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!

2 Replies to “Manuscript Revision V, and the dreaded summer sabbatical”

  1. 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!

    1. That is going to need to be the subject of an entire blog, or perhaps two, because it’s an issue that is hotly debated amongst editors. (Some say italicing thought is fine, some consider it a sign of poor writing.) It’s very frequently a perspective issue: if you’re writing in the first or tight third person, it may well be perfectly obvious to the reader when a sentence is the protagonist’s thought, without any fancy markers at all.

      I’ll try to get to it within the next few days.

      In the meantime: yes, do italicize the foreign words in your manuscript that are not proper nouns. But do NOT underline ANYTHING in your manuscript — that’s advice from back when everyone was using typewriters. Now, all underlining indicates is that it will cost a publisher more to print your book — over the course of a print run, even a few underlined words can lead to quite a bit of extra ink usage. Italics, by contrast, do not suck up more ink.

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