The Building Blocks of the Pitch, Part II: Luke…use the Force…Luke…

Hello, readers –

Yesterday, I broke the unhappy news that each and every one of you who ever plans to pitch to an agent or editor, either at the upcoming PNWA conference or elsewhere, needs to pick a conceptual box into which to load your book. In other words, you need to pick a book category — and only ONE book category — for your book.

Since I know that this suggestion is making some of you cringe, let’s do a little meditation to help you acclimate yourself to this new reality, shall we? Everybody ready? Okay, picture me in your mind as your fairy godmother, wings and all. (I’m a brunette, if that helps with your visualization. In fact, I look like a travel poster for Corfu.)

Got it? Good. Now picture me lifting my spangled wand high and whacking you over the head with it. Poof! You are now no longer capable of being wishy-washy about your book category. Wasn’t that easy? Now you will speak — and even think — of your book as a marketable product, as agents and editors do. You have been magically forever deprived of the unprofessional desire to describe your book as, “sort of a cross between a high-end thriller and a romantic comedy, with Western elements” or “Have you ever seen the TV show HOUSE? Well, it’s sort of like that, except set in a prison in Southeast Asia in the Middle Ages!” This is simply not an industry where vagueness pays off.

While I was at it, I also knocked out of your vocabulary the cringe-inducing phrases “fiction novel,” “a true memoir,” and “…but it is written like literary fiction.” You’re welcome.

Did the last phrase in that list surprise you? If you write anything BUT literary fiction, the kindest thing your fairy godmother could possibly have done for you is prevent you from EVER saying it to an agent, editor, publicist, interviewer, or even the guy next to you on the bus at any point in the next fifty years. Why? Because IF YOU WRITE IN A GENRE, YOU SHOULD BE PROUD OF THE FACT, not apologetic.

And believe me, hedging about the writing in your book WILL come across as apologetic to professional ears. Think about it: is someone who has devoted her life to the promotion of science fiction and fantasy going to THANK you for indirectly casting aspersions on the writing typical of that genre?

It is also a turn-off, professionally speaking, a signal that the writer might not be very well versed in the genre. Why, the average agent will think during such a pitch, doesn’t this author write in the language of his chosen genre? Every genre has its handful of conventions; is this writer saying that he’s simply decided to ignore them? Why write in a genre, if you’re not going to write in the genre’s style? And why am I asking myself this string of rhetorical questions, instead of listening to the pitch this writer is giving?

See the problem?

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

Trust me on this one, for your fairy godmother speaks from hard personal experience. I write mainstream fiction and memoir, but I once had the misfortune to be critiqued by an editor who did not handle either. One of those conference assignment snafus I was mentioning the other day. We could not have had less to say to each other if he had been speaking Urdu and I Swedish, but as those of you who have been reading the blog for the last couple of weeks know, I am a great believer in trying to turn these conference matching accidents into learning opportunities. So, gritting my teeth like a nice girl, I listened patiently to what he had to say about the first chapter of my novel.

If only I had been clutching my magic wand at the time. What he had to say, unsurprisingly, was that while he found the writing excellent, he would advise that I change the protagonist from a woman to a man, strip away most of the supporting characters, and begin the novel with a conflict that occurred two-thirds of the way through the book, the fall of the Soviet Union. “Then,” he said, beaming at me with what I’m sure he thought was avuncular encouragement, “you’ll have a thriller we can market, dear. I’d been happy to take another look at it then.”

Perhaps I had overdone the politeness bit; I hate it when total strangers call me dear. I’m not THAT cute, I tell you. But I kept my mien pleasant. “But it’s not a thriller.”

He could not have looked more appalled if I had suddenly pulled a switchblade on him. “Then why are you talking to me?” he huffed, and hied himself to the bar for what I believe was another Scotch.

In retrospect, I can certainly understand his annoyance: if I had been even vaguely interested in writing thrillers, his advice would have been manna from heaven, and I should have been grateful for it. I would have fallen all over myself to thank him for his 20-minute discourse about how people who read thrillers (mostly men) dislike female protagonists, particularly ones who (like my protagonist) are well educated. The lady with the Ph.D. usually does not live beyond the first act of a thriller, he told me, so yours truly is going to keep her pretty little head sporting its doctoral tam in another genre. Dear.

I learned something very important from this exchange, though: specialists in the publishing biz are extremely book-category myopic. To them, books outside their areas of expertise might as well be poorly written; in their minds, no other kinds of books are marketable.

Just in case you think that I’ve just been being governessy in urging you again and again to be as polite as possible to EVERYONE you meet at ANY writers’ conference: that near-sighted editor is now a high mucky-muck at the publishing house that’s currently handling my memoir — which, I can’t resist telling you, covers in part my years teaching in a university. Chalk one up for the educated girls. But isn’t it lucky that I didn’t smack him in his condescending mouth all those years ago?

The baseless rumor that genre carries a stigma has led a lot of good writers to pitch manuscripts that would have stood out magnificently within their proper genres as mainstream or even literary fiction, resulting in queries and pitches aimed at the wrong eyes and ears. By labeling your work correctly, you increase the chances of your pitch’s attracting someone who genuinely likes your kind of book astronomically.

So label your work with absolute clarity, and revel in your category affiliation. Think about it: would Luke Skywalker have been able to use the Force effectively in a mainstream romantic comedy? No: the light sabers shine brightest in the science fiction realm.

Being true to your genre will help you resist the temptation to label the book as an unholy hyphenate (“It’s a chick lit thriller!”) in a misguided attempt to represent it as having a broader potential audience. Trust me on this one: if a subgenre already has a name, there is already a well-documented market out there for it. Don’t be afraid to label your work with a very narrow subgenre label, if it’s appropriate. Yes, it may whittle down the array of agents to whom you can pitch the book, but it will definitely make your querying and pitching more efficient.

That’s just common sense, really. The more accurately a book is labeled, the more likely it is to catch the eye of an agent or editor who honestly wants to snap up that kind of book. Think of it as a professional courtesy: hyper-specific category labels are a shortcut that enables them to weed out pitches outside their areas almost instantly; that. in case you were wondering, is why agents like to be told the category in the first paragraph of the query letter. It saves them scads of time if you tell them instantly whether your book is a hardboiled mystery or a caper mystery: if it isn’t the variety they are looking for today, they can weed it out almost immediately.

Consistently, the writers who have the hardest time categorizing their work are writers who write literate books about female protagonists, aimed at female readers. (If this sounds like a subgenre in and of itself, take a look at the statistics: women buy roughly 80% of the fiction sold in this country, and virtually all of the literary fiction.) Does this automatically mean it’s women’s fiction? Well, no, not necessarily: it really depends how important the relationships are in the book.

This is one of the few instances where I consider it acceptable to equivocate a little about the book category. When in doubt, “mainstream fiction that will appeal especially to women” is about as much as it is safe to waffle in a pitch; if you really want to be Machiavellian, you could always pitch such a book as mainstream to agents who represent mainstream and as women’s fiction to those who represent that. (Hey, I’m on your side, not theirs.)

The other group of writers who have an especially tough time with categorization are those who write on the literary/mainstream fiction cusp. Time and time again, I meet writers at conferences who tell me, “Well, my book walks that thin line between mainstream and literary.” Without reading all of their work – which is really the only way to categorize it properly – it’s impossible to tell whether these writers honestly are experimenting with new directions in style and construction (which is not a bad definition of literary fiction), or if they merely want to convey that they believe their work is well-written.

Just so you know, no one in the publishing industry uses the term “literary fiction” as a secret code for “very nicely written prose.” However, it is the least-defined major category; I have yet to meet an agent or editor who can give me a definition of literary fiction less than a paragraph long. Like the Supreme Court’s famous definition of pornography, they can’t tell us precisely what it is, but they know it when they see it.

Or so they claim. Yet ask any three agents whether THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP, THE SHIPPING NEWS, and THE COLOR PURPLE are mainstream or literary, and you will probably get at least two different answers. But the fact is, none of these crossover books would be well enough known for all of us to have a discussion about them if they hadn’t been mainstream successes. So my instinct would be to label them all as mainstream.

There’s something very sexy in the label literary fiction being applied to one’s own work, though, isn’t there? Let’s be honest about it: most of us like to think our writing has some literary value, and critical opinion about what is High Literature changes with alarming frequency. And it definitely sounds cool when you say at parties, “oh, I write literary fiction.” It says loud and clear that you haven’t sold out your talent; you are more than content to have a small but devoted readership, without sullying your keyboard with all of that sordid commercial appeal. Quite the counter-culture roué, you are, with your goatee and bongos and poetry readings in basements.

Having been raised by parents who actually WERE beatnik artists, I feel eminently qualified to give you a salient little piece of advice: be careful what you wish for your books. The literary fiction market is consistently very, very small, so small that many excellent published writers do not make a living at it. So labeling your work as literary will NOT make it more marketable in the industry’s eyes, but less. Think very carefully about your desired target market before you label your work. If you really think it has broad appeal, label it as mainstream.

I am hammering on this point, because so many aspiring writers believe all really good fiction is literary. That’s just not true: there is excellent writing out there in every category. These are marketing categories, not value judgments, and mislabeling your work will most likely result in its ending up on the wrong desk, and you in the wrong meeting. When in doubt, mainstream fiction is usually safe, because it is the broadest — and most marketable — category.

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

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

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

Do be careful, however, when applying this second test, because we writers LOVE fancy punctuation, don’t we? Oh, I know this is going to break some tender hearts out there, but if you want to write fiction professionally, you need to come to terms with an ugly fact: no one but writers particularly LIKE semicolons. If you are writing for a mainstream audience, you should consider minimizing their use; if you are writing most genre fiction, you should consider getting rid of them entirely.

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

Hey — I heard that grumbling out there; fairy godmothers come equipped with bionic ears (and an apparently unlimited recall of late 1970s pop culture). Yes, grumble pusses, I DO use a lot of fancy-pants punctuation here in this blog. I am writing for an audience composed entirely of writers, so I can use all of the punctuation I please. Heck, I can even use an emdash if I want to—take that, standard format!

Next time, I shall discuss the another building block to your pitch: identifying your target market. For those of you out there who thought that I was just going to cut to the chase and head right for the pitch proper: keep your shirts on. Or don’t, if you’re trying to get a suntan. But either way, be patient, because following me through all of these interim steps will help you construct a stronger pitch.

May the Force be with you, my friends. And also with your books. Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

P.S.: For those of you who have not yet registered for the upcoming PNWA conference, there are still slots available for agent and editor appointments. If you would like to see a rundown of what they have bought and sold over the last few years, in order to make a better-informed choice, check out my archived blogs for April 26 – May 17 for the agents and May 18 – 26 for the editors.

The Building Blocks of the Pitch, part I: identifying your book

Hello, readers –

As those of you who have been reading my blog for awhile have no doubt already figured out, my take on the publishing industry does not always conform with the prevailing wisdom. GASP! The problem with the prevailing wisdom, as I see it, is that it is so often out of date: what was necessary to land an agent 20 years ago is most emphatically not the same as what is necessary today, or what will be necessary 5 years from now.

If you doubt this, chew on this industry development: when I signed the contract for my memoir, A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK, in March of 2005, it naturally contained the standard contractual provisions about truthfulness; the contract specified that my publisher believed that I believed that I was telling the truth in my book. (Which I am, and I do.) Yet if I signed a standard NF contract for the same book today, it would almost certainly contain some provision requiring me as the author to obtain signed releases from everyone mentioned in the book.

What happened in that intervening 15 months to alter the standard contract, you ask? A MILLION LITTLE PIECES, that’s what.

The very tangible result: industry rumor has it that within the last couple of months, a major publishing house required a writer who spent a significant amount of time living with cloistered nuns to obtained signed releases from each and every one of the wimpled ones, swearing that they would not sue the publisher over the book. Correct me if I am wrong, but don’t nuns generally take vows of poverty? Yet such is the prevailing paranoid that the publishing house was legitimately concerned that suddenly they all would metamorphose into a gaggle of money-hungry, lawyer-blandishing harpies.

Let no one say that the industry’s standards do not change.

That being said, I’m going to be upfront with you: I do not advise walking into your agent meeting and giving the kind of 3-sentence pitch that you will usually see recommended in writers’ publications. Oh, the 3-sentence pitch definitely has its usefulness: it is equally helpful to have one ready for when you buttonhole an agent in a hallway and in preparing your query letter, where you can use it as the paragraph that describes the book.

But think about it: your agent appointment is 15 minutes long, and if you are like most writers, you will probably be very nervous. Do you really want to have only a minute’s worth of material prepared?

(If you have trouble imagining the awkward pause that might conceivably ensue, check out yesterday’s blog. And to get my housekeeping duties out of the way early today, if you have not yet made your selections for agent and editor meetings – I’m told that there area still many slots available – check out my archived posts for April 26 – May 17 for the agents and May 18 – 26 for the editors. Lots of useful information there, even if I do say so myself.)

There’s another reason not to use the same pitch format as everybody else: pitch fatigue. At the end of last Saturday’s pitching class, the fabulously talented Cindy Willis and yours truly spent 4 1/2 hours listening to pitches from class attendees. (I am pleased to report that had I been an agent, there were several that I would have asked to read right away.) Now, Cindy and I are both writers and chronic readers, so our sympathies, I think it is safe to say, are almost always on the writer’s side of the pitching desk. But after 4 1/2 hours – a far shorter shift than most the agents and editors will be putting in at PNWA – neither of us could even begin to imagine ever wanting to pick up a book again. It’s surprisingly tiring to listen to pitches; there’s so much emotion floating in the air, and it’s so vital to pay attention to every last detail.

And we were outside, listening to dozens of pitches with the advantageous backdrop of glorious weather. Agents and editors at conferences, by contrast, are generally expected to listen patiently while sitting under flickering fluorescent lights in uncomfortable chairs, being rapidly dehydrated by punishing convention center air conditioning. You can hardly blame them for zoning out from time to time, under the circumstances.

Gather up all of those factors I have just mentioned into a neat mental picture, please. Pretend you are an agent. Now: what is more likely to snap you out of your stupor, a three-sentence pitch, which forces you to go to the effort of drawing more details about the book out of the pitcher? Or a slightly longer pitch that explains to you not only what the book is about, but who is going to buy it and why? Or, to consider the other common advice about structuring pitches, would you be more likely to pay attention to a pitch that is rife with generalities, glossing lightly over themes that are common to many books? Or a pitch stuffed full of briefly-described scenes, decorated with a few well-chosen significant details?


So if I deviate from the received wisdom about pitching here — and I assure you, I will — please be aware that I am not doing it merely to be an iconoclast (although that’s kind of fun, too). I am making these suggestions because I truly believe that they will make your pitch better.

So here is my first unorthodox suggestion: say right away where your book would be placed on the bookshelves of Barnes & Noble.

Did I just hear the “ding-ding-ding” of alarms going off in the heads of my long-time readers? Yes, my friends, it is time to revisit the dreaded book category. If you are planning to pitch, the best description of your book is NOT “(sigh) well, it’s a novel…mostly, it’s women’s fiction, but it’s also suspense. And the writing is definitely literary.”

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but to an agent or editor, this sounds EXACTLY like that noise that Charlie Brown’s teachers used to make: “Wah wah wah wah waagh…”

To put it bluntly, agents and editors think about books as products, rather than merely as works of art or expressions of the inner workings of the writers’ souls. And as products, agents need to sell books to editors, and editors to editorial committees, and marketing departments to distributors, and distributors to bookstores, and bookstores to readers. And I assure you, a vaguely-defined book is much harder to drag through that process.

So tell them up front what kind of book it is – and don’t just make up a category. Take a gander at the back jacket of most hardcover books: you will find, usually in either the upper left corner or just above the barcode, a one- or two-word category description. In order to make sense to people in the industry, you need to speak their language. Pick one of their recognized categories.

The generally accepted fiction categories are: Fiction (a.k.a. Mainstream Fiction), Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction, Futuristic Fiction (that is not SF. The usual example is THE HANDMAID’S TALE.), Adventure Fiction, Sports Fiction, Contemporary Fiction; Women’s Fiction, Contemporary Women’s Fiction, Chick Lit, Lady Lit, Lad Lit; Romance, Category Romance, Contemporary Romance, Historical Romance (designate period), Paranormal Romance, Romantica, Erotica, Inspirational Romance, Multicultural Romance, Time Travel Romance; Science Fiction, SF Action/Adventure, Speculative SF, Futuristic SF, Alternate History, Cyberpunk; Fantasy, Dark Fantasy, Comic Fantasy, Epic Fantasy; Horror, Paranormal, Vampire Fiction; Thriller, Spy Thriller, Suspense, Romantic Suspense; Mystery, Police Procedural Mystery, Legal Mystery, Professional Mystery, P.I. Mystery, Psychological Mystery, Forensic Mystery, Historical Mystery, Hardboiled Mystery, Cozy Mystery, Cops & Killers Mystery, Serial Killer Mystery, British Mystery, Noir, Caper;
Western; Action/Adventure; Comics; Graphic Novel; Short Stories; Poetry; Young Adult, Picture Book, Children’s, Middle Readers.


Pick one. But whatever you do, NEVER say that you have a “fiction novel” – this is a very, very common pet peeve amongst agents and editors. By definition, a novel IS fiction, always.

For NF, the accepted categories are: Entertaining, Holidays, House & Home, Parenting & Families, How-To, Self-Help, Pop Psychology, Pop Culture, Cookbook, Narrative Cookbook, Food & Wine, Lifestyle, Medical, Alternative Medicine, Health, Fitness, Sports, Psychology, Professional, Engineering, Technical, Computers, Internet, Automotive, Finance, Investing, Business, Careers, Memoir, Autobiography, Biography, Narrative Nonfiction, Historical Nonfiction, True Crime, Law, Philosophy, Religion, Spirituality, Travel, Travel Memoir, Outdoors & Nature, Essays, Writing, Criticism, Arts, Photography, Coffee Table, Gift, Education, Academic, Textbook, Reference, Current Events, Politics/Government, Women’s Studies, Gay & Lesbian (a.k.a. GLBT).


Yes, I’m running through these quickly, but do not despair: the major genre’s writers’ associations tend to provide precise definitions of each subgenre on their websites, and I went through the distinctions at some length in my blogs of February 13 – 16. Check out the archives.

And when in doubt, pick the more general category. Or at any rate, the more marketable one. It increases your chances of your work sounding like something that will sell. (And for you doubters out there: yes, naturally, there are new categories popping up all the time. That doesn’t mean you should make one up.)

Yes, it’s a pain, but stating your category up front will simply make you come across as more professional, because it’s the way that agents and editors talk about books. Agencies do not impose this requirement in order to torment writers, you know; the category you pick will determine to a very great extent whether any given agent or editor will be even remotely interested in your work. Because yes, Virginia, there are professionals who will simply not read a query or listen to a pitch unless it is for a book in one of their pre-chosen categories.

Agents and editors LIKE making snap judgments, you see. It saves them time. Sorry. But to put a more positive spin on the phenomenon, think of it this way: if you tell an agent immediately what kind of book you are pitching, the busy little squirrels in her brain can start those wheels spinning toute suite, so she can instantly start thinking of editors to whom to sell your book.

Tomorrow, I shall delve a bit more into how putting your work into the right box can help you. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Knowing your pitchee

Hello, readers —

I was felled with a migraine yesterday, so I am a day later than planned getting started on my series on pitching. But computer screens and dark rooms do not mix well, alas.

Before I get started, a word or two to the many readers new to this blog who have been writing in (or thinking very, very loudly) suggesting rather forcefully that that the blog’s archives would be easier to use if they were searchable or organized by category, rather than date. Well, yes, that is true — and if anybody out there is willing to donate the many, many hours it would take to make the archives subject-searchable, please write in, and I shall connect you with a very grateful volunteer coordinator.

Yes, it is a little hard to find specific topics in the archives, and I’m sorry if you find it inconvenient. A blog, however, is not a reference book, by definition, but an ongoing document with frequent additions over time. At some point, I probably shall organize all of this into a book, with a chapter on each major topic. But then, you would be paying for my words of wisdom, and would have a clear right to be annoyed if it were hard to find what you wanted, right?

Here, however, I am limited by the constraints of the blog form, and the fact that the PNWA is a volunteer-run organization. Again, if any of you out there have the expertise to make the archives easily searchable, and would like to volunteer your time… And to the guy who was really, really rude about it recently: why would you WANT to take writing advice from a female dog?

I am not merely writing about archive organization in order to blow off steam: my first piece of advice on pitching may well send some of you scurrying to the archives, specifically those for April 26 — May 17 (my write-ups on the agents who will be attending this summer’s PNWA conference) and May 18 — 26 (the editors). For the advice in question is this:

Whenever possible, be familiar with the work of the person to whom you are pitching.

Why? Well, there are several reasons that it is in your best interest to do a bit of research before you pitch. First, it ensures that you are pitching to someone who does in fact handle your type of book. As anyone who has ever endured the agony of a mismatched pitch appointment can tell you, if your book falls outside the agent or editor’s area of preference, it doesn’t matter how good your pitch is: they will stop you as soon as they figure out that your book is categorically not for them. No amount of argument is going to help you at that point, so advance research is a very, very good idea.

And, as it happens, I have already done quite a bit of research for you: in the aforementioned blog posts, I have gone over what the standard professional databases say these agents and editors have sold and bought over the last three years. (And when’s the last time any dog, female or male, did something like THAT for you, Mr. Smarty-Pants?) As my long-time readers already know, the blurb agents and editors write about themselves is not always the most reliable indicator of the type of work they represent. Check first.

However, sometimes agents and editors’ preferences switch rather abruptly: it is not at all uncommon, for instance, for an agent whose sister has just had a baby suddenly to be interested in parenting books. Or for an editor who has just been mugged to stop wanting to read true crime. Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you end up pitching to someone who is categorically disinclined to listen — which more or less guarantees rejection.

What should you do if you end up in an inappropriate meeting?

Yes, you will be disappointed, but I can absolutely guarantee that an hour after the meeting, you will be significantly happier if you didn’t just sit there, being miserable. Remember that you are at the conference not merely to make contacts with people in the industry, but to learn how to market your work better. You have a highly-qualified, well-informed insider sitting in front of you: ask some questions.

What kind of questions, you ask? Well, for starters, how about, “if you were in my shoes, which agent here at the conference would YOU try to buttonhole for an informal pitch?” Or, “Does anyone at your agency handle this kind of work? May I say in my query letter that you suggested I contact this person?: Or, even more broadly: “I understand that this isn’t your area, but who do you think are the top five agents that handle this sort of book?”

Usually, they’re only too happy to help; don’t forget, this is an awkward moment for them, too. Only sadists would LIKE seeing that crushed look in a writer’s eyes. Mentally, I promise you, that agent will be cursing the evil fate that decreed that the two of have to spend fifteen interminable minutes together; he doesn’t want to face recriminations, either from disappointed aspiring writers or from his boss if they come back with work that he is not technically supposed to have picked up. (Editors at major publishing houses, anyone?) So many will become very frosty, in the hope you will walk away and end this awful uncomfortable silence.

So if you can move the both of you on to topics where you’re comfortable, trust me, they’ll appreciate it. Not enough to pick up your book, but still, enough to think of you kindly in future.

So prep a few questions in advance, as insurance. Approaching the disappointment as a learning experience can make the difference between your stalking out of your meeting, biting back the tears, and walking out feeling confident that your next pitch will go better. Agents are often flattered by being asked their opinions, I find. There’s such a thing as human nature: few people are insulted by being admired for their expertise.

Unless you’re rude about it, Mr. Dog-Hater.

If the agent or editor seems approachable, you might even want to ask, after the other questions, “Look, I know it isn’t your area, but you must hear thousands of pitches a year. Would you mind listening to mine and giving me some constructive criticism?”

Remember, though, that in giving you this advice, these people are doing you a FAVOR. Be accordingly polite. As someone who both teaches classes and goes to a lot of writing conferences, I both see and have first-hand experience with the ilk of writer who, having found a knowledgeable person in the industry gracious enough to answer questions, quickly becomes demanding. Literally every agent and editor I have ever met has a horror story about that writer at a conference who just wouldn’t go away.

A word to the wise: remember, in this state, stalking is illegal.

So be polite. Remember, too, that an agent, editor, or writing teacher who was glad to be helpful to you at a conference may well be less pleased if you spend subsequent months peppering her with e-mails. I can’t even count the number of times I have told someone who asked me a question, “Gee, I’m not sure. But I’d be happy to check my files and get back to you with the information” — and then returned home to find a petulant phone message or injured-sounding e-mail, demanding to know why I haven’t yet sent the information. (The usual answer is that I haven’t yet set down my bags after the airplane trip.) And trust me on this one: even if your message is very courteous, and you sent it because you were afraid that the person might not remember you or the request, if you send it before, say, a week after the event, it is going to come across as badgering.

The moral of the story: as long as you are polite, many people in the industry will be glad to share their expertise with you at a conference. When someone in the industry is generous enough to be willing to help you, express gratitude, and try not to be a pest. Free advice is best when given freely — and accepted as a favor.

This is a good rule of thumb for anyone you meet at a conference, by the way. Chances are, you’re going to meet an author who is farther along the path to publication than you are. Writers tend to be very nice people; many of them will be happy to have you solicit their advice on, say, who would be a good agent to query with your type of book, particularly if you write in the same genre. This is a perfectly legitimate question to walk up to a conference presenter and ask. However, this type of friendliness usually doesn’t mean that writer wants to be your lifetime chum — or, as happens more often, your first stop for every industry-related question that occurs to you for the next decade.

If you’re in doubt as to whether you have made a friend or not, limit your follow-up to a single polite thank-you e-mail or card. If you made a true connection, the writer will respond.

All right, back to the reasons to do research on an agent or editor before a meeting. Knowing books they have handled enables you to walk in and make a stellar impression as someone who has done her homework. It is surprisingly rare, and accordingly impressive.

It can also help you calm down before giving your pitch. Instead beginning with a nervous “Hi,” followed by an immediate launch into your pitch, wouldn’t it be great if you could stroll in and break the tension with something along the lines of, “Hello. You represent Lynne Rosetto Casper, don’t you? I just loved her last cookbook.”

Why is this a good idea? Again, human nature: we all like to be recognized for our achievements. Agents and editors tend to be genuinely proud of the books they handle; remember, the vast majority of ANY agent’s workday is taken up with her existing clients, not ones she is thinking about perhaps picking up. Trust me, she will be flattered by meeting someone who has contributed to her retirement fund by buying one of her clients’ books.

One caveat: if you plan to make mention of a particular book, do come prepared to talk about it for a couple of minutes. Don’t praise a book you haven’t read. And don’t lie about liking a book that you hated, of course.

Knowing something about the agent or editor will also enable you to ask intelligent questions about how he handles his clients’ work. For instance, in the past, most fiction was published first in hardcover; until fairly recently, newspapers refused to review softcover fiction. However, increasingly, publishing houses are releasing new fiction in trade paper, a higher-quality printing than standard paperback, so the price to consumers (and the printing costs) may be significantly lower. Why should you care? Well, traditionally, authors receive different percentages of the cover price, based upon printing format. Trade paper pays less.

So if you were speaking with an agent who had a lot of clients who were publishing in trade paper, you might want to ask, “So, I notice that several of your clients published their first novels in trade paper. Is that your general preference? What do you see as the major advantages and disadvantages to going this route?”

Knowing something about the books an agent has sold will also demonstrate that, unlike 99.9% of the aspiring writers he will see this year, you view him as an individual, an interesting person, rather than a career-making machine with legs. This is a serious advantage. Think about it: if the agent signs you, the two of you are going to be having a whole lot of interaction over a number of years. Would you prefer his first impression of you to be that you were a nice, considerate person, or a jerk who happened to be talented?

Pitch specifics follow in the days to come. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini


Hello, readers —

Thanks to those of you who attended my Saturday pitching class! It was a great success — but, as I kept warning people beforehand, like Cassandra uttering woe and not being believed, since not everybody who ended up coming pre-registered, the cookies ran out woefully early. You have only yourselves to blame.

At least, I think it was a success — by the time I checked my messages the evening after the class, I had received 40 e-mails from class attendees (out of roughly 65), with thank-yous and follow-up questions. I had not expected the class to have this particular side effect; responding to this slew of individual questions has more than taken up the hours I had budgeted for writing the blog today. So the rest of you will have to pardon me if this is mostly a housekeeping blog.

A reminder to those of you who have been writing in with questions through this website: IF YOU DO NOT INCLUDE YOUR E-MAIL ADDRESS, I CANNOT REPLY. It is literally impossible. The e-mails you send to me are filtered through the PNWA, so I have NO access to your address unless you send it within the body of the message. (An aside to Janis: I cannot send you an answer to your question when your e-mail blocks my address as unknown. Send another e-mail when you have corrected this problem, and I’ll be happy to resend the multiply-bouncing reply.)

While I’m on a spate of requests, for the literally dozens of blog readers who have written in asking either (a) how you can quit your job and have your writing support you (in that order) or (b) how you can get your poetry books published, I’m afraid you are barking up the wrong tree. I have been racking my brains to come up with kind-yet-useful responses to these questions, but for the life of me, I haven’t been able to come up with any. Except to say: if you are seeking to accomplish (a), it is probably not prudent to pursue that goal through (b).

I know, I know, that sounds flippant, but listen: I hate to be the one to break the news, but there are a heck of a lot of published authors out there, and good ones, who have NEVER been able to afford to quit their day jobs. First-time authors, particularly novelists, seldom attract large enough advances for them to write full-time — and you will be much, much happier if you do not walk into a pitch meeting with your dream agent expecting otherwise.

Please do not be crushed by this — yes, there are authors who hit the big time with their first books. But generally, these cases are the proverbial overnight successes who spent a decade or two preparing for it. And even then, it is extremely rare: we’ve all heard stories of the person who put a single dollar into a single slot machine and suddenly found himself a millionaire, too. It’s not impossible, but even a cursory glance at the probabilities involved should lead one to believe that these instances are the flukes, not the rule.

But hey, no one will be more thrilled than I if your book turns out to be the fluke. Knock ’em dead, tiger!

On to (b). There is plenty of poetry published in magazines around the country, and POETS & WRITERS always lists a dozen or so chapbook competitions in every issue, but other than that… usually, in this country, poets gain notoriety one poem at a time, one contest win at a time, one publication at a time. There may be some shortcuts of which I am not aware, however. Since I am not a poet by trade, I would urge you to seek out poetry-specific websites and direct your questions there.

Another housekeeping issue: I’ve received several requests from readers who could not make the pitching class on Saturday for a written version of it. Um, written version? As opposed to what I post here five times per week? I used to be a professor at a quite prominent local university (which shall remain nameless, but rhymes with Boo Scrub), and I can tell you, neither my colleagues nor I ever wrote our lectures out verbatim beforehand, merely notes. I certainly did not for this class (which I was teaching as a volunteer, incidentally).

Honeys, do not panic: I am very committed to covering as many aspects of pitching here in this forum as I possibly can. Starting tomorrow, and all the way until the first day of the conference. Trust me, we have more than enough time to cover the basics. You’ll just be getting it in smaller installments — which, if you could have seen how tired we all were by the end of the pitch class, you might well consider an advantage!

But I do have a treat in store for each and every one of you who is attending the conference: I have begged, cajoled, and promised fabulous karmic rewards (because there are no tangible ones in this instance) with three wonders PNWA members who have successfully landed agents within the last few years — two of us AT PNWA, in exactly the kind of pitch meeting you will be attending, so we know whereat we speak — and the four of us shall be manning the Pitch Practicing Palace at PNWA. So please plan to stop by our booth before your pitch meeting to try our your spiel on some kind, sympathetic professional writers who can help you polish off the rough edges of your pitch.

Please, don’t drop by RIGHT before your scheduled appointments; try for at least an hour before. If you are particularly nervous, I would urge you to drop by the PPP on Thursday afternoon, on the first half-day of the conference. The actual agent and editor meetings will not start until Friday, so you will have lots of time to incorporate our feedback.

See? I really do want all of you to do well.

The sharper-eyed among you may have noticed that I have mentioned good intentions, volunteerism, and writers who also carry day jobs throughout this post. That was not accidental. As conference time approaches, I know people start to panic a little, but please remember, the PNWA is a volunteer organization, staffed by devoted people who sincerely want to help you succeed as a writer — people who, by and large, are writing books themselves AND hold full-time jobs. Organizing a conference of this magnitude is not a task to enter into lightheartedly, with a martini in one hand and a whiffleball racquet in the other. It is a whole lot of very hard, very extensive work. For your benefit.

Please, do me two favors, those of you who will be attending the conference: first, take advantage of as many learning and pitching opportunities there as you can. (I actually made everyone at my class on Saturday raise their paws and swear to pitch to at least three people with whom they did NOT have scheduled appointments. Don’t make me come after the rest of you, too.) Second, improve your own karma by thanking every conference volunteer you see. Your mother would approve, and so will I.

I bring this up in part because I know many of you entered this year’s PNWA contest. The finalists have all been notified already, and each entrant will receive two written critiques after the conference. Why not before the conference, you ask? First, because it would totally give away who amongst the finalists had an edge, and second — had I mentioned that organizing a conference is a heck of a lot of work?

Believe me, no one wants to keep you in suspense, but we here at the PNWA have to be realistic about turn-around times, in order to make sure that the conference comes together every year. But please rest assured that this most emphatically does NOT mean that you will not receive solid feedback in a timely manner.

As my long-term readers already know, the PNWA’s fine volunteers (translation: working for the good karma alone) thoughtfully read and comment upon hundreds of contest entries every year, bless their warm and furry hearts. You do the math: at least two judges have to read every entry in the first round alone. Not to mention the hours put in by the section chairs, who read the entries AND the extensive commentary by the first-round judges, or the judges of each category, who read the finalists’ entries, the first-round judges’ commentary, and the section chair’s commentary. That’s thousands of reader-hours devoted to your entries, my friends. (In case you didn’t know, in the PNWA contest, the final judges of each category tend to be drawn from the pool of editors and agents attending the conference each year — so the finalists get a thoroughly professional final evaluation.)

I know, it’s frustrating to wait for the feedback. But the turn-around time is a reflection of a serious effort to provide a good service.

To that end, I learned something very exciting recently: due to feedback from past conference attendees, the PNWA has REORGANIZED this year’s editor meetings. Instead of ten or a dozen writers pitching simultaneously, there will be ONLY FIVE WRITERS scheduled for each half-hour meeting with an editor. So each writer will have more time than ever before to make a good impression. Isn’t that great news?

In this spirit of helpfulness, on to a couple of lingering questions from readers. Intrepid and insightful reader Dave wrote in to ask: “On the first page of a chapter, should the chapter number be in Roman, Arabic numerals, or spelled out? Can or how would one include both the chapter name and number on that first line? Could you mention something about the first page of the first chapter? Isn’t it supposed to have info on it akin to what is on the title page?”

Good questions, Dave — and you’re not the only one to wonder about this. Thoughtful and talented reader Julie also wrote in to ask about the title page: “I read in your blog that the text should appear 1/3 of the way down after “Chapter (X).” This is the first time I’ve ever heard that. Is it fairly standard format with agents and editors alike? Could you tell me the reasoning behind it?”


Dave and Julie, I have been hearing this kind of question for years, I think largely because many writers’ publications simply assume that aspiring writers already know what standard format is for first pages of chapters. I think this, because I see SO many incorrectly-formatted first pages that there must be an overarching reason for it, rather than merely misinformed individuals, right? Perhaps there’s an evil First Page Fairy. Or maybe I would just like to blame someone for this phenomenon, which makes a LOT of submissions look unprofessional to agents and editors. Bad fairy! No cookie!

First off: no, the first page should NOT have the kind of information that’s on the title page (which I shall recap again within the next few days). The title page contains contact information; the only conceivable reason to include it on the first page of the chapter would be if there were no title page. And, frankly, a submission without a title page might as well have NEW TO THE BIZ stamped in red on it.

The first page of ANY chapter should have “Chapter (X)” on the first line of the page, centered, with the chapter title, if any, on the line beneath it. Do not put them on the same line.

The chapter should begin on line 14. What is the rationale behind this, Julie asks? I have always been told — and as a freelance editor, I have certainly been grateful for this convention — that the purpose having all that white space at the beginning of each chapter is to make it easier for an editor to flip through the manuscript quickly and find a particular chapter. All that white leaps out the pile visually.

Which is why, to get back to Dave’s question, the first page of the first chapter should not be cluttered up with too much information. It interferes with the desirable white.

As to whether the chapter number should be written out, in Roman numerals, or in Arabic numeral… I have heard many things over the years. I always write out the chapter number in full (Chapter One), simply because the 1, in this case, is a number under 100 appearing in a manuscript. Standard format, you know. I know many published authors who use Arabic numerals (Chapter 1), and they don’t seem to have been eaten by the publishing wolves yet. Roman numerals are less common, so I would avoid them altogether; they bring to mind outlines, not fully-realized prose.

Okay, the house is now relatively clean. Tomorrow, on to some pitching elements. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Standard format — and the word count bugaboo

Hello, readers —

Time for a quick jaunt back to synopsis land: sharp-eyed and insightful reader Bill has written in to ask: “Just how sacred is the four-page limit? How big should the margin be, since that can affect the word count?”

Good questions, Bill, and thanks for reminding me that I had not mentioned that the synopsis, like your first 50 pp., should be in standard format: 1-inch margins, double-spaced, in Times, Times New Roman, or Courier typeface. Printed on only one side of the page, of course, and on nice, crisp white paper. (This last might sound like window-dressing, but speaking as a frequent contest judge, I can tell you: it honestly is more pleasant to read a submission printed on nice paper. And don’t you want the agent or editor to ENJOY reading your submission?)
In Times or Times New Roman, a four-page synopsis is roughly 1000 words; no need to count, since 250 words/page in this typeface in standard format is how the industry estimates word count.

Go back and read that last sentence again, please, if you have been using your word processing program’s word counter to produce your word counts. THE INDUSTRY DOES NOT USE EXACT WORD COUNTS; IT RELIES UPON PAGE-BASED ESTIMATES. So you should, too: 250 words/page for Times or Times New Roman, 200 words/page for Courier.

Never mind that these are nowhere near accurate in actual word count: when in Rome, you need to use the same units of measurement as the Romans do; the state-by-state electoral vote count seldom bears much resemblance to the actual popular vote figures, but we still abide by whom the electors pick for president, right? Fighting for accuracy in word count estimation will get you nowhere, and in fact can even hurt your manuscript’s chances of being picked up by an agent: since professional word count estimates always end in a zero (think about it…), an odd-numbered word count on a title page or in a cover letter blatantly announced that the submitting author is new to the business. And, as you may have noticed, this is not a business that is very friendly to those who are not familiar with its rather esoteric ways.

The differential between actual and estimated word count, in case those of you who are veteran conference-goers were wondering, is why everyone on the agent panel goes pale (even under conference-center fluorescent lighting –which is saying something, since those lights make everyone look like a corpse) when some eager soul stands up and says, “I have a manuscript that’s 200,000 words, and…” Now, in actual word count terms, that’s probably in the neighborhood of 550 pages, but in industry estimation, that translates into 800 pages. Quite a difference, eh?

So in answer to your excellent first question, Bill: don’t worry about the actual word count of your synopsis; worry about the number of pages it covers. If it covers 3, 4, or 5, it’s fine.

I am going to revisit standard format again today, to make absolutely certain that every single reader of this blog who is planning to pitch at a conference this summer is aware of it well in advance.

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

However, in a submission to an agent or an editor, violations of standard format are serious business: when you’ve been asked to send chapters after a successful pitch, do you really want your pages to make you look unprofessional?

Here are the rules of standard format — and no, NONE of them are negotiable:

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

No exceptions, unless someone in the industry (or a contest’s rules) SPECIFICALLY ask you to do otherwise.

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

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

(3) The text should be left justified ONLY.

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

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

These are plain, not-too-pretty fonts, but they are in fact the standards of the publishing industry; it’s a throwback to the reign of the typewriter, which came in two typefaces, pica (a Courier equivalent) and elite (Times). As I’ve explained before, queries and manuscripts printed in other fonts are simply not taken as seriously.

If you want a specific font for your finished book, you should NOT use it in your manuscript, even if you found a very cool way to make your Elvin characters’ dialogue show up in Runic. The typeface ultimately used in the published book is a matter of discussion between you and your future editor — or, even more frequently, a decision made by the publishing house without the author’s input at all. If you try to illustrate the fabulousness of your desired typeface now, you run the risk of your manuscript being dismissed as unprofessional.

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

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

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

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

(6) Words in foreign languages should be italicized.

Including Elvish. You don’t want the agent of your dreams to think you’ve made a typo, do you?

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

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

(8) Each page should a standard slug line in the header, listing AUTHOR’S LAST NAME/ABBREVIATED TITLE/PAGE #.

The safest place for this is left-justified, but you can get away with right-justifying it as well. And the header, for those of you who don’t know, is the 1-inch margin at the top of the page.

(9) The first page of a chapter should begin a third of the way down the page.

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

(10) The beginning of each paragraph should be indented five spaces.

Yes, I know that published books — particularly mysteries, I notice — often begin chapters and sections without indentation. Trust me, that was the editor’s choice, not the author’s, and copying the style here might get your work knocked out of consideration.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There you have it: literally every page of text (yes, including the synopsis, Bill), should be in standard format. Trust me, your work will be treated better if you follow these rules. A manuscript in standard format looks to the critical eye like a couple dressed in formal wear for a black-tie event: yes, it is possible that the hosts will be too nice to toss them out if they show up in a run-of-the-mill casual suits or jeans, but the properly-attired couple will be admitted happily. By dressing as the hosts wished, the couple is showing respect to the event and the people who asked them to attend.

Dress your work appropriately, and it will be a welcome guest at an agency or publishing house.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Prepping your submission

Hello, readers —

First and foremost: there’s still time to pre-register for the PNWA Writing Connections class I shall be teaching on Saturday, Prepping a Pitch with Panache. It’s free to PNWA members, and I think I can safely promise that attending with lower your heart rate during any subsequent pitches to agent by at least 10 beats per minute, and reduce your chances of fainting while pitching to virtually zero.

Now that I’ve gone through the basics of a submission synopsis, I’m going to spend a couple of days on the first 50 pages of your book. Why would I want to do a thing like that, you ask? Well, if an agent or editor likes your conference pitch (or elevator speech, of which more next week), generally speaking, she will ask you to send a synopsis of the pitched book, an author bio (if you haven’t already written yours, check out my posts for April 11 — 14), and either the first 50 pages or the first chapter or two of the book. So, by the same logic that dictated that it would make a great deal of sense to snap your synopsis together BEFORE you’re asked for it, wouldn’t it make sense to take a gander at your first 50 pp., to make sure they sell your writing talent well?

Here is an excellent test to see how your submission will play with the pros at an agency. Sit down with your first 50 pp., IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD, or have a writing buddy whose judgment you trust do it for you. Select pages 6 through 50, and set them aside. Then pull out pages 2 through 5, and set them in a separate pile. You should now be holding the first page, and only the first page, in your hand.

Read it. If this were the ONLY page upon which someone were basing his opinion of your writing talent, how impressed would he be? What about if he were basing it solely upon the first five pages?

Truth of the trade: if an agency screener does not like your first page, he will generally not read the rest of your submission. And if he isn’t pretty taken with the book within the first five pages, there is virtually no chance that he will read on.

Picked your jaw up off the floor yet? When an agent or editor asks to see the first 50 pp., he is NOT committing to reading ALL of it. He is committing to reading as much of it as it takes until he is satisfied that he does not want to sign you. So your goal in the first 50 pages is not just to draw a reader into the story or argument, but also to survive a page-by-page reading where any significant mistake could knock your book out of the running.

Draconian, isn’t it? At minimum, it’s not very nice, but it IS an industry truism: you need to grab the reader on page 1, and if you haven’t wowed the reader by page 5, no one will read the rest. Yes, it’s stupid; yes, it’s not the way that the consumers who buy books in Barnes & Noble make their purchasing decisions, and yes, it’s REALLY annoying that novelists and writers of complex arguments are expected to compress 400 pages of subtlety to just a few demonstration paragraphs.

It is, however, the way things work.

If I ran the universe (and the last time I checked, I didn’t, or my publisher would not keep receiving gratuitous legal threats regarding my memoir, A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK), it would not work this way. Agents and their screeners would read AT LEAST the first 50 pages before they accepted or rejected a book. And cows would wander the streets of Manhattan, providing free chocolate milk to all the poor children.

You are marketing your work in the real world, though, so make sure that your first page — nay, your first paragraph — shines with some of your most eye-catching prose. As a general rule, anything you can do to place your best writing within the first few pages of your submission, you should do. And if you can include some very memorable incident or imagery within the first few paragraphs of your chapter, so much the better. Agents’ impressions tend to be formed very fast, and if you can wow ’em before page 5, you absolutely should.

Actually, just as with work you submit to contest, the first page of your entry is far and away the most important part of your submission packet. Unless there is a strong reason to place your synopsis first, put it at the end of your entry, so your first page can jump out at the screener.

Make sure that something significant HAPPENS on page 1, too — consider starting with a scene in which your protagonist is active, rather than devoting the opening to set-up, as 99% of submitted novels do. Set-up can always come later in the chapter, and (hold onto your jaws now, as this may startle you) it may not be in your best interests to use the Chapter 1 you envision for the actual book as your submission, if it’s not the most action-packed of the book. If it is logically possible, why not move your strongest, best-written scenes to the beginning of your submission?

Authors do that all the time. There’s no law saying that you can’t move them back to their proper places after you sign the contract. It’s called revision, not false advertising. Trust me: after your book is published, neither your agent nor your editor going to come after you and say, “Hey, your book doesn’t start with the scene that began your submission! Bad form!”

Actually, many of the authors who use this trick ultimately decide NOT to move the scene back, on the theory that what grabbed the agent will grab the reader. And now you know why so many literary fiction books (and quite a few others) begin with scenes that pure chronology would dictate should fall much later in the book: the authors wanted to hook that most important of early readers, an agent.

How can you move your best scene up front? Try plopping it down before your current opening, as a prologue. I wouldn’t recommend moving more than one scene: the more you move, the more ‘splaining you will have to do in what follows. But one strong, emotionally-dense, action-packed scene to grab the reader in the first page or two can be very smart marketing indeed.

By contrast, let’s take a look at what you would have to do to pull off a radical change in your book’s running order. A clever novelist who feels her best writing occurs 75 pages into her novel might, for the purposes of submission, place her strongest scene first by starting her book on page 75 (presenting it as page 1, of course). The synopsis would have to be revised, naturally, to make it appear that this is indeed the usual running order of the book, and our heroine would have to edit carefully, to make sure that there is nothing in the skipped-over pages that is vital to understanding what happens in the chapters presented in the submission. The job of the synopsis, then, in the hands of this tricky writer, would be to cover up the fact that the submission starts in the middle of the book. It would be just our little secret.

To put it in a less clever way: you can pull off starting later in the book, if the writing justifies it, but it’s a heck of a lot more work than simply moving one compelling scene. You also will need to make absolutely sure that your synopsis is compelling and lucid enough that it still all makes sense as a story.

“But wait!” I hear some of you out there cry. “What happens when the agent falls in love with my submission, and asks to see the rest of the book? Won’t it be apparent that I’ve misrepresented the running order? Won’t I in fact be placed in the position of having to rewrite the whole book in order to justify the submitted running order?”

Good question — and an excellent argument for moving only a single scene up front. There’s really no need to panic if you find yourself in this situation. Bear in mind that everything in the publishing industry moves either at the speed of light or with glacial slowness. It may well be one to three months between the time you submit your first 50 and when you hear back from the agent or editor (a period in which, incidentally, you SHOULD be querying other agents you met at the conference; a request for pages does NOT automatically imply an exclusive peek at your work, unless the agent or editor has specifically asked that you not submit it to anyone else). That’s quite a lot of revision time, isn’t it?

Even if you hear back more quickly, agents and editors are very used to writers fussing with their work. It’s perfectly acceptable to take a few weeks to revise your work before responding to a request to see the rest of the book. It is also quite acceptable — and quite common — for writers to respond to a rest-of-the-book request by sending the entirety of the book in its original running order, accompanied by a cover letter saying that since they submitted the original 50, they’ve been playing with the running order a little, and this is the result. As long as you say in the cover letter that you are open to changing the running order in accordance with the agent or editor in question’s preferences, there is nothing wrong with going this route.

In other words: established writers rearrange their work all the time for marketing purposes. Agents and editors are used to it, and generally are kind enough to write it off as merely symptomatic of the artistic temperament. We’re sensitive, you see: one day, we prefer a certain running order, then a flock of birds flutters by, and we’re equally convinced that a different running order is absolutely demanded for the book. In a word, they think we’re kind of flaky, as a group, and this is one of the few instances in which our perceived flakiness works in our favor. Milk it.

Above all, though, make sure that YOU absolutely love the pages you are submitting. Your first page should warm your heart, too. Sending your best writing, after all, is simply giving an accurate picture of your talent.

Never submit pages with which you are less than happy to an agent or editor, merely in order to get them out the door quickly. Chances are very, very slim that your submission will be read the instant it arrives, anyway, and often not by the same person to whom you gave your pitch, so you don’t need to worry about getting it there before the agent forgets who you are. You can pretty much rely on the agent’s needing to be reminded. That’s what the cover letter you send with your submission is for, the one that begins: “Thank you for asking to see the first fifty pages of TITLE. I enjoyed our conversation at PNWA, and I hope that you will be intrigued by my work.”

More on submissions tomorrow. In the meantime, for those of you who have not yet made your conference meeting choices because you don’t really know who these agents and editors are and what they represent, check out my archived blogs of April 26 — May 17 for the agents and May 18 — 26 for the editors.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

The Synopsis, Part VII: This time, it really is the last installment

Hello, readers —

Okay, I honestly am going to wrap up my synopsis-writing series today, so I can move on to a few words about prepping your manuscripts for the magical moment when the agent or editor of your dreams asks to see it, before launching into a full-on assault upon the subject of pitching your work! That’s a lot of material to cover over the next few weeks, campers, so stay tuned.

Back to yesterday’s list of questions you should ask yourself after you have completed a solid draft of your synopsis:

(4) Does the synopsis read as though I am genuinely excited about this book and eager to market it, or does it read as though I am deeply and justifiably angry that I had to write it at all?

This is a subtlety, a matter of tone rather than of content. Believe me, writerly resentment shows up BEAUTIFULLY against the backdrop of a synopsis, even ones that do not breathe an overt word about marketing. The VAST majority of synopses (particularly for novels) simply scream that their authors regarded the writing of them as tiresome busywork instituted by the industry to satisfy some sick, sadistic whim prevalent amongst agents, a hoop through which they enjoy seeing all of the doggies jump.

Show that you are professional enough to approach the synopsis as a marketing necessity it is. Remember, agents and editors do NOT ask writers for synopses because they are too lazy to read entire books: they ask for synopses because they receive so many submissions that, even with the best of wills, they could never possibly read them all. The synopsis, then, is your chance to make your work jump up and down and scream: “Me! Me! I’m the one out of 10,000 that you actually want to read, the one written by an author who is willing to work with you, instead of sulking over the way the industry runs!”

Mind you, I’m not saying that you SHOULDN’T sulk over the often arbitrary and unfair way the industry runs: actually, it would be merely Pollyannaish NOT to do that from time to time. Vent as often as you please; it’s healthier than keeping it inside. But it simply is not prudent to vent anywhere near an agent or editor whom you want to take on your work, and certainly not in the tone of the synopsis. The synopsis’ tone should match the book’s, and unless you happen to be writing about deeply resentful characters, it’s just not appropriate to sound clipped and disgruntled. Sorry.

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

I am always shocked at how few synopses identify either themselves or the author, due no doubt to a faith in the filing systems of literary agencies that borders on the childlike. Pages get separated; things get lost. Identify each and every page with a slug line, and tell the nice people that they’ve got a synopsis in their hands.

Standard format for a synopsis dictates that the title (either all in caps or bolded) is centered at the top of the first page of the synopsis, with “Synopsis” on the line below it. Then skip one double-spaced line, and begin the text of the synopsis.

(6) Is the synopsis absolutely free of errors of any kind? Not just what my word processing software tells me is an error, but an actual error?

Naturally, you should both spell-check and read the ENTIRETY of your synopsis IN HARD COPY, ALOUD, before you send it anywhere. Period. No excuses. As I mentioned yesterday, my professional editor hat gets all in a twist at the notion of any writer’s proofreading solely on a computer screen. It is well-nigh impossible to do with complete accuracy.

And don’t even get me started on the chronic inadequacies of most word processing programs’ grammar checkers! Mine disapproves of gerunds and semicolons, apparently on general principle, strips accent marks off French words, leaving them obscenely naked, and regularly advises me to use the wrong form of THERE. (If anybody working at Microsoft does not know the ABSOLUTELY IMMUTABLE rules governing when to use THERE, THEIR, AND THEY’RE, I beg you, drop me an e-mail, and I shall make everything clear.) Why, just a couple of days ago, when I wasn’t paying attention — hey, this is a busy month — it incorrectly changed a word in this very blog from “here” to “hear.”

I am fascinated, too, by the fact that its dictionary evidently does not contain any words that relate to the Internet or computer operations. Should I really have had to introduce “blogger” into its vocabulary? And I tremble to think how the grammar checker butchers dialogue. Suffice it to say, most standard word processing spelling and grammar checkers would condemn the entirety of Mark Twain’s opus outright.

My point is, like a therapist who doesn’t listen well enough to give good advice, a poor grammar checker cannot be sufficiently disregarded. Even in the unlikely event that your grammar checker was put together by someone remotely familiar with the English language as she is spoke, you should NEVER rely solely upon what it tells you to do. Read the manuscript for yourself.

If you’re in doubt on a particular point, look it up. In a well-regarded dictionary, not on the internet: contrary to popular opinion, most search engines will list both the proper spelling of a word and the most common misspellings. There is no gigantic cosmic English teacher monitoring proper spelling and grammar on the web. So get up, walk across the room, and pick up a physical dictionary. After so much time spent sitting in front of a monitor, the walk will do you good.

Made it through all of the questions above? After you have tinkered with the synopsis until you are happy with all of your answers, set your synopsis aside. Stop fooling with it. Seriously — there is such a thing as too much editing. Then, after you have gone to the conference and met the agent and/or editor to whom you will be sending it, read it again (IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD, naturally), and ask yourself a final question:

(8) Does my synopsis support the image of the book I want the requesting agent or editor to see? Would it be worth my while to modify it slightly in order to match more closely to what I told this sterling individual my book was about?

“Wait!” I hear some sharp readers out there cry. “Is Anne saying that it’s sometimes a good idea to tailor the synopsis to the particular agent or editor?”

Well caught, those of you who thought that. If an agent or editor expresses a strong personal preference for a particular theme or style in her speech at the agents’ and editors’ forum or in your meeting, isn’t it just common sense to tweak your already-existing synopsis so it will appeal to those specific likes? If your dream agent let slip in your meeting that she was really intrigued by a particular aspect of your story, doesn’t it make sense to play that part up a little in the synopsis?

A word of warning about pursuing this route: do NOT attempt it unless you have already written a general synopsis with which you are pleased and have saved it as a separate document. Save your modified synopsis as its own document, and think very carefully before you send it out to anyone BUT the agent or editor who expressed the opinions in question.

Why? Well, as I have been pointing out for almost a year now in this very forum, agents and editors are not a monolithic entity with a single collective opinion on what is good and what is bad writing. They are individuals, with individual tastes that vary wildly, sometimes even moment to moment, and certainly over the course of a career.

Think about it: was your favorite book when you were 13 also your favorite book when you were 30? Neither was any given agent’s. And isn’t your literary opinion rather different on the day you learned that you were being promoted at work and the day that your cat died? Or even in the moment someone just complimented your shirt (it brings out your eyes, you know, and have you lost a little weight?) and the moment when you spilled half a cup of scalding coffee on it?

Again, what’s true for you is true for any given agent, editor, or screener: a LOT of factors can play into whether they like the pages sitting in front of them — or the pitch they are hearing — right now.

Bear this in mind when you are incorporating feedback into your synopsis — or, indeed, any of your work. Just because one agent has given you feedback to tweak your story this way or that, it doesn’t necessarily mean that tweak will be greeted rapturously by everyone in the industry. Use your judgment: it’s your book, after all. But by all means, if you can modify your synopsis for eyes of the individual who expressed the particular opinion in question, do it with my blessings.

Tomorrow, on to prepping your submission pages. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

P.S.: If you live in the greater Seattle area — or live outside of it and just like long drives — why not attend the class I’m giving this coming Saturday on prepping your pitch for conference use? It’s free to PNWA members, and it will give you hands-on practice with people who have successfully pitched to agents in the past. How great is that? You can just drop in, but if you are fairly sure you would like to come, why not pre-register on the PNWA homepage, so we know how many chairs to set up?

The Synopsis, Part VI: The niceties

Hello, readers —

Welcome to my series on how to prep a synopsis prior to the conference, so you do not end up running around like the proverbial chicken with its head cut off when the agent of your dreams asks you to produce one. As in instantly. I had thought I would be able to wrap up the series today, but as often happens, I found that I had even more wisdom swirling around in my head on the subject than I had previously thought.

Okay, let’s assume that you have completed a solid draft of your synopsis, and are now in the editing phase. Print it out, ensconce yourself in the most comfortable reading chair you can find, and read it over to yourself OUT LOUD.

Why out loud, and why in hard copy? As those of you who have been reading this blog for a long time already know, this is one of my most dearly-held editing rules. It is INFINITELY easier to catch logical leaps in any text when you read it out loud. It is practically the only way to catch the redundancies that the space constraints of a computer screen virtually guarantee will be in the text. Don’t even think of cheating and just reading it out loud from your computer screen, either: the eye reads screen text 75% faster than page text, so screen editing is inherently harder to do well. (And don’t think that publishing professionals are not aware of that: as an editor, I can tell you that a text that has not been read in hard copy by the author usually announces itself with absolute clarity.)

After you have read it through a couple of times, clearing out repeated words and ungraceful phrases, ask yourself the following questions. Be honest with yourself, or there is no point in the exercise; if you find that you are too close to the work to have sufficient perspective, ask someone you trust to read the synopsis, then ask THAT person these questions.

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

You want the answer to be the former, of course. Long-time readers, chant it with me now: the synopsis is, in fact, a writing sample that you are presenting to an agent or editor, every bit as much as the first 50 pages are. Make sure it demonstrates clearly that you can write — not merely that you had the tenacity to sit down and write a book, because thousands of people do that, but that you have writing talent and sharp, clearly-delineated insights.

It is far, far easier to show off your writing in detailed summaries of actual scenes, rather than in a series of generalities about the plot and the characters. And if your favorite line of the book is not in the synopsis, why not?

(2) Does the story or argument make sense, as it is told in the synopsis? Is more information necessary?

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

(3) Is it compelling? Does it sound like other books on the market, or does it sound original? Does it make me eager to read the book?

When agencies specialize (and most of the best ones do), you would obviously expect that they would receive submissions within their areas of specialty, right? So it’s reasonable to expect that an agency screener at an agency that represents a lot of mysteries would not be reading synopses of SF books and NF books, and romances and westerns, mixed in with only a few mysteries — no, that screener is probably reading 800 mystery synopses per week.

This may seem self-evident, but think about it: it has practical ramifications. That screener is inundated with plots in the genre… and your synopsis is the 658th he’s read that week… so what is likely to happen if your synopsis makes your book sound too much like the others?

Right: next!

“Wait just a cotton-picking second!” I hear some of you out there cry, the ones who have attended conferences before. “I’ve heard agents and editors jabbering endlessly about how much they want to find books that are like this or that bestseller. They say they WANT books that are like others! So wouldn’t an original book stand LESS of a chance with these people?”

Ooh, good question — I was planning on holding off on this one until I started writing about pitching, but it is relevant here, too. Yes, you are quite right: any number of agents and editors will tell you that they want writers to replicate what is selling well now. Actually, though, this isn’t what they really mean. They really mean that they want you to have anticipated two years ago what would be selling well now, have tracked them down then, and convinced them (somehow) that your book was representative of a trend to come, and thus had your book on the market right now, making them money hand over fist.

Or, to put it in terms of the good joke that was making the rounds of agents a couple of years back: a writer of literary fiction reads THE DA VINCI CODE, doesn’t like it, and calls his agent in a huff. “It’s not very well written,” he complains. “Why, I could write a book that bad in a week.”

“Could you really?” The agent starts to pant with enthusiasm. “How soon could you get the manuscript to me?”

You can cater to this kind of logic if you like, but personally, I don’t think it’s worth your time to get mixed up in someone else’s success fantasy. Given how fast publishing fads fade, the same agent who was yammering at conference crowds last month about producing book X will be equally insistent next months that writers should write nothing but book Y. You simply cannot keep up with people who are purely reactive.

The fact is, carbon copies of successful books tend not to have legs; the reading public has a much greater eye for originality, apparently, than the publishing industry. What DOES sell quite well, and is a kind of description quite meaningful to agents, is the premise or elements of a popular work with original twists added. So you’re better off trying to pitch LITTLE WOMEN MEETS GODZILLA than LITTLE WOMEN itself, really.

And the synopsis is the ideal place to demonstrate how your book differs. Make sure it does not make your book sound generic.

All right, the rest of the questions follow tomorrow (you didn’t think you were going to get away with only three, did you?) If you are planning to attend the class I am giving on prepping your conference pitch, it’s THIS SATURDAY; please do pre-register on the PNWA homepage, so we know how many cookies to buy. And, again, if you are still trying to decide whom to rank first for your agent and editor choices for the conference, check out my archived blogs for April 26 — May 17 for the agents and May 18 — 26 for the editors.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

The Synopsis, Part V: How to know if you’re doing it right

Hello, readers —

Well, it’s a lovely, sunny day in the PNW (and for those of you who are not local: no, that’s not an oxymoron), and a young writer’s thoughts turn naturally to… landing an agent and selling one’s book, right? So for those of you who are planning to pitch a book at this summer’s PNWA conference (or at any other conference), why not hie ye hence to the PNWA’s homepage and sign up for my FREE Writing Connections class on prepping your pitch? It’s this coming Saturday, June 24th, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Also (and I know the repetition is a trifle annoying for my long-term readers, but this honestly is useful information to those visiting for the first time), if you are planning to attend this summer’s PNWA contest, check out my archived blogs for April 26 — May 26, to get the lowdown on the agents and editors who are scheduled to attend. It’s always better to make major decision — like, say, what agent to pick for your pitch session — based upon solid information, rather than guesswork. (If you don’t already know WHY it is better, read on.)

Today’s blog is what I devoutly hope will be the next-to-last last in my series on prepping your synopsis for conference use and/or submission. As I have been insisting for some days now, you will be SUBSTANTIALLY happier if you walk into the conference with your synopsis already polished, all ready to send out to the first agent or editor who asks for it, rather than running around in a fearful dither after the conference, trying to pull your submission packet together. Then, too, giving some serious thought to the overarching themes of your book is an excellent first step in pulling together a pitch.

Even if you think that both of the reasons I have just given are, to put it politely, intended to help lesser mortals less talented than your good self, whatever you do, try not to save writing your synopsis for a contest for the very last moments before you stuff the entry into an envelope. That route virtually guarantees uncaught mistakes, even for the most gifted of writers and savviest of self-promoters.

Synopsis-writing is hard; budget adequate time for it.

If the task feels overwhelming — and terror is certainly understandable, faced with the daunting task of summarizing a 400-page book in just a few well-written pages — remind yourself that even though it may feel as though you effectively need to reproduce the entire book in condensed format, you actually don’t. You don’t need to depict every twist and turn of the plot — just strive to give a solid feel of the mood of the book and a basic plot summary. Show where the major conflicts lie, introduce the main characters, interspersed with a few scenes described with a wealth of sensual detail, to make it more readable.

Remember, too, that you should be shooting for 3 — 5 pages: no more, no less. If your draft persists in being less, and you are synopsizing a book-length work, chances are that you are not including the plot or argument in sufficient detail. So go back and reread it: is what you have hear honestly a reader-friendly telling of your story or a convincing presentation of your argument, or is it merely a presentation of the premise of the book and a cursory overview of its major themes? For most too-short synopses, it is the latter.

If you really get stuck about how to make it longer, print up a hard copy of the synopsis, find yourself a highlighting pen, and mark every summary statement about character, every time you have wrapped up a scene or plot twist description with a sentence along the lines of, “and in the process, Sheila learns an important lesson about herself.” Go back through and take a careful look at these highlighted lines: would a briefly-described scene SHOW the conclusion stated there better than just TELLING the reader about it? Is there a telling character detail or an interesting plot nuance that might supplement these general statements, making them more interesting to read?

I’ll let those of you into brevity in on a little secret: given a choice, specifics are almost always more interesting to a reader than generalities. Think about it from an agency screener’s POV, someone who reads 800 synopses per week: wouldn’t general statements about lessons learned and hearts broken start to sound rather similar after awhile? But a genuinely quirky detail in a particular synopsis — wouldn’t that stand out in your mind?

If your synopsis has the opposite problem, and runs over 5 pages, you should also sit down and read it over with a highlighter gripped tightly in your warm little hand. On your first pass through, mark any sentence that does not deal with the primary plot of the book. Then go back through and read the UNMARKED sentences in sequence, ignoring the highlighted ones. Ask yourself honestly: does the shorter version give an accurate impression of the book?

If your synopsis still runs to long, try this trick of the pros: minimize the amount of space you devote to the book’s premise and the actions that occur in Chapter 1. Yes, you will need this information to appear prominently in a synopsis you would send with a cold query letter, but as I mentioned a few days ago, once you have been asked to submit pages, your synopsis has different goals.

Here’s a startling statistic: in the average novel synopsis, over a quarter of the text deals with premise and character introduction. Trim this down to just a few sentences and move on to the rest of the plot. If this seems dangerous to you, think about it: if the agent or editor asked to see Chapter 1 or the first 50 pages, and if you place the chapter BEFORE the synopsis in your submission packet, the reader will already be familiar with both the initial premise AND the basic characters AND what occurs at the beginning in the book. So why be repetitious?

Let me show you how it works (and yes, long-term readers, I have used this example before. But I’m using it slightly differently this time. So there.) Let’s say that you were Jane Austen, and you were pitching SENSE AND SENSIBILITY to an agent at a conference. (You should be so lucky!) The agent is, naturally, charmed by the story (because you were very clever indeed, and did enough solid research before you signed up for your agent appointment to have a pretty fair certainty that this particular agent is habitually charmed by this sort of story. See? Advance research really does pay off), and asks to see a synopsis and the first 50 pages.

At that very moment, you have on your computer your query synopsis. In it, the summary of the first 50 pp. worth of action look something like this:

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

“However, Marianne”s heart is soon engaged elsewhere: she literally falls into love. Dashing and romantic WILLOUGHBY (26) happens to be riding by when Marianne tumbles down a hillside, spraining her ankle. Just like the romantic hero of her dreams, he sweeps her up and carries her to safety. Soon, the pair are inseparable, agreeing in every particular: in music, in poetry, in the proper response to life, which is to ignore propriety in favor of expressing unrestrained feeling. When Col. Brandon is abruptly obliged to cancel a party in order to rush off to London to attend to mysterious business, the lovers are perfectly agreed that stuffy old Brandon made up the urgency in order to spoil their pleasure.

“All too quickly, however, it is Willoughby’s turn to be called away by mysterious duties elsewhere, leaving a weeping Marianne courting every memory of their happy days together while Elinor wonders why the pair have not announced their evident engagement.

“Edward comes to visit the Dashwoods, but he is sadly changed, morose and apparently afraid to be left alone with Elinor, despite Marianne’s continual and well-meaning efforts to allow the lovebirds solitude in which to coo. Edward is wearing an unexplained ring, human hair set in metal: he claims it is his sister Fanny’s but the Dashwoods are sure it is Elinor’s.”

Now, all of this does in fact occur in the first 50 pages of SENSE AND SENSIBILITY, at least in my little paperback addition. However, all of the plot shown above would be in the requested first 50, right? So, being a wise Aunt Jane, you would streamline your submission synopsis so it looked a bit more like this:
“At the death of their wealthy father, ELINOR (19) and MARIANNE DASHWOOD (17) and their affectionate but impractical mother (MRS. DASHWOOD, 40) are forced to leave their life-long home and move halfway across England, to live near relatives they have never seen, far away from Elinor’s beloved EDWARD FERRARS (mid-20s). At the home of their cousins SIR JOHN (late 30s) and LADY MIDDLETON (late 20s), melancholy COLONEL BRANDON (early 40s), seems struck by Marianne;s musical ability — and beauty. But does his sad face conceal a secret?

“Dashing WILLOUGHBY (26) happens to be riding by when Marianne tumbles down a hillside, spraining her ankle. Just like the romantic hero of her dreams, he sweeps her up and carries her to safety. Soon, the pair are inseparable, much to Col. Brandon’s chagrin. He rushes off to London to attend to mysterious business. All too quickly, however, Willoughby is called away, too. Marianne spends her days courting every tender memory of him, while Elinor wonders why the pair have not announced their evident engagement.

“Elinor’s love life is less successful: when Edward comes to visit, he seems afraid to be left alone with her, despite Marianne’s continual and well-meaning efforts to allow the lovebirds solitude in which to coo. Does his silence mean he no longer loves Elinor?”

See what wonders may be wrought by cutting down on the premise-establishing facts? The second synopsis is less than half the length of the first, yet still shows enough detail to show the agent how the submitted 50 pp. feeds into the rest of the book. Well done, Jane!

Tomorrow, if the publishing gods are with us, I shall wrap up the synopsis, so we can move on to other conference-related matters. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Synopsis Wisdom, Part IV: Don’t let resentment hold you back

Hello, readers –

Before I get started on the latest installment in my series on how to write a synopsis for your book (and why it really would behoove you to do so BEFORE the conference is upon us), many thanks to my correspondent (who shall remain nameless) for writing in with the skinny on Flag Day — and a confession that might conceivably raise the eyebrows of the Department of Homeland Security:

”Hello, Anne. Flag Day commemorates the day Betsy Ross (supposedly; many historians are skeptical of the Betsy Ross lore) presented George Washington with the flag he had requested: the first Stars and Stripes. I think it’s a rather lovely design, although I won’t discuss here my opinions of what has/hasn’t been done in its name. And I deny ALL the rumors that Che Guevara is alive and well, lives in my basement, and loves Taco Bell…(Aunt Jean warned me that fish and house guests both start to “turn” after three days…)”

I can believe it all but the part about Taco Bell. But thanks for filling us in.

Back to synopses. For those of you who are still resistant to the idea of writing one before you are specifically asked for it (which, unless you happen to be a masochist who just adores being under time pressure, is an exceedingly bad idea), I have two more inducements to offer you today.

First — and this is a big one — taking the time to work on a synopsis BEFORE you meet with an agent is going to make it easier for you to pitch your book. It helps you think of your baby as a marketable product, as well as a piece of art and physical proof that you have locked yourself away from your kith and kin for endless hours, creating. Even writers desperate to sell their first books tend to forget that it is a product intended for a specific market. Yet any agent who signs you is going to HAVE to summarize the book in order to market it — there is just no way around that.

So by having labored to reduce your marvelously complex story or argument to its basic elements, you will be far less likely to succumb to that bugbear of pitchers, the Pitch that Would Not Die. When you are signed up for a 15-minute pitch meeting, you really do need to be able to summarize your book within just a few minutes — harder than it sounds! — so you have time to talk about other matters, such as whether the agent wants to read the book. Confidentially, anyone who has ever sat down for coffee or a drink with an agent has heard at least one horror story about a pitch that went on for an hour, because the author did not have the vaguest conception what was and was not important to emphasize in his plot summary.

Trust me, you do not want to be remembered for that.

The second inducement: a well-crafted synopsis is something of a rarity, so if you can produce one as a follow-up to a good meeting at a conference, you will look like a star. You would be astonished (at least I hope you would) at how often an otherwise well-written submission is accompanied by a synopsis obviously dashed off at the last minute, as though the writing quality, clarity, and organization of it weren’t to be evaluated at all.

I don’t think that sheer deadline panic accounts for the pervasiveness of the disorganized synopsis; I suspect resentment. I’ve met countless writers who don’t really understand why the synopsis is necessary at all, and thus hate it. Frustrated by what appears to be an arbitrary requirement, many writers just throw together a synopsis in a fatal rush and shove it into an envelope, hoping that no one will pay much attention to it. It’s the first 50 pages that count, right?

Wrong. EVERYTHING you submit to an agent or editor is a writing sample. If you can’t remember that full-time, have it tattooed on the back of your hand.

While frustration is certainly understandable, it’s self-defeating to treat the synopsis as unimportant or (even more common) to toss it out in a last-minute frenzy. Find a more constructive outlet for your annoyance — and make sure that every page you submit is your best writing.

Caught your attention with that constructive outlet quip, didn’t I? In real life, almost nobody is actually brave enough to say to an agent or editor, “No, you can’t have a synopsis, you lazy so-and-so. Read the whole damned book, if you liked my pitch, because, as any fool can tell you, that’s the only way you’re going to find out if I can write is to READ MY WRITING!” ’Fess up — wouldn’t you LOVE to see someone do that at a conference? So that is my mental health assignment for you while working on the synopsis: once an hour, picture the nastiest, most aloof agent in the world, and mentally bellow your frustrations at him at length.

Then get back to work.

I know, it sounds silly, but it will make you feel better to do it, I promise. In fact, I think it would be STERLING preparation for the conference to name your least-favorite sofa cushion The Industry and pound it silly twice a day until it’s time to give your pitch. I’m all in favor of venting hostility on inanimate objects, rather than on human ones. Far better that your neighbors hear you screaming about how hard it all is than that your resentment find its way into your synopsis. Or your query letter. Or even into your verbal pitch.

Yes, I’ve seen all three happen. I’ll spare you the details, but trust me, these were not pretty incidents.

After you have thrown a well-deserved tantrum or two at how difficult it is to catch an agent’s attention, remind yourself that the synopsis DOES serve a purpose within your submission packet: from the requesting agent’s POV, it is the substitute for the rest of the book.

Let me repeat that: in this context, the synopsis is the substitute for the rest of the book.

It bears repeating, because the synopsis an agent or editor asks you to include with your first 50 pp. actually serves a rather different purpose than the synopsis you tuck into the envelope with your query letter. After all, a querying synopsis’ primary purpose is to prompt the agent or editor to ask to see the first 50 pp.; basically, it acts as a proxy pitcher for your book.

But at a conference meeting, YOU are the pitcher, and your goal is to get the agent or editor to ask to see the pages. Now, let’s assume s/he has done so. In the packet of requested materials you send, the synopsis has a new goal: to convince the agent or editor that the rest of the book is every bit as interesting and action-packed as your first 50 pp. It is a marketing tool, intended to get the agent or editor to ask to see the rest of the book.

I hear some of you out there grumbling. “But Anne,” you cry, “isn’t it the job of the first 50 pp. to inspire such interest in the reader that she wants — nay, longs — to read the rest of the book?”

In a word, yes, but not alone. Often, agents (and their screeners; remember, even if an agent asks you to send pages, she is usually not the first person in the building to read them, even if she REALLY liked you) will read the requested chapter(s) first, to see if they like the authorial voice, and then turn to the synopsis. Thus, the synopsis is where you demonstrate to their hyper-critical eyes that you are not merely a writer who can hold them in thrall for a few isolated pages: you have the vision and tenacity to take the compelling characters you have begun to reveal in your first chapter through an interesting story to a satisfying conclusion.

The synopsis, in short, is where you show that you can plot out a BOOK.

For this reason, it is imperative that your synopsis makes it very, very clear how the first 50 pp. you are submitting fits into the overall arc of the book, regardless of whether you are submitting fiction or nonfiction. But don’t forget to make the rest of the book sound interesting, too.

And PLEASE don’t make the very common mistake of not explaining how the plot is resolved. This is not the time to conceal your favorite plot twist, as a delightful surprise for when the agent requests the entire book. Revealing it now will SUBSTANTIALLY increase the probability that the rest of the book will get read, in fact.

Why? Well, agents and editors tend not to be very fond of guessing games (or, as they like to call them, “those damned writer tricks that waste my time.”) So ending your synopsis on a cliffhanger on the theory that they will be DYING to read the rest of the book to find out how it all ends seldom works. Remember, agency screeners are suspicious people: if you don’t show how the plot works itself to a conclusion, they may well conclude that you just haven’t written the ending yet.


More tips follow on Monday. In the meantime, here comes the tape recording again: for those of you who have not yet done it, there is still time to register for this summer’s PNWA conference. Come along and have a spot of tea with your humble correspondent and talk about your work. If you’re lost about which agents and editors to pick for your appointments, check out my archived blogs for April 26 – May 17 to get the skinny on the agents and May 18 – 26 for the editors.

Hey, while you’re on the website, why not sign up for my Prepping Your Pitch course on June 24th? It’s free to PNWA members, and while it isn’t strictly necessary to pre-register, it would be nice for me and the organizers to know whether to expect 5 people or 500. Makes a difference in how many cookies to buy, after all.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

The dreaded synopsis, part III: nonfiction

Hello, readers —

Welcome back to my ongoing series on how to craft an attention-grabbing synopsis BEFORE the conference, so you will not be thrown into forty-seven kinds of panic the instant an agent or editor asks you to send one. If you’re looking for information on how to register for said conference, don’t look here — check out the PNWA homepage, which will give you the skinny on how to sign up. But before you do, why not read some helpful background on the agents and editors with whom you can request appointments? Detailed low-down in my archived blogs of (longtime readers, chant it with me now) April 26 — May 17 for the agents and May 18 — 26 for the editors.

I went on (and on and on) yesterday about the importance of a novel synopsis’ demonstrating beyond a shadow of a doubt that its writer is a gifted storyteller. For nonfiction, the task is a trifle more complicated. And lest you think I am speaking out of my area of expertise here, I should tell you: I have a LOT of experience writing and editing both. My memoir, A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK is due out sometime this year (the author is always the last to know such trivialities as release dates; all I can currently tell you for sure is that it is already available for presale on Amazon), and my agent has just sent out my first novel, THE BUDDHA IN THE HOT TUB, to make the rounds of agents. Not to mention all of the synopses I see as a frequent contest judge and even more frequent freelance editor.

So yours truly has spent quite a bit of time in the last few years hunkered over the odd synopsis, let me tell you. I know whereat I speak. To get a sense of the authority with which I speak, kindly imagine the following words of wisdom booming from the mouth of Oz, the Great and Terrible.

In a NF synopsis, your goal is threefold: to give the argument of the book in some detail, along with some indication of how you intend to prove your case; to demonstrate that the book will appeal to a large enough market niche to make publishing it worthwhile, and to show beyond any reasonable question that you are the best-qualified person in the universe to write the book.

In 3-5 pages. I’m not entirely sure that I proved half that much in my master’s thesis.

The argument is the most important element here — in the synopsis you should not only show the content of the argument, but also that you can argue coherently. Yes, yes, I know: this seems counterintuitive. Wouldn’t the best way for an agent to check out your argumentative style be to, you know, read the book?

Let’s all take a mental holiday, shall we, and picture how much easier all of our lives would be people in the publishing industry actually thought that way? Ah, that’s nice: a world where writers’ talent was judged solely by thoughtful, prose-loving agents and editors, lounging on comfy sofas in sun-drenched lofts, languidly turning over page after page of entire manuscripts sent to them by aspiring authors. And look, outside that massive loft window — do I see a pig flying by, with Jimmy Stewart on his back?

Okay, back to the real world: your synopsis will have perhaps two minutes under an agent’s (or, more likely, an agency screener’s) bloodshot, overworked eyes. This isn’t a lot of time to establish an argument much more complicated than the recipe for your sainted mother’s cream of tomato soup, right? Even if your mother’s recipe consists primarily of opening a can of Campbell’s.

It is enough time, though, to demonstrate that you can make an argument where each sentence leads logically to the next. Think of it as a tap-dancing audition, your two-minute chance to show your fancy footwork: if you argue well enough here, the agent will ask to see the argument in the book.

If I seem to be harping on the necessity of making a COMPLETE, if skeletal, argument here, it is because the single most common mistake NF synopsizers make is to give only PART of the argument, or still worse, only the premise. Instead, they use the space to go on a rant about how necessary the book is, essentially squandering precious argumentative space with marketing jargon and premise.

But a solid underlying argument is the sine qua non of the NF synopsis. Period.

Don’t forget to mention what kind of evidence you will be using to support your claims. Have you done extensive research? Exhaustive interviews? Hung out with the right people? If you have a professional with the subject that makes you an expert, or personal experience that gives you a unique insight into the subject, try to mention that in your opening paragraph, or at least in the second. Otherwise, stick to the subject matter, and explain what the book is going to teach people about it.

I use the term teach advisedly, because it is often quite helpful for synopsis writers to think of the task as producing a course overview for the lesson that is the book’s content. How will this book help readers, and what kind of readers will it help? Obviously, a good professor would not try to cram an entire semester’s worth of material into the first lecture, right? Neither would a good NF synopsizer. Instead, both outline their work in general, try to convince their audiences that it is worthwhile to sign up for the class or buy the book in order to learn more about the topic.

Your first task, then: to make your subject matter sound absolutely fascinating. To achieve this successfully, you will need to show how your take on it is original — and to do that, you are going to have to spell out your argument. (Have I convinced you yet that that you really do need to present a cohesive theory here? And did I mention the importance of its being cohesive?)

Easier said than done, though: in the author’s mind, the argument often lies the details, not in the larger, more theoretical points. How can you narrow it down? I find that it is helpful to have an outline of your proposed chapters in front of you, so you can use the synopsis to demonstrate how each chapter will build upon the next to make your overall case.

Don’t get so caught up in the argument that you do not include a BRIEF explanation of why the world needs your book, and why you are the best person imaginable to write it, the second and third goals on our list. If you are writing on a subject that has already been well-trodden by past authors, this is even more important. Make it plain why your book is different and better.

There is no need to be heavy-handed in your own praise to achieve this, either. To prove it to you, I’m going to give you a sample opening, modest enough that it would strike no one as overbearing. Read carefully, as there will be a pop quiz afterward to see if you can spot the ways that this brief paragraph achieves Goals #2 and #3:

“Have you ever wondered what goes on underneath the snow while you are skiing on top of it? Although there are many books currently on the market for the US’s 1.3 million snowboarding enthusiasts, MOUNTAINS MY WAY is the first to be written by a geologist. Seen through the eyes of a professional rock hound with thirty years of experience in the field, the reader is introduced to mountains as more than an array of cold, hard rocks: mountains emerge as a historical document, teeming with life and redolent of all of the stages of human history.”

How did you do? Give yourself points if you noticed that the opening question grabbed the reader, showing immediately how this book might relate to the reader’s practical life; a rhetorical question for which the book itself provides an answer is a great way to establish a book’s appeal at the very beginning of the synopsis. Also, pat yourself on the back fifty times if you zeroed in on the subtle way in which this paragraph dissed the competition — the implication here is that the authors all previous books on the subject were such boneheads that THEY thought mountains were just collections of rocks. No one is naming names here, but those authors know who they are.

Still more points if you noted the clever (if I do say so myself) use of demographic information. If you have statistics on your prospective market, this is the place to mention them — here, and in your query letter, and in your pitch. As in:

“There are currently 2 million Americans diagnosed with agoraphobia, yet there are few self-help books out there for them — and only one that is actually written by an agoraphobic, someone who truly understands what it feels like to be shut in by fear.”

Why is it so important to hammer home the statistics in every conceivable forum? Well, no matter how large the prospective market for your book is (unless it is an already well-covered market, such as golf fans), you can’t ever, ever assume that an agent or editor will be aware of its size. ALWAYS assume that they will underestimate it — and thus the market appeal of your book.

(This is particularly true if you are pitching a book about anything that ever occurred west of, say, Albany to a NYC-based agent or editor, or any story set north of Santa Barbara or east of Los Vegas to an LA-based one. The news media are not the only folks who think that nothing that happens to anyone outside of their own city limits is worth reporting, alas. Regional prejudices still run strong enough that you might actually find yourself explaining to a charming, urbane agent with an MA in American Literature from Columbia or a law degree from Yale that yes, the inhabitants of Boise CAN support a symphony, and have for many years. And schools. And indoor plumbing.)

Back to our example. Bonus points if you noticed the sneaky way MOUTAINS MY WAY established the author’s status as an expert. If “Why are you the best person to write this book?” seems secondary to the subject matter, you probably haven’t pitched a NF book lately. Just so you know, it’s the first question almost anyone in the industry will ask after you mention casually that you are writing a NF book. “So,” they’ll say, reserving comment about the marketability of your topic until after they hear the answer to this particular question, “what’s your platform?”

Platform is industry-speak for the background that qualifies you to write the book — and unless you write in a technical, scientific, or medical field, it generally has less to do with your educational credentials than your life experience. In the case of my memoir, for example, my Ph.D. did not even gain a reference in my platform: what was important, for the purposes of establishing my familiarity with the subject, was that from when I was 8 until I was 15, the world’s most famous SF writer (although he was not so well-known at the time), who happened to be my mother’s ex-husband, used to call me on a regular basis to chat about life in general and what whoppers he could tell the reporters coming to interview him in particular. Far from my schooling establishing my expertise, my platform for this memoir had been magnificently erected long before I graduated from high school.

I’m going to be brutally honest with you here: very few writing teachers will advise you to include your platform in your synopsis, even for a NF book. That’s material for the author bio, they will tell you. Most of the time, writers include a background paragraph in their query letters, but personally, I think it makes a whole lot of sense to give a quick nod to the platform in the synopsis as well, if it makes your work sound more credible. Go ahead and state your qualifications, but keep it brief, and make it clear how those qualifications, well, qualify you to write this book.

They’re not going to know if you don’t tell them, I always say.

If your head is whirling from all of this, or if it’s starting to sound as though your synopsis will need to be longer than the book in order to achieve its goals, don’t worry. Tomorrow, I shall cover some tips on how to simplify the synopsis process, as well as how to slim it down if it becomes overlong. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Tracking the Wily Synopsis, Part II

Hello, readers —

Happy Flag Day, everybody! I’m not quite sure why flags NEED their own day, any more than, say, pandas do, but say what you like about the flag flying over the U.S. capitol, it’s certainly colorful. Festive, even, and perhaps that in itself deserves a commemorative day. Although why the fine folks who work in said capitol would have picked Che Guevara’s birthday to commemorate the U.S.A.’s flag is beyond me.

Speaking capitols and capitals, I’ve realized that I left a rather important piece of advice out of yesterday’s post on writing a synopsis. It’s not absolutely necessary, technically speaking, but most professional fiction synopses CAPITALIZE THE ENTIRE NAME of each major character the first time it appears. It is also considered pretty darned nifty (and word-count thrifty) to include the character’s age in parentheses immediately after the first time the name appears, resulting in synopses that read something like this:

“ST. THERESA OF AVILA (26) has a problem. Ever since she started dating multi-millionaire GEORGE ARMSTRONG CUSTER (82), all of her friends have unaccountably decided that she is mercenary and hates Native Americans. Apart from JEANNE D’ARC (30), her wacky landlady-cum-bowling-partner, who uses every opportunity to pump Theresa for man-landing tips, none of the residents of Theresa’s swanky Upper East Side co-op are even speaking to her — at least until they start desperately vying for invitations to her exclusive wedding extravaganza, a lavish event to be held onstage at the Oscars, with THE REVEREND DOCTOR OWEN WILSON (42 if he’s a day, I would guess, but his press agent probably slashes at least eight years off that for the press’ benefit) officiating. How will Theresa find a maid of honor — and if she does, what will her jealous old boyfriend GOD () do?”

Should any of you out there think you’re up to rounding out the plot above into some measure of coherence, please, be my guest. Really. It’s my Flag Day present to you.

For the rest of you, please note what I have done here: in preparing a synopsis for a comedy, I have produced a — wait for it! — humorous treatment of the material. And if I were creating a synopsis for a steamy romance novel with the same premise (although I tremble to think what a sex romp with that particular cast of characters would entail), you can bet your last wooden nickel that I would take some writerly steps to make my reader’s mouth go dry and his breath become short while perusing it.

Would I do this because I’m wacky? No, because — and brace yourself, because I’m about to divulge some serious words of wisdom here — the synopsis, like the first 50 pages, is a writing sample. The sensible writer’s primary goal in producing it is to demonstrate not only that it is a good (or at least marketable) story, an attention-grabbing yarn peopled with fascinating characters, but that the writer is a great storyteller.

Yes, yes, I hear you grumbling: from the POV of a novelist, 3 — 5 pages is hardly enough space to tell the story of a stoplight going from green to red with much panache. But you know something? Agents and editors think so highly of writers that they expect you to do it anyway.

Bless them for their optimism, eh? You’d think, after reading hundreds of these things per week, that their faith would waver a bit, but no. Even the most hardened publishing type retains a belief in the possibility of the perfectly entertaining synopsis so intense that it makes the average 6-year-old’s belief in Santa Claus seem like Voltaire-ish skepticism. And that is pretty darned impressive, considering that all too often, writers just state the premise of the novel in a synopsis, rather than taking the reader through the plot, blow by blow — and that can be mind-bogglingly boring.

“But Anne!” I hear you cry, and who could blame you? “My book is about a love affair between a bomb-defusing stockbroker who moonlights as a cat burglar and a former Miss America who now sits on the UN Security Council when she’s not designing speedboats or skeet shooting. How boring could a straightforward summary of THAT premise possibly be?

Oh, honeys, you would be surprised.

I read a LOT of synopses each year, and let me tell you, through sheer repetition, the plots of even the raciest potboilers can start sounding awfully similar after awhile. And the average agent reads as many of them in a day as I do in six months. Under such an assault of plotting, even if the reader is armed with the best possible intentions and the greatest conceivable love of literature to begin with, the eyes begin to glaze, passing indifferently over massacres and heretofore-unknown sex acts alike.

So how, given that your synopsis is inevitably going to be read in the midst of an avalanche of others with similar claims to a reader’s attention, can you make yours stand out? As any great storyteller can tell you (and will, at the slightest provocation), keeping the audience’s attention is largely dependent upon the storyteller’s skill in juggling a number of factors: pacing, character development, and detail, to name but a few. A storyteller who cannot surprise her audience from time to time is probably going to end up boring them, at least a little.

Work on cultivating the element of surprise. If the plot has twists and turns, so should the synopsis. Show the story arc, but do not merely summarize the plot as quickly as possible (as — sacre bleu! — most of the synopses any agent receives will). Try to give the feel of a number of specific scenes. Don’t be afraid to use forceful imagery and strong sensual detail, and try to make the tone of the synopsis echo the tone of the book.

Yes, yes, I know: it’s a tall order. But don’t forget that the synopsis is every bit as much an indication of your writing skill as the actual chapters that you are submitting. And don’t you want YOURS to be the one that justified the agent’s heavily-tried faith that SOMEBODY out there can tell a good story in 3 — 5 pages? The truly entertaining synopsis may be as hard to spot in the wild as the giant panda, but by golly, that’s what these agents and editors have set out to hunt.

More practical advice on the same subject follows tomorrow, of course. Hey, if you haven’t already done it, why not register for my Prepping Your Pitch class on June 24th? Check out the PNWA’s homepage for details.

And those of you who have not yet registered for the conference in July, please feel free to consult my rundown on the attending agents and editors who are available for pitching appointments. Those posts are in the archives, April 26 — May 26. (Wow, I hadn’t realized I spent a month of my life tracking down that information. No wonder it seemed like a never-ending task; by the end of it, I was having dreams about having high tea in Manhattan with Lauren Abramo, Jeff Kleinman, and a clouded leopard, with D.H. Lawrence bringing us crumpets and marmalade jam.)

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Paperwork to have ready before the conference

Hello, readers —

I am back in residence again! Judging from my inbox, I suspect that my limited postings of last week, coupled with last week’s early bird conference registration deadline, made some of you out there a wee bit nervous. Never fear — I’m back on the job, eager to tackle the big issues.

To answer the two most frequently-expressed concerns: no, it is NOT too late to register for this summer’s PNWA conference, nor is it too late to sign up for an agent or editor appointment. June 6th was just the deadline for the early registration discount. There are still a TON of spaces left, so don’t be shy! (And if you have not yet made your agent and editor choices, check out my posts of April 26 — May 12 for specifics on the agents and May 18 — 26 for the editors.)

Second: yes, I shall be teaching a Writing Connections class (free! free! free!) on June 24th on how to prep yourself for pitching to an agent or editor, and I would love it if any or all of my Seattle-area readers who are interested would attend. However (as some of you wrote in anxiously to ask), does this mean that I’m NOT going to run an extensive series here on pitching? Of course not! I shall be yammering on about it for much of the next month, in fact. I predict that you’ll be good and sick of it by the time I’m through.

And if that’s not a reassuring statement, I’d like to hear one.

As I mentioned last week, though, I want to spend a few posts on synopses first, and perhaps a couple on getting your first chapters ready to send out, since any agent or editor whom you wow with your pitch will want to see both of these right after the conference. I’m going to deal with them now, so you have a few weeks to scrabble them into shape. That way, when the agent of your dreams hands you a business card and says, “That sounds interesting — send me the first 50 and a synopsis,” you’ll be ready.

“But wait,” I hear some of you say. “I’m going to be learning a great deal about these agents’ and editors’ likes and dislikes at the conference. Wouldn’t I be better off waiting until I know their individual quirks, so I can craft a synopsis that speaks to them specifically?”

In principle, this is a good idea, but in practice, it can make the stressed-out writer yearn for the nice padded rooms of a mental institution, complete with the cozy comfort of a straitjacket. Even if you have been living for years on the hope of being asked by an agent to send your work for review — perhaps ESPECIALLY if so — when it comes, the request can send you into a frenzy of dither. Is it good enough? Did I miss a necessary comma in my fifteenth re-read? And, oh God, did I represent it accurately when I pitched it?

Hey, having your dream come true can be very stressful.

Advance preparation can make it less so. Amazingly, though, most aspiring writers do not walk into their first (or even subsequent) literary conference prepared to send their work out, and frankly, that can lead to some pretty sloppy synopses.

Why? Well, writing a synopsis is hard; most writers procrastinate about it, and many resent having to do it at all. If a publishing professional is interested in my work, they reason, why doesn’t he just ask to read the whole thing?

Because the industry doesn’t work that way, that’s why. And please don’t grumble at me about it; I don’t make the rules. As I believe I have mentioned before, I do not run the universe; if I did, I assure you that I would make the road to publication much, much easier for writers. So the next time you get your ballot for the galactic elections, kindly remember my name.

Seriously, synopses, like back jacket blurbs, are tools of the trade, shorthand reference guides that enable overworked agency and editorial staffs (yes, they really are overworked — and often not paid very much, to boot) to sort through submissions quickly. There is no getting around this. No matter what kind of books you write, if you are going to make a career of writing, you will be expected to produce professional synopses on demand.

It’s just an unpleasant necessity, like… well, all of the examples that spring to mind are pretty grisly, so I’ll leave you to come up with your own analogy.

Synopses are marketing materials, and should be taken as seriously as anything else you write. Take some time to make them gorgeous; Miss America may be beautiful au naturale, for all any of us know, but you can bet your last pair of socks that at even the earliest stage of going for the title, she takes the time to put on her makeup with care.

Still haven’t convinced you? Okay, I’ll pull out the big guns: in the short term, not having a synopsis already written by the time an agent or editor asks to see it virtually guarantees a writer epic levels of last-minute panic. All too often, writers become frustrated at this crucial moment, and just throw together a synopsis in a fatal rush, unsure of what they are doing, and dash their work off to agents. I don’t know about you, but I don’t do my best writing — no, nor my best proofreading — when I feel that my entire future depends upon getting a packet out the door within the next 36 hours.

Believe me, I speak from hard experience here. As long-term readers of this blog are already aware, when I won the Zola Award for Best Nonfiction book at the 2004 PNWA conference, I had written only — brace yourself — a chapter of the book and a synopsis. Within 24 hours of my having won the prize, 14 agents had asked to see my book proposal, including my current (and wonderful) agent. Since virtually the entirety of the publishing industry goes on vacation from mid-August until after Labor Day (so don’t expect to hear back then), I had approximately three weeks to build a book proposal, including a second chapter, from scratch — and my computer died three days after the conference. From the second my new computer was plugged in, my fingers were moving so fast across the keyboard that my arms looked like they ended at the wrists.

So trust me when I tell you: if there is ANY way you can avoid putting yourself in this kind of bind through advance preparation, PLEASE DO IT. You will be happier, your kith and kin will be happier, and your pets will be happier. Oh, and the results will probably be better.

A word to those of you who have not yet finished writing your books (or book proposals), and are not planning to pitch at a conference this summer — did you think I was just going to leave you sitting there, twiddling your thumbs? No, I have some solid advice for you, too: consider drafting a synopsis now, BEFORE you finish the book. You can always tweak it down the road, but why not get the basic constituent parts on paper first, while the plot elements are still painted in broad strokes in your head? In the long run, if you multi-task, your work will ultimately hit the agent market faster.

What are the advantages to creating the synopsis in advance? At the beginning of the writing process, it is easy to be succinct: there are not plot details and marvelous twists to get in the way of talking about the premise. Your book is about X, and it’s about Y, and the theme is Z. Simple dramatic arcs, easy to write about in a few pages. After you have spent a year or two fleshing out your characters and causing your plot to thicken, though, narrowing your account down to the major themes and incidents can feel like gratuitous butchery.

All of you who have ever sighed in response to the ubiquitous question, “So, what is your book about?” know what I’m talking about, right? I sympathize with that telling sigh, truly I do: frankly, it’s a little insulting to be expected to smash multi-layered complexity into just a few pages of text, or sacre bleu! the much-dreaded three-sentence pitch, isn’t it? (Consider my earlier comment about why you need to swallow the insult and do it anyway repeated here.)

If you resent this necessity for brevity, you are not alone. I met a marvelous writer at a conference in New Orleans a couple of years ago; naturally, as conference etiquette demands, I asked her over crawfish etouffée what her first novel was about.

Forty-three minutes and two courses later, she came to the last scene.

“That sounds like a great novel,” I said sincerely, waving away a waiter bent upon stuffing me with cream sauces until I burst. “And for a change, an easy one to pitch: two women, misfits by personality and disability within their own families and communities, use their unlikely friendship to forge new bonds of identity in a lonely world.”

The author stared at me as if I had just sprouted a second head. “How did you do that? I’ve been trying to come up with a one-sentence summary for two years!”

Of course it was easier for me than for her: I have years of experience crafting pitches; it’s a learned skill. Still more importantly, I did not know the subtle character nuances that filled her pages. I could have no knowledge of how she had woven perspective with perspective in order to tease the reader into coming to know the situation fully. I was not yet aware of the complex ways in which she made language dance.

In short, my acquaintance with the story was relatively shallow. All I knew was the premise and the plot — which put me in an ideal position to come up with a pithy, ready-for-the-conference-floor pitch.

The same holds true for synopses. Naturally, they will evolve as the book develops, but I’ve never known a writer who could not easily give a one-page synopsis of her book when she was two weeks into writing it — and have seldom known the same author to be able to do so without molar-grinding, ulcer-inducing agony a year later. You can always change the synopsis later on, but for a concise summary of the major themes of the book, you’re better off writing it well in advance.

Is everybody convinced now that advance preparation is a good idea? I’ll take that silence as a yes, and proceed. Let’s spend the next week or so diving right into that difficult and delicate task, shall we?

In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Taming the wild synopsis — and pitch

Hello, readers —

A little bit of housekeeping before I launch into my promised nuts-and-bolts speech about synopses. First, many thanks to all of you who have been writing in to me here at the blog — it really is useful for me to know what pieces of advice you have found especially helpful. An especial round of thanks to those blog readers who let me know that their entries made it to the finalist round in the PNWA contest! Congratulations! (And if you haven’t already let me know, please do. I enjoy the vicarious thrill.)

If you do write in, for whatever reason, please do be aware that if you do not include your e-mail address in the body of your message, I cannot write back to you. Matter of policy. So if you are asking a very specific question, please do give me the means to respond directly.

Last housekeeping detail: yes, I know those of you who have already registered for this summer’s PNWA contest are probably sick of hearing about it, but for those of you who have not yet made your choices for agent and editor appointments, check out my series of posts detailing these fine people’s accomplishments: April 26 — May 17 for the agents and May 18 — 26 for the editors.

All right, on to today’s topic, crafting a stellar synopsis of your book. (And don’t worry, those of you who missed yesterday’s post: I SHALL be writing a LOT on pitching between now and the conference. However, since literally every writer in the world who deals with either an agent or an editor will need to produce a synopsis at some point — and that point is often immediately following meeting same at a literary conference — I want to drop some words of wisdom on synopsis-writing first.) Let me define synopsis, for those of you new to the term:

Synopsis: A brief exposition IN THE PRESENT TENSE of the plot of a novel or the argument of a book. Typically, synopses run from 3-5 pages (double-spaced, with 1-inch margins, in Times, Times New Roman, or Courier typefaces, the standards for the industry), depending upon the requirements of the requesting agent or editor.

When in doubt, stick to 3 or 4. Think about that. 4 pages in standard format is roughly 1000 words, enough space to give some fairly intense detail. By contrast, a jacket blurb is usually between 100 and 250 words, only enough to give a general impression or set up a premise.

I point this out, because far too many writers new to the biz submit jacket blurbs to agents, editors, and contests, rather than synopses: marketing puff pieces, rather than plot descriptions or argument outlines. This is a mistake. Publishing houses have marketing departments for producing advertising copy. In a synopsis from a heretofore-unpublished writer, what industry professionals want to see is not self-praise, or a claim that every left-handed teenage boy in North America will be drawn to this book (even it it’s true), but a summary of what the book is ABOUT.

Since the jacket blurb synopsis is such a common mistake, most agencies use it as an easy excuse to reject a submission unread. Yes, it’s unfair (as I mentioned yesterday, I do not run the universe, or nicer rules would prevail for writers), but the industry logic runs thus: a writer who doesn’t know the difference between a blurb and a synopsis is probably unfamiliar with other industry norms, such as standard format and turn-around times. Thus (they reason), it’s more efficient to throw that fish back, to wait until it grows, before they invest serious amounts of time in frying it. With such good bait, they really don’t stay up nights worrying about the fish that got away. They know you’ll come swimming back.

I apologize from the bottom of my heart for that analogy; it’s certainly unkind to describe any dedicated writer’s work that way. However, I have been listening to agents and editors talk about submissions for many years now, and I do believe the fish metaphor is, alas, a pretty accurate representation of most of the non-creative side of the industry’s attitudes. Ugly, isn’t it?

Because it’s so easy for a too-long or too-short synopsis to be dismissed, you should NEVER allow a synopsis to run over 5 pages or under 2. Since 3-4 pages is industry standard, a synopsis that is much shorter will make you look as if you are unable to sustain a longer exposition; if it is much longer, you will look as though you aren’t aware of the standard. Either way, the results can be fatal to your submission.

So what DOES work in a synopsis? It’s not going to sound sexy, I’m afraid, but here is the secret: for fiction, stick to the plot of the novel, include enough vivid detail to make the synopsis interesting to read, and make sure the writing is impeccable.

For nonfiction, begin with a single paragraph about (a) why there is a solid market already available for this book and (b) why your background/research/approach renders you the perfect person to fill that market niche. Then present the book’s argument in a straightforward manner, showing how each chapter will build upon the one before to prove your case as a whole. Give some indication of what evidence you will use to back up your points.

And that’s it. I know — it sounds so simple, doesn’t it?

Whatever you do, if you are writing a synopsis for a novel, avoid the temptation to turn the synopsis into either a self-praise session (“My writing teacher says this is the best comic novel since CATCH-22!”) or an exposition on why you chose to write the book. These asides are often deal-breakers for agency screeners.

Why? Because they are both SO common. If I had a dime for every novel synopsis or query I’ve seen that included the phrase, “it isn’t autobiographical, but…” I would own my own island in the Caribbean. (And if I had a dime for every time I’ve heard it in a pitch, I’d just buy the five major North American publishing houses outright.) When you’re reading 800 submissions per week, commonalities can get pretty darn annoying. At minimum, they can make the synopses that contain them all start to blur together.

Trust me, however true it may be, it comes across as a cliché, and besides, a good fiction synopsis is NOT a justification for having written the book in the first place: properly, it is one hell of a good story, presented well. Period.

For nonfiction, you will want to do some gentle self-promotion, to give an indication of why your book is uniquely marketable and you are the most reasonable person in the universe to write it (platform, platform, platform!) but again, try not to get sidetracked on WHY you chose to write it. A LOT of NF synopses go off on these tangents, to their own detriment. Given a choice, use the space to flesh out your argument.

In fact, there are very few contexts in the publishing world where launching on a lengthy disquisition why you wrote the book is even appropriate. First, within a nonfiction book proposal, it is sometimes a necessary component to making the argument that you are uniquely qualified to write the book you are proposing, to establish your platform. Second, within the context of an interview AFTER the book is released, writers are free to ramble on about it as long as they like. Interviewers LOVE hearing about writers’ motivations — which, I suspect is why aspiring writers so often want to tell everyone they see what is and is not autobiographical in their novels; we’ve all seen it in a million literary interviews. Third — and here is where talking about it will help you most in your professional progress — when you are chatting with other writers, or if you become very, very good friends with your agent or editor after the contract is signed.

I know it’s hard to accept, but actually, in a business sense, why you wrote the book is not very important to the industry. In their eyes, unless you are a celebrity cashing in on your name recognition, you wrote your book for one very simple reason: because you are a writer. From that rather cold (and, I have to say, not very imaginative) POV, a writer who goes on and on about the psychological impulses to tell a particular story (unless the book in question is a memoir) comes across as not very professional.

I hate this, because in my experience, most aspiring writers tend to blurt out their reasons for penning a book primarily because they are so isolated during the writing process. It is a positive relief to be able to talk about it to someone, isn’t it, especially when that someone is empowered to get the book published at long last? It’s natural, it’s understandable, and it’s probably even healthy. Go with that impulse.

But please, please take my word on this one: you should not do it in the presence of anyone employed in the publishing industry until after a contract is signed, unless you are responding to a direct question from an agent or editor, because publishing types tend to regard it as a sign of writerly inexperience, a symptom of unprofessionalism.

In other words: back into the pond, fish.

It’s a great idea to get your blurting out of your system BEFORE you walk into your pitch meetings. Vent to your kith and kin. Gather together a group of writing friends before the conference and have a vast personal revelation session. Make friends with the writers in the hallways of the conference. Come and see me at the pitch-practicing booth at PNWA. But do not, under ANY circumstances, either use your synopsis or your pitch meeting for personal revelations not integrally related to the content of the book.

Again, there are a couple of exceptions; obviously, if the agent of your dreams asks, “So, where did you get the idea for this book,” you may give an honest answer. Also, if you have some very specific expertise that renders your take on a subject particularly valid, feel free to mention it in your pitch or query letter — in fiction, that information does not really belong in the synopsis. If you are writing a novel, and you feel that you have an inside perspective that simply must be mentioned here, stick it at the end, where it won’t be too intrusive.

See? Working on your synopsis before the conference really does have fringe benefits: it helps you gain a gut feeling for what is and isn’t appropriate to mention when discussing your book. And that, my friends, is an instinct that will serve you well anywhere you go within the publishing industry.

More tips on synopsis building follow tomorrow. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

P.S. to my correspondent in India: that’s a rather broad question; I would need more information about your book in order to answer it. In a sense, everything I have written in this blog has been advice on how to get books published. (You might want to read through the archives, especially for August and September, 2005, which would be most helpful for a writer of literary fiction.)

Writerly fads revisited

Hello, readers —

Did you miss me over the last couple of days? Technically, I am still on retreat — I’m trying to finish a novel; I’ve lost oodles of writing time over the last year to a series of groundless lawsuit threats against my memoir, so I’m doubling up on my weekly writing quotas this summer, to try to catch up — but as I mentioned in my last post, writers’ vacations tend to be working ones. So do editors’ — and if it makes you feel any better, I know a tremendous number of agents who spend their Saturdays and airplane trips home to visit parents plowing through manuscripts. This is just not a 9-to-5 business.

Thus it came about that while I am on retreat, I have also been reading submissions for a literary contest for which I am a judge. For those of you whose heart rates just shot up: no, it was NOT for PNWA. The finalists for this year’s PNWA contest have already been decided, and the happy few will be notified by June 15th. Those whose entries did not make it to the finalist round will receive their two sets of feedback AFTER the July conference. (Hey, it’s a volunteer-run organization; pulling together a contest AND a conference is very time-consuming.)

So I have been reading a WHOLE lot of first chapters and synopses this week — the typical contest-entry mixed bag. (Once again, I implore you: if you EVER enter a literary contest, make SURE your submission is in standard format! Deviations from standard format result in far more good entries being knocked out of competitive running than almost any other single criterion. That, and not adhering to contest rules.) I couldn’t help but notice that the fashion in synopses is running toward brevity this year — a fact I thought deserved comment, because until a couple of years ago, the fad ran in the opposite direction, toward over-long synopses.

Are you surprised that synopses, much like contest entries and submissions to agents, exhibit trends over time? Don’t be. Just as agents’ and editors’ tastes undergo wild fluctuations — anybody try to sell a historical novel to a mainstream agent in the year or two before COLD MOUNTAIN came out? Couldn’t give ’em away. — so do writers’. Partially, this is a reflection of the prevailing wisdom on the writers’ conference circuit, as well as in publications aimed at writers, which too run in fads.

All of this is fine, and to be expected. Since one of the biggest conference and class trends of the last five years has been screenwriters sharing their plotting tips with aspiring novelists, it was predictable that synopses would start getting shorter. In the movie-making world, the single-page plot synopsis is the norm.

However, I think the trend toward super-short synopses is not particularly helpful to the writer of books. For agents, yes, I do see some benefit: the shorter the synopsis, the less time required to review it. But since three- to five-page synopses are standard in the book publishing world, you should ask yourself: does a one- or two-page synopsis really impress the people you need to impress in order to get your book published?

Usually, no — and here again, we encounter another secret handshake of the publishing world. Most query screeners at most major agencies are trained to reject any submission that does not adhere to industry norms. So when an agency that represents novels receives a query with a one-page synopsis attached, will the too-short synopsis raise a red flag? It’s been known to happen, alas.

However, when asked about this phenomenon, most agency screeners will not state outright that if synopsis is not a certain length, they will conclude that the writer is not familiar with professional standards. Instead, they tend to report drawing an even more significant conclusion: if the synopsis is too short, they say, they assume that the author has not yet finished writing the book.

The logic behind this is rather abstruse, so stick with me here. A professional synopsis is NOT just a summary of the plot of the book, or even its major themes: it should include a few scenes recounted in a fair amount of detail, to give a representative taste of the flavor of the writing in the book. (Don’t worry, if this is news to you; I shall return to this topic in a future posting.) With few exceptions, a super-short synopsis will not include any individual scenes at all. Since few writers are reticent in describing (in print, anyway) the glories of their own plots, why would a writer NOT include descriptions of the best scenes in the synopsis, since the synopsis is first and foremost a sales document?

I think I can tell the screeners why: many writers confuse the synopsis with the jacket blurb, which also usually includes some summary of the plot. The jacket blurb does tend to be, in fact, about 250 words: in other words, a one-page synopsis.

Now, I am of the opinion that virtually no aspiring writer would confuse the two on purpose, but then, I am not an agent who reads 800 submissions per week, so I am inclined to be charitable. Agency screeners usually are not. Thus the common conclusion: if the synopsis is very short, or insufficiently detailed, they assume that the writer simply hasn’t finished WRITING the book yet. They assume, in short, that the reason the detail isn’t there is that it does not yet exist in the book.

And why is this conclusion a problem for the querying writer? Chant it with me now: because fiction agents do not represent unfinished novels. When confronted with an unfinished manuscript written by a previously unpublished writer (someone other than a celebrity, that is), virtually any agency’s screener will move it from the consider-me pile into the reject pile so fast that it will hardly touch the desk.

In other words: NEXT!

Yes, yes, I agree: this conclusion is unfair. However, in a sense, I can see the screeners’ point. The jacket blurb is marketing material, aimed at the general public; the synopsis is aimed at those who screen books for a living. Think about it from the agent’s POV: if you read 50 synopses for, say, murder mysteries in any given day, wouldn’t the plots all start to run together in your mind if NONE of the synopses included significant detail?

If you have been sending out very-short synopses with your query letters, DON’T PANIC. If you have been receiving form-letter rejections, you might want to consider the possibility that your submissions have been rejected unread, simply because your synopsis was too short. (Hey, I don’t make the rules: I’m just the messenger here.) It might well be worth your while to construct a longer, more detailed synopsis — then query your top agent picks again. Perhaps not the ones who rejected you in May, but certainly the ones who rejected you in March.

Don’t worry about the repetition bugging them, if it is a large agency: they receive far too many queries in a given month to remember (or catalog) them all. (I wouldn’t suggest mentioning in the query letter that you had queried them before, however.) And if they do remember yours from before, they will probably merely conclude that in the interim, you finished writing the book — thus the fuller synopsis.

Hey, sometimes, the industry’s cynicism works for you, and sometimes it doesn’t.

Since some of you who will be meeting with agents and editors at the PNWA conference (or other conferences) this summer will undoubtedly be asked to submit a synopsis with your post-conference submissions, I am going to revisit the issue of how to write a killer synopsis. But not right now — because, appearances to the contrary, I am on retreat! Watch this space, though.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Min

The wireless connection

Hello, readers —

Ah, the bohemian life of the writer: we never really get vacations, do we? Or, to be precise, our definition of a really fabulous vacation tends to be a few days off in the middle of nowhere, where we can shut ourselves off from outside stimuli and write. Preferably with room service.

This is actually a working vacation for me, but with the conference so close, I thought I should post, anyway. The very fact that the term “working vacation” has made its way into our collective vocabulary makes me wonder about how much the computer has actually improved our lives. It used to be that when you traveled for business, you got to read a book on the plane — now, you work on your laptop instead. One of the charms of being on vacation used to be that you were NOT reachable by phone, but we now regularly hear cell phones ringing on beaches. It makes one think.

I am allowing myself a certain leeway of topic, though, to mark the casualness of the occasion. So, in keeping with the summer vacation spirit, where everyone’s knees are visible in Bermuda shorts, I’m going to tackle a fun topic today: what you should wear to a conference in the dead middle of summer.

Several of you have written in, asking about what to wear to your meetings with agents and editors at the upcoming PNWA conference. (And, if you have not already had a chance to register, remember: registration forms postmarked by TOMORROW will mean $50 off the price of admission!) It’s an excellent question, because in many ways, these meetings are job interviews — you want to look professional, not as though you have just stepped off the aforementioned beach.

Does this mean you should wear a suit? No, not unless you will be pitching a book about business skills, or another sort of NF book where your credibility as an expert is a strong element of your platform. If not, overdressing can come across as insecurity, rather than professionalism, especially to a NYC-based agent or editor.

Why? Well, just as being naturally good-looking makes a BIG difference in first impressions on this coast (come on, admit it), being well and appropriately dressed is important in making good first impressions on Manhattanites. Seriously, one way that people identify others like themselves back East is by dress — if you work at a fashion magazine, you dress one way; if you work in a brokerage firm, you dress another. So to an NYC-based agent, if you wear a suit, depending on the designer’s label within, you might to an observer be identified as a high-powered attorney, a minor official at a state agency, or a shoe salesman.

So while this means that you might as well skip the makeup and wear your glasses to your meeting (because that’s what writers look like normally, right?), this is not the time to be shabby. Neatness counts. Nice pants or a skirt (but not a super-short one, unless you are pitching erotica), avoid showing too much cleavage or chest hair, and go light on the cologne. Unless you are pitching a book about mountaineering, I would avoid jeans or hiking boots. No need for women to wear heels or nylons, though. Don’t dress up as if you were attending an afternoon wedding — a corsage would be a BIT much — but don’t show up in shorts and a T-shirt, either.

I am about to make a prophecy: you will remember this advice vividly when you walk into the conference, because there you will see many, many people there in jeans and T-shirts proclaiming their favorite bands or 5K runs for charity. The PNW is a pretty casual place. Do as I say, not as they do, because even if EVERYONE else is dressed down, you will still make a better impression if you are appropriately dressed than if you are not.

Basically, wear what you might to the first major reading of your book in a bookstore.

This is a terrific rule of thumb anytime you will be meeting with anyone in the industry, actually, because you will be demonstrating to an agent who is considering taking you on as a client, or an editor who is considering your book, that you have enough social sensitivity that they don’t have to worry about you showing up to future interviews or signings in your pajamas.

Believe it or not, the ability to dress appropriately is equally helpful whether you write gardening advice or cyberpunk. People in the industry want to work with authors whom they can send into a variety of promotional environments — if you doubt this, pay attention to what the presenting writers, agents, and editors will be wearing. You’re not going to see a while lot of prints on the women, for instance; I’ve never been to a writers’ conference where at least one of the publishing professionals WASN’T wearing a plain, clean-lined pantsuit.

So this is not the best place to trot out the big floral prints (you’ll think about that, too, when you see how many people show up in them), or clothing bearing the insignia of a business or sports team. I don’t want to see your knees at all, under any circumstances, so even though it will be July, just don’t pack the shorts or flip-flops with your conference gear. Trust me on this one. (The meeting rooms will be air-conditioned, anyway, sometimes to pneumonia-inducing levels of chill.)

I hear some of you out there grumbling, and rightly so: for most of the conference, you will be sitting around on folding chairs, listening to speakers. So wouldn’t it make MORE sense to wear something comfortable, rather than fussy nice clothes?

In a word, yes — to the parts of the conference where you can reasonably expect to be sitting around on a folding chair, listening to speakers. But for your meetings, no. There’s no law, however, that says you can’t leave your nicely-pressed shirt on a hanger in your car, or in the closet of your hotel room, to change into an hour before your appointment, is there?

Two caveats about the preceding. First, if you plan on taking the brave route of accosting agents to pitch at them in the hallways, do plan on being dressed up a bit the whole time, so you are always ready to make a good impression.

Second — and this may seem a trifle frivolous, but it is nevertheless true — the lighting in virtually every conference center in North America makes everyone look ghastly. Red tones tend to do better in that light than yellows. And if you’re like me, and pale, you might want to spring for a little rouge or lipstick, so you don’t look as though you have spent the last year typing away on your opus in a crypt. (Unless, of course, you write about vampires, in which case you may feel free to look a trifle Goth.)

Speaking of which, I now notice that the sky outside is a glorious Copen blue, and I should go outside. Happy June!

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

What happens if they like it, Part II

Hello, readers —

Yesterday, I was talking about what really happens (as opposed to the pervasive fantasy about what happens) if an agent falls in love with your book at a conference. (For an explanation of what an editor from a major publishing house does in the same situation, see my post for May 22nd.) Contrary to popular belief, the pitch meeting is not generally where decisions to sign an author are made: it is merely the first step in an ongoing conversation.

However, by having that conversation, and being able to write REQUESTED MATERIALS — PNWA on the outside of your submission, your work will be able to skip several steps in the querying process. Which alone is worth the price of admission.

Incidentally, you do not need to have a meeting with or pitch to an agent who attends the conference in order to benefit from having seen him at the conference. Agents ADORE writers who attend conferences — in their eyes, it’s a mark of professionalism in a writer, a desire to learn the marketing side of the business. So if you see several agents whom you like at the agents’ forum, but feel too shy to buttonhole them for a quick pitch, go ahead and query them right after the conference, mentioning in the FIRST LINE of your query letter that you enjoyed hearing them speak at PNWA. This will assure that your submission goes into the savvy conference-goers pile, rather than in the pile with the other 99% of the week’s submissions.

One caveat, however: NEVER write REQUESTED MATERIALS on an envelope addressed to an agent or editor UNLESS the recipient has actually asked you to send the material. True, agents are often so swamped at conferences, particularly big ones like PNWA, that they will not necessarily remember every pitch they heard, or even every pitch they liked, by the time they get back to their offices, but it’s NEVER a good idea to start a new relationship on a lie.

Which makes it very much to your advantage to approach as many agents in your area as possible at the conference. It’s been my experience that an agent caught after a class, on the dais after the forum, or even in the hallway is marginally MORE likely to hand a business card to a writer than an agent seated comfortably, hearing several hours of pitches in a row. In the pitch meetings, your pitch is being measured against the other 15-minute meetings, where there is quite a bit of time to consider the book concept — and sometimes reject it. The more they can winnow submissions at that point, the less work for them and their staffs after the conference.

But when an agent’s in motion, her instinct is usually to get through the interaction quickly — and what’s the quickest way for an agent to part with an aspiring writer on friendly terms? Why, to hand the writer a business card and say, “Why don’t you send me the first chapter?” It’s a win-win situation.

Yes, yes, I know — we would all prefer that the agent of our dreams fall in love with our book on the spot, so it seems almost underhanded to use an agent’s overbooked schedule as a means to obtain a reading. But to be brutally honest, the 30 seconds or minute you take of the agent’s time in the hallway is approximately the same amount of time the screeners at her agency spend on reading the average unsolicited query letter — shocking, isn’t it? — and that informal in-person meeting is statistically far more likely to result in your being asked to send manuscript pages than would the same book pitched the same way in a query letter.

As long as you’re polite, I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with using the hallway pitch to get your work read. Try to avoid buttonholing agents who are obviously rushing into the bathroom, of course, or juggling a food plate and a drink in a buffet line, and always ask if this is a good time. If they say no, ask when would be a better time — or would they prefer it if you just sent the first chapter? To an agent trying to help himself to his third bowl of pasta salad, the latter option might seem just dandy.

Seeing a pattern here?

It’s always nice to begin a buttonhole pitch with a specific compliment: “I know that you must be swamped this weekend, but I just loved what you said in the agents’ forum about X. I couldn’t get an appointment with you, but would you mind giving me a couple of minutes, to hear about my book, either now or after you finish your dessert?” Be profuse in your thanks, regardless of whether they say yes or no, and then leave immediately. (This last part is essential, to avoid giving the impression of being a stalker. Oh, and perhaps this goes without saying, but to prevent any possible confusion: DON’T STALK THESE PEOPLE. Approach them only in the well-lit, well-populated areas of the conference, and with respect.)

Think about the interaction I’ve just described from the agent’s POV. It’s kind of flattering, isn’t it? People LOVE to be told that they made a good point in a speech, as long as the compliment is sincere — almost everybody has some fears associated with public speaking, even people who speak in public regularly.

I hear some of you out there grumbling: if it’s that easy to charm an agent, why isn’t it possible to charm one so much that he will want to grab the manuscript now and read it on the airplane home? Or in his hotel room, so he can sign me before another agent at the conference snatches me up?

The airplane question has a very, very simple answer: because manuscripts are heavy. Ever tote more than one 400-page manuscript in your shoulder bag? Agents have. They know better than to add three or four more to their carry-on luggage. Far, far better to allow the stalwart shoulders of the USPS to bear the burden.

As for an agent’s reading the book in his hotel room… well, perhaps my view on this is colored by the fact that I have been attending literary conferences since I was very young and VERY cute, but in my experience, agents and editors who use the phrase “in my hotel room” have not usually been talking about literature at the time. (For the benefit of those of you who are new to the conference scene, or just very young and very cute, there is NO legitimate book-related reason that a writer would need to visit an agent, editor, or anyone else in the publishing industry in his hotel room at a conference. Nothing you could possibly do there, other than lock him outside until you write a brilliant novel from beginning to end, will help you get published. If anyone at any writers’ conference ever tells you otherwise, walk away as fast as you can.)

The only exception I have ever encountered on the conference circuit was an eager-beaver agent who practically assaulted the winner of the night’s literary biggest prize immediately after it was awarded, demanding to see the book that instant. The nonplused writer rushed home (thank goodness she was local), printed out a copy, and rushed back to deliver it. The agent did in fact read the first chapter that night, gushed over it the next day — and then took it back to Los Angeles, where she took three weeks to read it.

In the end, from the writer’s POV, despite all of that nocturnal running around, the eager-beaver agent ended up doing precisely what most of the other agents at the conference did, reading the book after she got back home. So, in the long run, what was the difference between merely asking the author to mail her the book, and demanding it on the spot, other than inconveniencing the writer?

There endeth today’s lesson. For those of you who are planning to attend the conference: yes, the conference is not until July, but remember, registration is $50 cheaper if your form is postmarked by June 6th.

And yes, I’m going to repeat this, to the boredom of those of you who have been reading through the whole series: if you are looking for information about the agents and editors coming to the conference, so you can choose your appointment preferences wisely, check out my posts about the scheduled attendees, April 26 — May 12 for the agents and May 18 — 26 for the editors.

If I seem to be harping on the contest in general and registration deadlines in particular, it is because I would like to meet as many of my readers as possible at the conference — yes, I will be there, well marked with a nametag and eager to answer people’s questions. I’m going to be running a pitch practicing booth, where you can get feedback on your pitch BEFORE you give it to an agent or an editor, so come on by and say hello.

And had I mentioned: on June 24th, I’m teaching a PNWA Writing Connections class (translation: free) on how to polish your pitch for the conference. Advance preparation REALLY pays off when you’re sitting face-to-face with an agent, so do try to attend, if you can.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

What happens if they like it

Hello, readers —

My, I’ve been receiving a mountain of e-mails from your collective selves of late! It really seems to have hit home for a lot of you that conference season is now officially upon us. Summer is the time when serious writers’ minds should turn to marketing their work.

If you are still vacillating about whether to attend this summer’s PNWA conference, do bear in mind that if you can make a commitment by June 6th (that’s five days from now, according to my calendar), you will get $50 off the price of admission, and a whopping $100 off if you are a member. Regardless of whether you decide before or after next Tuesday, do take a gander at my write-ups about the agents scheduled to attend the conference (posts from April 26 — May 12; check the archives), as well as the editors (May 18 — 26), to help you decide whom to rank where in your conference choices.

At the risk of sounding like a tape recorder, do bear in mind that the information I have compiled on these fine people was gleaned from the standard industry databases and conference circuit talk, neither of which are noted for being 100% accurate. The main deals database, for instance, reflects the publishing world’s understanding of what a book is GOING to be, as of the point at which it is sold, not the book as it is when it is ultimately published. The deals lists are like book proposals that way: the originally projected image is not always identical to the eventual product.

I mention this not merely to give you a heads-up, but to admit that I was apparently misinformed about something I reported in my piece on agent {name removed at agent’s request; if you liked the books I am about to mention, I can only suggest that you contact the authors directly and ask who represented them.}I can only suggest that you c: I received a very nice e-mail the other day from his client Don Hoglund, DVM, author of the very interesting-sounding NOBODY’S HORSES (check out my post of May 9 for details), informing me that the coauthor listed in the deals database ultimately did not end up collaborating on the book! I’m making arrangements this very minute to change that tidbit in the archives, Dr. H, and thanks for bringing it to my attention.

The Mystery Agent’s clients seem to keep a very close eye on their web presences — which is an extremely smart thing for an author to do these days, now that the Internet has made every reader a prospective book reviewer — because I received a darling message from ANOTHER of his clients this morning. Bob Tarte, author of ENSLAVED BY DUCKS (certainly one of the best titles ever produced by human pen), mentioned in his courtly note that he had just finished final edits on his next book, FOWL WEATHER (another grand title), due out from Algonquin in the spring of 2007.

I was delighted by his timing, because this information provides a lovely and apt example of the post-signing timelines I was discussing yesterday: a LOT of time can pass between signing a contract and the book’s coming out, as all of you who have been following my memoir’s saga are no doubt already aware. If the databases are correct, Algonquin acquired FOWL WEATHER in February, 2005. Now, in June, 2006, the final edits have been completed, and it’s coming out next year. Just so you know, this is a fairly standard timeline — print queues are established months and months in advance of actual printing.

It just goes to show you: if you plan to see your work in print, expect something of a wait after each time you sign something major. It’s a long, long road, so do celebrate each milestone on the way to publication. (It also goes to show you, I suppose, that a nice little thank-you note to someone who mentions you online is never amiss. Your mother was right: good manners pay off. Incidentally, if you want to see a great example of an offbeat-but-professional writer’s bio, Mr. Tarte’s bio is quite an excellent example.

All right, enough about my past advice — on to the future. Since I was so full of grim realities yesterday, today I want to talk about what happens when an agent falls in love with a pitch at a conference.

We all know the fantasy version, right? Timid author creeps into meeting, clutching manuscript, blurts out a few halting sentences about the plot — and the agent climbs onto her chair, screaming at the top of her lungs, “At last, the book I have been seeking for my entire professional life!” She signs the author on the spot, of course, and the book is published before the end of the year. Career made!

Um, no.

I have very mixed feelings about the verbal pitching process, precisely because its immediacy does raise this kind of expectation — which, in turn, leaves good writers new to the game disappointed when they get an ordinary positive response. Verbal pitching by authors, as I have mentioned before, is not all that common in the publishing industry; it’s really the province of screenwriters and literary agents. This is a printed page-based industry, not one based on elocution, or even electronica, although increasingly, books are marketed via the latter two means. Still, most of the industry prefers the old-fashioned ways: the paper query, the printed-out manuscript, the rejection letter handled by someone in a postal uniform.

Which is why, incidentally, many agencies still do not accept e-mail queries: they simply prefer to deal in paper. Of those who do, most are either newer agencies, searching for younger, hipper authors, or more established agencies that suddenly became post-shy after that rash of anthrax threats a few years back.

There are pluses and minuses to dealing with agencies that accept e-mail queries. Undoubtedly, e-mail queries are more convenient and planet-friendly — but they are also far, far easier to reject. One keystroke, and your heartfelt plea is deleted. It actually takes someone licking an envelope to reject you the traditional way.

While I’m on the subject, do be wary of agents or editors who ask you to send significant parts of your manuscript electronically for their review. In the first place, the same ease of rejection applies as with e-mailed queries: the first word that displeases them, and they can hit the DELETE key. The second reason has greater long-term ramifications. Since forwarding e-mail is so easy, you have absolutely no way of knowing where your work will end up, and since copyright consists partially in controlling where and when your work is available to be read, e-mailing chapters is not particularly smart legally, at least until you already have a signed contract with those to whom you are sending it.

It is considered perfectly acceptable within the industry to respond to a request for an electronically-transmitted chapter with a polite note saying that you have just dropped a printed copy in the mail, along with a SASE. This is legitimate, even if you originally contacted the agent by e-mail.

Okay, back to the topic at hand. Let’s assume that you and your book made an exceptionally favorable impression on the agent sitting in front of you. What happens next? Well, 99% of the time, the agent will smile warmly and slide his business card across the tabletop toward you. “Send me the first chapter,” he will say. Or the first 50 pages. Or, sometimes, the whole book. “I’m pleased to have met you.” Then your meeting will end.

And you will rush home, read every syllable of those requested pages OUT LOUD and IN HARD COPY (I hadn’t harped on THAT in awhile, had I?) to make sure that it is utterly error-free, in standard format, and charming to boot, and carry it to the post office. Make sure to include a SASE and a cover letter thanking the agent for his interest and reminding him both where he met you AND that he asked for the manuscript. Take the largest marking pen provided by the USPS and write REQUESTED MATERIALS on the outside of the envelope or box, too, so it does not languish in the unsolicited manuscript pile when it gets there.

Not nearly so dramatic as the fantasy version, is it?

And then you will wait while your submission makes its way through the levels of screeners at the agency (the agent is seldom the first reader). And in the summertime, that can take a while, but there is absolutely no way that any agent is going to pick up a book without having read it. Because, really, books are not sold to agents on the author’s ability to make a persuasive verbal pitch, no matter how good the premise. They are sold on the writing — and there are plenty of people out there who speak well but who cannot write. And vice versa.

See why I advised you a few days ago to have a writing sample in hand at your meeting? A well-constructed sentence is the lingua franca of the realm you are entering. Come to the meeting with your pockets fairly jingling with that kind of coin, as well as with a killer pitch on the tip of your tongue, and your follow-though will be as productive as your serve.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

P.S.: For those of you PNWA contest entrants who have been wondering, the finalists will be notified by mail by June 15th, I’m told. So if you were holding off on early registration for the conference, pending learning whether your nametag would be graced with a rainbow-hued ribbon, you might want to reconsider your strategy.