Giving that gift horse a thorough dental inspection

Yesterday, in wrapping up my series on how advances work, I made passing reference to differences in how agents like to submit their clients’ work to editors — differences which can determine whether there is any possibility of your first book’s generating competitive bidding between publishing houses. I had suggested, in fact, that you might want to have a wee chat with any agent interested in signing you about which strategy s/he prefers.

Today, I want to talk a bit about that conversation, in the hope that some of you will be having it very soon with agents who read your submissions over the Labor Day weekend. (And also, if I’m honest, to distract you while you are waiting for everyone in the publishing industry to get back from summer vacation. I’m a big fan of multi-tasking.)

While you’re waiting to hear back from an agent is a great time to come up with your list of questions for when you are offered representation. (It’s also a good time to send out more queries, to be on the safe side. Unless the agent who has your work has specified that he will only accept an exclusive submission, you are under no obligation to keep your work under wraps while he is making up his mind. Keep moving forward.)

Why should you come up with questions in advance, or come up with your own list distinct from the ones the AAR suggests? Well, for many writers, the actual moment of solicitation can be very, very disconcerting: after years of plowing through uncertainty and rejection, an agent who says yes can look a whole lot like the Archangel Gabriel, descending from heaven in a cloud of glory, book contract in hand.

In my experience, writers are often too dazzled by their own good fortune in being solicited as a client to ask pertinent questions. One does not, after all, lightly question a burning bush.

However, choosing an agent is one of the most important decisions you will ever make as a writer — more important, conceivably, than deciding to sign a publication contract. You need as much information as you can get, in order to make sure that you are making the right decision.

I know, I know: when you don’t have an agent, any agent sounds pretty good. But all you have to do to learn otherwise is walk into a group of three or more agented writers. Give them an hour, and at least one will be complaining about her agent. Not all agents are good ones; as in any profession, there are bound to be ones who are better at it than others. More importantly, there will be some who are better fits for you than others.

Trust me, you will be happier in the long run if you ask about the issues that are important to you up front. Remember, this is a long-term relationship you are setting up: for years to come, your agent will be the FIRST person you call when you have a professional crisis or triumph. Get to know this person a little before you say yes. My favorite pre-signing question of the moment is, “How often do you typically have contact with your clients? How often should I expect updates from you?” followed closely by, “If I have questions or concerns, would you prefer that I e-mailed you, or picked up the phone?”

Why are these at the top of my list? Because, to be absolutely truthful, I am the only writer I know who has as much contact with her agent as she wants. (And why am I so sure about that? Because I am often in those groups of three or more agented writers that I mentioned above.) Before I signed with her, I told her that I would have a lot of questions — because I am a habitual crier of “But why? — and that I wanted to make sure that I could feel free to ask them without imposing on her time or getting on her Manhattan-frazzled nerves.

I knew to ask, because I’d previously been with an agent whose only time to chat was between 5 and 6 a.m. Pacific Standard Time. Why so early? Well, she was a perverse soul who would not answer the phone at all after noon New York time (that was when she called editors, you see.) and who couldn’t seem to remember which Washington had the pleasure of my citizenship. In short, my former agent was prone to forget about the time difference between her coast and mine. Not being a habitually early riser myself (I often write in the dead of night, when the phone is unlikely to ring), I certainly did not want to repeat this experience with my new agent.

Judging from my current agent’s reaction, I would guess that I was the first prospective client who had ever asked for that kind of ground rule up front. Moral of the story: when you are first dealing with an agent, remember that you are two human beings who don’t know each other very well. The clearer you can be about how you would like to be treated (over and above the fact that you would like the agent to sell your books for you), the more likely you are to get what you want out of the relationship.

Don’t badger, of course, but be straightforward. Also, be as precise as you can. “What are your plans for my book?” for instance, tends to elicit rather vague replies, giving a false impression that the agent is either being evasive or that they have not thought about it much.

However, to the ear of a good agent, this question translates thus: “Who specifically will you be approaching first? Will it be a phone call, lunch, or coffee? Why is your first choice the best publishing house for it?” Agents do not tend to think in vague terms: they’re concrete people, by and large.

So throw ‘em a lifeline. Ask instead, “Are you planning to do individual submissions, or multiple submissions?” This question does not require translation for the agent to understand, and will elicit much of the information that most writers have in mind when they ask for a plan.

Which brings me back to yesterday’s distinction between individual and mass submissions — just as I reach the end of my blogging day, I notice. Tomorrow, I shall go into the logic behind these two major submission strategies, as well as giving you a better idea of what the agent could conceivably do on your behalf.

In the meantime, keep up the good work!

The great advance mystery, Part III

Well, it’s a beautiful day — sunny, without being too hot — and after that refreshing dip in the self-esteem pool with Jordan yesterday, I think we’re all in good shape to tackle the great advance mystery once again. The good news is that this time, there is some good news.

Oh, yes — I heard those whimpers of anguish after my last two posts on the subject. “So, Anne,” I heard some of you crying, “are the stories we’ve all heard about monumental advances just great big lies? Why, oh why would anyone do anything so cruel to people who are treading a hard path and want to dream big?”

No, the huge advances still do happen sometimes, if the book seems marketable enough to a publisher — but again, the big numbers are usually affiliated with NF books that already have plenty of name recognition behind them. A sterling platform, as they like to say in the biz. Occasionally, though, a first book has BESTSELLER written all over it in letters so large that even the accounting department at a major publishing house can see them, and those books do in fact attract large advances, often due to competitive bidding.

But again, it’s extremely rare. Usually, the big advances go to writers with established track records — and thus established readerships. The big advances, in short, are not often evidence of a publishing house gambling on a new voice, but rather of their putting their chips on a relatively safe bet.

As you may have noticed if you have been querying for awhile, people in this industry are not, generally speaking, wild risk-takers. You also may have noticed that their rhetoric at writers’ conferences might lead a naïve listener to conclude the opposite. That’s one of the mysteries of the industry, too.

But honestly — how big a chance is a publisher actually taking by bringing out the next HARRY POTTER book? Practically none. And when a publishing house does take the occasional chance on a new author, they like to hedge their bets, putting as little money on the line as possible.

Often, too, the big numbers we hear for fiction are for multi-book deals, which throws the aspiring writers’ sense of realistic expectations off still further. But they do undoubtedly happen from time to time, so please, do not give up hope.

At the same time, you will probably be better off in the long run if you are not expecting so much money that your life will change radically overnight when your first book sells. It’s not a bad idea to do some research. For those of you who are taking Jordan’s advice and tracking down the 411 on a favorite author, try to find out how much that writer got for her first book. And if your favorite writer is not someone whose big break came within the last decade or so, you might want to do some research on someone who writes in your genre who did. Not to stomp on your hopes, of course — just to inoculate yourself against elevated expectations of the industry.

Trust me, the more you understand how publishing works, the juicier you can make your dreams about succeeding in it. It honestly does make more sense to think in terms of making your entire writing career a success, rather than just dreaming big about one book — and not working on the next while you are marketing the first.

If you really want to get a clear mental image of what could happen if everything goes right with your first book, and if you have an extra $20 lying around that you are willing to invest in it, you could do worse than to subscribe to Publishers Marketplace’s daily e-mail updates: they give a ballpark estimate of how much books sold each day commanded. After a couple of weeks of following the sales, it becomes pretty apparent that the vast majority of first sales are on the low end. “A nice deal,” as PM likes to call it.

Study the exceptions: what can you do to make your book seem that appealing on a marketing level? Not to make it more shallow, mind you — one of the surprising things you will learn from following the trends is that some deep books are very sought-after — but to see what the fad-hungry industry thinks is hyper-marketable right now. Is there a way to spin your book concept so it sounds more like the sought-after ones?

This is a useful exercise, because it helps ground your understanding of the ever-changing industry in the present, not the past. And this is a distinct advantage, since so much of the information writers get about this industry is still geared to the way it was 20 or 30 years ago — which, come to think of it, is often when the wild success stories we hear on the writers’ conference circuit are set, isn’t it?

This can be a trifle misleading to writers trying to break into the biz now, because back then, new authors were routinely offered three-book contracts by major publishing houses. Thus the big advances. It wasn’t because people in the industry felt more affection for writers as a group back then; it was a simple matter of economics. Given that the publishing house hoped that the newly-signed author’s second and third books would be even bigger than the first, as the author’s name recognition grew amongst readers, it only made practical sense to give writers of promise enough money that they don’t need to be working 40+ hours per week in order to pay the rent. When you are banking on someone’s future books, it’s definitely in your best interest for him to be writing full-time.

Those were the days, eh?

But by the end of the 1980s, too many second and third books did not justify the promise of their authors’ first — and pop quiz: why was this a problem?

Good for you, those of you whose hands shot in the air immediately: it IS because once a publisher pays an advance to an author, they cannot get it back, even if the book did not sell enough to justify the advance.

The publishers lost money, and multi-book deals for new authors became comparatively rare. And since publishing houses are investing less in their new authors — both in terms of advance money and in terms of expectations for profiting of these authors’ future books — they have also fallen into the habit of promoting new authors’ books less assertively.

No, you didn’t just fall into Never-never Land there for a moment: it really is a Catch-22. Books that are not well promoted by their publishing houses are far less likely to sell well than those that are — which means that they do not establish as strong a track record for their authors. Which means, in turn, a smaller advance next time, typically.

Yet, basically, when a publishing house takes on a new author, it is looking for that author to establish a track record with the first book, the kind of sales success that used to be the result of massive publicity campaigns by the publishing house. Then, if that sells well, they will be eager for the second. And yes, that generally means the process is less lucrative up front for writers.

Unless, of course, there is competition over which publishing house will buy a book. Then, the sky’s the limit. That’s prime NYC publishing logic for you: something that other people want is viewed as inherently more valuable than something only one person wants, or even knows about.

I can’t resist bringing in my favorite example of this kind of thinking. Years ago, when I was writing for the LET’S GO travel guides, my companion and I found this marvelous beach in southern Washington, 21 miles of unbroken sand, so much beach that people were allowed to drive along it, scanning for sand dollars. It was early on a weekday, so we were the only people as far as the eye could see. So, naturally, being good West Coasters, we settled down to enjoy all of that natural solitude.

After we had been there about 15 minutes, another car came driving slowly along the beach. It drove past us, disappeared for a few minutes, then returned to park perhaps 20 feet away from us. A bunch of cooped-up, fractious kids jumped out, whooping, and their presumptive parents began setting up a fairly elaborate campfire set to roast hotdogs inches from our outraged noses.

Understandably, my companion and I were fairly miffed. Surely, with 21 miles of beach to choose from, their party and ours could have shared the scenery without being on top of each other’s lunches. It seemed like such bizarre behavior that I felt compelled to ask the mother of the screaming children why they had picked that particular place.

She looked at me as if I were speaking Urdu. “Well, that’s where the people were. It must be the best place.” Need I even say that their car had New York plates?

And that, my friends, is the basic logic behind competitive bidding, or indeed, any industry buzz that makes a book seem more valuable. Not everyone who gets into the bidding, or who is doing the buzzing, has actually read any of the book in question, so it usually isn’t a matter of the writing, or even necessarily of the story: it’s all about wanting to grab that elusive object of desire before the next guy does.

There are a couple of ways that a book can become the object of competitive bidding. First, if there is enough initial interest from publishers (again, often a matter of name recognition and industry buzz), the agent could elect to put it up for auction, as was the case with THE CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR, which the industry had decided would be a major bestseller long before it hit print.

More commonly, though, an agent will send out a book to several editors at once, and if more than one editor wants it, the publishing houses start bidding against each other for the book. The one who offers the higher advance, of course, gets to publish the book.

And that, as you may well imagine, is a great situation for any writer, first-time or experienced.

It’s also a pretty good reason to ask any agent who offers to represent you, “So, how do you plan to market my book?” before you sign an agency contract. There are plenty of agents out there who do not favor mass submissions, where editors at several publishing houses are all reading the book simultaneously. Instead, they prefer to target one editor at a time, tailoring the submission to wow that person in particular.

Both methods have their pros and cons, of course – but that is a matter for another day. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

What if I want one-on-one assistance?

First Reader Editing
I offer one-on-one developmental editing services for manuscripts and book proposals. As fit between an editor an a project is monumentally important, however, I am very selective about taking on projects. If you would like to explore the possibility of whether I would be a good fit for yours, please e-mail a 1-paragraph description of your project, as well as brief indications of the book category, your target market, submission history, and any deadlines that might be hanging over the project to me at anne@annemini (dot) com.

Please do not send me your query letter, synopsis, or any portion of your manuscript or book proposal unless I specifically request it. If you have general questions about writing, querying, submission, etc., that you would like for me to answer on a one-on-one basis, rather than addressing as questions on my blog, please e-mail me to book online or telephone consultation time (see below).

Please allow lead time for scheduling: I am generally booked up months in advance for book-length projects. I do maintain a waiting list for unexpected openings; they sometimes turn up with very little advance notice, so it’s always worth asking.

If I am not the right editor for your project, I might be able to steer you toward a good fit elsewhere. If you are interested in a recommendation, please provide me with — wait for it — the book category, intended target market, and a one-paragraph summary of your project.

Mini Consults
Sometimes, it’s just helpful to talk about your book with someone who reads manuscripts for a living. Since so many Author! Author! readers asked for it, I also now answer writing questions and give professional feedback on marketing materials, such as queries, synopses, and book proposals in pre-scheduled telephone appointments. While this is not a substitute for full-scale editing, many of my clients have found Mini Consults effective in tackling seemingly intractable literary problems.

If you would be interested in learning more about this service, please e-mail a 1-paragraph description of your project, the book category, your target market, submission history (if any), and deadline requirements to me at anne@annemini (dot) com.

All other questions
Part of my purpose in setting up this website is to provide as much information about the writing life and publication process as possible to aspiring writers, as well as providing a forum for creating community amongst writers at all levels. To that end, I am always happy to answer questions posted by readers, provided that the questions are general enough to be of interest to all.

Please post these questions as comments on the blog, rather than sending them to the e-mail address above. If I answer a question via e-mail, it helps one person; if I answer it on the blog, it’s available for everyone. Also, it’s substantially more time-consuming for me to respond one at a time to similar questions.

Please be aware, however, that due to heavy demand, I can no longer answer readers’ requests for free manuscript-specific advice or personal writing career guidance that are sent to me through this forum. If I answered all of the questions I receive individually, answering my e-mail alone would be a full-time job!

Also, I’ve covered a great deal of material on this blog over the years, so if you check the category list at right or run a search in the box in the upper-right corner, you may find the answer you are seeking more quickly than asking me directly. The archives remain posted for a reason, and that reason is to help writers!

Guest Blogger Jordan strikes again

Hello, my friends! It’s been awhile, eh? Apologies for not popping back in sooner, but perhaps this is good timing, as I hear that you’ve been receiving the skinny from Mini on the brutal, humiliating and absurd trade known as publishing.

Let me tell you a story. Once upon a time I interviewed authors—famous ones like TC Boyle and emerging ones like Gayle Brandesi—for my literary radio program Word by Word. I hosted this show for three years (a volunteer labor of love that still got us a $10K NEA grant) and I got some of the best (and worst) advice from writers possible. One of my favorite bits came from the contemporary surrealist writer Aimee Bender. We were discussing her story, “Fruit and Words” (which, if you haven’t read it, you must. It can be found in her collection, Willful Creatures). She said (and I am paraphrasing from memory): “Writing is the only art where you must use the medium itself to describe the act of making it. You don’t paint a picture to describe one, or dance a dance,” she said.

I thought a lot about this, how we writers take the tool of everyday communication and mold it for both artistic and practical purposes. We are always using our medium. When you think about that, you who are no strangers to the pen, the muse or even the writing conference, you will realize that you have a powerful tool at your disposal to help focus you on a daily, even hourly, basis.

Focus being the key word here. That’s what all this happy feeling stuff is about—getting you to focus your feelings and thoughts—which are linked, by the way—on positive outcomes and good feelings. Why? So we can sing Kumbaya and bliss out on our own inner beauty? No! (Well, okay, if you must). The reason is that positive thinking attracts more of itself and it has a tendency to lead to hope and motivation—two things you need in spades in this industry.

The problem is, positive thinking doesn’t come terribly naturally to many of us. It’s been beaten, shamed and encouraged out of us. Which is why I’m here to remind you that beneath all the terrible odds and the ridiculous standards, there’s a reason why you write in the first place that probably is closer to making you feel joy than it is to getting rich quick. But it’s easy to get lost in the getting rich and famous end of it.

Yes, you want to make a living at your trade but I doubt you’re in this for the money. You’ve got important ideas and good stories and you must write or die, and you seek a reputable, time-tested platform to put them out there. When you lean toward the positive, have faith and generally believe good things might happen, you are more likely to follow up on leads you’d otherwise be too depressed, ignorant or overwhelmed to pursue. You are more likely to say “yes” to things, to accept tips, to learn, grow, and find your way smack into the center of success.

So here’s a tip: Whatever your writing goal, try to think about it when you’re ALREADY feeling good—don’t send negative thought or feelings to the thing you want most when you’re about ready to throw down the pen forever and apply to Burger King.

Save thinking about Being a Published Novelist for times when you’ve paused from laborious data entry/real estate selling/banal Ad-copywriting and have stepped out onto the corporate patio to soak in some sunshine. Reach for your writing desires as a kind of mood enhancer, so that you come to link positive moments with the acquisition of your Number One Desire. You have to train yourself here as rigorously as Pavlov did his dogs.

Yes, this is kind of like meditation. When the downer thought—remember those “I suck” examples I gave before—comes floating through, chase it off like a nasty, smelly little dog that is trying to soil your yard, and either court or wait for a better moment to think, “But some people make it as writers, and so will I.”

You have the tool—writing—so use it to get what you want. Don’t wait for things to happen to you. Don’t wait for agents and publishers and adoring audiences to validate you. You have to start behaving as if you ALREADY HAVE that which you desire.

I know you just said, “But how can I act as if I have what I don’t have, Jordan? That’s crazy talk!”

Is it? You’re writers. You have a rich fantasy life, I know you do. You’ve spent unreasonable amounts of time dreaming about things and people you wanted. You’ve allowed yourself to wander off into bubbles of fantasy. But someone or something probably made you “snap out of it” and tell yourself, “Stop dreaming, babe. Don’t kid yourself.”

Well I’m instructing you to get back to dreaming. Choose to spend lots of time imagining in full color and detail what it is you want. Because when you do, you activate all kinds of powerful little sensors and feelings inside yourself. They lead to excitement, hope, action, more writing.

Then WRITE DOWN your fantasies for the perfect literary career in precise detail as if it is already happening. Because the more you take your writing career as something that already exists, the more you make room for things to happen instead of languishing in the statistics and deciding it isn’t worth trying.

Here’s an example from my journal from September of last year:

“Today it occurred to me that if I want to be a published novelist, nothing stands in my way. The way will be shown to me. I have finished my novel revision and I’m agent-shopping again, but with such confidence and power that it happens so fast and the agent sells my book fast too. It’s was all just a simple matter of readying myself, shifting my energy.”

Funny thing is, while THAT novel I am describing above did not succeed in getting me an agent, I wrote a whole OTHER novel that in fact garnered me an agent in one week’s time when I sent out queries. I’m not making this up. The novel mentioned above was something I needed to clear out of myself, and it made room for the one I really wanted to write. I was so SURE, so EXCITED, that I wasn’t the slightest bit surprised when I got an agent.

And the fact is, I didn’t wait for external validation to believe that. Yes, I have done my homework, but my other novel is perfectly lovely too. Nothing wrong with it. Except that it deals with family issues and I felt very scared that if it were published, my family would hate me. I channeled lots of fear towards it. Et Voilà, it went nowhere.

I hope that for every strike of reality that hits you about why it’s hard to make it as a writer, you’ll remember that so long as you don’t jump on that particular bandwagon, and make room to write what you want and feel good about it ONCE A DAY, you’ll be shocked and amazed at how much opens up for you.

If you’d like to formally get involved in this work, it’s not too late to sign up for the Creating Space online class (link), session one, which begins on September 8th, for 4 weeks.

My new professional website is going up in about a week too, so please visit me there. In the meantime, you can always find me at my blog.

Jordan E. Rosenfeld

Anne here:

Thanks, Jordan, for all those words of wisdom! We really appreciate your stopping by.

And everybody, if you’ve been finding Jordan’s advice helpful, please, write in and let us know. Also, if I can blandish Jordan into coming back and visiting us here again (as I hope I shall), are there any points she’s made you’d like her to expand upon?

I also want to toot my horn on her behalf before I sign off. Jordan’s book, “Make a Scene: Crafting a Powerful Story One Scene at a Time” will be published by Writer’s Digest Books in Fall, 2007 and her book with Rebecca Lawton, “Creating Space: The Law of Attraction for Writers & Other Inspired Souls,” will be published in Summer, 2007 by Wavegirl Ink. She is a book reviewer for NPR affilliate KQED’s news-magazine the California Report and a freelance contributer to Writer’s Digest Magazine, The Writer, The St. Petersburg Times, AlterNet, The Pacific Sun and more. Her novel, THE NIGHT ORACLE, is represented by the Levine-Greenberg literary agency.

The great advance mystery, Part II

When I left off last night, I was initiating you into the mysteries of how advances work, working up to an answer to Jude’s excellent question, ““How much does a first book usually garner in way of an advance?” Today, I want to talk about how the general rules governing advances might apply to you, and how you can prepare yourself for your first publishing contract.

An advance, as I told you yesterday, is essentially an unrepayable loan against the author’s future royalties for a particular book. (Unrepayable in the sense that if your book sales are slow, and your royalty percentage does not reach the amount of the advance, you are not obligated to return the difference to the publishing house.) The more copies the publishing house expects to sell, the higher the advance — with certain exceptions, of course, because this is the publishing industry, and there are exceptions to most rules.

Royalty rates vary, based upon what your agent negotiates into the publication contract, but generally speaking, first-time authors get a lower percentage of the cover price than better-established ones. Also, the author typically gets a significantly higher percentage of hardback sales than trade paper, and trade paper endows a higher percentage than paperback. So the anticipated format of release — which is utterly beyond the author’s control — will have a significant impact upon the amount of the advance a publisher offers.

Everyone with me so far? Okay, let’s get down to dollars and cents.

I could sugar-coat this, but I’m not going to lie to you; if you’re serious about your writing, you deserve to know the truth. The plain fact is, these days, it is EXTREMELY rare for a first book by a non-celebrity to attract a large enough advance to allow its author to quit her day job (yesterday’s first blog to the contrary). Buy a car, maybe — but for fiction, it might not always be a NEW car, if you catch my drift.

Why so low? Because the advance will be a reflection of how the publishing house thinks the book will sell, and a first-time author is usually not walking into the deal with an already-established readership. This is why, for those of you who read Publisher’s Weekly , bloggers tend to command higher advances for their books than other first-time authors, even when those books are simply the blogs repackaged into book form: there is an already identified, preexisting audience for such books (who have, presumably, already read everything the book except for the introduction and Library of Congress number). Unfortunately, while there are quite a few fiction blogs out there, they tend not to command immense readerships, so this route to self-improvement is not available to all writers.

Also, for a first book, the planned print run is generally small. For the purposes of illustration, let’s assume that you’ve written a beautiful, lyrical literary fiction book that the publisher anticipates will sell 3,000 copies. You do the math. If it comes out in hardback (and, increasingly, first novels are being released in trade paper, which automatically means a lower royalty percentage for the author), it might retail for around $24. Let’s assume you got a good contract, and you’re entitled to 10% of the cover price. That’s $2.40 per book, less your agent’s 15%, so $2.04 per book is yours. If every single copy of the initial printing sells, your share would be $6,120.

And at most publishing houses, they would assume that the first print run of LF would not sell out; they’d be banking on readers of your second and third books coming back and buying it after you are better established. So your advance might be in the neighborhood of $2,000 — less, of course, your agent’s 15%.

I heard that gigantic collective gulp out there. Well might you gulp. If only one publisher is interested in a book, there is little incentive for the advance to be larger.

A small advance can be quite a shock to those new to the game, especially if the acquiring editor makes a ton of manuscript revisions a condition of the sale — which is far from uncommon — or with a nonfiction book, where the book is sold not on the finished manuscript, but upon a proposal and the first chapter. Ideally, if you write NF, your agent will fight to try to raise the advance to a point where you could be writing full-time in order to finish the book, but it does not (and I hate to tell you this, but it’s my job) always work out that way.

There is a huge difference, from the writer’s point of view, between being paid a month’s salary to make major revisions and being expected to take an unpaid vacation or use up all of your accrued sick leave to do it. Or, still worse, NOT having benefits and needing to take the time off anyway, or not being able to take any time off at all. How to pay for revision time can be an issue even if the advance is relatively large: even if the sum offered is princely, it’s not as though the author gets the entire amount in a single chunk when the ink is still fresh on the publishing contract.

Was that primal scream I just heard the sound of 500 of you crying, “Wha-?!?”

That’s right: the advance is paid in installments, either in two (one upon contract signing, the second upon the publisher’s acceptance of the manuscript) or three (one upon signing, the second upon acceptance, the third upon publication). To burst even more bubbles, some publishers are notoriously slow in coming up with the dosh; yet another excellent reason to affiliate yourself with an agent, so you have someone fighting hard to extract your money from sometimes recalcitrant publishers’ pockets.

Which continues to be true down the line, incidentally. Royalties are not typically paid to the author as soon as they come in: most publishing contracts specify that they will be paid every six months. So even if your book is selling extremely well, you might not see your share for quite some time.

Have I depressed you into a stupor? Or motivated you to get started on that second book?

The latter, I hope, because the good news is, this is a business where your efforts may be slow to pay off initially, but when they do, they can pay off for decades. Most writers who make a living at it are receiving royalties on multiple past works, not living from advance to advance. So if you’re in it for the long haul, remember, your first book is the Open Sesame to the publishing world, not to the room with the heaps of gold in it.

The Open Sesame is the first necessary step, however, and by being aware that a big advance may not mark the occasion of your first book’s sale, you can concentrate on the achievement itself, rather than the up-front monetary award. I know too many authors who were so intent upon the advance that they were disappointed — disappointed! — at their first publishing offers.

As I’ve said before and shall no doubt say again, if you’re planning a lifetime of writing, it is VITAL to recognize your achievements along the way. Yes, there are overnight successes in this business, but usually, those overnight successes have been toiling for years in obscurity first, either having trouble finding an agent or publisher, or writing books that sold only a few thousand copies each. (Again, you do the math.)

But those small books were successes, too, as was finishing each manuscript, landing an agent, and yes, signing with a publisher for a tiny advance. All should be celebrated, and heartily — because, frankly, are any of us in this ONLY for the money?

That being said, I hope all of us make a lot of money at it.

Tomorrow, I shall wrap up this topic, talking about ways you can find out what first books in your genre are attracting these days and how to talk to a prospective agent about it without sounding greedy and/or unrealistic. Also, I will discuss how agents’ submission strategies can affect the probability of your book’s being the object of competitive bidding, which is the best means to a larger advance.

Keep up the good work!

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you

I don’t normally get all Biblical on you fine people, but on this particular Sunday, I’ve just had some rather startling news: a writer friend of mine, someone whom I have helped until I was blue in the face, has just landed a rather large publishing deal. With a big enough advance that she can take months off her day job to finish the book — since it’s a NF book, she only has a chapter and the proposal written.

She has, in fact, just achieved the writer’s dream. So why am I not dancing and singing and inviting all of us to celebrate her success?

Normally, I would. You know me — usually, I am the first to jump up and down when someone hits a home run in the publishing game. Especially a friend. And even more especially someone I have helped along the way — not only did I spend a month and a half going over her book proposal with her, but I more or less bullied my wonderful agent into first talking with her (when’s the last time a powerful NYC agent gave you twenty minutes of phone time mid-project?) and then into reading her proposal toute suite.

Nor was that all. 100% of my friend’s information about how to write a book proposal came from this very blog and my in-person assistance. Heck, I once edited one of her proposal drafts when I had a fever of 102 — as her friend, not as her hired editor — because she was in a panic about a deadline.

I seriously believed in this writer, in short.

I don’t like to toot my own horn, but considering that my friend had NEVER queried before, these boosts probably took at least 3-5 years off her road to publication, conservatively speaking. I am not exaggerating — she knew so little about how the industry works that she didn’t even know that I had hooked her up with one of the best agents in the world for her type of book until AFTER she had signed — and then only because other writers in her area gasped when she told them who her agent was.

Yes, you read that right: my friend was so new to the process that she hadn’t even bothered to do ANY research about an agent before signing with her. That should make those of you who have been conscientious in your querying faint.

But hey, I try to be as supportive of other writers as I can; I’ve been working hard to be happy for her, even though, strictly speaking, she hasn’t paid her dues. She’s a good writer, and a lot of people forget in the early stages of the process that kind authors like me who are willing to help those earlier on are not simply public utilities provided by the universe for their assistance, but human beings who might conceivably like to be thanked every once in awhile.

Okay, so maybe it was a little overly-trusting of me to teach someone I had known less than a year to make Mediterranean recipes that have been in my family for generations (had I mentioned she was writing a food memoir?). Perhaps it was overly-tolerant to let someone who really didn’t want to get published any more than any of the other writers I knew hijack what was supposed to be my Christmas vacation to teach her how to do a book proposal. But honestly, there was really no graceful way I could whack her over the head and say, “Um, would you mind learning enough about the business to be grateful for what you HAVEN’T had to go through?”

So I held my tongue, even when she started speaking about parts of the book that had been my suggestions as her own unaided ideas. Even when she implied to her blog readers (she’s a fairly successful blogger) that she had gotten her agent through a magical process of networking set up by the universe, apparently without any individual human being having made any exceptional effort on her behalf. (It made me feel like a telephone operator, not a friend.) Okay, I put my foot down when she started stealing my recipes (and my godmother’s, while she was at it) for her book, but other than that, I just was supportive and waited for more experience in the business to teach her that it’s a bad idea not to give credit where credit is due.

Then her book garnered offers from two major publishing houses — and she didn’t even bother to pick up the phone or drop me an e-mail to let me know.

I had served my purpose, I guess. The only reason I found out that she had sold the book at all was that I had sent her an e-mail about something else. Yes, dear readers, I honestly did find out about her first book sale as an, “oh, by the way.” After she had informed other friends, evidently. As nearly as I can tell, I was pretty much the last in her circle of acquaintance to know — after I had given her such a boost in her career that from the beginning of the proposal-writing process to book deal was 10 months.

Yes, you read that correctly.

I don’t know how much the publisher is giving her. I am not going to ask. I would rather not know to the penny how much my friendship is worth.

I am writing about this not just to vent (although that’s feeling pretty good, too, of course), but as a double-sided cautionary tale — no, make that triple-sided. First, since publishing is a business that thrives on personal connections and writers believing in one another, it is — as I expect I have pointed out before — an environment where we’re all better off if we are eager to help other writers.

If I did not believe that we all have an ethical obligation to help and a need to be helped, I certainly would not devote so much time to this blog. I genuinely hope that the advice I give here will help you succeed, and that as success builds upon success, you will help others in your turn.

Unfortunately, there are people who don’t understand that generosity should be reciprocal; writers like my former friend, who will grasp at any connection they can to clamber more quickly up the proverbial ladder to success, are not all that rare, alas. Do bear this in mind the next time you meet an established writer and ask for advice or a recommendation: that hesitation you see will be a direct result of having been used before.

The unappreciative make it harder for everyone else.

Second, it is very, very common for those of us with good agents to be asked by writers we barely know to show material to our agents, to lobby for representation. This is a more substantial favor than most aspiring writers realize: most of us will NEVER ask such a large favor of our agents without reading the manuscript in question first, at least in part, so the request generally entails investing a fair amount of our time. And since a well-known writer might get four or five of these requests at any given writers’ conference, that’s a substantial charitable donation to the arts.

Why must we read it first? Well, if the requesting writer turns out NOT to be very talented, it will make it significantly harder for us to make similar referrals in future. If the requester is talented but turns out to be hard to work with or just a jerk, that will necessarily reflect badly upon us, too.

Which is why it is considered very, very rude within the industry to walk up to someone you’ve never met before and hand him a manuscript. No matter who he is. If you want to enjoy a good reputation, NEVER force a ream of paper upon someone who hasn’t asked for it.

Pitch as often as you like, but don’t penalize busy people for being too polite to say no. (Oh, yes, sometimes they will take the manuscript — but the ones that do are usually authors new to the game who are afraid that they’ll get a reputation for being mean if they do not say yes to all comers. It’s really not fair to take advantage of that fear: if your first book had just come out, and you were promoting it while still working your day job, wouldn’t you resent being handed 500 pages by a total stranger?)

Third, don’t leave all of your gratitude to grace the acknowledgments of your first published book. If people are kind enough to help you now, express gratitude now — and no, just saying, “Gee, thanks” is not always sufficient for a major favor. For heaven’s sake, send flowers every once in awhile.

And remember, no one in this business (or any other, for that matter, outside the clergy) is under any obligation to do favors for people they don’t know. Bear in mind that you ARE in fact asking a personal favor if you ask for advice or assistance, a time-consuming, genuine drain upon a generous person’s limited time. Please don’t treat any author, agent, editor, or writing teacher’s having been nice to you once as an invitation for further imposition.

Trust me, you don’t want to be the person about whom someone in the industry says, “Wow, I should have said no three favors ago.”

Above all, try to place yourself in the shoes of the person you want to help you. Treat them as you would like to be treated — because, in the long term, being considerate can only help you in this business. Not only does this make abundant ethical sense, but this is a business where people have long, long memories: it is certainly not unheard-of for an act of over-eager imposition to catch up with its author years later.

As for my friend, well, bless her for landing the book contract. I’m glad she’s making money for our mutual agent, and I hope her book is very, very successful; as I said, she’s a good writer. I even sincerely hope that she becomes a major writing star. And I wish for her the best gift of all: that she will come to realize that in this industry, as in life, other people don’t just exist to bring her benefits. In a generous universe, we all need to help one another.

There endeth today’s lesson. Keep up the good work, and be kind to one another.

The great advance mystery

Okay, I didn’t want to leave bad feelings hanging in the air, so I’m posting for a second time today. I hate not feeling upbeat about the publication process, even for a few hours. Onward and upward, as I always like to say.

Thank goodness, then, that intrepid reader Jude wrote in this weekend to ask the burning question on everyone’s mind: “How much does a first book usually garner in way of an advance?” I was shocked — SHOCKED, I tell you — to realize I had NEVER done a post on the subject. So thank you, Jude, for reminding me to do it.

We’ve all heard the stories, haven’t we, of the struggling author plucked from obscurity by the sale of that first book? How Stephen King misheard how many digits were in the advance for CARRIE when his agent called to tell him about it — and then dropped the phone when he finally understood how much money was involved? How Jean Auel’s THE CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR, garnered what was at the time the highest amount ever commanded by a first novel at auction? How occasionally literary novels wow ‘em so much at Farrar, Strauss that the advances run into six figures?

And on a more modest level, how, referring to my last blog, authors get large enough advances to take extended leaves of absence from their day jobs in order to write and revise?

Before I launch into a description of how the average book’s experience is different from these, let me ask a few questions to those of you new to dealing with the publishing industry: are you sitting down? With a cool drink in your hand, and perhaps a teddy bear to clutch? Have you taken any necessary medication to ward off heart attack or stroke?

If the answer to all of these questions is yes, let’s back up a little and define our terms, so we can discuss the first-time author’s advance productively.

For those of you new to the biz, it’s called an advance because it is an up-front payment of the author’s future royalties, a percentage of the cover price of the book. Essentially, the amount of the advance is the publishing house’s very conservative estimate of how many copies they expect to move. Why conservative? Because if your book does not sell as well as they think, you don’t have to pay back the difference.

Sort of like THE PRODUCERS, isn’t it? An author could conceivably make more money on a heavily-hyped failure — defined by the industry as a book that was expected to sell 100,000 copies but only sold 10,000 — than on a sleeper that was originally expected to sell 3,000 but actually sold 10,000. What a world!

Actually, that doesn’t happen all that often, since (a) a large advance usually means that the publisher will invest more resources in promoting the book ,and (b) the advance calculations are ALWAYS intended to fall on the short side, so the publisher will not be out of pocket much.

How do they calculate it, you ask? Well, it’s sort of as if your parents sat you down a year before your wedding and said, “Here’s what we expect the cash value of your wedding presents to be. If you will sign the rights to any future presents over to us, we will pay for the wedding — gown, invitations, food, everything — and pay you, say, 7% of the cash value of the first 50 gifts, 10% of the second 50 gifts, and 12% for gifts #101 on. We will give you now, at this very moment, a check for 2% of what we think the ultimate cash value of all of your gifts will be, in return for signing our contract. We’ll pay you the rest of your percentage after the gifts have rolled in. Of course, if you would prefer to pay for the wedding all by yourself, you don’t have to agree to this, but we can afford to throw you a much, much bigger wedding than you can possibly throw for yourself — with invitations sent out to thousands of people on your behalf — which may ultimately translate into many more presents.”

Welcome to the world of publishing. A heck of a lot happens before the author gets to toss that bouquet around.

Tomorrow, I shall go into why it actually is good for you to be aware of the norms of the industry, and how you can go about making yourself a savvier hoper. The more you know, the better you can work the system, and the more of a joy you will be to the agent of your dreams!

Onward and upward, everybody. And keep up the good work.

Characters who think, part III

For the last couple of days, I have been addressing the issue of how to integrate your characters’ thoughts into the narrative. As usual when there’s not a hard-and-fast rule, I found I had a lot to say on the subject. Yesterday, I discussed several different common methods of indicating thought, means both more and less graceful than just saying that a character is thinking:

I want to go to the prom more than I want to live to be twenty-five, Janie thought.

Today, I want to talk about playing with these methods to reflect both your personal writing rhythms and your writing goals in particular instances. How you choose to present thought in a given scene should be reflective of the action and tone of the scene, as well as your personal writing preferences. Sometimes, the extra beat allowed by saying “he thought” works better in the scene than a more direct method; some methods allow you to show different sorts of characterization than others.

To help you decide, let me show you the same scenelet done several ways. (Please bear in mind that I haven’t figured out how to make the blog show italics, so italicized phrases are indicated by asterisks at the *beginning and end* of the phrase.) First, let’s look at a fairly traditional way to handle thoughts in a group scene in a third person narrative, maintaining narrative perspective while choosing one person’s thoughts to highlight:

Dr. Butler tucked his stethoscope into his Tattersall vest. “I’m afraid there will be no prom for you tonight, Gertie.”

Gertrude was furious. Chicken pox, smicken pox, she thought, seething. It was perfectly obvious to her that her sly little sister had been at her while she slept with a permanent red marking pen. *Little vixen. I’ll boil your guts for soup.* “But I’m feeling fine!”

Wilma pushed her back down on the bed with a firm motherly hand. “Now, sweetie, don’t jump around while you’re feverish. I’ll dig your old mittens out of the attic, so you can’t scratch yourself into a bloody mess.”

This works fine with a variety of styles, doesn’t it? Not even the most virulent of point-of-view Nazis would have a problem with this. But what about in a tighter third-person narrative, one where the narrative voice is more closely aligned with the protagonist? Let’s look at this scene again, with the perspective tightened onto Gertrude:

Boring old Dr. Butler tucked his stethoscope into that stupid Tattersall vest his wife never seemed to be able to pry off his decrepit corpse. What, were those stripes painted onto his torso? “I’m afraid there will be no prom for you tonight, Gertie.”

Chicken pox, smicken pox. That little beast Janie must have been at me with a permanent red marking pen while I napped. Yeah, right, Mom: I needed that extra fifteen minutes of beauty sleep. “But I’m feeling fine!”

Wilma shoved her back down on the bed with a hand that must have been soaking in an ice bucket for an hour. Predictably, she came down on the side of caution. Big surprise. “Now, sweetie, don’t jump around while you’re feverish. I’ll dig your old mittens out of the attic, so you can’t scratch yourself into a bloody mess.”

Allows for a bit more character development, doesn’t it? If you have a very opinionated protagonist, this method can give you a lot of freedom to bring out character richness through perceptual details, without the tedium of identifying the protagonist as the instigator of these ideas each and every time.

Do be aware, though, that this method can get a bit confusing if you have chosen to write a scene from an omniscient narrator’s perspective, showing the reader several different characters’ thoughts within the same scene. In that case, you will need to label who is thinking what, for clarity:

Oh, no, Dr. Butler thought, time to bring on another spoiled pretty girl tantrum. “I’m afraid there will be no prom for you tonight, Gertie.”

Get your hands off me, you filthy old trout, Gertrude seethed. Chicken pox, smicken pox. “But I’m feeling fine!”

Wilma pushed her back down onto the bed: Mother of God, the girl’s flesh was burning up. “Now, sweetie, don’t jump around while you’re feverish.” She frowned the livid scratch welts on Gertrude’s arms. *I would have killed for skin as smooth as hers at that age, and all she can think to do is hack at it?* I’ll dig your old mittens out of the attic, so you can’t scratch yourself into a bloody mess.”

Janie clutched Gertrude’s taffeta dress against her body, watching herself surreptitiously in the full-length mirror on her sister’s closet door. How like Mom not to notice the hot water bottle under Gertie’s pillow. How like Gertie not to notice that her wake-up coffee had been loaded with ipecac. It was amazing, how little grown-ups paid attention. “Seems a shame to waste such a beautiful dress. Shall I go downstairs and tell Tad you’re not going?”

As you may see, a number of different methods of identifying character thought can be made to work well. Here, without overuse of the verb to think, the reader can enjoy the humor inherent in the unspoken battle of perspectives. However, it requires constant vigilance on the part of the writer to make sure that we always know who is thinking what. Even a single thought left floating in the air can throw off the rhythm of the whole scene.

That’s a long answer to your question, Cathryn, but I hope it helps. It’s less a issue of finding a rule to apply in every instance, I think, than figuring out what will serve your character and scene — as well your narrative — best in the moment.

Thanks for the thought-provoking question. And everybody, please: when you are puzzled by a technical issue, or curious about the business side of the industry, or anything in between, feel free to post a comment or question about it, and I’ll take a swing at addressing it. Chances are, you’re not the only reader who wants to know.

Keep up the good work!

Characters who think, part II

Yesterday, I was talking about the spirited debate amongst givers of writing advice regarding how to designate characters’ thoughts — other than simply saying,

Is this what monkey brain casserole is supposed to taste like? Sharon wondered.

Today, as promised, I shall give you an overview of the different schools of thought on the subject. To set the ground rules firmly in advance: for the purposes of this discussion, I am assuming that we are talking about a third-person narrative with a strongly defined protagonist. Why? Well, in other flavors of narrative choice, the strictures of the narrative point of view tend to dictate how and when the reader is shown a character’s thoughts.

Too technical? Allow me to clarify. In a first-person narrative, the only thoughts we could possibly be hearing are the protagonist’s, right? So there is no reason to present them in any special way: they are simply a part of the narrative point of view.

Ditto with a multiple first-person perspective, or a multiple protagonist tight third person. In these cases, there are structural signposts for the reader about whose perspective is whose — the most popular, of course, being the simple act of devoting one chapter to each perspective à la THE POISONWOOD BIBLE — so again, the form dictates whose thoughts will appear when. The thoughts are presented in exactly the same way as the rest of the facts retailed by the narrative.

However, most fiction is written in the third person, so let’s concentrate on that. When the narrative voice is distinct from that of the protagonist’s mind, it is necessary to differentiate on the page between what the character is thinking and what is the author’s commentary on the situation at hand. Often, the problem is that the writer wants to keep the thoughts in the first person, to be literal about them, but it’s not the only option the writer has. Here are a few ways it can be done.

First, there is the italicization method. With this stylistic choice, all of the protagonist’s thoughts are italicized, to differentiate them from speech. The thoughts, of course, are all in the first person and present tense. In practice, Method #1 will look something like this — or, wait a minute, I can’t do italics in blog format. So you’re going to have to use your imagination: the bits within asterisks are italicized.

*I shouldn’t be doing this.* With shaking hands, Brenda reached for the glass in front of her. *What would my mother say? Or Aunt Grizelda?*

Basically, these italicized thoughts operate as asides to the overall narrative. Sometimes, these asides are thrown into the middle of narrative sentences — *Oh, God, are my readers going to like this format?* — to heighten dramatic tension.

The primary advantage of this method is obvious: there is never any question about what is thought and what is speech. (In case you were not aware of it, placing a reader’s thoughts within quotation marks is fairly universally frowned upon. Just because Jane Austen does it doesn’t mean you should.) This can be a big plus, if your protagonist is given to thoughts that are diametrically opposed to what she is saying:

*That muumuu’s pattern is giving me a migraine.* “I love your dress,” Tanya said.

However, as I mentioned yesterday, there is a sizable contingent of the editorial community — that’s the fine folks working at publishing houses, in addition to freelancers like me — that believes this is sort of a cheap writing trick. This view is especially common amongst editors who frown on typeface tricks in general. They like the text, only the text, and all of the text, please.

A second popular method is to reserve the italics for the especially vehement thoughts, simply stating that the other, more pedestrian things floating around your protagonist’s head are indeed thoughts:

What a lucky break, Janie thought dreamily as Tad drove them down the boulevard in his red Astin-Martin roadster. Who’d have thought that her sister’s getting chicken pox would mean that Janie would get to go to the prom as a freshman? Here she was, sitting next to the most popular boy in school, a spray of green gladioli firmly pinned to where the strap would have been on a less formal dress, and — *watch out for that horse in the road!*

Now, I was a little tricky here, because this example contains Methods #3 and #4 as well. In the first sentence, I have used Method #3, taking the very direct route of just telling the what Janie is thinking and that she is thinking it. This is useful when the actual phraseology of the thought deserves emphasis. However, a lot of professional readers consider it a bit clumsy if used too often, just as using a tag line (he said, she cried out) every time a character utters a sound is considered a bit ham-handed by the pros. Method #3 is best used sparingly, for this reason.

In Method #4, later in the paragraph, I have moved the content of Janie’s thoughts into third-person narration, providing a little analytical distance from her daydreaming mood. (Because, really, who would be able to describe her own situation accurately while being driven to the prom by a dreambarge like Tad?) This can be very effective when the narrative voice is very distinct from the character’s; it’s a great choice for displaying irony to its utmost advantage, for instance.

Method #5 is my personal favorite, because it allows such tight pacing: in an ultra-tight third-person narrative, where the narration is letting the reader in on the protagonist’s thoughts, bodily sensations, and perceptions as the primary lens through which the story is told, the protagonist’s thoughts are integrated seamlessly into the text. In this method, whenever it is apparent whose perspective the reader is seeing, there is no need to identify the thoughts as such:

There’s no such thing as a ghost. Repeat it a hundred times, and it might start to feel true. Stacey’s skin rippled slightly over the back of her neck: a passing breeze from that window behind her that was definitely closed the last time she checked, certainly. It would be stupid to turn around and double-check it. Yes, the window must just be in sore need of refreshed weatherstripping. There is no such thing as a ghost, silly. There’s no such thing as a ghost.

Perfectly clear that Stacey is thinking, isn’t it? Yet not once does the narrative either say so or have to use typeface or punctuation tricks to show it.

Tomorrow, I shall discuss the various ways that each of these methods can help you establish the mood and point of view of a scene. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Characters who think

Excellent and insightful reader Cathryn wrote in last week to ask: “For any manuscript submission, can you give us the rule for indicating character thought? I have found ‘italicize only foreign words’ and ‘ underline anything that needs italicizing.’ Help!”

Cathryn, a lot of readers struggle with this — and I wish that the standard style manuals would just come on out and say that standard format for manuscripts is NOT identical to standard format for print, and that rules that governed the printed word during the days when the typewriter was the dominant medium are not all still true. I think not saying these things confuses aspiring writers needlessly.

To deal with the more straightforward issues first: in standard manuscript format — which, lest we forget, is NOT the same format as ends up on the published page — words you want italicized should be, well, italicized. Underlining them to indicate that you want them italicized was what you did when you were working with a typewriter: in most models, italics were not available. Like the double dash to indicate that the author really MEANT a dash and not a hyphen, these old rules were originally signals to the typesetter for how to set up the final print run.

For all of the insiders’ talk about being cutting-edge, this is sometimes a pretty archaic business.

A similar logic governs the italicization of foreign words — that would be words that are not proper nouns, incidentally. Names, as my high school French teacher liked to remind us between salty reminiscences of her college exchange year in Paris, do not translate. Foreign words are italicized to alert the typesetter (and now, the agent and editor) that those odd spellings are not typos, but legitimate words ze foreen tungzze.

However, not everything in writing is governed by a rule. I’m not surprised you had difficulty tracking down a hard-and-fast rule governing characters’ thoughts, Cathryn: there isn’t one. How you choose to handle it is a matter of personal style.

Now, there are PLENTY of writing teachers out there who will disagree with me, upstanding souls who will insist that there is one, and only one, right way to do ANYTHING in a text. Like the dreaded Point-of-View Nazis, these critics will jump all over innocent manuscript pages, ripping them to shreds because the writer has not elected to use the critics’ favorite method.

The simple fact is, though, for every soi-disant expert who will insist that characters’ thoughts must MUST be italicized every time without fail, there are two who will aver with equal vehemence that italicizing a character’s thoughts is a rookie’s trick, only used by writers who do not have sufficient skills to integrate their characters’ ruminations more naturally into the text.

To render the issue even more confusing, both schools of thought have their advocates amongst agents and editors. Both will tell you with absolute confidence, you will be delighted to hear, that the other side is absurd, amateurish, and wrong.

“In all matters of opinion,” Mark Twain teaches us, “our adversaries are insane.”

But the vitriol with which rule-mongers push their own stylistic choices makes them SOUND so right, doesn’t it? At times, it can be very similar to the way people speak in the fitness industry. As anyone who has paid attention to diet and exercise trends over a couple of decades can tell you, what the so-called experts claim will work changes radically and often. The same doctors who were insisting that high fat, low carbs were the answer to every dieter’s prayer were claiming five years before that complex carbs were the way of the gods. Something that looked suspiciously like Atkins was very popular in the early 1970s. There was a period when heavy exercisers were told not to drink much water while they were perspiring, and another where dehydration spelled doom.

Yet, amazingly enough, no matter content of the advice, or whether the advisor had been telling you the exact opposite the day before, the experts always use exactly the same tone, don’t they? You know the tone I mean, surely — that “any fool should know THAT” tone so favored by doctors with scant bedside manners. It is not a tone that invites disagreement, or even rational discussion — its intent is to impress the hearer with the speaker’s authority.

Why? Because they say so.

Since there are so many different schools of thought on the thought issue, I am a trifle reluctant to state my own opinions on the subject, lest they be taken as prescriptions. Instead, I am going to go through the most popular methods of showing character thought, and talk about the pros and cons of each.

But that is a task for tomorrow. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Manuscript revision VIII: har de har har har

My, I went on a tear yesterday, didn’t I? Well, better get comfy today, too, folks, because this is going to be another long one. Although, as a writer of comic novels on serious topics (my latest is about when the first AIDS death happened at Harvard, hardly inherently a chuckle-fest), the topic du jour is very close to my heart: making sure the funny parts of your manuscript are actually funny, and revising so they will be.

Why, you may be wondering, am I taking up this topic immediately after the issue of freshness of voice? Well, to professional readers, humor is often a voice issue. Not many books have genuinely amusing narrative voices, and so a good comic touch here and there can be a definite selling point for a book. The industry truism claims that one good laugh can kick a door open; in my experience, that isn’t always true, but if you can make an agency screener laugh out loud within the first page or two, chances are good that the agency is going to ask to see the rest of the submission.

Hey, there’s a reason that my novel, THE BUDDHA IN THE HOT TUB, opens with the death of the protagonist’s grandmother in a tragic bocce ball accident in Golden Gate Park. (After consultation with his fellow players, the murderer is allowed to take the shot again, with no penalty.) The smile raised by it buys the novel good will with editors for pages to come.

But if a submission TRIES to be funny and fails — especially if the dead-on-arrival joke is in the exposition, rather than the dialogue — most agents and editors will fault the author’s voice, dismissing it (often unfairly) as not being fully developed enough to have a sense of its impact upon the reader. It usually doesn’t take more than a couple of defunct ducks in a manuscript to move it into the rejection pile.

All very technical, I know. But as I’m relatively certain I’ve said before (about 7000 times, if memory serves), the more you can put yourself in your dream agent or editor’s reading glasses while you are revising your submission, the better off you will be in the long run.

Humor is a great way to establish your narrative voice as unique, but it can be a risky strategy. Why, you ask? Well, unless you are lucky or brave enough to be a stand-up comic, or have another job that allows you to test material on a live audience — okay, I’ll admit it: back when I was lecturing to college students, I used to try out jokes on my captive audience all the time — you honestly cannot tell for sure if the bits that seemed hilarious to you in the privacy of your studio would be funny to anyone else.

Trust me on this one: your first test of whether a joke works should NOT be when you submit it to the agency of your dreams.

So how can you know what works and what doesn’t? Personally, I read every syllable of my novels out loud to someone else before even my first readers or agent see them. If an expected chuckle does not come, I flag the passage and rework it, pronto.

Now, this isn’t a completely reliable test, because I have pretty good delivery (due to all of those years honing my comic timing on helpless college students, no doubt), but it does help me get a sense of what is and isn’t working. Reading out loud is also one of the few ways to weed out what movie people call bad laughs, the unintentional blunders that make readers guffaw.

This strategy only works, of course, if you are open to the possibility that the sentence that you thought was the best one-liner penned in North America since Richard Pryor died is simply not funny, and thus should be cut. Admittedly, this kind of perspective is not always easy to maintain: it requires you to be humble. Your favorite line may very well go; it’s no accident that the oft-quoted editing advice, “Kill your darlings,” came from the great wit Dorothy Parker.

But be ruthless: if it isn’t funny, it should go — no matter how much it makes you laugh. As any successful comedy writer can tell you, in the long run, actually doesn’t matter if the author laughs himself silly over any given joke: the reaction that matters is the audience’s. (And no, the fact that your spouse/mother/best friend laughed heartily does not necessarily mean a line is genuinely funny. It may mean merely that these people love you and want you to be happy.)

Lacking an audience, it is still possible to weed out the unfunny. There are a few common comic mistakes that should set off warning bells while you are editing — because, believe me, they will be setting off hazard flares in the minds of agents and editors.

First, look for jokes that are explained AFTER they appear in the text. Starting with the punch line, then working backward, is almost never as funny as bits told the other way around: a good comic bit should produce a SPONTANEOUS response in the reader, not a rueful smile three lines later. (And to an agency screener, explaining a joke after the fact looks suspiciously like the bit fell flat in the author’s writing group, and the writer scrambled to justify the joke in order to keep it in the book.) If background information is necessary in order to make a joke funny, introduce it unobtrusively earlier in the text, so the reader already knows it by the time you make the joke.

Second, ANY real-life situation that you have imported because it was funny should be read by other people before you submit it to an agent or editor. No fair telling it as an anecdote — have them read it precisely as you present it in the text. Keep an eye on your victims as they read: are they smiling, or do they look like jurors on a death penalty case?

The humorous anecdote that slayed ‘em at the office potluck VERY frequently rolls over and dies on the page. Just because everyone laughed when Aunt Myrtle’s prize-winning carrot-rhubarb pie fell onto your dog’s head at the Fourth of July picnic doesn’t necessarily mean that it will inspire mirth in the average reader. Especially if that reader doesn’t already know that Aunt Myrtle’s pies are renowned for making Mom swell up from an allergic reaction, so Dad generally arranges to have some tragic pie-related incident occur every year — which brings us back to problem #1, right?

Again, this is an assumption problem: there’s a reason, after all, that the language includes the phrase, “you had to be there.”

Don’t feel embarrassed, please, if you find that you have included such a scene: even the pros make this mistake very frequently; you know those recurring characters on sketch comedy shows, the ones that are only funny if you’ve seen them a couple of dozen times? Often, those are real-life characters pressed into comic service. (In the extremely unlikely circumstance that good comedy writer Ben Stiller will one day upon this message in a bottle: honey, that bit with the guy who keeps saying “just do it” has NEVER worked. It wasn’t funny in the often-hilarious THE BEN STILLER SHOW; it still wasn’t funny a decade later, in the not-very-funny STARSKY & HUTCH. Kindly stop telling us how funny it was when the guy did it in real life — it’s irrelevant.)

Third, you should also take a very, very close look at any joke or situation at which a character in the text is seen to laugh immoderately. (And if, after you reread it, you find yourself tempted for even 35 seconds to exclaim, “But everyone laughed when it happened!” go stand in the corner with Ben Stiller.) I like to call this the Guffawing Character Problem; it is ubiquitous in first novels, so much so that agency screeners often just stop reading when it occurs.

Why? Well, to professional eyes, having characters whoop and holler over a joke reads like insecurity on the author’s part: like the laugh track on a TV series, it can come across as merely a blind to cover a joke that actually isn’t very funny. It makes the reader wonder if, in fact, she’s being ORDERED to laugh. Agents and editors don’t like taking orders from writers, as a general rule.

The device also sets the funny bar unnecessarily high: the broader the character’s response, the more pressure on the poor little joke to be funny. If the character’s laugh is even one millisecond longer than the reader’s, it’s going to seem as though the writer is reaching.

Fourth, excise any jokes that you have borrowed from TV, movies, radio shows, other books, or the zeitgeist. And definitely think twice about recycling comic premises from any of the above. This is a freshness issue: by definition, a joke that has been told before by someone else isn’t fresh, right?

This may seem like rather strange advice to those of you who have just spent summer conference season being told endlessly by agents and editors that they are looking for books like this or that bestseller, but honestly, copycat books usually don’t sell all that well. (Witness how quickly chick lit fell off agents’ hot lists, for instance.) As Mae West liked to say, there are a lot of copies out there, but if you’re an original, no one can mistake you for someone else. No one remembers the copies.

Don’t believe me? Okay, name three books patterned after COLD MOUNTAIN. Or SEX IN THE CITY. Or, if you want to go farther back in time, CATCH-22. I thought not.

#5 is really a subset of #4, but it is common enough to warrant its own warning: if you use clichés for comic effect, make ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN that you have used them correctly. You would not BELIEVE how common it is for writers to misreproduce clichés. (I would not believe it myself, if I had not been a judge in a number of literary contests and edited hundreds of manuscripts.) If you’re going for a recognition laugh, you’re far more likely to get it with “It’s a dog-eat-dog world” than “It’s a doggie-dog world.”

Trust me on this one. An incorrectly-quoted cliché will kill any humorous intention you had deader than the proverbial doornail. So make sure that your needles remain in your haystacks, and that the poles you wouldn’t touch things with are 10-foot, not 100-foot. (How would you lift a 100-foot pole without the assistance of a dozen friends, anyway?) When in doubt about the proper phraseology, ask someone outside your immediate circle of friends — your own friends may well be making the same mistake you are.

Even better, leave the clichés out altogether. Most agents and editors dislike clichés with an intensity that other people reserve for fiery automobile crashes, airplane malfunctions, and the bubonic plague. They feel (as do I) that a writer worth rewarding with a publishing contract should be able should be able to make it through 50 pages of text without reverting to well-worn truisms, even as a joke.

If you are new to writing comedy, allow me to let you in on a little secret: many jokes that garner chuckles when spoken aloud fall flat in print. This is particularly true of the kind of patented one-liner people on the street are so fond of quoting from their favorite sitcoms, movies, and sketch comedy shows. Take a gander, for instance, at these zingers out of context:

From the 1970s: Excu-u-use me!
From the 1980s: You look mahvelous!
From the late 1990s: I don’t know karate, but I do know cah-razy.

Now, if you close your eyes and conjure up vivid images of Steve Martin, Billy Crystal, and Owen Wilson, respectively, saying these lines, these old chestnuts might still elicit the odd chuckle. Go ahead and chuckle your head off, if you are given to atavistic clinging to the popular culture of your past, but please, I implore you, do not make the (unfortunately common) mistake of reusing these kinds of once-popular catchphrases in your writing. Not only are such bits seldom funny out of context, but it will date your book: what is humor today probably will not be in a decade, and one generation’s humor will not be another’s.

In fact, if you aspire to perfecting your comic voice, it might behoove you to take a good, hard look at the careers of Mssrs. Martin, Crystal, and Wilson — and Mssr. Stiller and Madame Mae West, for that matter. All of them started out as comedy writers, writing material for themselves and others, and all became progressively less funny (in this writer’s opinion) as soon as they started performing comic material written by other people.

An accident? I think not. They became less funny because their individual comic voices had gotten lost.

Oh, the people who were writing for them have tried to recapture their quite distinct original voices, but the copy is never as vivid as the original. Why any of you stopped writing your own material is a mystery to me. But I digress…

And so will an agency screener’s mind digress, if you drag gratuitous pop culture references into your submissions. People tend to have very strong associations with particular periods in their lives, and for all you know, the reference you choose to use may be the very one most favored in 1978 by your dream agent’s hideously unkind ex, the one who lied in court during the divorce proceedings and hid assets so cleverly that their daughter’s college fund had to be used to pay those unexpected medical bills of Mother’s. Then the car broke down, and all of those checks bounced, and the orthodontist tried to repossess Angela’s braces…

See what happened? One little pop culture reference, and POW! You’ve lost your reader’s attention entirely.

So even if you are using pop culture references to establish a particular period, do it with care. Be sparing. Even if your teenage son quoted SHANGHAI NOON endlessly for six solid months while the entire family cringed in a Y2K fallout shelter, do be aware that your reader might not have the associations you do with those jokes. There are a myriad of associational possibilities — and almost none of them will make YOUR work more memorable or seem fresher.

Which brings me full-circle, doesn’t it? One of the advantages to using humor in your submissions is to demonstrate the originality of YOUR voice — not Owen Wilson’s, not Steve Martin’s, and certainly not that anonymous person who originated that joke your best friend from college just forwarded to you. If your individual voice is not inherently humorous, don’t try to force it to be by importing humor from other sources. Lifting material from elsewhere, even if it is genuinely funny, is not the best means of establishing that YOU are funny — or that yours is a book well worth reading.

Or better still, remembering AFTER having read and offering to represent or publish.

People still remember Mae West, my friends, not her hundreds of imitators. Here’s to all of us being originals on the page — and keep up the good work!

Manuscript revision VII: never assume a universal reaction

In my earlier discussion of freshness and why your want you manuscript to convey the subtle-yet-vivid impression that it has just popped out of the cultural oven — or at any rate isn’t a Twinkie that’s been sitting in the back of a cupboard for the last five years — I brought up the need to avoid incorporating stereotypes into your submissions, lest you offend someone on the reading end of your query. (Hint: not everyone in New York is straight, for instance, or white, or male, or…)

Today, though, I want to talk about how stereotyping and other authorial assumptions of mutual understanding with the reader can water down the intended impact of a manuscript, even when the assumptions in question are not inherently offensive to the reader.

If I have not already made this clear, even amongst agents and editors who are not easily affronted personally, stereotypes tend not to engender positive reactions. Why? Well, in a new writer, they’re looking to see is originality of worldview and strength of voice, in addition to serious writing talent. When you speak in stereotypes, it’s extremely difficult for a reader new to your work to tell where your authorial voice differs markedly from, say, the average episodic TV writer’s.

It’s just not as impressive as hearing from you directly.

Which is why, in some cases, marked personal prejudices may actually lend verve to a voice. This is nowhere more true than in the world of blogs. We bloggers are SUPPOSED to be absolutely open about our pet peeves and quirky interpretations of the world around us: one of the points of the medium is to be as subjective as possible. Think about it: wouldn’t Andrew Sullivan’s blog about politics (well worth reading, if you haven’t) be far less interesting if he didn’t make his personal views so VERY apparent? Or, for that matter, wouldn’t this very blog be rather uninteresting without my pronounced (albeit charming, I hope) personal slant?

That’s why the mainstream news’ attempts at establishing themselves as legitimate voices in the blogosphere have tended to fall so flat, I think: their voices are the products of PR research; the individual bizarreness has been utterly ironed out.

Which is, by the way, one of the most common critiques of MFA programs, and even writing groups. In some of these settings, the criticism goes, books end up being, if not written, then edited by committee: the authorial voice is nipped and tucked to conform to so many people’s opinions of what the work should be that the originality of the voice gets lost. In the industry, books like these are known as “an MFA story” or “workshopped to death.”

Does it surprise you that I, the queen of hogtying writers and forcing them to get an outside opinion of their work before they submit it, would bring this up? Ah, but as Aristotle tells us, true virtue lies in not taking a desirable trait to its most extreme form, but rather in practicing goodness in moderation. A fresh voice is an original voice, and just as adhering to stereotypes can muffle the originality of the writer’s worldview on the page, so can editing too much for what you think your readers want to hear — even if those readers are agents and editors.

In other words: make sure that your manuscript’s voice always sounds like YOU.

As with any rule, there are major caveats to sounding like yourself, or course. The first rule – and one of the ones most commonly broken by those new to writing – is that in order for your reader to be able to appreciate the nuances of your voice, you need to provide enough information for the reader to respond spontaneously to the action of the piece, rather than being informed that this is funny, that is horrible, etc.

Those of you who have taken writing classes are probably familiar with this rule’s most famous corollary: show, don’t tell.

The second cousin of this axiom is less well known: not everything that happens in real life is plausible on paper. And that’s counterintuitive, isn’t it? As Virginia Woolf tells us, “Good fiction must stick to the facts, and the truer the facts, the better the fiction.” While that is often true, what are we to make of the real-life experience that seems made-up when it’s translated into print?

Simple: fiction tends to adhere to rules of dramatic structure and probability; real life doesn’t.

So when you are looking over your manuscript with an eye to revision, remember this: “But it really happened!” is not an excuse that professional writers ever use — or that most agents and editors will ever accept. Why? Because it’s the writer’s job to make everything in the book seem plausible, whether or not it really happened.

Most writers don’t like hearing this, but not everything that strikes you personally as funny, outrageous, or horrifying is necessarily going to seem so in print. And it’s very, very common problem in novel submissions — common enough that I’m going to add it to the dreaded Manuscript Mega-problems list — for the author to assume that the opposite is the case.

Personal anger masked as fiction, for instance, usually does not work so well on the page. If the average agency screener had a dime for every manuscript she read that included a scene where a minor character, often otherwise unrelated to the plot, turned up for apparently no purpose other than annoying the protagonist, she would not only own the agency — she might be able to rival the gross national product of Haiti.

I cannot even begin to count the number of novels I have edited that have contained scenes where the reader is clearly supposed to be incensed at one of the characters, yet it is not at all apparent from the action of the scene why. These scenes are pretty easy for those of us in the biz to spot, because the protagonist is ALWAYS presented as in the right for every instant of the scene, a state of grace quite unusual in real life. It doesn’t ring true — and it’s not as interesting as more nuanced conflict.

Invariably, when I have asked the authors about these scenes, the incidents turn out to be lifted directly from real life. The writer is always quite astonished that his own take on the real-life scene did not automatically translate into instantaneous sympathy in every conceivable reader.

This is an assumption problem, every bit as much as including a stereotype in your work. But what the writer pitches, the reader does not always catch.

Many writers assume (wrongly) that if someone is annoying in real life, and they reproduce the guy down to the last whisker follicle, he will be annoying on the page as well, but that is not necessarily true. Often, the author’s anger at the fellow so spills into the account that the villain starts to appear maligned. If his presentation is too obviously biased, the reader may start to identify with him, and in the worst cases, actually take the villain’s side against the hero. This revenge has clearly not gone as planned.

Yes, I called it revenge, because revenge it usually is. Most writers are very aware of the retributive powers of their work. As my beloved old mentor, the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, was fond of saying, “Never screw over a living writer. They can always get back at you on the page.”

Oh, stop blushing. You didn’t honestly think that when you included that horrible co-worker in three scenes of your novel that you were doing her a FAVOR, did you?

“But wait!” I hear some of you out there crying, especially those of you who are veterans of a lot of writing classes. “I’ve always been told that the key to good writing is to tap into my deep emotions, to let them spill onto the page. Are you saying that’s not true?”

Good question. No, I’m not saying that you should write with your emotional flow valve permanently set on low. I think there can be a lot of value in those writing exercises that encourage the opening up of the writer’s emotional memory. In revision, it is often useful to bring in some of those techniques to increase the emotional potency of a scene, just as a Method actor might use a traumatic memory from her childhood to inform her performance of a character in pain.

However, I do think that there is a fundamental difference between trying to express your deeper emotions in an exercise and trying to convey a CHARACTER’s emotional response in a book. In the first case, the point is to concentrate the feelings as much as possible. In writing a novel or short story, however, or even a memoir, unmitigated emotion is often confusing to the reader, rather than character-revealing.

What do I mean? Well, I’m going to stop telling you, and show you.

I try not to do this very often, but to illustrate, I am going to revive an anecdote I told on my former PNWA blog last winter. (My apologies to those of you who have heard the story before, but its illustrative value outweighs my dislike of repetition.) While you read it, consider the question: what helps a writer to include in a text, and what does not?

My most vivid personal experience of writerly vitriol was not as the author, thank goodness, but as the intended victim. A few years ago, I was in residence at an artists’ colony. Now, artistic retreats vary a great deal; mine have ranged from a month-long stay in a fragrant cedar cabin in far-northern Minnesota, where all of the writers were asked to remain silent until 4 p.m. each day to a let’s-revisit-the-early-1970s meat market, complete with hot tub, in the Sierra foothills. They’re sort of a crapshoot.

This particular colony had more or less taken over a small, rural New England town, so almost everyone I saw for a month was a painter, a sculptor, or a writer. Of the 60 or so of us in residence, only 12 were writers; you could see the resentment flash in their eyes when they visited the painters’ massive, light-drenched studios, and then returned to the dark caves to which they themselves had been assigned. I elected to write in my room, in order to catch some occasional sunlight, and for the first week, was most happy and productive there.

When I go on a writing retreat, I like to leave the emotional demands of my quotidian life behind, but not everyone feels that way. In fact, several artists had come to the colony with their significant others, also artists: writer and photographer, painter and writer, etc. One of these pairs was a very talented young married couple, she a writer brimming with potential, he a sculptor of great promise. (Although every fiber of my being strains to use their real names, I shall not. Let’s call them Hansel and Gretel, to remove all temptation.)

Sculptor Hansel was an extremely friendly guy, always eager to have a spirited conversation on topics artistic, social, or his favorite of all, sensual. No one in the dining hall was really surprised at how often he brought the conversation around to sex; honestly, once you’d sat through his slide show of sculptures of breast, leg, pudenda, buttocks, and breast, you’d have to be kind of dense not to notice where his mind — or his eyes — liked to wander. He was amusing enough, for a monomaniac. We had coffee a couple of times. I loaned him a book or two.

And suddenly, Gretel started fuming at me like a dragon in the dining hall.

Now, I don’t know anything about the internal workings of their marriage; perhaps they liked jealousy scenes. I don’t, but there’s just no polite way of saying, “HIM? Please; I DO have standards” to an angry lover, is there? So I sat at a different table in the dining hall for the next couple of weeks. A little junior high schoolish, true, but better that than Gretel’s being miserable or my being distracted from the writing I had come there to do.

The fellowship that each writer received included a requirement that each of us do a public reading while we were in residence. Being a “Hey – I’ve got a barn, and you’ve got costumes!” sort of person, I organized other, informal readings as well, so we writers could benefit from feedback and hearing one another’s work. I invited Gretel to each of these shindigs; she never came. Eventually, my only contact with her was being on the receiving end of homicidal stares in the dining hall, as if I’d poisoned her cat or something.

It was almost enough to make me wish that I HAD flirted with her completely unattractive husband.

But I was writing twelve hours a day (yes, Virginia, there IS a good reason to go on a retreat!), so I didn’t think about it much. I had made friends at the colony, my work was going well, and if Gretel didn’t like me, well, we wouldn’t do our laundry at the same time. My friends teased me a little about being such a femme fatale that I didn’t even need to do anything but eat a turkey sandwich near the couple to spark a fight, but that was it.

At the end of the third week of our month-long residency, it was Gretel’s turn to give her formal reading to the entire population of the colony, plus a few local residents who wandered in because there was nothing else to do in town, and the very important, repeated National Book Award nominee who had dropped by (in exchange for an honorarium that can only be described as lavish) to shed the effulgence of her decades of success upon the resident writers. Since it was such a critical audience, most of the writers elected — sensibly, I think — to read only highly polished work, short stories they had already published, excerpts from novels long on the shelves. Unlike my more congenial, small reading groups, it was not an atmosphere conducive to experimentation.

The first two writers read: beautifully varnished work, safe stuff for any audience. When Gretel’s turn came, she stood up and announced that she was going to read two short pieces she had written here at the colony. She glanced over at me, and my guts told me there was going to be trouble.

Her first piece was a lengthy interior monologue, a first person, present-tense description of Hansel and Gretel — helpfully identified BY NAME — having sex, in vivid detail. Just sex, without any emotional content to the scene, a straightforward account of a mechanical act IN REAL TIME that included — I kid you not — a literal countdown to the final climax (his, not hers).

It was so like a late-1960’s journalistic account of a rocket launch that I kept expecting her to say, “Houston, we’ve got a problem.”

Now, I certainly have no objection to writers who turn their diaries into works for public consumption, but this was graphic without being either arousing or instructive. However, the painters in the back row hooted and hollered, so maybe I just wasn’t the right audience for her piece.

Still, looking around the auditorium, I didn’t seem to be the only auditor relieved when it ended. (“Three…two…one.” That’s a QUOTE, people!) Call me judgmental, but I tend to think that when half the participants are pleased the act described is over, it’s not the best sex scene imaginable. And let’s just say that her husband probably would have preferred that this real-time telling had taken longer than six minutes to read. A classic case, one hopes, of the real-life incident being better than its telling on paper.

Gretel’s second piece took place at a wedding reception. Again in the first person, again with herself and her by now shattered husband identified by name, again an interior monologue, this little number had some legitimately comic moments in the course of the first page. As I said, Gretel could write.

Somewhere in the middle of page 2, a new character sashayed into the scene, sat down at their table, picked up a turkey sandwich — and suddenly, the interior monologue shifted, from a gently amused description of a social event to a jealously-inflamed tirade. Because I love you people, I shall spare you the details, apart from that fact that the narrative included the immortal lines, “Keep away from my husband, bitch!” and “Are those real?”

Gretel read the piece extremely well; her voice, her entire demeanor altered, like a hissing cat, arching her back in preparation for a fight. Fury looked great on her. And to her credit, the character that everyone in the room knew perfectly well was me — that’s not just paranoia speaking, I assure you; her physical description would have enabled any police department in North America to pick me up right away — never actually said or did anything seductive at all; her mere presence was enough to spark almost incoherent rage in the narrator. And Hansel sat there, purple-faced, avoiding the eyes of his sculptor friends, until she finished.

There was no ending to the story, no “three…two…one” this time. She just stopped, worn out from passion. I’m not even convinced that she read everything written on the page.

I was very nice to her during and after this hugely embarrassing event; what else could I do? I laughed at her in-text jokes whenever it was remotely possible — especially when they were against me — congratulated her warmly on her vibrant dialogue in front of the National Book Award nominee, and made a point of passing along a book of Dorothy Parker short stories to her the next day.

Others were not so kind, either to her or to Hansel. The more considerate ones merely laughed at them behind their backs. Others depicted her in cartoon form, or acted out her performance in the dining hall after she had dumped her tray; someone even wrote a parody of her piece and passed it around. True, I did have to live for the next week with the nickname Mata Hari, but compared to being known as the writer whose act of fictional revenge had so badly failed, I wouldn’t have cared if everyone had called me Lizzie Borden. And, of course, it became quite apparent that every time I was nice to Gretel after that, every time I smiled at her in a hallway when others wouldn’t, it was only pouring salt on her wounded ego.

Oh, how I wish I could say this was the only time I have ever seen a writer do something like this to herself…

But the fact is, it’s downright common in novels. Rest assured, though, that revenge fantasies tend to announce themselves as screamingly from the pages of a submission as they did from Gretel’s podium. If you’re still angry about an event, maybe it’s not the right time to write about it for publication. Your journal, fine. But until you have gained some perspective — at least enough to perform some legitimate character development for that person you hate — give it a rest. Otherwise, your readers’ sympathies may ricochet, and move in directions that you may not like.

And that can be deadly in a submission.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, it’s always a good idea to get objective feedback on anything you write before you loose it on the world, but if you incorporate painful real-life scenes into your fiction, sharing before submission becomes ABSOLUTELY IMPERATIVE. If you work out your aggressions at your computer — and, let’s face it, a lot of us do — please, please join a writing group. Find good readers you can trust to save you from looking like a junior high schooler on a rampage — but who won’t tone down your marvelously original voice.

And Gretel, honey, in the unlikely event that you ever read this, you might want to remember: revenge is a dish best served cold. Or, as Philip used to say, never screw over a living writer. You never know who might end up writing a blog.

Hey, I’m only human. And yes, this incident did really happen — and that’s why I am writing about it here, not in my next novel, tempting as that might be.

Keep up the good work!

The categories are back — and here comes Ms. Jordan

Hooray! Fabulous, wonderful Brian the Webmaster has tamed the wild beast that was our inexplicable sidebar problem! He officially, to put it colloquially, rocks.

Speaking of rockin’ volunteers working for all of our benefits on this very website, it’s time for another installment from our Northern Californian correspondent, the lovely and talented Jordan E. Rosenfeld . Take it away, Jordan!

Hello, friends. We are friends by now, aren’t we? Welcome to day three of shifting how you think about your writing life, or as you might be calling it, “Weird positive attitude stuff with that California chick.”

Let me make one thing clear. I want you to have the writing life you want and deserve. Anne does too, or else she wouldn’t put so much elbow grease into this blog. She’s giving away tips here that I personally, think she should charge for. But like her, I too want to see other writers succeed, so we give away what we know. The more of us who do succeed, by the way, the more likely the industry gets to stay alive and can continue to compete with the seductive intensity of TV and movies.

By now, if you’ve followed my posts, you’ve taken your “writer’s pulse” (or are free to do so now). You have an idea of whether you are more inclined to bemoan your sad fate as unpublished, or are really freakin’ jazzed to find a way and do the work to get what you want. I’m guessing most of you are of the hardworking variety.

But how many of you get a little bit of information and rush out willy-nilly and write a query letter and send it off; or write a novel in four months and then give up hope when someone tells you it needs work; or look at a glossy literary journal that you’ve had your eyes on for years with the sad little mantra, “it will never happen”?

Okay, so how many of you is not important. What IS, is that there’s an intermediary step you can take between the transmission of information via smart people like Anne and at writing conferences, and the action you take based on that information. That intermediary step isn’t even work; it might even be fun — and it involves writing.

Before I tell you what it is, consider something. If I hand you a picture of a jungle and I say, “pick out all the cats,” that would be a lot different, wouldn’t it, from handing you that same picture and saying, “tell me what animal there are the most of in this scene”?

What’s the difference? The specific focus.

So, when you pick a specific focus — an outcome, for instance — and you write it down, when you go off into action you’re far more inclined to look for, attract and see what will help you obtain your goal (that explanation is for the less “cosmically” inclined. For those of you who really want to open wide open to the possibilities, I tell you: when you know what you want, and believe you can get it, the universe provides.)

So that intermediary step I talked about above between getting good intel and turning it into action is to write down, exactly as you would like it to go, a little “vision” to yourself, like so:

“Just two days after sending out ten queries to literary agents, I get four requests for partials and two for full manuscripts. Within another week, one of my top ten agents offers me representation. I feel (fill in the blank).”

You can write whatever you darn well please, about whatever outcome you want. But I will guarantee that if you get into the habit of clarifying HOW you want these outcomes to go, in specific, not just THAT you want them, but HOW, your results will change.

That’s today’s task #1. On to task #2.

Last week, I asked you to take your “number one desire” and extrapolate out the reasons why you want it, numbered one through twenty. And you, of course, ran to your desks and did this. In the process of wanting why, you energize yourself, you get excited, you start to MEAN IT. And that is crucial. Hey, even Dr. Joyce Brothers said that success is a state of mind. If you want to be successful, you have to believe you are. So start now.

Now, take five of your “reasons why” and see if you can’t come up with ten more “whys” for them. Example: if one of the reasons why I want to be a published novelist is that I believe it is my destiny — then I must now answer,
“Why is it my destiny?”

To which I might say:

–Novel writing is the only thing I do that feels effortless and joyful

–In third grade, I wrote an essay titled, “When I grow up I want to be an authoress.”

–Because I believe I can communicate interesting ideas and entertain people

You see where I’m going with this. Try it for yourself. The deeper you peer into your reasons and get yourself excited about what you’re doing, the more likely you are to succeed.

I’d also like to ask, for your third task of the day, that you continue to work on last time’s other “game” of following the career of a writer you would like to emulate. Keep a notebook. I’m serious. Learn EVERYthing you can about she or he whose career you want. What goals did they set for themselves? What happened just before their big successes? How do they stay successful? I am so willing to bet that a great deal of it is positive feelings.

See you soon.

Jordan E. Rosenfeld

P.S.: If you will allow me to shamelessly hawk my own online class, please visit my teaching site to sign up for the first of many online Creating Space classes, beginning September 9th (4 weeks, $125).

What if they asked you to e-mail it?

Before I begin today’s post: yes, there is a problem with the website at the moment; for reasons that I am tempted to attribute to the sense of humor of a vengeful minor deity, the usual goodies at the right-hand side of the screen aren’t showing up at the moment. So while the links, categories of post, my bio, etc. are still there, technically, it’s not clear how a reader would access them.

Please be patient — we are scrambling around behind the scenes, trying to fix the problem. And to those of you who got a little panicky when my archives disappeared before: rest assured, they are not gone forever. Lots o’ backups.

On to today’s topic. I’ve received quite a few questions privately from writers who have had agents and editors respond to their queries or pitches with requests for e-mailed submissions, rather than paper copies. I have to say, in general, I do not think complying with this request is a good idea from the writer’s point of view, for a variety of reasons.

The first, and the most practical, is that it is MUCH easier to reject someone electronically: one push of a button, and the submission is deleted. This one reason that e-mailed queries are usually answered so quickly: the moment the agent’s eyes fall on something she dislikes, a few simple keystrokes guarantee that query is gone from her life forever.

The same principle, unfortunately, applies to e-mailed submissions.

The second reason — less of an issue with a well-established agency than a new one, but one still worth considering — is the copyright issue. Remember back on the 9th, when I was filling you in on the logic behind the SASE, how I explained that it is vital for a writer to keep control over where and how her work is available to be read? Well, with ANY e-mailed attachment (or any e-mail, for that matter), you have absolutely NO way of controlling, or even knowing, where your work will end up.

While it’s unlikely that the chapter you e-mail to an agent will end up on a printing press in Belize or Outer Mongolia, it’s not entirely unprecedented for entire e-mailed manuscripts to wander to some fairly surprising places. Yes, the same thing COULD conceivably happen with a hard copy, too, but it would require more effort on the sender’s part.

Again, part of the charm of electronic communication is its speed.

Also, it’s been my experience that people in the publishing industry like to pretend that it’s normal and sensible to place an entire book into a single Word document, as though that did not render the manuscript both infinitely harder to edit and significantly more likely to have technical problems. If a document is difficult to open, or there are computer incompatibility problems (especially likely if you are a Mac user or are running an operating system launched within this decade: I tremble to tell you how many agencies and publishing houses are still running Windows 98 on ten-year-old PCs), I can tell you with absolute assurance: YOU will be blamed.

Do you honestly want to begin your relationship with an agent as the writer whose attachment wouldn’t open? (Yes, I know; it’s unfair, but remember, it’s not as though the publishing world tends to employ in-house computer experts. A surprisingly high percentage of agents and editors have significant love-hate issues with their computers. Don’t stick your thumb in that sore spot.)

Then, too, whenever you send something as an attachment, it is too tempting not to proof it in hard copy before you send it, which can be disastrous. Admit it — you probably have in the past tried to edit e-mailed documents right on screen, when you were in a hurry. An odd illusion most of us have, that reading on screen is faster: actually, the typical reader who is concentrating on content reads 25% MORE SLOWLY on screen than on paper. You’re making your proofing job harder — and less efficient — by doing it this way.

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: proof your work in HARD COPY before you send it to ANY agent or editor.

Because it is empirically harder to read on a screen, 79% of on-screen readers scan the page, instead of reading word-for-word — which can have serious implications for your submission over and above proofreading. Ideally, you would like your dream agent to spend MORE time than average reading your sentences, not less, right?

The implication, of course, when an agent or editor asks a writer to e-mail a submission, is that it will be read faster than the same submission sent via regular mail. In my experience, this is usually not true; the submission merely goes into an electronic backlog, rather than a stack of papers. Or it gets forwarded to an assistant, to languish in HER backlog.

And realistically, now many people do you know who would read a 300-page book on screen? If they like the first few pages, they are going to print it out, anyway.

So what would I advise you do if an agent or editor asks you to e-mail your work? Personally, I will not e-mail any writing I intend to sell to anyone with whom I do not have a contractual relationship: agent, editor, editing client. I prefer to have an iron-clad guarantee that my writing is not going to go winging out into the world unbeknownst to me. In cases where there isn’t a pre-existing contractual relationship, I just say that I’m not comfortable sending the material electronically, but assure them it will be in the mail that day.

I have never yet had a soul object to this.

I know that a lot of aspiring writers are too nervous about alienating their potential agents to put their wee feet down on anything major. They want to make sure that they follow the agent or editor’s directions to the letter. If they’re asked for an attachment, they’re going to send an attachment, by gum.

If you fall into that careful category, I have a couple of suggestions. First, are you POSITIVE that the agent or editor DID ask you to e-mail the submission? After all, attachments are how viruses are typically spread. Or did you just make that assumption because the agent or editor responded by e-mail to your query?

Don’t laugh — it is very, very common for writers to send an e-mailed query, then mistake a “fine, send me the first 50 pages” for a direct order to e-mail those pages. However, unless the publishing professional asked SPECIFICALLY that you send your submission as an attachment, feel free to send your pages via regular mail. No excuses necessary.

Second, publishing is a very courtesy-based industry. Generally speaking, most agents and editors will respond well to a prompt, polite return e-mail where the writer explains that she would prefer to send the submission via regular mail. In most cases, they will not care one way or the other, but they will appreciate your consideration.

If the very idea of being that assertive shocks you, close your eyes for a moment and picture the agent or editor who has asked you for your submission. In your mental image, what is that person doing? Scanning the other 700 queries he received this week? Reading over the 20 other requested manuscripts already on his desk? Haggling on the phone, trying to sell a book for an already-signed client? Or is he drumming his fingertips on his barren desktop, muttering, “I asked for Susie Q’s first chapter a week ago. WHERE IS IT?”

Hint: if you said the latter, you may be worrying too much about offending this person.

Agents and editors are really, really busy people. Realistically, yours is almost certainly not the only manuscript any given editor requested at any given conference; yours is definitely not the only query that prompted the agency to ask for pages on the day yours made that agent smile. They receive, at minimum, dozens of packets of requested materials per week.

So what if yours takes an extra few days to get to them? Well, let’s just say that they’re not going to be wandering listlessly around their offices, waiting for your manuscript to show up. They will be keeping occupied, I assure you.

If, even knowing all this, you still find that you are not comfortable saying that you prefer to send your submission via regular mail, consider this: there is an excuse for sending it in hard copy instead that literally no one will question. Particularly someone who is not too computer-savvy.

And what are these magic words? “I’m sorry — my server has been acting funny lately. It’s been mangling attachments. Since I do not want you to have to hassle with it, I am going to send you the chapters you requested by regular mail.”

Simple, clean, unanswerable. And it works every bit as well as a response to an initial request for the first five pages as it does as to send a hard copy of the entire manuscript to an agent who has already seen the first chapter as an attachment.

Piece o’ proverbial cake. Keep up the good work!

Manuscript Revision VI: Not THAT old saw again!

For the last few posts, I have been talking about capturing the elusive quality of freshness in your submissions, and triggers that may lead a harried agent or editor to decide that your book is not fresh — or even is ordinary. To avoid this fate, it’s a good idea to take some pains to avoid these triggers.

Today, I would like to talk about one of the most common ways that fiction and nonfiction submissions both tend to mark themselves as ordinary in the eyes of professional readers: stereotypes.

Television and movies have rather hardened us to stereotypes, haven’t they? In visual media, stereotypes are accepted means of shorthand, a way to convey intended meaning without adding length to the plot or character development for minor characters. And since the audience has, over time, learned this shorthand language, many filmmakers rely upon it heavily.

This is why, in case you were curious, in the TV and movie universe, almost all “regular guys” are invariably commitment-shy, inarticulate about their emotions, and into meaningless sex; pretty women are be shallow, especially if they’re busty; anyone whose name ends in a vowel is Mafia-connected, if the plot requires it; every white Southerner is bigoted, and every politician is corrupt, unless played by the romantic lead. Although men invariably do the proposing in these plots, they all have cold feet just before their weddings (and want to have wild bachelor parties where they sleep with total strangers); all women want to be married, and nearly everyone is a heterosexual, except perhaps the heroine’s best friend, to show that she’s not prejudiced (yes, that’s shorthand, too). And the lead will always, always learn an important lesson — although, of course, in a sitcom, he will have forgotten it utterly by the next week’s episode.

This kind of shorthand requires audience collusion, you know: most of us have become so inured to our complicity in it that we don’t even blink when it happens. The moment that Oliver Stone decided to show us Jim Morrison having a metaphysical experience in THE DOORS, we all already knew that he was going to stick a Native American somewhere in the frame as a spiritual merit badge; all we needed to do was wait for it.

Personally, I find this kind of predictability utterly boring, both on a screen and on the page. As soon as any man in a horror movie is mentioned as having had “a hard childhood,” don’t we all know by now that he’s going to turn out to be the serial killer? Yawn. Don’t we all know instantly that if the female lead faints or mentions putting on weight, she must be pregnant? Snore. And oh, lordy, as soon as we see Jackie Chan standing next to a ladder, don’t we all instinctively brace for a fight to break out?

Don’t get me wrong — I adore Jackie Chan; he’s a wonderful comedy writer. But after seeing dozens of ladder-related incidents in countless movies throughout his deservedly long career, I suspect that he could garner laughs at this point by walking up to any given ladder, turning to the camera, and inviting the audience to join him in counting until a gang of ruffians appears to beat him up.

And, alas, this type of shorthand is not limited to film. It has found its way — oh, how abundantly — into novels. Many, many writers incorporate these stereotypical plot elements and characters into their work. Why? Because TV and movies have made those stereotypes so very accessible that almost every reader will recognize them.

If I find such predictable elements boring, reading a couple of hundred manuscripts per year, imagine how the redundancy must make the fine people who read thousands and thousands of agency submissions for a living want to tear their own hair out, strand by painful strand. Apart from every other argument against stereotypes, they are incredibly, indelibly, excruciatingly ordinary.

The sad thing is, incorporating them is often unconscious on the part of the writer. It seems natural to us that every professor should be absentminded, every redhead should have a fiery temper, every high school cheerleader be a bimbette who cares only for boys with expensive cars. And, for what it’s worth, there are many, many readers out there who won’t lift an eyebrow if you reproduce these stereotypes in your work.

Unfortunately, the screener at an agency tends not to be among the immobile-eyebrowed masses. Just because a stereotype is widely accepted is no reason that YOU should reproduce it. And here’s a hint: if a joke is permanently associated with a particular character in a movie or a TV show, chances are that it will not reproduce well on paper. It dates the manuscript terribly, and often, it’s not even funny.

And if you are still tempted to incorporate a current pop culture catch phrase, would you mind doing an experiment first? Try writing one of Billy Crystal’s 1980s Saturday Night Live catchphrases into a scene out of context and showing the result to someone unfamiliar with his magnum opus. Like, say, a 13-year-old. No fair explaining why people originally found the joke funny.

You’ll be lucky if it generates even a fleeting smile from a teenager, even with the explanation.

If the idea of your submission’s reading like 150 others your dream agent has seen that week doesn’t scare you into rushing to your computer to do a stereotype-and-pop-culture-cliché search, perhaps this will. Remember how I told you yesterday that a writer can have literally NO idea who is going to read his submission, and so it makes sense to assume that it will be read by someone of a different age, sex, race, political affiliation, etc. than the writer? I advised you then to scan your manuscript for things people unlike you might find inappropriate.

Well, now I am going to ramp up that level of scrutiny. Assume that this crucial reader — crucial because that person will make the decision whether your work is worth promoting or not — believes or does not believe about the patterns of human interaction is a big mystery. Is it really worth gambling that this person is going to, say, laugh at the same jokes as everyone at your office?

Come on — you know what I’m talking about. As anyone who follows standup comedy can already tell you, there are a lot of people out there who will laugh at sexist, racist, and homophobic jokes, as well as other humor not particularly insightful about the nuances of the human condition. (Anyone want to hear about the differences between New York and LA? Anyone? Anyone?) And those jokes — and the assumptions that underlie them — turn up with surprising frequency in the dialogue of novels. When combined with another stereotype or two, it can become a bit much.

Again: how sure are you about who will be reading your submission? Isn’t it just possible that it will be someone who picks up your manuscript longing for it to be the first one this week where a Native American character actually WALKS into or out of a room, rather than appearing mysteriously and/or melting away into the darkness?

I’m not saying that you should strip your sociopolitical views from what you write, or wash all of your characters’ mouths out with metaphorical soap. Definitely not. But do be aware that, like the law professor I mentioned yesterday who struck up a conversation with an unknown colleague without realizing that the unknown’s wife was a Supreme Court justice, your reputation can only be improved by utilizing every ounce of tact at your disposal. Every time you use a stereotype, even one you’ve seen a million times on TV, you run the risk of offending someone’s sensibilities on the receiving end.

That’s just a fact.

And perhaps not for the reasons you’d expect. Many years ago, when e-mail was just starting to become widely used, an old high school classmate of mine looked me up. For awhile, we exchanged messages daily about what was going on in our lives (okay, I’ll admit it, while we were both at work; it’s how office-bound Americans got their revenge for losing coffee breaks and paid overtime before blogging became popular), but like many people, Mark was no creative writer. When he started to run out of material, he started forwarding jokes that he’d found on the Internet.

Jokes, unfortunately, that he would not necessarily tell face-to-face.

Some of those jokes were awfully darned offensive, but my gentle twitting in response did not make him stop sending them. My bouncing them back to him did not work, either. So, on a day when he had sent me three jokes that were sexist and two that were racist, I sent him a reply wherein I detailed exactly WHY the jokes were not funny to me; because I am a funny writer, I even rewrote one of them so it was funny without being offensive, to show him the difference. I thought he’d get a kick out of it and would stop forwarding such jokes to me.

You can see this coming, right? Yep, I had accidentally hit the REPLY ALL button.

When I went to work the next day, my inbox was crammed to the gills with nasty responses from people I had never heard of, much less intended to e-mail. About the nicest thing any of them called me was a snob; many suggested that my hobby was doing unpleasant things to men for which dominatrixes are very well paid indeed, and most seemed to think I was of the canine persuasion. It was, in short, a bloodbath.

It took me several hours to figure out what had happened: apparently, Mark had been routinely forwarding these same jokes to everyone in his office.

How did I figure it out? Two subtle clues: a sharp rebuke from Mark, beginning with, “Are you trying to get me fired?” — and five e-mails from female coworkers of his, imploring me for confidentiality, but thanking me for asking him publicly to stop. According to them, since the boss routinely forwarded (and told) this type of joke himself, they were all afraid that they would get summarily fired for being bad sports if they said anything about it. (I suspect they were right about that, too — the boss had sent me one of the nastiest of the flame-mails I received.)

Now, the content of the jokes is actually not my point here: other people might well have read them without finding them offensive; it’s entirely possible that I was simply the wrong audience for them. The important thing to note is that both Mark and I made, in one sense, the same mistake: we each sent something out assuming that the recipients would take them the same way we did.

And that is always a mistake.

In this case, our respective assumptions merely ended a friendship — which, given that we’d been friends since junior high and this incident occurred when I was in graduate school, was not an insignificant loss. But consider this: was what either of us did really so unlike what writers who include stereotyping in their work do every day when they submit to agents and editors?

When you send in a submission, you have even less idea about the interpersonal politics and personalities at any given agency or publishing house than I did all those years ago about the corporate culture of Mark’s company. You may not intend to hurt feelings or raise hackles, but honestly, you have no way of knowing that the agent’s assistant WASN’T a cheerleader in high school — and class valedictorian to boot. Maybe your use of an ostensibly harmless bimbo character will be one use too many for her — because maybe, just maybe, that reader is the kind of really nice person who worked at Mark’s company, who has been shrugging off offense after offense for years, because that’s how you get along at a job.

You never can tell.

Besides, you’re more talented than that. You don’t need to resort to stereotypes to get your point across, any more than you need to have your characters mouth clichés instead of original dialogue. You’re more than capable of making your characters your own, without taking the easy way out of invoking stereotypes as a substitute for character development.

I just know it. Keep up the good work!

Manuscript Revision V, and the dreaded summer sabbatical

Well, it’s official: the annual exodus of the publishing world from Manhattan has begun. From now until after Labor Day, it’s a no-man’s land, a desert where underpaid agency interns rule the office for a couple of weeks and it’s well-nigh impossible for an editor who has fallen in love with a book to pull together enough bodies for an editorial meeting to acquire it.

Not everyone in the industry is on vacation, of course, but most are. Let’s just say that if you yodeled in my agency right now, the echo would astonish you.

What does this mean for writers, in practical terms? Well, agencies are not going to be getting around to a whole lot of submissions over the next couple of weeks, so if you haven’t sent your post-conference queries or submissions out, and the agent you’re querying isn’t low man on the totem pole at the agency (often the one who is left behind to guard the fort in August), you might want to take a couple of weeks to revise before sending it. And if you HAVE sent a submission, it’s very, very unlikely that you will hear back before Labor Day week.

Yes, even if you sent it a month ago.

And yes, they’re doing this to everybody. And oh, yes, they ARE aware that they’re dealing with people’s dreams. Doesn’t stop ‘em from going on vacation.

Back to matters that we writers CAN control. On Wednesday, I was talking about the importance of freshness in your manuscript, discussing what the industry does and does not consider fresh enough to get excited about in a submission. Over the next couple of days, I want to discuss factors that can kill the perception of freshness faster than an agency screener can shout, “NEXT!”

To introduce you to the first good-feeling assassin, let me tell you a story.

In the mid-1990s, a professor at Harvard Law School took a sabbatical and joined the faculty at Georgetown for a year. After he had been installed in his new office for a week, he realized that he was lonely. He’d had tenure for so long at Harvard that he no longer remembered what it had been like to be the new guy in the faculty lounge — and it was miserable.

One day, determined to make friends, he walked into the faculty lounge, sat down next to another law professor, and introduced himself. His new acquaintance seemed friendly enough, but the Harvard professor was pretty rusty at small talk. When they had exhausted discussion about the latest Supreme Court ruling (not too exciting, but hey, they were law professors), he cast his mind back to the last time he had been the new guy, back in the early 1970s, and resuscitated a question that had worked like a charm in the faculty lounge then: “So, what does your wife do?”

The Georgetown professor broke into a fit of uncontrollable giggles, as if the Harvard prof had just made the funniest joke in the world.

The Harvard professor didn’t know whether to be piqued or amused. “I’m sorry — I don’t get the joke. Doesn’t your wife work?”

“Oh, she does,” the Georgetown prof replied dryly, fixing our hero with a glance of singular disdain. “You might possibly have heard of her work, in fact.” The Harvard professor had been talking for the last half an hour to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s husband.

Now, the story may be apocryphal (although I had it from someone who claimed to have been the first professor’s research assistant), but the moral is clear: when speaking to strangers, it behooves you to watch what you say, because you do not necessarily know what their backgrounds or beliefs are. Keep those feet far away from your mouth.

Translation for those submitting to agencies or publishing houses: NEVER assume that your reader will share your sex, gender (yes, they mean different things, technically: sex is biological, gender is learned), ethnicity, generation, social class, educational background, sociopolitical beliefs, political party affiliation, views about the Gulf War, or familiarity with pop culture. Because, you see, it is entirely possible that the person who will end up screening your submission will not be akin to you in one or more of these respects.

Nothing hits the reject pile faster than a manuscript that has offended its reader — unless it is one that an agency screener believes will offend book buyers.

In many ways, this is counterintuitive, isn’t it? As everyone who has ever walked into a bookstore knows, controversy can fuel book sales tremendously. (Well, okay: everyone who has ever walked into a bookstore EXCEPT my publisher knows this.) Once controversial works are out, they tend to sell well — readers, bless their hearts, will often buy books they know will make them angry enough to debate. However, writing on controversial subjects often has a substantially harder time finding a home with an agent – and rather seldom wins contests, I have noticed.

I am not saying that dull, safe writing on mainstream subjects invariably carries off all the trophies — far from it. You can write about child abuse, neglect, murder, and rape until you’re blue in the face without most contest judges becoming offended, and certainly without raising a blush in the average agent. We’ve all read so much about these grisly topics that while the individual stories remain shocking, the concept isn’t; at this point, they’ve become such familiar scenarios that the trick is presenting them in a fresh way. You can write about losing your virginity, cheating on your taxes, and defrauding investors — and agents and editors will merely want to hear how your take on these once-taboo subjects is different from what’s already on the market.

You cannot, however, get away with presuming that any given reader (read: agent, editor, or contest judge) will share your political or social beliefs, however — or, for that matter, anything else in your background or mindset. You can try, like the Harvard professor, to pull off assuming that everybody else’s wife is like your own, but like him, you run the risk of being dismissed as ignorant, insensitive, or worse.

I am most emphatically NOT suggesting that you gut your work of any controversial content, nor am I talking about (and I hate this term) political correctness. I am talking about its being very much in your interests to explain your views thoroughly for the sake of readers who might not share your life experiences or views.

Or who, alternatively, might be VERY familiar with your subject matter, just as the unknown Georgetown professor was unexpectedly knee-deep in Supreme Court lore. Make sure that your submission is respectful of readers at both ends of the familiarity spectrum.

Recognize that your point of view is, in fact, a point of view, and as such, naturally requires elucidation in order to be accessible to all readers.

And do be especially aware that your submission may as easily be read by a 23-year-old recent college graduate with a nose ring and three tattoos as by a 55-year-old agent in Armani. Ditto for contest entries: I can’t tell you how many entries I’ve screened as a judge that automatically assumed that every reader would be a Baby Boomer, with that set of life experiences. As a Gen Xer with parents born long before the Baby Boom, I obviously read these entries differently than an older (or younger) person would. As would a judge, agent, or editor in her late 60s.

See what I mean?

We all have different takes on what we read, and, perhaps more importantly for the sake of your book, different ideas of what is marketable, as well as notions about to whom it might be sold. If an agent or editor thinks that your take on a subject might offend the book’s target market, s/he is unlikely to fall in love with your book enough to want to pick it up.

There are a few simple ways you can minimize the possibility of triggering either the highly sensitive oh-no-it-will-alienate-readers response or an agency screener’s personal hackles. Avoid clichés, for starters, as those tend to be tied to specific eras, regions, and even television watching habits. They date you, and in any case, as most agents will tell you at length if you give them the opportunity, the point of submission is to convey the author’s thoughts, not the common wisdom.

If you can get feedback on your submission from a few readers of different backgrounds than your own, you can easily weed out references that do not work universally before you send the work out. Most writers learn this pro’s trick only very late in the game, but the earlier you can incorporate this practice into your writing career, the better.

Does this seem inordinately time-consuming? It need not be, if you are selective about your readers and give them to understand that they should be flattered that you want their input.

I speak from experience here: I do practice what I preach. I routinely run every chapter of my novels past a wonderful writer who is not only 20 years older than I am, but also grew up in a different country. When I am writing about the West Coast, I garner input from readers raised out East. My female protagonists always traipse under the eyes of both female and male first readers. Why? So I am absolutely sure that my writing is conveying exactly what I want it to say to a broad spectrum of readers.

Third, approach your potential readers with respect, and keep sneering at those who disagree with you to a minimum. (Which is surprisingly common in manuscripts.) I’m not suggesting that you iron out your personal beliefs to make them appear mainstream — agents and editors tend to be smart people who understand that the world is a pretty darned complex place. But watch your tone, particularly in nonfiction, lest you become so carried away in making your case that you forget that a member of your honorable opposition may well be judging your work.

This is a circumstance, like so many others, where politeness pays well. Your mother was right about that, you know.

Finally, accept that you cannot control who will read your work after you mail it to an agency or a publishing house. If your romance novel about an airline pilot happens to fall onto the desk of someone who has recently experienced major turbulence and resented it, there’s really nothing you can do to assuage her dislike. Similarly, if your self-help book on resolving marital discord is screened by a reader who had just signed divorce papers, no efforts on your part can assure a non-cynical read. And, as long-term readers of this blog already know, a tongue just burned on a latté often spells disaster for the next manuscript its owner reads.

Concentrate on what you can control: clarity, aptness of references, and making your story or argument appeal to as broad an audience as possible.

Keep up the good work!

Creating Space for your Writing Life with Jordan E. Rosenfeld, guest blogger

Well, if you weathered my first post, by now you’re saying to yourself, “Woo! I think I might steer clear of that wacky California for awhile.” OR, maybe you’re leaning a little bit toward: “Well, I have been rather down on myself about this whole getting published process; maybe I could use a little positive adjustment…”

No matter which category you fall into, I dare you to consider today’s post and play with the “games” I’ve got for you.

Last time we met I asked you to take an inventory of the kinds of thoughts you have about your writing life and to see if they tended to fall more into the “I deserve” or “I suck” category.

So did you? And what did you find?

Most of us will find that even when we think we’re being positive — “I really, really want to be published!” — what we don’t realize is that we’re focusing on the lack of being published. Imagine walking around and saying to people all day, “I’m not happily married! I’m not expressing myself creatively! I’m not rich!”

With the exception of a few robustly exhibitionist types, I’m guessing you wouldn’t point out to people what you are not, and what you don’t have. Yet this is what you do to yourself when you focus on wanting something rather than treating that desire as something you intend to have… no matter what.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with wanting; it’s human for one, and a default setting for many of us. Wanting is the way in which you make clear to yourself what is missing from your picture of your life. But if you even considered that I might not be totally full of crap when I said two days ago that your feelings are like a big magnetic generator that attracts your life to you, then you’ll be one baby step closer to changing how you think.

So… the inventory I asked you to take was simply a snapshot, a way to get you to notice how you regard yourself and your writing life. Were you shocked to find that you had less, or more, confidence in yourself than you thought? Were you pretty resigned to the fact that a little dull hope is all you’re ever going to muster? Fair enough. You took your pulse, and now you have a diagnosis. Joyful or flatlined or somewhere in between.

Now, I asked you to write down your top five desires — “But wait, Jordan, didn’t you just say that wanting was not such a hot plan?” — I did, that’s why I called these “desires.” It’s a good word, desire, isn’t it? It’s lush and bold and sexy. It makes you purr or pant. Desires are things that make you feel damn good when you think about having them. Like publishing that novel. Or like just getting the thing formatted properly (many of my desires are incredibly practical).

So put down that manuscript you’re itching to send off for a minute. Or that messy revision that’s making your brain hurt. Before you go hurtling yourself into action, take a minute to think about how you’d like the end result of your desire to pan out.

Write down your desires again.

I desire to be a bestselling novelist.
I desire to publish just one short story before I die.
I desire to have women weeping over my words and showering me in praise

Whatever they are, write them down on a clean sheet of paper. Then go through them and where you have the word desire, scratch it out and replace it with a new word or phrase. Rather than desire try, “I intend,” or “I plan to” or “I will” or “I firmly and positively know that…”

Then rewrite your sentences.

I know, one part of you wants to say that this is below your intelligence. You have three degrees for goodness sake, or attended six trazillion writer’s workshops, or were born into a family of linguists. What the heck can changing a word in a sentence do for your mood much less future? Keep an open mind.

Now, look at that list and choose the one that burns most powerfully into your longing. The one that makes you shiver or ache or get heartburn when you think of it REALLY happening to you.

From here, you are going to make two lists.

List number one will have 20 numbered slots. You will come up with 20 reasons why you want this to come to fruition. Why is a powerful question when applied to this burning desire/intention/plan. Why? I mean, really, why?

And your answers need not make Saints feel incompetent. You can wish for success because it will make your enemies burn with jealousy, or because it will vindicate you to all those nay-sayers in your family who just didn’t believe… asking why forces you to widen the possibilities, and jack up the feeling meter to “yeah baby!”

We’ll deal with the results when I post next!

Finally, one more task; this one is not an overnighter: Choose just one author whose career you would like to have. Make it a side goal to find out as much as you can about how and why they became successful. Google them, read interviews, read all their books, scan their acknowledgements and find out what happened along the way. I will bet you that somewhere in the path they started to change the way they thought about themselves.

I’ll share mine. I would like to have a career like the bestselling commercial author Jodi Picoult, who writes tightly plotted, emotionally intricate novels that have an uncanny ability to hit the top ten bestseller list without fail. The woman has written more than 13 novels and has, from all appearances, a very good life.

I have thought about her, and read her, for the past six months. About one year ago, after writing a bang-up pitch letter, I scored my first assignment for Writer’s Digest Magazine. Surely you’ve heard of it. It’s a magazine that gets thousands of pitches each month and rarely takes on new freelance writers because of it. But I was SO SURE about my idea that I never once stopped to think about that in the process.

Well, I knew a good thing when it came my way, so after my first successful assignment, I kept on working with the editor I had established contact with, pitching her regular ideas. I had written for local publications for a long time, but I was ready to become a national, heck, even a household name (My desires run extra-large). I do a daily writing/visualization exercise to keep my focus on the feeling that I am already successful, and have added in how much I fully intend to have a career just like Jodi Picoult’s.

Well, lo and behold, not one year after writing for WD, and before my first article had actually run in print yet (they have a lengthy lead time), I was asked to be a contributing editor to the magazine, getting steady work and having my name featured in the masthead. Pretty cool, eh?

The October issue just hit the stands and guess who is one of just 12 contributing editors? Jodi Picoult. In fact, my name comes right after hers in the line-up. You tell me that’s coincidence. I’ll keep envisioning a career that looks a heck of a lot like hers; we already have one thing in common.

Jordan E. Rosenfeld

If you will allow me to shamelessly hawk my own online class, please visit my teaching site to sign up for the first of many online Creating Space classes, beginning September 9th (4 weeks, $125).

Memoir update: Yes, I got one, too.

I shall post a more substantial message later in the day, but I did want to leave hanging those of you who have been contacting me about having received a message from Amazon, canceling your preorders for my memoir, A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK: yes, I got one, too.

Since I have not been able to extract any new information from my publisher on the subject (pretty much everyone in the industry is on vacation until after Labor Day), I’m not sure what to tell you — and given that there is a remote possibility that this situation will land me, my publisher, and the Dick estate in court, I am severely limited in what I can say here about what is going on — or why there are people so desperate to suppress this book.

Someday, I promise, I WILL tell you the story of what has been going on for the past 14 months. But it may have to be in novel form.

Suffice it to say for now: I have NOT been informed that Carroll & Graf does NOT intend to publish the book; the contract could not be canceled without informing the author. I have presented them with enough corroborating evidence that there is not, I think, any question of the book’s not coming to publication for reasons of disbelief. It is my understanding that 100% of the publisher’s reservations are based upon fear of a lawsuit. But they might well tell you different if you asked them directly.

Since the Dick estate’s allegations have changed in each subsequent threat, I am not sure what they would like changed in the book. Apparently, they announced a while back on the estate-owned fan forum that they gave a list of demanded changes to my publisher, but to the best of my knowledge, no such list was ever received. If you are curious about what they want, I can only suggest that you ask them.

As far as I know, the estate only ever made one attempt to suggest actual textual changes (rather than preventing the book from coming out at all): in June, 2005, Philip’s eldest daughter sent me a list of, if memory serves, 22 extremely minor requested changes; I made all that I was able to verify were true. This request included an insistence that I not mention my very serious ethical reservations about the Philip android.

Other than that, it is my understanding that the estate’s objections are not based upon matters in the book that they believe to be untrue, but whether I have the right to publish my views of matters that unquestionably ARE true — or whether Philip’s fans have a right to know certain things about him. I believe they do, and furthermore, I believe that many of his hardcore fans have been aware for years that…okay, I’m running into legally tricky ground again here…that not everything they have been told about Philip, or that he told them himself, was necessarily accurate. I am morally certain that Philip himself cared enough about his fans to want them to be told the truth at last.

This is, of course, only my opinion.

So where does this leave us? Given the lawsuit threats, I cannot tell you either why the book is so controversial or whether there is any reasonable prospect of its coming out this year in any form this year. It is my understanding that the Dick estate would object to this book in any form, simply because of my unique relationship with Philip, and that since they have anointed Larry Sutin’s DIVINE INVASIONS as the “official” PKD biography (and the basis of the forthcoming biopic, evidently), they would prefer that no one ever write a book about Philip again. However, these impressions are derived from statements the estateniks made last year; they may since have changed their minds. Who can say?

As soon as I know for sure what else, if anything, I may say on the subject, I shall establish a page on this site to fill you in further and provide you with regular updates. Many, many thanks to those of you who pre-ordered the book, as well as to all of you out there who have been sending me messages of support over the last year. I know this has been frustrating; I know that this must all seem very confusing from the outside, not to mention disheartening for other writers to see.

Trust me: I will find a way to tell this story, as well as the genuinely fascinating and complex corollary saga of why the book is not yet gracing the shelves of your local bookstore. It just may take a while.

Manuscript Revision IV: Preserving that freshness seal

Welcome back to my continuing series on revising your manuscript for more successful submissions. Today, I want to talk about not the nit-picking little concerns that agents and editors so love to jump upon as evidence of a manuscript’s not being ready for print — remember, the first reader at an agency or publishing house is usually given explicit criteria for weeding out submissions, so the screener is often not looking to like the book in front of him — but a larger issue that traditionally causes editorial eyes to roll and agents to mutter, “Oh, God, not another one.”

The time has come, my friends, to speak about freshness: the industry term for projects that are exciting because no one has written something like it before — or hasn’t made a success with something like it recently.

Freshness is one of those concepts that people in the publishing industry talk about a lot without ever defining with any precision. It is not synonymous with cutting-edge — although cutting-edge concepts are often marketed as fresh. And it doesn’t, contrary to popular opinion amongst late middle-aged writers, mean something aimed at the youth market. Nor does it mean original, because originality, in the eyes of the industry, often translates into the kind of strange topics that don’t make sense within either a Manhattan or LA context: cow tipping, for instance, or rural tractor-racing. Although, of course, in some cases, all of these things are true of fresh manuscripts.

Confused yet? Don’t worry; you will be.

As a basic rule of thumb, a fresh story is either one that has never been told before, never been told from that particular point of view before, or contains elements that make the reader say, “Wow — I didn’t expect THAT.”

Yet, as I pointed out above, original stories are not automatically fresh ones. In the eyes of the industry, a fresh story is generally not an absolutely unique one, but a new twist on an old theme: BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, to use a common example, is certainly not the first tragedy ever written about socially frowned-upon love, or even the first one involving either cowboys or two men. It was the combination of all of these elements — and, I suspect, the fact that it was written by a woman, not a man — that made for a fresh story.

Had it been more explicitly sexual, or overtly political, or had a happy ending, or even been written by an author less well-established than Annie Proulx, I suspect that publishing types would have dismissed it as weird.

Weird, incidentally, is defined even more nebulously than fresh in the industry lexicon: it is anything too original (or seldom written-about) to appeal to the agent or editor’s conception of who buys books in the already-established publishing categories. Graphic novels, for instance, were considered until about 15 years ago not to have broad enough market appeal to be comfortably sold in mainstream bookstores, and thus were weird; practically overnight, though, a few successful graphic novels (Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer prize-winning MAUS or THE DARK KNIGHT, anyone?) established the genre, and editors started searching eagerly for fresh concepts.

THE DARK KNIGHT is a useful example, I think, of how a creative author can turn a well-worn story into a fresh concept. For those of you not familiar with it, THE DARK KNIGHT was a retelling of the story of Batman — who, at the time, had a sort of friendly, light-hearted reputation from both decades of comic books and a tongue-in-cheek TV show. Batty was, by the 1980s, considered pretty old hat (or old mask-with-pointed-ears, if you prefer.) But in THE DARK KNIGHT, the focus switched from Batty’s do-gooding to his many, many deep-seated psychological problems — after all, the guy gets his jollies by hanging out in a damp cave, right? That can’t be healthy. He is not saving Gotham time and time again because he happens to like prancing around in tights; it serves to ease his pain, and he very frequently resents it.

And that, my friends, was a fresh take on a well-traveled old bat.

It is endlessly fascinating to me that when people in the industry talk about literary freshness, they almost invariably resort to other art forms for examples. WEST SIDE STORY was a fresh take on ROMEO AND JULIET; RENT was a fresh retelling of LA BOHÈME, which was in itself a retelling of an earlier book, Henri Murger’s Scenes del la Vie de Boheme; almost any episode of any sitcom originally aired in December is a fresh take on A CHRISTMAS CAROL. (Or maybe not so fresh.) And can we even count how many Horatio Alger-type stories are made into movies — like, say, ERIN BROCKOVICH?

Hey, just because a story is true doesn’t mean its contours do not conform to standing rules of drama.

Like it or not, folks in the publishing industry just love the incorporation of contemporary elements into classic stories. There is just no other way to explain industry enthusiasm for BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY (well, okay, the sales might have had something to do with it), which reproduced the plot of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE so completely that many of the characters’ names remained the same. (Trust me, Darcy is not all that common a first name for Englishmen.) In the mid-1980s, publishing professionals regularly described THE COLOR PURPLE as “THE UGLY DUCKLING with racial issues” — dismissive of the great artistry of the writing, I thought, and the fact that THE UGLY DUCKLING in its original form is absolutely about race.

That sad little signet was on the receiving end of a whole lot of nasty ethnic stereotyping, if you ask me.

I hear some of you murmuring out there: “Gee, Anne, this would be very helpful indeed if I were starting a book from scratch. But at the moment, I am packaging an already-existing manuscript for submission to an agent or editor. How does the freshness issue affect ME?”

A fine question, and one that richly deserves an answer. Actually, it is almost more important to consider your story’s freshness at the point that you are about to send it out the door than when you first start the process — because once the manuscript is complete, it is far easier to see where the storyline (or argument; the freshness test applies to NF, too) falls into too-familiar grooves. Because absolutely the last thing you want an agent to think when reading your submission is, “Oh, I’ve seen this before,” right?

Since a big selling point of a fresh manuscript is its surprise, you will want to play up — both in your marketing materials and your editing — how your manuscript is unique. And quickly. If you begin it like just another Batman story, the reader is going to have a hard time catching on where your work is fresh and different from what is already on the market.

And yes, Virginia, you DO need to make the freshness apparent from page 1. I hate to be the one to tell you this (and yet I seem to do so very frequently, don’t I?), but people who work in the publishing industry tend to have knee-jerk reactions, deciding whether they like a writer’s voice or story within a very few pages. It’s not a good idea, generally speaking, to make them wait 50 pages, or even 5, to find out why your submission is special — and so very, very marketable.

Oh, dear, I’m afraid I’ve made the average agency screener sound a bit shallow, a trifle ill-tempered, a smidge impatient. Oh, I WOULD hate it if you got that impression.

Read over your manuscript, and ask yourself a few questions — or, better yet, have a reader you trust peruse it, and then start grilling. How is this book unlike anything else currently in print within its genre? Is that difference readily apparent within the first chapter? Within the first couple of pages? In the first paragraph? Are the unusual elements carried consistently throughout the book, or does it relapse into conventional devices for this kind of story?

Would, in short, a well-read reader be tempted to say, “Oh, I’ve seen this a dozen times this month,” or “Wow, I’ve never seen this before!” upon glancing over your submission?

If the story is a familiar one, is it being told in a new voice? If the story is surprising and new, are there enough familiar stylistic elements that the reader feels grounded and trusts that the plot will unfold in a dramatically satisfying manner? (And yes, you should be able to answer this last question in the affirmative, even if your book takes place on Planet Targ.)

It’s better to ask these questions BEFORE you send out your work, of course, than after, because as that tired old aphorism goes, you don’t get a second chance to make a good first impression. Make sure those early pages cry out, “I’m so fresh you could eat me!”

Yes, I know: I sound like your mother before you went out on your first date. You’re not going to wear THAT, are you?

I also know that getting hooked up with an agent with whom you plan to have a lifetime relationship via a level of scrutiny that seems suspiciously like speed-dating (oh, come on: that analogy has never occurred to you when you were pitching at a conference?) may strike you as a bad idea…  well, I have to say I agree. All of our work deserves more careful reading than the average agency gives it. We are all, after all, human beings, timorous souls who are putting the fruits of our stolen hours on the line for scrutiny. Our work should be treated with respect.

And oh, how I wish I could assure you that it always will be. But don’t you think it is prudent to prepare it for the dates where it won’t be? Button up that top button, and axe the nail polish.

In my next, more on an automatic freshness-spoiler seldom mentioned in writing classes. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Boosting your confidence: a guest blogger’s suggestions

Hi, campers — Anne here. In the interests of opening up this forum to a broad array of perspectives on the writing life, I have blandished the eternally fabulous Jordan Rosenfeld into sharing her thoughts on creating a successful writing career. In the months to come, I am hoping to cajole other successful writers into giving us their insights, but since Jordan has been gracious enough to give in to my begging first, let’s give her a great big round of applause!

Take it away, Jordan!

Guest blogger: Jordan Rosenfeld

First, I want to say that I am honored to be allowed to part the curtains of Anne Mini’s tough but savvy wisdom to blog for a few days here. What Im here to offer you is one part writing advice, one part cheerleading and one part good-old California cosmic wisdom. That means you are free to take it with as big a grain of salt as you like, but I will wager that if you stay open to this kind of thinking, the way you approach submitting/publishing/agent-hunting and writing will change.

Let me also make it clear that I am a writer. A working writer, who freelances for a living, and a fiction writer represented by a literary agent who has been through the gauntlet myself, so I know from where I speak. I have two books coming out next year, the first, Creating Space: The Law of Attraction for Writers & Other Inspired Souls, with Rebecca Lawton is the one I’m mainly drawing from for these posts. The second, Make A Scene: Crafting a Powerful Story One Scene at a Time, from Writer’s Digest Books, also offers practical advice, and clinches my place in the canon of Know-it-Alls.

I am going to begin by betting you something. This is not the kind of bet where one of us has something material to lose or gain, so if that’s what you came looking for you little gambler, Vegas is calling you instead. Here it is:

I will bet that when it comes to your writing and its future success or failure, you have given very little attention to the kinds of thoughts that roughhouse and carom through your brain in any given day. Wait, forget day — try every second or even nanosecond. Now, out of the trazillion thoughts that barrage your neurotransmitters daily, you will catch one from time to time with your little thought net and hold it up to the light and notice the what has just taken up territory in your gray matter. It might look something like this: “Why am I getting all these rejections? I must suck.”

Now, the likelihood of you “sucking” is probably not all that high, and since writing is a craft and the business of writing can be learned, the odds are actually in your favor for not sucking. Yet in that moment that you give your attention and belief to the thought “I probably suck and therefore I will never publish and will wind up a spinster in obscurity…” (okay, so that was one of mine), you make a little bit of that thought true for yourself. You bequeath a part of your attitude and energy and self-esteem to it, and make it possible for similar thoughts to gain entry into your consciousness. Some of us actually hitch little train-cars of similar negative thoughts to the back of that one and take an all out cross-country tour of self-doubt and despair until we are ready to put our heads through our laptops. Not much of a recipe for success.

Now, likewise, there are days where a light and beautiful thought makes its way to the surface and you skim it in your little golden thought net from the green-blue scum trying to weigh it down in the pool of your mind. It might look something like this: “I might actually publish a novel!” or “I am talented and deserve to be represented by a literary agent” (okay, nobody deserves that; it’s a necessity).

So now I ask you, what happens when you hold up that golden thought, the one that shimmers so brightly that it obscures all other thoughts? Does your whole being radiate goodness and light and can-do joy, or do you turn into a hunchbacked beast and lumber away from it screaming, “My eyes, my bleeding eyes!”?

These are just two examples I’m talking about here. What about the chorus of “I suck” and “I deserve” that regularly pass through you? Are you aware of them? Well if you have a destination or a desire in mind for yourself as a writer (and the fact that you’re here at Anne’s blog means you do), then you’ll want to start paying attention to them RIGHT AWAY because they’re shaping the way your life and especially your writing life is unfolding.

How’s this for a revolutionary idea: your thoughts are more responsible for the way things are, or are not, than your parents will ever be.

The reason for this is that thoughts are plugged directly into your feeling generator. Once your attention is on a thought, your little chemicals begin churning and pretty quickly you feel “bad” or “good” about what you’re thinking (in simplistic terms). And here’s one of those moments where you can heft that grain (or boulder) of salt I mentioned up to your shoulder. Your feelings attract your life. Feelings reflect and mirror the stuff of your life, for better or for worse. Do you ever feel you’re on a “roll” either negative or positive? When you’re feeling despairing about writing do you notice it’s impossible to place a submission? When you write something hot and fabulous, have you ever found that the powerful good energy of that allows other great opportunities into your life? Well start looking! (Let me insert a little sidebar here: There is not, nor will there ever be in any of my posts any “blame” on anyone for feeling bad or discouraged or fed up, so don’t get scared!)

So what can you do about these negative thoughts and their bearing on your writing life?

1. You can begin by taking an inventory, either literally on paper or from an observational standpoint during any given day. This inventory can be distilled into two categories: thoughts that make you feel bad about yourself (“I am terrible at writing plot”)and your writing and, yes, you know where I’m going with this, thoughts that make you feel good about yourself/your writing (“I can read a really well-plotted novel and learn how to do it!”).

2. Then, I want you to make a list of the top five desires you have for your writing life. Perhaps you desire to be a bestselling published novelist, or simply to have your short stories accepted in literary journals that are not published at Kinko’s copies and distributed under the windshield wipers of people’s cars. Whether big or small, keep that list nearby and notice when you look at each desire which kinds of thoughts arise, those of the “I deserve,” or “I suck” variety.

Try this inventory for a day or few. See which kind of thoughts you have more of in general, and which you have more of in relation to your desires. Then stick around, because when I blog again on Thursday the 17th, I will ask you to do something with what you’ve noticed and how this relates to what you desire.

Now, I don’t want to sound as if I’m in any way detracting from what Anne has so diligently worked to point out to you; to be published requires talent, skill, observation, adhering to guidelines and knowing what sells. It’s no small task. But trust me when I say that if you begin a day saying, “This is so hard, I will never get there,” versus, “I’m going to find out exactly what I have to do to be published,” and you do this daily, you WILL rise above.

If you allow me to shamelessly hawk my own online class, please visit the Creating Space site to sign up for the first of many online classes, beginning September 9th (4 weeks, $125). And as always, my ongoing thoughts on the writing life may be found on my blog.

Jordan E. Rosenfeld