real events or people.

To be fair, publishers do unquestionably take risks when they publish fact-based books — after all, anybody can sue anybody for anything, and as I pointed out yesterday, many people, upon seeing their names in print, will automatically assume that they are the protagonists of the story. Few lay readers understand the law well enough to know that a mere difference of opinion about what occurred is not sufficient grounds for a lawsuit; there are many people out there who believe, incorrectly, that hurt feelings are in themselves actionable, and that any mention of oneself in a public forum that is not entirely flattering is slander.

As public relations, most of us accept this without comment. Perhaps it is because we have all grown accustomed to the pro forma protest of the celebrity accused of an affair in a tabloid: the threat to sue has become almost more automatic than the emotion the articles raise. It’s as though the protestors believe that the threat itself were inherent evidence of innocence. It’s not: all it means is that the protesting party can afford a lawyer and/or a publicist.

In the good old days — which, in this context, means anytime before the James Frey story broke — it was a truism of the industry that memoirs inherently generated pre-publication letters of protest, usually from family members. Often, the writers of these angry epistles had not read the book; they just objected to the idea of the family”s proverbial dirty linen being hung out in print. Since so few of these threatening letters ever mutated into actual legal cases, they often were simply shrugged off by publishers.

In the current publishing environment, though, a single protest can be all it takes to derail a book. While this is obviously harmful for everyone who writes, this is very, very bad for memoirists in particular, since the more truthful the author is, generally speaking, the more likely the book is to annoy somebody. With publishing houses now taking seriously threats they would have laughed off five years ago — not because of the prospect of legal expenses, but the possibility of being lambasted in the press, as Random House was over its handling of A MILLION LITTLE PIECES — there is more pressure than ever on authors to make nice.

Unfortunately, making nice and telling the truth are often incompatible. (That’s not just a truism: hypothetically, if I had agreed to an outrageous request to turn the story of my childhood into a rehash of FINDING NEVERLAND, my memoir would have been published a month ago. Hypothetically, I refused.) In the current environment, though, publishers are expecting writers of nonfiction to do both — and in some cases codifying those expectations in contracts that place the legal burdens (and costs) on the people least able to bear them, the writers.

But the fact is, it is the publishers, not the authors, who control how a book is presented to the world — and, generally speaking, it is the presentation, the overall impression the book gives, that engenders protest. Authors don’t write their own marketing copy; the marketing department does, just as the sales department determines how to pitch books to retailers. In my case, I did not even see my book’s title, cover art, or blurb until after all three were already posted on Amazon; I found them accidentally, when I was Googling my own name — in preparation for setting up this blog, in fact.

Imagine my surprise.

The internet, of course, has made reputation making and breaking a very quick thing — something that most publishing houses have been very slow to recognize. More than a century ago, Mark Twain wrote, “A lie can make it halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get his boots on.” Now, a lie can make it ALL the way around the world before the truth has had a chance to log on. Or, indeed, before the truth is even aware that anyone is speculating about it.

If you have even the vaguest interest in writing a memoir, or indeed, any nonfiction, within the next five years or so, I would HIGHLY urge you to check out the many, many widely divergent opinions currently expressed on the web about my memoir, A FAMILY DARKLY. Now would be an interesting time to Google it, because no one outside my publishing house has actually read the final version of the book. Yet it is reviewed; it is praised; it is condemned. It was a Book People selection last month, and I am told that the main PKD fan forum has some wildly inaccurate speculation about the book’s content and my motivations in writing it. All, I should point out, without (with the exception of a single interviewer) anyone concerned asking me, the author, question one about it.

It’s all rumor, at this point. Yet it definitely affects my book’s publishing prospects.

In fact, I’m just going to go ahead and apologize right now to all of you for any negative shadows that the controversy over my book is having or will have on good writers querying my agent, editor, or publisher. I would imagine that at the moment, all of them positively cringe when they see a memoir query. I’m really, really sorry about that.

Which leads me to another piece of advice for those of you aspiring to write about true events and people: be aware that right now is, practically speaking, one of the worst times in human history to be pitching a truth-based book to a North American agent or editor. Actually, from what I hear on the writers’ grapevine, editors and publishers are so nervous that it’s not a particularly good time to be trying to pitch any book at all.

This does not mean that you should give up on submitting your work; far from it. But take any rejections you get over the next few months as temporary; you might well get an entirely opposite response from the same agents and editors a year from now.

As a fringe benefit, though, since so many authors have been getting together lately and moaning over the current distrust-the-writer sentiment, it would be a TERRIFIC time to submit a controversial memoir to a writing contest. There are a whole lot of writers-turned-judges out there who would just LOVE to reward a genuinely risk-taking manuscript right about now. Go ahead and enter bravely.

And do, for the sake of your own reputation, when you query, include some indication in your synopsis (or even in your cover letter) of how you can back up any claims you make, if at all possible. This is the time to play up your respectable credentials, if you have them; this is the time to emphasize how much time you spent on background research; this is the time to mention that you have consulted the three best-respected researchers in your field.

Yes, I know: this all seems silly, to those of us who write memoirs. After all, who could possibly be a better authority, or a more credible one, on one’s own life than oneself?

A year ago, I could have answered that question with confidence: no one. However, now that my motivations are evidently the subject of internet-based speculation by people who have never read my work… well, I guess all of us who would publish our own stories are public figures now, available for praise and censure. I suppose I can’t object to that. It just would have been nice to have told my own story my own way first.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Point-of-View Nazis, Part II

Hello, readers —

I’ve been trying very hard indeed to glean as much information from my memoir’s current trauma (for hypothetical details, see the post before last; it’s a serious crisis) as I can to pass on to you. Regardless of whether the book is ultimately published or not, I want to make sure that we can all learn something from the experience. Otherwise, it’s just Anne’s Little Problem, and the next nonfiction writer among us who finds herself sued will come to this situation as innocent as I did. So here are a few lessons I have learned in the past eight months:

1. Never, ever show a memoir to anyone mentioned in it.

Actually, other writers had been telling me this for years, but silly me, I didn’t listen. The people currently taking umbrage at my book were friends of mine, I thought, and they asked very pointedly to read it before I sent it to my editor. They also swore up and down that they did not want to censor my work in any way (that’s a quote from an e-mail, incidentally), and said that they were genuinely eager to hear my point of view.

As it turns out, they weren’t.

The lesson to learn from this: people’s stated reasons for wanting to read your book may not be their actual reasons. I was naïve. You are never under any legal obligation to show a draft of your work to anyone mentioned in it; in fact, most publishers would actively prefer that you did not.

2. A mentioned person’s perception of how important a character she is in the book is very seldom accurate. Even a barely-visible character may see herself as the protagonist.

This is particularly stark in the case of my memoir, as it is legally impossible to either slander or libel a dead person, and most of the major characters in my book are no longer living. Therefore, any objection must be based solely upon my representation of those still above ground.

The funny thing is, the objectors hardly appear in the book at all. The people who are suing me’s names appeared in a grand total of 3 chapters in a 14-chapter draft; nevertheless, they perceive themselves, apparently, to be central to the book. When one of them objected, I took her out of the book entirely (and told her so), but judging from her subsequent response, she still feels that her spirit pervades the book. I minimized the presence of the sisters who are suing as thoroughly as I could without actually misrepresenting occasions when they were present. I present it all as my point of view, and point that fact out repeatedly. Heck, I even tell my readers not to trust ANY single account of Philip K. Dick’s life.

And yet this was not enough.

The lesson to be learned here: everyone is the protagonist in her own life; not everyone has sufficient perspective to realize that her personal point of view is not the only possible one. Be careful to show your version of the truth as one man’s opinion, rather than Truth Everlasting.

3. Telling the truth will not necessarily protect you.

This is completely counterintuitive, I know, because truth is an absolute defense against slander and libel. However, as I pointed out yesterday, in human interactions, almost everything is subject to differing opinions.

Once a lawsuit gets to court, of course, both sides can provide evidence, and actually, I have so much documentary evidence to support my contentions that I would be rather pleased if this suit DID go to court. (Hypothetically, I have e-mails from one of the suing parties that confirm the truth of many of the book’s assertions that are now being challenged.) However, while many, if not most, memoirs are subject to howling protests from someone affiliated with the book, it is quite rare that any of them actually make it to court. The burden of proof is upon the complainer, you see, and while most of us are pretty sure that our own points of view are correct, few of us have thought over the years to rack up documentation to prove it.

Think about it: let’s say two people you know very well are having a conversation about a situation that affects all three of you. You are in another time zone when the conversation takes place. If you were not present, how do you know what was said?

The lesson to glean from this: obviously, the vast majority of most people’s lives are undocumented, so it is vitally important when you write about living people to document wherever you can. If you interview them, tape-record it (and it’s prudent to use two tape recorders, in case one of them malfunctions. If you have verbal conversations, write down what was said. If you want to be ultra-careful, ask follow-up questions in writing. E-mail is terrific for this, as long as you keep copies of positively EVERYTHING.

Fortunately for me and my publishers, I am a pack rat. I never throw an e-mail away; I even categorize them by sender. This is a situation where it really helps to be just a touch compulsive.

I shall keep posting new rules of thumb as they occur to me. Even though I walked into this experience with a decade’s worth of publishing background, I am still learning more every day. Rules change, and so do norms. I’ll keep you posted.

Yesterday, I was discussing Point-of-View Nazis (POVNs). It is important that you know about them, regardless of your own POV preferences, because they turn up in agencies, as contest judges, as editors, and as critics. When your work is attacked with phrases like, “well, it’s more or less impossible to pull off an omniscient narrator,” resist the temptation to throw the entire Great Books fiction shelf at the speaker. Recognize that you are dealing with a POVN, and take everything he says with a massive grain of salt.

You can’t convince a true believer; you’ll only wear yourself out with trying. Cut your losses and move on.

As I mentioned yesterday, personally, I don’t believe that a single POV does most characters or situations justice, so I tend toward a broader narrative view, particularly for comedy. As a reader, I like to hear the thoughts of multiple players in a scene, to capture the various subtleties of interpretation. If I want to hear a single POV, I reach for a first-person narrative. Call me wacky.

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

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

It won’t protect you from a POVN’s rage, of course, but it will make your scene easier for your reader to follow.

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

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

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

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

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

And Darcy’s POV: :Darcy had never been so bewitched by a woman as he was by her…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Help! It’s the point-of-view Nazis!

Hello, readers —

Well, I’m a bit calmer today, after the hypothetical furor of last week. (See my last post, if this statement seems cryptic to you; I’m really too tired to go through it all again today. Suffice it to say: lawyers are having brisk conversations about my memoir even as I write this.) Many thanks to all of you who sent greetings and support; I appreciate it. Thanks, too, to those who took the time to check out the controversy about my book on the fan forums and post comments.

In a battle of opinions, especially one where the right to tell one’s own life story is at stake, every raised voice helps. I am told that the conversation on the fansite and other chatrooms has been pretty pointed over the last few days, which is both exciting and maddening: I am not allowed to visit the site to see for myself. (Since postings on that fan forum, matters that only the Dick estate could have known or had any interest in mentioning in public, may be evidence in an eventual slander suit, the lawyers want to keep me far, far away from it.) Thus, my information on the subject is courtesy of Dame Rumor, but it is comforting to know that people out there care if my work is censored.

Enough about my problems. Back to work.

A few weeks back, intelligent and curious reader Bob wrote in to report that he’d been having problems tracking down an earlier post of mine, on the dreaded Point-of-View Nazis. There was a good reason for this: my posts for October, November, December, and part of January disappeared into the ether when the PNWA switched servers early this year. Our fabulous webmaster tells me that these backlogs will indeed be available for perusal soon.

In the meantime, however, I would like to revisit the topic of Point-of-View Nazis, for the benefit of Bob and other intrepid backlog-searchers like him.

A Point-of-View Nazi (POVN) is a reader — often a teacher, critic, agent, editor, contest judge, or other person with authority over writers — who believes firmly that the ONLY way to write third-person-narrated fiction is to pick a single character in the book or scene (generally the protagonist) and report ONLY his or her thoughts and sensations throughout the piece. Like first-person narration, this type of narrative conveys only the internal experience of a single character, rather than several or all of the characters in the scene or book.

Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this kind of narration, inherently: it combines the advantages of a dispassionate narrator with the plotting and pacing plusses of a single perspective. It permits the author to sink deeply (or not) into the consciousness of a chosen character without losing the emotional distance of an omniscient narrator. Since no one else’s POV is depicted, it renders the later actions of other characters more surprising to the reader.

It is not, however, the only third-person narrative possibility — a fact that drives your garden-variety POVN wild.

All of us have our own particular favorite narrative styles, and many of us have been known to lobby for their use, particularly in writing groups. What distinguishes a POVN from a mere POV enthusiast is his active campaign to dissuade all other writers from EVER considering the inclusion of more than one POV in a third-person narrative.

He would like multiple-consciousness narratives to be wiped from the face of the earth, if you please. He has been known to tell his students — or members of his writing group, or his clients, or the writers whom he edits or represents — that multiple POV narration in the third person is, to put it politely, bad writing. It should be stamped out, by statute, if necessary.

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

I bring up our forebears advisedly, because one of the reasons that POVNs are so common is that in the post-World War II era, the prose stylings of the 18th and 19th centuries tended to be rejected as old-fashioned (and therefore bad) by writing teachers. “Downright Dickensian,” many a POVN said, covering her students’ first forays into fiction with gallons of red ink. “How can we possibly follow the story, with so many characters’ perspectives?”

I should stop here and make a distinction between the POVN and a good reader or editor who objects when a narrative that HAS been sticking to a single POV suddenly wanders into another character’s head. That can be genuinely confusing to any reader, regardless of preexisting belief systems. If a book has been looking out of the protagonist’s eyes, so to speak, for 147 pages, it is a little jarring for the reader to be abruptly introduced to another character’s thoughts. The implication is that the protagonist has magically become psychic, and should be benefiting, along with the reader, from hearing the thoughts of others.

A POVN, however, is not merely the kind of well-meaning soul who will point out this type of slip to authors. No, a POVN will jump upon ANY instance of multiple perspective, castigating it as inherently terrible writing — and will rather smugly inform the author that she has broken an ironclad writing rule by doing it. They believe it, too. Many of today’s more adamant POVNs are merely transmitting the lessons they were taught in their first good writing classes: for years, many English professors set it down as a general rule that multiple POVs were inherently distracting in a third-person narrative.

Now, I have to admit something: I am not a big fan of this species of sweeping rule. I like to read an author’s work and consider whether her individual writing choices serve her story well, rather than rejecting it outright because of a preconceived notion of what is possible. Call me nutty, but I believe that — apart from the rigors of standard format, which actually are inflexible — very little is forbidden in the hands of a truly talented writer.

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

And so on. I love to discover a writer so skilled at her craft that she can afford to bend a rule or two. Heaven forfend that every writer’s voice should start to sound alike — or that writing should all start to sound as though it dropped from a single pen.

Which is precisely what hard-and-fast rules of narrative tend to produce, across a writing population. One effect of the reign of the POVNs — whose views go through periods of being very popular indeed, then fall into disuse, only to rise anew — has been the production of vast quantities of stories and novels where the protagonist’s POV and the narrator’s are astonishingly similar. Why write in the third person at all, if there is no authorial voice over and above the protagonist’s?

The POVNs have also given us a whole slew of books where the other characters are exactly as they appear to the protagonist: no more, no less. (The rise of television and movies, where the camera is usually an impersonal narrator of the visibly obvious, has also contributed to this kind of “What you see is what you get” characterization, if you’ll forgive my quoting the late great Flip Wilson in this context.) Often, I find myself asking, “Why wasn’t this book just written in the first person, if we’re not going to gain any significant insight into the other characters?”

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

Philosophically, I find this troubling. In my experience, there are very few real-life situations where everyone in the room absolutely agrees upon what occurred, and even fewer conversations where all parties would report identically upon every nuance. (Watch a few randomly-chosen days’ worth of Court TV, if you doubt this.) I think that interpretive disagreement is the norm amongst human beings, not the exception.

I also believe that there are very, very few people who appear to be exactly the same from the POV of everyone who knows them. Most people act, speak, and even think rather differently around their children than around their adult friends, just as they often have slightly (or even wildly) different personalities at home and at work. If anyone can find me a real, live person who acts exactly the same in front of his three-year-old daughter, his boss’ boss, the President of the United States, and a stripper at a bachelor party, I would be quite surprised.

I would also suggest that either the person in question has serious social adjustment problems (on the order of Forrest Gump’s), or that perhaps the person who THINKS this guy is always the same in every context is lacking in imagination. Or simply doesn’t know the guy very well. My point is, almost nobody can be completely portrayed from only a single point of view — which is why sometimes narratives that permit the protagonist to be seen from the POV of other characters can be most illuminating.

Oops — once again, I have strayed back to my own dilemma. Hypothetically, I am being accused of committing the cardinal sin of suggesting that a rather well-known neurotic might have acted differently around his long-term friends than he did around, say, his own seldom-seen children or interviewers he barely knew. Why, the next thing you know, the POVNs huff, writers like me might start implying that people act differently when they’re on drugs than when they’re sober! Or that perhaps celebrities and their press agents do not always tell the absolute truth when promoting their work!

I can only refer you to your own experience interacting with other human beings for the most probable answers to these troubling questions. I only ask — and it’s a little request; it won’t hurt anybody — that those who believe that there is only a single way of looking at any person, situation, or institution occasionally admit the possibility that the whole complex, wonderful world is not reducible to a single point of view. Or at least, that they would not try to silence those who do not see the world as merely a reflection of their own minds.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini