The best birthday present EVER

Today is my birthday, and I have been holding off on sharing some exceptionally good news for the past few days, so I could announce it today.

Remember yesterday, when I mentioned the industry’s patented last-minute revision deadlines? And remember how I told you in the dim past that editors almost never ask authors to revise and resubmit anymore? Well…

A major publishing house has asked me to make certain revisions in my novel, THE BUDDHA IN THE HOT TUB. It’s not an offer yet, mind you, but it’s the first step.

Not a bad birthday present, is it?

To add icing to the birthday cake, the editor — it practically makes me tear up even to write about it, because it’s SO uncommon — took the time to read my manuscript TWICE before she made any suggestions at all. And the requested changes, while not what I would have chosen to do left to my own devices, are all quite reasonable and doable.

Yes, that’s right — she gave me THOUGHTFUL feedback. I know; pinch me, because this seldom happens to writers outside dreams.

I am both tickled the proverbial pink and a bit panicked, of course: said revisions need to be done in about a month. (See earlier comment about deadlines.) So you may safely expect two things between now and Halloween: my blogs will probably be a tad shorter, on average, and I will have a LOT to say about the art of revision.

But wait! There’s more!

I have a birthday present for you, my loyal readers: as of today, every single blog I have ever written is now available on this site, all the way back to my first PNWA post in August, 2005. And, unlike my old PNWA blog, these are both arranged by category, so you may quickly find the general area you need in a crisis, AND you can comment upon them. (The fact that my readers could not leave comments on my old blog was a source of constant debate; suffice it to say that it wasn’t my idea.)

That’s 1567 pages (in standard format, of course) of bloggy goodness for you, roughly 391,750 words. (If you don’t know how I was able to translate from one to the other, go back and read the earlier blogs on word count. See how easy it is?)

Why am I giving you a present for my birthday? Well, this is a major birthday for me, my friends, not only due to the Best Birthday Present Ever, but because my birthday last year was marked by a singularly unpleasant event: it was the day that my publisher first mentioned the possibility of canceling my contract for my memoir, A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK.

Yes, my agent felt bad about the timing, too.

As you may have noticed, the book is not yet out, nor can I tell you when it will be, due to repeated groundless lawsuit threats from the Dick estate. Since they first began threatening, they have never specified anything that they wanted changed in the actual text of the book (the closest they came to specificity was objecting to the photo used on the cover, which was naturally beyond my control), there was no way to revise the text in order to appease them. Evidently, they believed that the mere fact that I, of all the writers in the world, had written a book about my relationship with Philip was in itself actionable.

It’s not, as far as I know, but these folks have a LOT of money.

This state of affairs has prevailed since mid-July, 2005, shortly before I began writing the PNWA Resident Writer blog. There have been days when literally the only positive thing that happened was that I sat down and posted advice here that might help other writers. The blog has been absolutely essential to keeping me sane and balanced throughout this ordeal — and for that, I thank you, my readers, from the bottom of my heart.

Unfortunately, I can give you no update on the publication prospects of my memoir: my publisher has in fact reached a decision about it, but until the legalities are settled, I cannot fill you in on what happened and why. Many, many thanks to those of you who preordered the book, and I hope some day, I can publish the truth as I know it.

I can’t worry about that now, however: I have a revision to perform. And a birthday to celebrate.

I feel pretty good about my life, all in all. Whenever my faith starts to waver, I remind myself of Louisa May Alcott, who struggled for seventeen years before she got her big break.

Louisa should be the patron saint of writerly persistence. She wrote every day, mostly for ill-paying newspapers, primarily under pseudonyms, because she needed the money to support her shabby genteel family. Her first two books were, to put it kindly, great big flops, and she flailed about from genre to genre, trying to find her market. In a rejection letter, a publisher who declined her romance novel (which was, incidentally, quite good) mentioned that they would be willing to take a look at a book for girls. Louisa, by her own admission, didn’t much like girls, but as a writing professional, she gave it the old college try.

LITTLE WOMEN has never been out of print since. In the midst of her struggle to find her voice, she wrote, “I shall make a battering-ram of my head, and make my way through this rough-and-tumble world.”

May we all have her tenacity and permanent in-print status, my friends — although perhaps with swifter guardian angels, ones willing to whisper in the ears of the small army of people who need to approve each acquisition: “Buy this book. You need this book. The world needs this book.”

But while our angels are in training, let’s all keep up the good work.

How size matters, part II

I was talking yesterday about the differences between big agencies and small agencies. After I posted it, a small voice in the back of my mind (or perhaps it was in the vast web of psychic connection between me and my readers) kept nagging at me: “Wasn’t that just a tad insensitive? Sure, you had the luxury of choosing between agents, but that was a contest-generated fluke: most aspiring writers query until they’re blue in the face. So where do you get off, suggesting that they limit their choices?”

Here’s where I get off, little voice: I’ve met far too many good writers who focus their queries solely upon the great big agencies, on the theory that only a well-known name is going to be able to represent their work well. It’s just not true. I’ve also knows a whole lot of authors represented by the aforementioned gigantic agencies and “My God, how did you get HIM to read your work?!?” agents who have found themselves desperately unhappy with their representation.

When targeting an agent, I honestly don’t think that the rule should be location, location, location, as though your talent were just looking to park itself on the most expensive piece of Manhattan real estate that will accept it. A far better rule of thumb would be intention, intention, intention — in my experience, writers are MUCH better off if they figure out first what they want from their future agents, and target accordingly.

So, in short, I am writing about agency size in order to give you some background with which to take a radical evolutionary step in how you think about landing an agent: considering not just whether you and your book would be a good fit for the targeted agent, but whether the targeted agent would be a good fit for YOU.

Finding such an agent requires more than researching the profession; it necessitates self-knowledge. What DO you want from your prospective agent, over and above the simple definition of her job, selling her clients’ books to publishers?

If this question sounds vaguely familiar to you long-time readers out there, blame the PNWA. Remember just before conference season, when I asked you to give some good, hard thought to what you want from your agent, over and above representation? And HOW you want to be represented? Querying time is also an excellent period for considering these questions, because agencies – and individual agents – have wildly different representation styles.

Consider very, very carefully how important personal contact is to you, because if this relationship works out, you will be living with your decision for a very long time. Will you go nuts if a month or two goes by silently while an editor has your manuscript, or would you prefer not to hear from your agent until she has concrete news? Would you be happy with the occasional e-mail to answer your questions or keep you updated, or would you prefer telephone calls? Do you want to hear the feedback of editors who have rejected your work, so you can revise accordingly between submissions, or would you rather get through as many submissions as quickly as possible?

Let me let you in on a secret the agented learn very, very quickly: all of these behaviors are very much dependent upon how busy the agent is, and what kind of demands the agency places upon her time. Generally speaking, the bigger the agency, the busier the agent. Similarly, the fewer the agents at an agency, the busier, as a rule.

The second makes immediate sense — a sole proprietorship is obviously more dependent upon one particular agent’s efforts than a communal endeavor, right? — but the big = busy formula is a bit counter-intuitive, isn’t it? Big agencies have greater resources for support staff, whereas in a small agency (or with a stand-alone agent) the agents may be doing support work as well; it would make sense if the small agency agents had less time to lavish on their clients.

However, nowhere is the old adage “tasks expand in direct proportion to the time available to perform them” more evident than in the publishing industry: as an agent becomes more important, he takes on more clients. Big equals powerful here.

There are exceptions to this rule, of course. A few “boutique agencies” deliberately keep themselves small in order to occupy a very specific niche, but it is rare. There’s no missing these agencies, by the way — they ALWAYS identify themselves as boutique in their blurbs, lest anyone mistakenly think that they were small because they were unsuccessful. (See earlier comment about big = powerful.) Often, boutique agencies sharply limit the proportion of unpublished writers that they will represent, or do not represent the unpublished at all. They do, however, tend to lavish attention upon the few they do select.

As do, admittedly, some agents at major agencies, but do bear in mind that no matter who represents you, no matter how much your agent loves your work, you will be only ONE of the authors on the agent’s list. Time is not infinitely flexible, despite anyone’s best intentions. Before you commit to a big agency or a major agent, ask yourself: do I really want to be someone’s 101rst client?

This may sound like a flippant question, but actually, it is a very practical one, and one that speaks very directly to your personal level of security about your work. (And no, that’s not a value judgment about the quality of anyone’s writing; very good writers need positive encouragement and support, just like anybody else, especially when they are under the industry’s patented last-minute revision deadlines. But of those, more tomorrow.)

Big agencies and important agents have made their names, generally speaking, on high-ticket clients; often, as I have discussed in recent weeks, that high-recognition client is the reason aspiring writers covet their representation skills. However, it takes time to cater to a bigwig client — that necessarily is not available for Big Agent’s lesser-known clients.

How much time are we talking about? Well, I once had a lovely chat with a past president of AAR who handled one of the biggest mystery writers in the biz. Apart from handling her book negotiations, he told me, he also spent a week with her every winter ensconced in her mountain retreat — not skiing or snowboarding, but micro-editing her next work to make its market appeal as broad as possible.

Yeah, I know. Nice support if you can get it.

Before you float off into fantasies about being successful enough to command your own personal slave editor and/or mountain lodge, stop and think about the implications of being one of this agent’s OTHER clients. That’s a week a year when he is not available to pay even the vaguest attention to the needs of Clients 2 – 143. So who do you think ends up handling those other clients’ concerns? That’s right: not the bigwig agent at all, but his I’m-working-my-way-up-the-ladder assistant agent.

Who, I have it on reliable authority, is somewhat overworked. So how much time do you think the junior agent has to devote to his own clients?
Getting the picture about why a major agency might not always be the best choice for a new writer? Think about it: if Big Agent’s 144th client is actually dealing most of the time with the agent’s junior partner, rather than Mr. Big himself, with whom is the long-term, mutually beneficial interaction occurring? And with whom is the writer building a lifetime relationship?

Clients of small agencies seldom get the mountain-cabin treatment, of course, but just as a matter of time management, an agent who handles 25 clients is usually going to be spending more of it on each than an agent with 100; to stay in business (and agencies go out of business ALL THE TIME), a smaller agency is going to need to sell its clients’ books a bit faster, more lucratively, or both — which, in turn, is often harder for them to do, because they tend to lack the connections.

This pressure can be a significant drawback if your book is a sleeper, or one targeted to a very tight niche market: while a major agent or big agency can afford to keep a client whose books are not selling, a petite agency does not really have that luxury. Being a major agent’s unremunerative pet project may be better for an author than being the slow-selling albatross around a minor’s agent’s neck.

Both of those descriptions, incidentally, could describe exactly the same book. As they say in international relations circles, where you stand depends upon where you sit.

Long-time readers, chant it with me now: it honestly is a good idea to try to get some sense of who your agent is, and what the working conditions are at the agency, beyond the cold statistics of her clients’ sales. This is yet another good reason to go to writers’ conferences and book readings, of course – to meet writers and ask what working with their agents is like.

This practicality is a surprisingly infrequent question at readings, I am astonished to report. Yet who would know better what it’s like to be a writer represented by an agency than a writer who IS represented by that agency? But before you can ask this kind of question fruitfully, you need to figure out what you do and don’t want in your agent.

This is a funny business, you know – the industry is never tired of telling writers that we are a dime a dozen. Yet so are agents, if you think about it. The guides are full of ‘em. You don’t have to attend very many conferences before you meet your first hungry new agent, willing to promise the moon, nor to meet your first 100-client bigwig.

There are a lot of alternatives in between, of course, but the only way you are going to find your best fit is to give some hard thought to what you want and ask good questions until you figure out if the agent who wants you is in fact the best choice for you and your work.

And speaking of your good work: keep it up!

Agencies and AGENCIES

After having spent the last couple of weeks giving you advice on how to track down agents OUTSIDE the standard agency guides, I think it’s only fair for me to spend a post or two talking a bit about the information you can glean from within them. Most guides will give you the same basic information: the agency’s name, address, contact person, member agents, book categories represented, whether they are currently accepting new clients, and preferred method of query.

In short, referring to any of the standard guides will help an aspiring writer avoid the single most common querying mistake, a Dear Agent letter. Almost any guide will give you a specific person to whom to address your query, so do it.

If you have been researching the subject a little, you may have noticed that the standard print guides, such as JEFF HERMAN’S GUIDE TO BOOK PUBLISHERS, EDITORS, & LITERARY AGENTS (where on earth did he come up with such a startlingly original title?) and Writers Digest Book’s GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS (ditto), do not always tell the reader much more than the very basic online guides, such as Preditors and Editors.

Even within an individual guide, listings can vary quite a bit: in the Herman Guide, the questions tend to be geared toward likes and dislikes, in the manner of centerfolds gone by (turn-ons: polite, well-written query letters; turn-offs, synopses rife with misspellings), but in the Writers Digest guide, the agents can say pretty much whatever they want. Or not, as the mood strikes them.

And that, dear friends, is the reason one agency will have a 2-page write-up in a guide while another equally prestigious one will have a scant paragraph. The major book guides rely almost exclusively upon what the agents themselves tell them about themselves on yearly questionnaires, so do be aware that the information you find there, over and above the basic facts of where the agency is located and what they’ve sold, is not always entirely objective.

Some things that writers of my acquaintance have found over the years that these listings may not always be totally objective about: how eager they are to receive queries; how much they enjoy helping new writers build their careers; how quickly they respond to queries; how quickly they respond to submissions; how much they like good writers and good writing (hint: they almost all say that they adore both). It’s not even all that uncommon for a writer to rely upon the specialties listed in these guides, send off a query, and receive in response a huffy form letter, saying the agency hasn’t handled that sort of material in YEARS.

Why should this be the case? Well, the questionnaires the guides send out are fairly long; why not just re-use the responses from last year? (The Herman guide seems to alter the questions slightly from year to year, to make this trick harder; I suspect that this is the reason that fewer agencies are listed there.) Publishing fads change FAST, so the agency hot for chick lit last year may well automatically reject every chick lit query this year. If this happens, don’t waste your energy repining: such a rejection has nothing to do with you or your book. Just cross the agency off your list and move on to the next.

You can – and should – rely upon what the agency listings say they absolutely DON’T want, however. Generally speaking, agencies err on the side of listing too many genres in their guide blurbs, rather than too few, so if they say they aren’t interested in something, they tend to mean it. As in: sending in a query for a type of book that they’ve ever indicated anywhere that they don’t like (even, annoyingly, if an agent has merely stated it in an interview) is a sure way to generate one of those huffy rejection forms.

Don’t say you didn’t hear it here first.

Why would an agency over-list its desired type of books? For the same reason that agents walk into conferences and spout ridiculously broad statements like, “I’m interested in any well-written fiction.” They’re afraid that they’re going to miss out on the next DA VINCI CODE. The smaller the agency, the more likely they are to mis-list; a wide net, they seem to believe, will catch better fish. But really, their agents have personal preferences, just like agents at great big agencies.

Just so you know, no matter what these agency blurbs say, no one represents everything — in fact, they shouldn’t. It would be flatly impossible to have the connections to represent every stripe of book. This is yet another reason it’s an excellent idea to check what an agent or agency has sold recently BEFORE you query: an agent may be as eager as you are to sell your book to a great publisher, but in order to get an editor to read a book, an agent has to be able to catch her attention. It’s simply a fact that it’s SUBSTANTIALLY easier for an agent who has already sold your type of book before to sell your book.

Think of it like eating in a fancy restaurant, where your agent wants to place the order (your book) with a busy wait staff (the editors). Eventually, every diner will probably get service, but some water glasses get refilled faster than others’, don’t they? The staff will take care of their regulars. And if the guy on Table 8 is well-known to be a big tipper, you can bet that half the waiters are going to magically appear by his side the moment he arches an eyebrow.

Obviously, an important agent has an easier time booking lunch dates (no metaphor this time: food, drinks, and/or coffee seems to be integral to the deal-making process) to talk about her clients’ books than someone just starting out. Perhaps less obviously, a junior agent at a big, important agency (like, I am happy to report, the one that represents yours truly, so I know whereat I speak) is often able to use the agency’s wide web of connections in order to get her clients’ work under the right editorial eyes, in a way that sometimes a better-established agent at a smaller agency cannot.

Again, it’s a good idea to check both what the agent and her agency have sold of late.

However, a big agency is not necessarily the right choice for everybody. As the client of a large agency, you do enjoy many benefits: the prestige of signing with a recognized name, more support staff to answer your questions (or not, depending upon how the agency feels about keeping its clients informed), and more collective experience upon which you can draw. Just as with a well-known agent, you are working with a known quantity, with verifiable connections.

With a new agency or new agent, it can be hard to assess connection claims until a track record of sales has been established (see earlier comment about the desirability of checking such things). Sometimes, the hungry can be excellent gambles — if your book sells quickly and/or well, you can be the favorite steed in the shiny, new stable. Before that (and often after), a hungry agent often offers services that a bigger agency or a busier agent might not provide. Extensive free editing, for instance. Intensive coaching through rewrites. Bolstering the always-tenuous authorial ego. If you are a writer who wants a lot of personal attention from an agent, the less busy agent might well be the way to go.

Still, you cannot deny the appeal of the contacts and oomph of a big agency, even if you are not represented by the most important agent in it. Personally, I am represented by a big agency, one that handles more than 300 clients (and very well, too, in my opinion). How much of a difference does it REALLY make, on a practical level? Well, you know how ALL nonfiction book proposals are presented to agents and editors in conservative dark blue or black folders, because a unique presentation is generally regarded as an indicator of a lack of professionalism?

My agency is influential enough to present its clients’ proposals in GRAY folders. Ooh, the power. The pageantry!

Yes, I am very lucky — contrary to what writers conference gurus and get-your-work-published books tell you, luck plays AT LEAST as great a role as talent in determining who gets signed by whom; people who tell you that the only possible reason a writer would have a hard time finding the right agent is lack of talent are either misinformed or misleading — and people in the industry recognize that. When I was deciding between agents, I attended a small writers’ conference in Montana, one of those gloriously intimate ones where perhaps only one agent attends, but you can talk with her for an hour.

Since I already had several irons on the fire, I was not about to be a dog in the manger. I did not approach the agent du jour, except to introduce a writer who I thought would interest her (I’m notorious for doing this; writers are often too shy to introduce themselves). By the end of the conference, the agent had heard that my book had won a major award and, her curiosity piqued, she sought me out to see if I had signed with anyone yet. A couple of minutes into our conversation, I mentioned who I was deciding between, and the agent instantly deflated. “Oh,” she said. “We’re talking THAT league.”

As I said, I have been very lucky: winning the PNWA contest got my work a hearing with many agents in THAT league. (In the unlikely event that I am being too subtle here: entering contests can shave years off the agent-seeking process!) I have also been lucky in that while I enjoy the benefits of a large agency, my agent makes the time to answer my questions and talk with me about my future and current writing: whether our quite-frequent contact is primarily the result of our respectively scintillating personalities or the roller-coaster ride my memoir has been taking on the way to publication, I leave you to speculate.

However, I have to be honest with you, if you write for one of the smaller niche markets, signing with an agent in THAT league may well leave you feeling like a shiny new toy a week after Christmas: the agent may love your book, but between the million-dollar projects and yours, which do you think is the most likely to be set aside for a rainy day? At a smaller agency, or with a less prestigious agent, your work may actually see the light of day faster.

Have I totally confused you, with so many pros and cons? It’s not my intention, I promise – I just want to help you decide how to target your queries to get the outcome you want. Since there are so many agents out there, both listed in the standard guides and not, I could easily spend every day in the year profiling a different one, without ever having time to discuss anything else of interest to writers. So if I can drop a set of sweeping generalities upon you from time to time, to help you navigate amongst the many, many querying choices, I like to do it.

Tomorrow, I shall talk a bit more about how big agency/small agency differences play out for the authors they represent. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Titles that are, um, catchy

Yesterday, I started to answer a multi-part question from loyal reader and excellent question-asker MooCrazy, but I ran out of time before I could get to one of its constituent parts. To wit: “Anne – Would you please address the topics of 1) choosing a title before querying..?” Today, I would like to tackle this good question, and the issue of title malleability in general, at my characteristic great length.

As anyone in the industry will tell you, a good, eye-catching title can be a real selling point for a book. Rather like a Hollywood hook in a verbal pitch, it can grab the query-reader’s attention memorably in a very short space of time. Not to mention the fact that an interesting title indicates the author’s inherent creativity far better than, “I hope you will be interested in my as-yet-unnamed novel…”

Someone might mention the latter point to the fine people who title movies for a living. Stealing the title of a pop song from thirty years ago (I’m looking at YOU, PRETTY WOMAN) doesn’t exactly scream out Macarthur genius-grant levels of creativity, does it?

There are plenty of formulae out there for constructing a good title — gerund + name, as in JUDGING AMY (or CHASING AMY, come to think of it) has been popular for far too long, in my opinion — but to be absolutely honest with you, this is yet another of those areas where most industry insiders cannot give you any clearer direction than anyone you might meet browsing in your neighborhood bookstore. Like the famous Supreme Court dictum about pornography, almost no one in the industry can define precisely what a good title is, but they all know it when they see it.

Personally, I favor arresting titles over merely descriptive ones or puns: given the choice amongst Bob Tarte’s titles, for instance, I would go for ENSLAVED BY DUCKS over FOWL WEATHER every time. Why? Well, I dare you: just try to forget ENSLAVED BY DUCKS.

In fact, an excellent test of a good title is to tell it (ONCE) to a non-literary friend, then ask her to repeat it back to you an hour later. Better still, tell her all of the titles you have brainstormed for your book, and see which she remembers an hour later. Because — and this is a HUGE difference between how writers think of titles and how the rest of the industry does — from an agent or editor’s point of view, THE TITLE’S PURPOSE IS MARKETING, NOT BOOK DESCRIPTION.

Pause for a moment and let that one sink in. In the minds of the industry, the title exists solely to cajole readers into buying it. I hate to be the one to break this to you, but they don’t consider naming a book an art.

So the more memorable your working title, the better. If you can work an apparent paradox into your title, for instance, it is more likely to be remembered. THE POISONWOOD BIBLE is catchy, because of the contrast between a scary word (poison) and a comforting one (Bible); THE MALTESE FALCON, by contrast, is merely descriptive — something you would remember about the plot after you read the book, certainly, but not an arresting enough image to make you snatch the book from a shelf.

I know it’s counter-intuitive to think of a title as external to the book, but when you’re querying, marketing your book needs to be your top priority, alas. A title that requires further explanation, as most that are content-specific do, will probably not catch an agent’s eye as well as one that does not. Thus, while CATCH-22 is actually an extraordinarily apt title for the novel — the concept repeated at least a hundred times throughout the course of the book — in order to query the book in the current publisher’s market, you would have to EXPLAIN what a Catch-22 was before the title seemed apt. And poof! There goes a paragraph of your query letter.

In fact, now that I come to think about it, I notice that every single one of that list I have run before, the five immense bestsellers that were each rejected by many, many publishers before finding a home, all had titles that required further explanation! Lookee:

Dr. Seuss, And To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (rejected by 23 publishers)
Richard Hooker, M*A*S*H (21)
Thor Heyerdahl, Kon-Tiki (20)
Richard Bach, Jonathan Livingston Seagull (18)
Patrick Dennis, Auntie Mame (17)

You can just hear an agency screener muttering, “Who the heck is Auntie Mame?” can’t you?

So if you go for a descriptive title, make sure it conjures up some pretty powerful mental images in the observer. You might not know instantly from the title what SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS was about, but it evokes a lovely mental picture, doesn’t it?

Inserting a strong image also hedges your bets. If you go for image, rather than just the rhythm of the words, you can sometimes make your book stick in the head of an agent or editor who does not remember the title per se: not everyone necessarily remembers the entirety of the title of my novel, THE BUDDHA IN THE HOT TUB, as such, but trust me, they do remember that both a Buddha and water are involved.

All that being said, as most authors who have seen a first book of theirs go through the wringer of a publishing house know to their sorry, the title the author picks at the manuscript stage is almost NEVER the title that ends up on the published book. Often, an agent will switch a title to something more likely to catch a particular editor’s eye, but in general, it is the publishing house’s marketing department who gets to title the book — and if that happens, the author is usually contractually barred from changing it back.

Sorry to be the one to tell you that.

In fact, editorial rumor has it that many marketing departments will automatically reject any title offered by the author, on general principle, no matter how good or how apt it may be, in order to put the publishing house’s stamp upon the book. I don’t know how true this rumor is, but I can tell you for an absolute certainty that if your publisher retitles your book, literally everyone at the publishing house will think you are unreasonable to mind at all. Knowing this in advance can help you keep your equilibrium when the inevitable happens, and not fall so in love with your title that it’s a deal-breaker.

Allow me to share my own tale of woe on the subject. As a freelance editor and friend of literally hundreds of aspiring writers, I have held more than my share of weeping authors’ hands in the aftermath of their titles being ruthlessly changed, so although I was fond of the original title of my memoir — IS THAT YOU, PUMPKIN?, I certainly did not expect it to stick. I knew that my title likely to be changed, and frankly, I was not expecting to be consulted about it. I am, after all, not a person with a marketing degree, but a writer and editor. I know a good title when I see one, but I cannot legitimately claim to know why one book will make its way up to the cash register while the one next to it won’t. I was prepared, in short, to be spectacularly reasonable.

This compliant attitude, I am sorry to report, was not even vaguely adequate to deal with the situation when my publisher decided to change the title of my book. I could have been as chipper as Shirley Temple in tap-dancing shoes and as willing to alter my habits as a first-time dieter, and it still would not have been enough.

So how did I end up with a title I positively hated? Well, my memoir is about my relationship with science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, and at two distinct points, my publisher planned to release my book to coincide with the filmed version of one of his books, A SCANNER DARKLY. The instant that decision was made, my fate was sealed: the marketing department decided within the course of a single closed-door meeting to change the title of my book to A FAMILY DARKLY, presumably to make it reminiscent of the movie.

“Interesting,” I said cautiously when my editor first told me that my baby had been rechristened while I had been looking the other way. “Um, do you mind if I ask what A FAMILY DARKLY means? Yes, it deals with dark issues, but it’s a funny book. And, if you don’t mind my mentioning it, an adverb can’t be used to modify a noun.”

My editor was unsympathetic to my concerns. “It was the marketing department’s idea. They think it’s, um, catchy.”

The succeeding scintillating discussion on matters logical and grammatical lasted over six months — and no, I still haven’t found out what the title means, or why it was deemed necessary to throw the rules of grammar to the winds. Suffice it to say that both sides set forth their arguments; mine were deemed too “academic” (meaning that I hold an earned doctorate from a major research university, which apparently renders my opinion on what motivates book buyers, if not actually valueless, at any rate very amusing indeed to marketing types), and the title remained changed. Even after the movie had been released, and the book still had not, I was stuck with a title that I could not possibly justify if somebody asked me about it at a book reading.

And at no point in the process did anyone affiliated with the process every give even passing consideration to what I think would be ANY author’s main complaint in the situation: the title had nothing to do with the content of the book. The marketing department would never know that, however, because to the best of my knowledge (avert your eyes, if you are easily shocked), no one involved in the titling decision ever read so much as a page of the book.

Welcome to the big leagues, boys and girls.

“Why,” I hear my generous and empathetic readers asking, bless them, “did they bother to discuss it with you at all, if they had already made up their minds?”

An excellent question, and one that richly deserves an answer; half the published writers I know have wailed this very question heavenward repeatedly after their titles were summarily changed by their publishers. I believe that the answer lies in the field of psychology, rather than marketing. Because, you see, when a brand-new title is imposed upon a book, the publishers don’t just want the author to go along with it without overt protest: they want the author to LIKE it. And if the title goes through several permutations, they want the author to be more enthusiastic about the final change than about the first one.

In other words: get out those tap-dancing shoes, Shirley.

Furthermore, your enthusiasm is, if you please, to be instantaneous, despite the fact that if the marketing department (who, in all probability, will not have read your book by the time the title decision is made) is mistaken about the market value of the new title, the author is invariably blamed. (Think about it: haven’t you always held your favorite writers responsible if their new books have silly monikers? And didn’t you wonder why I had such a weird title for my memoir?) Oh, and unless your contract states specifically that you have veto power over the title, you’re going to lose the fight hands down, even if you don’t suffer my ostensible handicap of postgraduate degrees.

Let me tell you, this is not the kind of frustration you can complain about to your writing friends, either. You will see it in their eyes, even if they are too polite to say it out loud: you have a publishing contract, and you’re COMPLAINING?

Thus, the hapless author gets it from both sides: an author who doesn’t like the title imposed upon her book is an uncooperative, unrealistic, market-ignorant mule to her publishers, and a self-centered, quibbling deal-blower to her friends. All anyone can agree about is that she is ungrateful beyond human example. Sorry about that.

I wish I could report that I had found a clever way to navigate past this Scylla and Charybdis, but I have not, nor has any author I know. The best you can hope to be, when your time comes, is polite and professional. And a damned good tap-dancer.

I guess, in the end, all the writer can do is accept that some things, like the weather and the titles of her own books, are simply beyond her control, now and forever, amen. At the querying stage, pick an eye-catching title, but try not to fall too in love with it. Maybe you should hold your actual favorite in reserve, for the inevitable discussion with the marketing folks, when they ask you in belligerent tones, “Well, do you have a better idea?”

Something tells me that you do — but don’t worry; I won’t say a word about it to your prospective publishers. Keep up the good work!

Let’s talk about this: finding the time

There’s been an interesting set of exchanges going on in the comments on FAAB Jordan Rosenfeld’s Sept. 24 guest blog, and it’s made me want to throw a couple of questions out for general discussion. (I know that not everyone goes back and re-checks comments on the older blogs, as I do.)

First, how DO you make the time to write, amongst your other obligations?

Second, how do the other people in your life respond to your need for writing time? How does your significant other, if any, deal with it? Your kids? Your boss? Your pets?

To get the ball rolling, I’ll start: every couple I have ever known that contained at least one artist — including my household — has had to deal with both of these issues on a daily basis. My parents had these issues (he wrote, she sculpted) throughout my childhood — and that’s why, I suspect, I was the only six-year-old in the history of my elementary school to tell her teachers that she wasn’t going to have kids until she could afford domestic help AND a secretary. Trade-offs must be made, and in my household, then and now, art generally takes priority over dusting.

Generally, my s.o. is pretty understanding about this — although, like Jordan’s husband, he was not altogether pleased when I came home from a month-long writing retreat years ago and announced that I wanted to write and edit full-time. It took him a few months of noticing that I actually had LESS time to play once I rearranged my life to give first priority to my writing (it’s not unusual for me to put in a 60+ hour week) before he really got that what I was doing was WORK.

(He just read that last paragraph over my shoulder, incidentally, and he says that his adjustment was instantaneous: it was the cats who really minded.)

But even with good support, I still have days when I think, “Oh, I can’t possibly start writing until after the laundry is done.”

What about you?

Let’s talk about this: finding the time

There’s been an interesting set of exchanges going on in the comments on FAAB Jordan Rosenfeld’s Sept. 24 guest blog, and it’s made me want to throw a couple of questions out for general discussion. (I know that not everyone goes back and re-checks comments on the older blogs, as I do.)

First, how DO you make the time to write, amongst your other obligations?

Second, how do the other people in your life respond to your need for writing time? How does your significant other, if any, deal with it? Your kids? Your boss? Your pets?

To get the ball rolling, I’ll start: every couple I have ever known that contained at least one artist — including my household — has had to deal with both of these issues on a daily basis. My parents had these issues (he wrote, she sculpted) throughout my childhood — and that’s why, I suspect, I was the only six-year-old in the history of my elementary school to tell her teachers that she wasn’t going to have kids until she could afford domestic help AND a secretary. Trade-offs must be made, and in my household, then and now, art generally takes priority over dusting.

Generally, my s.o. is pretty understanding about this — although, like Jordan’s husband, he was not altogether pleased when I came home from a month-long writing retreat years ago and announced that I wanted to write and edit full-time. It took him a few months of noticing that I actually had LESS time to play once I rearranged my life to give first priority to my writing (it’s not unusual for me to put in a 60+ hour week) before he really got that what I was doing was WORK.

(He just read that last paragraph over my shoulder, incidentally, and he says that his adjustment was instantaneous: it was the cats who really minded.)

But even with good support, I still have days when I think, “Oh, I can’t possibly start writing until after the laundry is done.”

What about you?


All right, I am substantially less grumpy today, due in large part to memoir-related negotiations that I am not, as usual, at liberty to discuss. Here’s a hint, though: by mid-October, I may be able to tell you the ENTIRE story about why the book hasn’t come out yet, in vivid Technicolor.

In the meantime, I have some housekeeping to do today: my desktop is piled high with unanswered questions from readers (well, my virtual desktop is, anyway), all of which richly deserve answers. Practical questions, too, the kind that everyone wants answered. For instance, clever and insightful reader Claire wrote to ask:

“Suppose an agent wants to see your whole manuscript. Does one send it in a box? With enough postage inside for them to return it? How does the whole SASE thing work for an entire manuscript? Thanks.”

Claire, thanks for asking this: I can’t tell you how many last-minute, panicked phone calls and e-mails I’ve gotten on this very point – I think perhaps the writers in question just start looking up freelance editors on line while they’re about to rush off to the post office, and call every phone number until they catch someone who knows.

The answer is no, not anymore. In the old days – say, 30+ years ago – the author was expected to provide a box, and a rather nice one, then wrap it in plain brown paper for shipping. These old boxes are beautiful, if you can still find one: dignified black cardboard, held together by shining brass brads.

So if you can get it there in one piece box-free (say, if it is short enough to fit into a Priority Mail cardboard envelope), go ahead. Remember, though, that you want to have your pages arrive looking fresh and unbent, so make sure that your manuscript fits comfortably in its holder in such a way that the pages are unlikely to wrinkle.

If not, find an inexpensive box – if you live in the greater Seattle area, Archie McPhee’s, of all places, routinely carries fabulous red and blue boxes exactly the right size for a 450-page manuscript WITH adorable little black plastic handles for about a buck each. The craft chain store Michael’s also carries a box with the right footprint to ship a manuscript without too much internal shifting, as do some office supply stories. However, these boxes are generally a tad on the expensive side, and they are often too deep for the average manuscript, so you will need to add some bubble wrap or other filler. (Avoid the temptation to use newspaper; newsprint stains.)

But whatever you do, don’t reuse a box clearly marked for some other purpose, such as holding dishwashing soap. (Yes, it’s been known to happen.)

Include a return mailing label, already made out to you, the proper stamps for postage (metered strips will not work here), and add a paragraph to your cover letter explaining that you want them to reuse the box. To be on the safe side, explain HOW you want them to reuse the box: peel the back off the mailing label, stick it over the old label, affix new postage, and seal. (Trust me, sometimes they have trouble figuring it out.)

My preferred method is to use one of those free Priority Mail boxes that the post office provides, the ones that are about 2 inches deep. They’ll actually hold two 400-page manuscripts side-by-side quite comfortably, so I usually add padding to keep the unbound manuscript (for those of you who don’t know: never bind a manuscript in any way) from bouncing around too much. I want it to look good when it gets there, after all.

Since it would be impracticable to fold up another Priority Mail box inside, I either enclose the label and postage, as I described above, or, if I really don’t think that I’m going to be getting it back anytime soon, just nab one of those tough little everything-you-can-cram-in-here-is-one-price Priority Mail envelopes, self-address it, add postage, and stick it into the box. If you don’t care if your manuscript comes back to you a little bent, this is a wonderfully cash-conscious way to go. Those envelopes are surprisingly tough, in my experience — what are they made out of, kryptonite? — and while the pages don’t look too pretty after a cross-country trip in them, they do tend to arrive safely.

In case you couldn’t tell, I’m not a big fan of writers over-investing in impressive return postage. If you’re getting the manuscript back, it’s because they’ve rejected it, right? Who cares if the pages show up on your doorstep bent?

My, that was a long answer to a simple question, wasn’t it? On to the next, which is actually two in one:

“Anne – Would you please address the topics of 1) choosing a title before querying and 2) the role of a web site, not only to promote a current book but to sell the next one (if, indeed it is of any use in selling the next one). I sure would appreciate it.
Thanks, MooCrazy”

Happy to, Moo – but as I have a LOT to say on the issue of titles, pray forgive me if I take your second question first, and delay the first until tomorrow. (If you reread that question four or six more times, you will find that it honestly does make sense, I promise.)

Pretty much anyone in the industry will tell an aspiring writer to set up a website for herself and her book before the ink is dry on the publication contract, but in my experience, not everyone who gives this advice is entirely clear WHY it is a good idea. Amongst the computer-illiterate (a group to which a surprisingly high percentage of inmates of publishing houses and agencies seem to belong), it is not uncommon to regard websites as magical attractors of customers for any business. These are, lest we forget, the people who actually believed it when Internet-promoters predicted ten years ago that supermarkets, shoe stores, and other in-person buying experiences would be wiped out forever by online purchasing.

The industry’s thinking about the web has not, alas, changed much in the intervening decade. Oh, they know now that bloggers exist — at least, they know about the bloggers who get millions of hits daily — but as the regular blog readers among you have probably already noticed, they haven’t seemed to have been able to figure out that a blog’s readership will have ALREADY read the entries on the blog; when they buy a book by a blogger whose work they have followed for some time, they want to see something NEW.

But I digress. My point is, publishers tell writers to set up websites, and sometimes even do it for them, and admittedly, it is a fine thing if a potential book buyer who has heard your name elsewhere can run a basic internet search on your name and find information on your book. However, the resulting websites tend to be tombstones. They are static; since the content never changes, except perhaps to note different dates on a book tour, there’s no reason for your potential readers ever to go there more than once.

Perhaps as a blogger, I am prejudiced, but I think this is an inefficient use of a website. It’s basically just a roadside sign along a very busy, very advertisement-heavy highway. Yes, someone may see it, but there’s a whole lot of competition to wade through first.

The big search engines reward websites whose content changes often — that’s why blogs tend to shoot up the Google lists. (Also, the more content you have to be indexed, the more different kinds of searches will lead to your website.) So if you’re going to invest in a website, and you want to have it be an effective promotional tool, it’s a good idea to plan in advance to make the time to change the content often.

Have you considered writing a blog, for instance?

Don’t get me wrong – like any other kind of advertising, it’s generally better to have a website than not to have one. It is genuinely nice if people who have fallen in love with your first book have a logical place to check in to see when your second is coming out. There is nothing to stop you, either, from creating a “Join my mailing list” button on your website, to make it easier for you to send out e-mails to your fans when there is breaking news about your next book.

However, in my experience with the industry, there is one thing that a blog will NEVER do for an author: be a substitute for submission pages. Counterintuitive, isn’t it, when agents and editors keep yammering about how authors should have blogs? I have heard agents complain ENDLESSLY about writers who include web addresses in their query letters, expecting the agents to make the time to log on and check out their prose there. “Like I have the time to search for the work of someone I don’t know,” they scoff.

Unless you are already a well-established blogger – and sometimes not even then – it just doesn’t work.

By all means, though, if you are marketing a book to agents and editors, mention that you have a website, if you do; in their minds, it will mean that you are serious about helping promote your book. If you are submitting a nonfiction book proposal, definitely mention that erecting a website is part of your promotion plan.

“Wait a minute!” I hear some of the craftier of you out there cry. “If they never check submitters’ websites, why shouldn’t I just go ahead and SAY I already have a website, if it’s a selling point?

For the sake of your karma, for one thing. Or immortal soul, if you prefer to think of it that way. Or just because it’s not very nice to lie to people. And maybe, just maybe, yours would be the one time in the last fifteen years an agent actually did take the time to take a gander at a writer’s website.

I hope that answers your questions, Moo and Claire. The other part of Moo’s question follows tomorrow. In the meantime, keep those good questions rolling in, everybody, and keep up the good work!

The blessings of Ataraxia, or, How to be a dream client

I sat down to write about agencies again today, but to be absolutely honest with you, I had to stop halfway through, because I’ve been having a genuinely upsetting day. Since we writers have to be so tough to make it in this business, it’s easy to forget that we are actually finely-balanced musical instruments. It’s hard to create when we’re thrown for a loop. Today’s loop-generator was a fairly common one for givers of feedback, professional and friendly both, so I think it would be useful for me to write about it. (And if not, hey, I blog pretty much every day, so if it turns out that I’m just being self-indulgent today, I can always be purely useful again tomorrow, right?)

Because I am EXTREMELY selective about whose work I read (I have been exchanging chapters with my first readers for years, and professionally, I will only work with clients I feel are bursting with talent, but even then, if the subject matter or genre is not a good fit with my tastes, or if I don’t think I can help a writer get published within a reasonable amount of time, I will refer him on), the vast majority of the time, my interactions with other writers are a joy. Really. I enjoy giving feedback quite a bit, even when I am charged with the task of helping a client incorporate not-very-sound advice from an agent, editor, or dissertation advisor in such a way that it will not destroy the book.

Okay, I’ll grant you, it doesn’t SOUND like a whole lot of fun. But usually, it is: I love good writing, and like any competent editor, the sight of anything that detracts from good writing’s presentation makes me foam at the mouth and reach for a pen.

Every so often, though, I’ll run into someone who thinks I’m just making up the rules of standard format, or norms of academic argumentation, or even the usual human expectation that within a story, each subsequent event will follow logically upon the one before it. (Blame Aristotle’s POETICS for that last set of rules, not me.) This morning, I was lambasted at length for having had the gall to point out that someone’s Chapter Two might not be utterly clear to a reader that did not have the author reading over his shoulder, explaining verbally the choices made on the page.

Long-time readers of this blog, sing along with me here: when you submit a manuscript, all that matters is what is on the page. If ANYTHING in your first 50 pages is not perfectly comprehensible without a “Yes, but I explain that in Chapter Four”-type verbal clarification, rework it.

Please. Thank you.

Now, since it’s my job – or ethical obligation, in cases of volunteer feedback-giving – to point out precisely this sort of problem wherever it appears in a manuscript, I am always a trifle nonplused when I encounter a writer who thinks I’m only flagging it out of some deep-seated compulsion to be hurtful. Again, I am very selective about whose pages I read, and I burn to be helpful: it’s not uncommon for my commentary on a book to be longer as most of the chapters. I try to be thoughtful, giving my reasons for any major suggested change with a specificity and completeness that makes the Declaration of Independence look like a murmur of vague discontent about tea prices.

Obviously, this level of feedback is not for everybody; one of my best friends in the work refers to me affectionately as a manuscript piranha, but still, she lets me read her work. Because, honestly, is there anything worse than handing your work-in-progress to someone who just says, “Oh, it was fine,” or “Oh, it just wasn’t my kind of book,” without explaining WHY? I think completeness of feedback implies a certain level of devotion on my part to making the manuscript in question the best book it can possibly be.

Yet I was told this morning that, to put it mildly, I was incorrect about this. Apparently, I only suggest changes as a most effective means of ripping the author’s heart from his chest, stomping upon it, pasting it back together, sautéing it in a nice balsamic vinegar reduction, then feeding the resulting stew to, if not the author, than at least the neighbor’s Rottweiler.

Imagine my surprise.

This was for a manuscript I LIKED, incidentally. I had made a grand total of ONE suggested change, in the midst of oceans of praise.

So what did I do? What editors and agents moan privately to one another about having to do for their clients all the time, be preternaturally patient until the “But it’s MY work! It MUST be perfect!” tantrum petered out. Until then, further discussion was simply pointless.

Because, in the first moments after receiving critique, creative people are often utterly, completely, fabulously unreasonable about it. They not only want to shoot the messenger – they want to broil her slowly on a spit over red-hot coals like a kabob, and THEN yell at her. Fear of this stripe of reaction, in case you were wondering, is the most common reason most people will give only that very limited “Oh, it was fine” feedback after reading a friend’s manuscript. They’re just trying to keep their heads attached to their bodies, rather than skewered upon some irate writer’s pike.

It’s also the usual excuse — which you may believe or not, as you see fit, considering the source — that most agents give for why they send out form letter rejections, rather than specific, thoughtful replies to requested submissions. Their stated reason for form letter responses to queries, of course, is sheer volume: they don’t have time to reply to each individually. But obviously, if they have the time to read 50 pages, they have time to scrawl a couple of lines about how it could be improved. The fact is, they don’t want to: they don’t want to engender an angry response that might turn into an endless debate about the merits of a book they’ve already decided, for whatever reason, that they do not want.

Since most writers are peaches and lambs and every other kind of pacific, cooperative kind of entity you can think of most of the time, this fear is perhaps overblown. Most of us are perfectly capable of taking a little constructive criticism in the spirit it is intended. But every so often, some author loses it – and for that author’s display of temper, alas, we all pay.

That’s the official logic, anyway.

So now you know: if you want to establish yourself as a dream client in the eyes of the average agent or editor, who tends to hide under a chair after giving even the mildest feedback to her clients, greet the first emergence of any feedback with apparent tolerance; give yourself time to calm down before you argue. To buy yourself time, say something like, “Wow, what an interesting idea. I’ll have to think about that. Thanks.” Then take the rest of the day off, and don’t so much as peek at your manuscript again until you’ve had a chance to calm down.

Say this, even if in that moment, the suggestion proffered seems to you like the worst idea since Hannibal decided to march all of those elephants over the Alps to get at Rome. Because at that precise second, you are not just an individual writer, concerned with the integrity of your own manuscript: you are representing all of us. Show that, contrary to our stereotype in the industry as touchy hotheads unwilling to consider changing a single precious word, most of us really are capable of taking a little criticism.

Admittedly, my readers all acting this beautifully in the fact of critique probably sounds better to me right now than it might had I not just been scathed for trying to help out. Whenever I am confronted with a defensive critique-rejecter, I must confess, I seldom think of cooperative, thoughtful revisers with any abhorrence.

Feedback, though, and the revision process in general, ought to be treated with more respect by everyone concerned. There really ought to be a muse, if not an ancient Greek goddess, of manuscript revision, someone to whom we can pray for patience and tolerance in getting feedback on our work.

A muse of revision might conceivably make better sense to court than a muse of inspiration. Few of us writers like to admit it, but if we write works longer than a postcard, we all inevitably worship in private at this muse’s altar. Why should the initial inspiration gals get all the credit, when so much of the work that makes a book wonderful is in the re-editing?

Editing gets a bad rap, and self-editing even worse. You can’t spend half an hour in a gathering of more than three serious writers without hearing someone bitch about it. Oh, it’s so hard; oh, it’s so tedious. Oh, I’m sick to death of revising my manuscript. If I have to spend another instant of my life reworking that one pesky sentence, I shall commit unspeakable mayhem on the nearest piece of shrubbery.

We don’t describe the initial rush to write that pesky sentence that way, though, do we? Our muse leaps out at us, flirts with us, seduces us so effectively that we look up a paragraph later and find that six hours have gone by. Our muse is the one that gives us that stunned look in our eyes that our loved ones know so well, the don’t-call-me-for-breakfast glaze that tells the neighborhood that we will not be available for normal human interaction for awhile.

Ah, but the muses of initial inspiration don’t always stick around, do they? No, the flighty trollops too often knock you over the head with a great idea, then leave you in the lurch in mid-paragraph. Do they call? Do they write? Don’t they know we worry ourselves sick, we writers, wondering if they are ever going to come back?

Not so Ataraxia, the muse of revision. (Hey, I came up with the notion, so I get to name her. According to the ancient philosopher Sextus Empiricus — I know, I know; you can’t throw a piece of bread at a party these days without hitting someone chatting about Sextus Empiricus, but bear with me here — ataraxia is the state of tranquility attained only at the end of intense self-examination. Ataraxia is the point at which you stop second-guessing yourself: the ultimate goal of revision, no?)

Ataraxia yanks you back to your computer, scolding; she reads over the shoulder of your dream agent; editors at major publishing houses promise her their firstborn. While being a writer would be a whole lot more fun if completing a good book could be accomplished merely by consorting with her flightier muse sisters, party girls at heart, sooner or later, we all need to appeal to Ataraxia for help.

Best to stay on her good side: for starters, let’s all pledge not to scream at the kind souls who give us necessary feedback. Yes, I suspect Ataraxia would really enjoy that sort of sacrifice.

I’ll confess, I have not always treated Ataraxia with respect myself. How tedious revision is, I have thought from time to time, inventing reasons not to sit down and put in a few hours of solid work on a project. What a bore, to have to go back to a book I consider finished and tweak it: hour after hour of staring at just a few sentences, changing perhaps an adjective or two every ten minutes. Yawn.

Over time, though, I have started to listen to what I was actually telling myself when I complained about revision. It wasn’t that I objected to putting in the time; there have been few days in the last decade when I haven’t spent many hours in front of my computer or scribbling on a notepad; I’m a writer, so that’s what I do. It wasn’t that I felt compelled to rework my novel for the fiftieth time, or, in cases where I’ve been incorporating feedback, that I thought the changes would be bad for the book.

No, my real objection, I realized, is that I expected the revision process to bore me to tears. Am I alone in this?

But Ataraxia watches over even the most ungrateful of writers, so she whacked me over the head with an epiphany: a manuscript is a living thing, and to allow it to change can be to allow it to grow in new and exciting ways.

So now I know: whenever I start procrastinating about necessary revisions, it is a pretty sure sign that I had been thinking of my text as something inert, passive, a comatose patient who might die if I inadvertently lopped off too much on the editing table. What if, instead of thinking of revision as nitpicking, I used it to lift some conceptual barriers within the book? What if I incorporated my first readers’ suggestions about my memoir in a way that made the book better? Not just in terms of sentences and paragraphs, but in terms of content?

Just a suggestion: instead of regarding feedback as an attack upon the book, a foreign attempt to introduce outside ideas into an organically perfect whole or a negative referendum upon your abilities as a writer, perhaps it would be more productive to treat critique (your own included) as a hint that maybe the flagged section could use an influx of fresh creativity.

Try to move beyond just making grammatical changes and inserting begrudging sentences where your first readers have asked, “But why is this happening here?” If you have stared at a particular sentence or paragraph for hours on end, changing it and changing it back — c’mon, you know we all do it — naturally, you’re going to get bored. Naturally, you are going to loathe that kind of revision.

But the next time you find yourself in that kind of editing loop, set the text you’re working on aside for a few minutes. Pick up a pen (or open a new document) and write that section afresh, in new words, as if for the first time. No peeking at your old text, and no cheating by using sentences you recall writing the first time around. Allow yourself to use different analogies, to reveal character and event differently. Give yourself time to play with your ideas and the way you want to say them before you go back to the original text.

Then walk away for ten minutes. Maybe you could do some stretching exercises, to avoid repetitive strain injuries, or at least take a stroll around your house. Feed the cat. Plot a better way to get legions of elephants over the Alps. Anything to get your eyes off the printed word for awhile.

And then, when you return, read the original version and the new. You probably will not want to substitute one for the other entirely, but is there any part of the new version that could be incorporated into the old in an interesting way? Are there sentences that can be switched productively, or some new ones that could be added to the old? Are there arguments or character points in the new that would enliven the old?

What you’re doing with this exercise is transforming revision from a task where you are fine-tuning something essentially finished into an opportunity to infuse the manuscript with fresh ideas at problematic points. Conceptually, it’s a huge difference, and I guarantee it will make the revision process a lot more fun.

As Ataraxia wants it to be, I suspect.

Okay, I feel less self-indulgent now: I think I have wrested some good, practical advice out of my very, very bad day. And naturally, unlike your garden-variety agent or editor, I’m not going to give up on this writer because of a single loss of temper. Nor, unlike the average writer’s friend with a manuscript, am I going to let the one writer who implied that my feedback on his work was the worst idea since Stalin last said, “I know! Let’s have a purge!” discourage me from giving feedback to others.

But please, the next time you are confronted with feedback that makes your blood boil, take a deep breath before you respond. Think about me, and about Ataraxia, and force yourself to say, “Gee, what an interesting notion. May I think about it, and we can talk about it later?” Then go home and punch a pillow 700 times, if you must, but please, don’t disembowel the messenger.

She may be bringing you a news flash from Ataraxia. Keep up the good work!

Dream On: Guest Blogger Jordan E. Rosenfeld

Anne here for a moment: I’ve been cracking the get-your-work-out-there whip pretty heavily in my last two series, so I am very pleased to reintroduce FAAB (Friend of Author! Author! Blog) Jordan Rosenfeld, bringing her patented brand of writer encouragement. Here, she’s addressing a MONUMENTALLY important issue (in response to an excellent reader comment — thanks again, Moo!) that seldom gets discussed at writers’ conferences, which are typically geared to either business (“Get and agent! Get an agent!”) or craft (“You’re writing wrong! You’re writing wrong!”). But in the quiet of whatever time and space we have managed — often with great difficulty — to carve out as a writing studio, this issue often looms large: how do we give ourselves permission to write?

Take it away, Jordan!

Dream On, by Jordan E. Rosenfeld , Guest Blogger

I received a comment awhile back from reader “Moo Crazy” who asked for suggestions on what to do when one’s desire to write is at odds with one’s inner morality that suggests writing is not a “responsible” way to live, usually because of its slim profit margin. A lot of writers, therefore, hold back from the time they would love to take from children/job/significant others and don’t give their writing life their “all,” which breeds its own kind of nasty feelings.

Let me say the obvious first and get it out of the way so we can move on to working with the feelings:

If you don’t write, there will be no product with which to do anything.

If you don’t write, you are not being responsible to yourSELF.

Whatever you believe about writing — i.e, a noble endeavor or a waste of time — will not only be true for you, but you will teach others to believe this about it as well.

If you resist writing out of guilt, you will also slowly begin to resent those you believe are keeping you from doing what you love.

So when you look at all those likely outcomes of holding back, you can see that leaning in to the responsibility angle also comes with some drawbacks.

Let me share a little story on this subject. I have been writing all of my life. When I met my husband he took one look at my loaded shelves full of journals and knew he was in the presence of someone for whom writing was not just a passing fancy. However, he is also a rational person who believes that financial security is a wise thing. I always wrote “on the side.” I jammed it into the crevices of my life wherever I could find them. I rose early, worked late, put off social engagements, even sacrificed time spent with him.

When small but exciting things happened to me, like the time I went to the writing conference — where I, in fact, met the illustrious Miss Mini — and was told by an agent, “This is really good stuff, you should finish it and then send it to me,” I came home thinking “I’m going to do it. I just need a month.” But when I got home, I couldn’t make a case for taking a month off from my already low-paying job. I felt guilty. What if he banked on my success and nothing happened? What if I failed him?

I proceeded to be a pretty miserable person for quite some years, always hungering after the life that I wanted but was afraid to have in which I wrote all the time and called my own shots. Not until I started creating space for my writing life by focusing on it every day, by doing all the various exercises I previously led you all through, did anything shift.

And then one day, after I’d spent a particularly juicy week day-dreaming about the freelance writing life I was going to have for myself, after I’d started taking my writing life so seriously that nobody dared tell me it was a pipe dream, my husband came to me. “I think you should quit your job,” he said. “It’s time. You have to do this.”

You have no idea how amazing it was to hear those words. What had changed in him from the man who couldn’t bear the idea of me taking a month off to finish a novel?

*I* had changed. I had begun to take myself and my writing so seriously, as if it was in fact a child I was to nurture, that I all but radiated an aura of success. Nothing about our finances changed; I didn’t hand him a written guarantee that I would bring in X dollars. I simply began to do all the work on myself — that of visualizing, emphasizing the positive, writing down in precise detail the writing life I wanted — and he shifted along with me.

I’ve been self-employed for two years now and in these two years more has happened to my career than my entire life put together prior to this.

Two books are being published, I’m a contributing editor at Writer’s Digest magazine, I’m writing book reviews for an NPR-affiliate radio station and the SF Chronicle, I have a literary agent shopping my novel. A few years ago, none of that seemed plausible to me. It all seemed so very far off.

The key is that we think we are making our family members safe, our parents happy and our society proud of us for our restraint by not writing. When all we are really doing is preventing ourselves from our own fullness, our own potential success, which will have a positive effect on everyone in our lives. It’s a terrible edge to walk.

I recommend you start by giving in to your daydreams. You don’t even have to do anything, but start fantasizing in full vivid color, what kind of writing life you want. How much time do you see yourself writing? When, where, and what is coming out? What would you be doing differently if only you had the time to write? Ask these questions until you actually begin to shift.

My next online class with Rebecca Lawton might also help you to this end:

CREATING SPACE: FOR WRITERS AND OTHER ARTISTIC SOULS (Wavegirl Books, 2007) is part writer’s guide, part playbook and now, a series of online classes! Using a principle pioneered by the authors, the class guides participants through activities and insights designed for a creative life. We explore how you attract your life, show you how to fashion your own journey by Creating Space for your desires, and cheerlead you through the process of writing and attracting your good. The classes draw from the principles of the forthcoming book.

Next Session: Letting Go, Creating Space
Schedule: 4 weeks, October 20 through November 17, 2006
Cost $125.
LIMIT: 15 students

It’s important to remember that you are the one who shapes your own life. You are in charge of letting go of what you don’t want, and you — guided by your feelings — can make choices that allow everything and everyone around you to play supportive roles in your life story. This four-week class will teach you the principles of Creating Space, and how to let go of what keeps you from your goals.

To register: Send an email to: with your name, address, phone number & email address, and send a deposit of $50 (refundable until October 1st) to: Wavegirl Ink, P.O. Box 654, Vineburg, CA 95487-0654

All class participants will receive a 10% discount on the annual Creating Space Retreat or other CS classes. Those who refer friends who complete the current class will receive a $25 discount on any subsequent class in the series.

Anne again here: Thanks, Jordan! As always, you can catch Jordan’s words of wisdom on her blog, as well as on her literary radio program Word by Word.

But right now, let’s talk about this one: what struggles do YOU face in giving yourself permission to write? What helped you overcome them?

Expanding your query list, Part IX: More reviews, and some final words of advice

Yesterday, I discussed how to use book reviews in order to point you toward agents to query. If reading through weeks and months of reviews seems like a lot of work, bear in mind the alternative: not targeting agents specifically, or, heaven help us, adopting a mass strategy where you simply blanket the agenting world with generic pleas for representation.

Allow me to reiterate: just as trial attorneys learn not to ask questions whose answers they cannot anticipate, I, and literally every agented writer I know, have learned not to query agents who are not DEMONSTRABLY interested in our kind of writing or our kind of writer NOW.

And unfortunately, what the agents say about themselves the standard agents’ guides is not always the best indicator of this. Both personal preferences and industry trends have been known to change with lightning speed, and those blurbs are changed at most once per year. It’s not uncommon for the listings to remain the same for a decade at a time. Nor, as we saw in my series last March and April on the agents and editors scheduled to attend the 2006 PNWA conference, are agents’ conference blurbs especially reliable. Those, too, are frequently reused for years on end.

All of this is admittedly frustrating, but believe me, the research is well worth your time. Sending only targeted queries can substantially reduce your rejection rate. At the risk of sounding broken-recordesque, this is especially true if you have been going the mass mailing route — most agents simply ignore “Dear Agent” letters, but they genuinely do pay attention to queries that pay them the compliment of noticing that they have sold books in the past.

As I have mentioned, oh, about 700 times before (see earlier broken record comment, above), it is VASTLY to your advantage to be able to open your query letter with a clear, book-specific reference to why you have selected that particular agent: “Since you so ably represented David Guterson’s SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS, I believe that you will enjoy my book…”

Trust me on this one, please. Invest the time.

But do it strategically. As I mentioned yesterday, finding well-reviewed first-time authors in your genre should be your first goal in review-scanning, as their agents will probably be most open to your work. Once you start reading the major book reviewers on a regular basis, however, you will probably notice that first-time authors receive only a very small share of their august notice.

Odd, isn’t it, considering that ostensibly, a book reviewer’s primary job is to alert his readers to the existence of good books they might not otherwise read? But no: the vast majority of reviews are of well-hyped books by already-established writers.

Personally, I would find it a bit tedious to keep on informing the world yet again that Alice Walker can write and that J.K. Rowling has a future in children’s literature, when I could be telling the world about an exciting new author’s first novel, but as I have mentioned before, I do not make the rules governing the miasma of publishing; I merely tell you about them.

For this reason, you might want to move beyond the major book review sources in your search for new agenting pastures. If you have read several issues of a publication without finding a single author whose work sounds similar to yours, move on to another publication. The easiest way to do this is to check back issues: here again, the public library is your friend. Librarians, dear souls that they are, often shelve current magazines so one does not even have to move three steps in either direction to find a year’s worth of back issues.

To save yourself some time, don’t bother with issues more than a year and a half old; longer ago than that, and the agents’ book preferences may well have changed. And start with the smaller publications aimed most directly at your target audience or demographic, not the broader-based publications. If you write anything at all esoteric, you could easily spend a month leafing through the last two years’ worth of the New York Times Review of Books and only come up with a handful of books in your genre.

And don’t forget to search the web for sites that habitually review your type of book! Yes, the Internet is wide and vast and deep, but if you narrow your search focus enough (how many habitual reviewers of werewolf books could there possibly be?), the task should not be terribly overwhelming. Remember, part of the point of this exercise is to find the smaller books by first-timers, and no one is faster than your garden-variety blogging reviewer at finding these.

If you find it difficult to tell from the reviews whose work is like yours, take the reviews to a well-stocked bookstore and start pulling books off the shelves. I’m sure that you are a good enough reader to tell in a paragraph or two if the agent who fell in love with any given writer’s style is at all likely to admire YOUR prose flair. Or — and this is particularly important if you are writing about anything especially controversial — if the agent is brave enough to take a chance on a topic that might not, as they say, play in Peoria.

Often, though, this is not necessary, as many book reviewers have the endearing habit of rushing to compare new authors to immensely well-established ones, often within the first few lines. For instance, I was reading a review of Stephanie Kallos’ John Irvingesque plotting. A statement like this in line 1 can render reading the rest of the review superfluous. If your work resembles Irving’s, but you despair of hooking his agent (who, if memory serves, is also his wife), you would be well advised to try Kallos’.

Get it?

Admittedly, sometimes the ostensible connections between the writers cited may be rather tenuous, which is less than helpful for our purposes. Again, taking a gander at the actual books in question will help separate the true analogies from the bizarre. I noticed, for example, that since my favorite new literary novel, Layne Maheu’s amazing SONG OF THE CROW is told from the point of view of a bird along for the ride on Noah’s ark, several reviewers automatically compared the book to Richard Bach’s 1970s megaseller JONATHAN LIVINGSTON SEAGULL. Actually, apart from the sheer flesh-to-feathers ratio in these two books, they don’t have a lot in common. But sure enough, the merest flutter of feathers, and the reviewer had a conceptual match.

One last comment on tracking down agents to query: if you absolutely, positively cannot find out who represents a particular living author after a reasonable amount of effort, let me know — I might be able to find out. I have connections for this sort of question. (This offer is not unlimited, of course: please don’t just send me your entire list. Blogging is a volunteer endeavor, after all.)

On Monday, I shall be talking about how agencies differ from one another. This does not mean I am leaving the subject of querying forever, though: if you have questions you would like answered, or agent-hunting stories you would like to share, feel free to chime in via the COMMENTS function, below.

One quick piece of business before I sign off for today: are many of you planning to attend the Surrey conference in October? Leave a comment, if so — if enough of you are, I’ll do the same sort of research run-down on the agents due to turn up there as I did for PNWA this summer, because a lot of my readers seemed to find that helpful. So write in, please!

And, of course, keep up the good work!

Expanding your query list, Part VIII: Surfing the sea of reviews

Before I launch into today’s installment, I feel the need to pause a moment and gloat: today, the Spanish government began to enforce a law that stipulates models must be over certain specified Body Mass Indexes. In plain English, they turned away about 30% of the models who showed up for work today, because they weighed too little, and I have been deriving real enjoyment from watching the size 0s and 2s on television prattle on sanctimoniously about how awful it is that 15-year-old models choose to starve themselves.

Because, as we all know, early adolescents set all the rules in any society. Where on EARTH did those women, the talking heads cry, get the idea that they needed to be skeletal in order to get work as models or actresses? And why in heaven’s name do young girls look up to models as standards of beauty? Clearly, something very strange indeed has been going on behind adult backs, to set up goals of comeliness so diametrically opposed to those embraced by those of us old enough to vote, edit fashion magazines, or cast movies.

I learned today, from one of those size 2 talking heads, that the average NYC model is 6 feet tall and weighs 117 pounds, apparently the twin sister of that 98-pound weakling who used to get sand kicked in his face by the muscle men in the old cartoons. The purpose of all that sand-kicking, of course, was to steal the willowy beauty of their day. And what did she look like? Allow me to quote from a 1949 book on women in the workforce: “Fashion models must be 5’6” to 5’10” (with heels) and wear a size 12 or 14. The model has to draw a fine line between going to enough parties to be seen regularly and getting enough sleep to appear always fresh and clear-eyed for work.”

Not to mention financing that speed habit. Somewhere up in that great pink boudoir in the sky, I sincerely hope Marilyn Monroe, Mae West, and Jayne Mansfield are having a good, hearty belly laugh at us all right now. And then eating vats upon vats of ice cream.

All right, I am descending from my soapbox now; back to business. In previous postings, I talked about how to track down who represents whom, so that you may address queries to the agents who represent authors whose work you like, or (even better) whose work or background resembles yours in some important respect. Today, I am going to discuss an inexpensive and highly effective way to identify agents with a solid recent track record of selling books in your area: reading book reviews.

“Wait just a model-starving second!” I hear those of you who have been paying attention to this series cry. “Wouldn’t books coming out right now necessarily be a reflection of what agents were selling at least a year ago? What about your passionate diatribe yesterday about how agents live in the now, so we should strive to be as up-to-the-minute in our research as possible?”

If you thought this, or some reasonable facsimile of it, you get a gold star for the day. Chant it with me now: from the time a book is purchased by a publisher to the date it appears in bookstores is at least a year. Sometimes longer. And publishing trends, like an aspiring model’s weight, can fluctuate wildly over a much shorter period of time: the same agents who were clamoring a year ago for memoirs like A MILLION LITTLE PIECES are now telling writers that memoir simply doesn’t sell. The agents who were combing conferences for the next SEX IN THE CITY two years ago are now insisting that chick lit is doomed.

And, of course, six months from now, after everyone has calmed down after the Random House class action settlement with James Frey’s pre-scandal readers (payments underwritten, one suspects, by the hugely increased sales of the book AFTER the scandal broke), some other book category will be pronounced permanently dead, too. Since it takes substantially longer to write a book than for a bunch of people in Manhattan to decide what the next hot thing will be, all we writers can do is monitor the squalls from afar and hope we’re ready when our time comes.

However, keeping up-to-the-minute on who is selling what NOW pretty much requires subscribing to one of the rather expensive industry publications, such as Publishers Marketplace or Publishers Weekly. As a dispenser of free advice myself, I am very much in favor of highlighting any free resources that are available to writers. Most aspiring writers are already struggling to make time to write, and for those with the spare cash to spend, there is a whole industry devoted to producing seminars, conferences, books, and magazines devoted to helping them become better and more publishable writers. So if I can save my readers a few shekels from time to time, I like to do it.

The book review method is undoubtedly cheap: if you go to a public library, you don’t even have to buy newspapers or magazines to read book reviews. While print media book reviews almost never list the agent of a book in question (as opposed to industry advance reviews – see Part IV of this series — which occasionally do), reading the reviews will enable you to single out writers who are either writing for the same micro-niche you are or whose style is similar to yours. Then, once you have identified the writers whose representation you covet, you can use the methods I have already discussed to track down their agents.

The book review will also tell you, by implication, how good the agent is at placing work with publishers who promote their authors’ books well. As you have undoubtedly noticed, the vast majority of books published in North America are NOT reviewed in the popular press; it is no longer sufficient simply to send a bound galley with a polite cover letter to a publication to get it reviewed. (For those of you unfamiliar with the term, a bound galley is a low-cost print of a book cheaply packaged, without a hard cover, for circulation to reviewers. They look a little bit like thick scripts for plays.) Talk to anyone who works at a large-circulation magazine, and they will tell you: they receive hundreds of bound galleys every month, but unlike an industry publication like LIBRARY JOURNAL, they simply do not have room to review them all.

They review perhaps a dozen per month, out of all those submissions. And to narrow the probability of any given book’s being reviewed even more, most print media outlets have a policy to review only books released in hardcover — although since it has gotten so common to release fiction in trade paper, you’re starting to see some shift on the subject — and only books released through traditional publishing. Self-published and electronic books are almost impossible to get reviewed, alas, unless you’re Stephen King.

Thus, if you see a book reviewed in a major publication, it is because it is either expected to be a big seller, is by an author already well recognized, or someone (usually the publicity department at the publishing house, but with increasing frequency, the author or the author’s press people) has been a shameless nagger. Since even a poor review in a major publication will equal more book sales than no review at all (remember when John Irving’s last book got savaged by THE WASHINGTON POST?), it is very much in your interest to find an agent who is good at bullying publishers into nagging reviewers on behalf of her authors’ books.

Querying authors whose books get reviewed is good place to start looking for such an agent, obviously.

Tomorrow, I shall wrap up this series on agent-spotting, so we may move on to other pastures. But before I go, I have a question to toss out there, for future posts: have you been hearing industry terminology used at conferences, or seeing in writer-targeted publications, or even found me using here, that you would like to see defined with some precision?

If so, please send them to me via the COMMENTS function, below, so I know to include them in my upcoming glossary of industry-speak. Since I hope that this fall’s querying blitz is going to bring many of you into contact with agents and editors eager to help you promote your writing, I thought it might be a good idea to give you a crash course in the language they will be speaking.

Keep up the good work!

Expanding your query list, Part IV: spotting an agent in the wild

I bring you glad tidings for a second day in a row, my friends: one of our very own long-term readers, the ever-fabulous Phoebe Kitanidis, just signed with agent Jim McCarthy of Dystel & Goderich Literary Management yesterday! She writes both adult and YA fiction and, to add to her many virtues, was one of the marvelous Pitch Palace volunteers at this summer’s PNWA conference.

So everyone join me, please, in great big foot-stomping hurrahs for Phoebe, and brilliant prognostications of her continued success!

I have a double reason to rejoice: DGLM is the agency that represents yours truly, so this is a win for two of my communities, as far as I’m concerned. I gather from my agent’s perpetual astonishment at my enthusiasm for other writers’ work (I’m notorious for pitching my friends’ books at conferences — particularly conferences where the friend in question is a couple of time zones away), not everyone regards publication as a team sport.

But hey, we writers can use all the mutual support we can get, right?

To paraphrase everyone’s favorite writing auntie, Jane Austen (I grew up surrounded by writers and artists, but not everyone did. I say, if you don’t have literary relatives, adopt ‘em), we writers are an oppressed class: we need to stick together. Heck, I’ll just go ahead and quote that wonderful passage from her NORTHANGER ABBEY — the novel, if you’ll recall, that her publisher bought and sat upon for years and years without publishing, just like a certain memoir I could mention — so it’s safe to say that she knew a little something about writerly frustration. The quaint punctuation, for those of you new to Aunt Jane’s style, is hers:

“Yes, novels; — for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding — joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust. Alas! if the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it. Let us leave it to the Reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body. Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers. And while the abilities of the nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior, with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from Sterne, are eulogized by a thousand pens — there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them.”

Amazing how modern Aunt Jane remains, isn’t it? If you substituted “the 900th interpreter of the Middle East conflict” for the bit about the History of England, and changed the anthologer mentioned into a reference to CHICKEN SOUP FOR THE SOUL (or indeed, to most of the textbooks currently used in English and American literature classes), the critique is still valid now. Heck, throw in a hostile word or two about James Frey’s A MILLION LITTLE PIECES (because it’s not as though Random House originally saw it as a novel or anything) or Kaavya Viswanathan’s HOW OPAL MEHTA GOT KISSED, GOT WILD, AND GOT A LIFE (because the average 17-year-old is more than capable of dictating ethics to her publishers), this passage could have appeared in a trade journal within the last year.

So let’s commit to being mutually supportive — and keep that good news rolling in, everyone. Send in your triumphs, everybody, big and small, so we can celebrate them together. And thanks, Phoebe, for reminding us that it IS possible for the writer to win playing against the stacked deck of the publishing industry.

Okay, back to my topic of the week (which looks as though it will be the topic of next week, too) — and fasten your seatbelts, everybody, because it’s going to be a lengthy ride. Today, I am going to take you through how to find out who represents whom, so that you can query the agents of authors whose work resembles yours. (For a discussion of why this is a good idea, see the earlier segments of this series.)

Isn’t it astonishing that this most basic information — who represented any given book — should be SO difficult to come by? There’s no good reason for it; since all publishing deals in the U.S. are matters of public record (not the specifics, perhaps, but definitely the players), gathering this data should be the proverbial walk in the park. But it undoubtedly isn’t, at least without paying for access to an industry database.

Yes, the standard agents’ guides do usually ask the agency to list a few of their best-known clients in the blurbs. Best-known is the operative phrase here: yes, it’s nice to see names that you recognize, but an agency’s big sellers are often neither their most recent sales nor a particularly good indicator of that they are looking for in a NEW client. Agents’ preferences change all the time; I always concentrate on what the agent has sold within the last three years as the most reliable indicator of what s/he would like to see in a query.

And even in the rare instances where the blurbs do provide up-to-date titles, few of the guides include the authors’ names in the index, so the aspiring writer is reduced to skimming the entire book, looking for familiar writers. Not terribly efficient, is it?

Sometimes, you can learn who represents an author via a simple web search, but this, too, can be very time-consuming. A standard search under the author’s name will generally pull up every review ever published about her work, every article in which she is mentioned, and prompts to buy her book at Amazon AND B & N — not in that order — as well as the author’s own website, which often does not include representation information, surprisingly enough. Wading through all of this information can be very frustrating, and does not always lead to what you need.

So what’s a querier to do?

If you are searching for the agent who represented a specific book, it is worthwhile to check out the industry reviews excerpted on the booksellers’ sites. Actually, Amazon, B&N, and Powell’s all often post industry reviews, too. Occasionally, the agent’s name is listed at the end of these reviews.

(Why would these reviews list such an arcane detail? Well, the industry reviews are the advance press — Kirkus, Library Journal, Publishers Weekly — reviews written primarily for the benefit of retailers who are considering stocking the book. They appear considerably before the release date; it is not unheard-of for editors to pull a book from the print queue that has received a less-positive-than-anticipated advance reviews, so that the book may be re-revised prior to release. Print reviews, by contrast, tend to coincide with the book’s release, and are aimed at the general reading public. Thus, they seldom contain information of interest only to people in the industry.)

As I mentioned earlier in this series, writers-conference wisdom dictates that the best means of finding out who represents an author is to check the book itself for acknowledgments. Often, authors will thank their agents — and if not, the common cant goes, maybe you should think twice about that agent, anyway. (The notion that perhaps the author might merely be rude does not come up much in conference discussions, I notice.)

In fact, I cannot even count the number of times that I’ve heard conference speakers advise aspiring writers to walk into a major bookstore, plop down in front of the genre-appropriate shelves, and start making a list of every agent thanked in every well-packaged book. That way, these speakers assure us, you know that you will be dealing with agents who have made sales recently, and thus must have fairly up-to-date connections amongst editors, who are notorious for moving from one publishing house to another at the drop of the proverbial chapeau.

Remember how I was ranting earlier in this series about how a lot of the standard marketing advice writers get is quite out of date? Well…

It’s definitely worth checking a few books, but don’t be surprised if a couple of hours at Borders yields only a few names of queriable agents. The fact is, acknowledgements are simply a lot less common than they used to be — and it’s not because writers have become less grateful as a group. With the rise of trade paper as a first-printing medium for novels (as opposed to hardback, paperback, and pulp), fewer and fewer first-time authors are being allowed to include acknowledgments at all. One less page per book saves publishers money.

And if no one else is willing to say it, I will: just because an author thanks an agent does not necessarily mean that the agent has been overwhelmingly helpful — selling the book is the agent’s JOB, after all. While the author is thanking everyone else, it would look a little funny not to thank even the least helpful agent, wouldn’t it? Most of the professional acknowledgements you do see are fairly compulsory — this is not a business where it pays to burn bridges, after all.

(Nor is this expectation of blanket thanks limited to mainstream publishing, by the way. Back in my bad old university days, I was STUNNED to discover that in academic work, acknowledgments are more or less mandatory. I actually could not have gotten my dissertation accepted without the requisite page of thanks to the professors in my department who kept telling me to write about something else. Go figure.)

Then, too, some agents who aren’t particularly interested in attracting new clients will actually ask their authors NOT to mention their names on acknowledgement pages. Or to mention only their first names. Or at least not to identify them as agents. This is why, in case you were wondering, you so often see a list of a dozen names loosely identified as helpers in the publishing process, rather than that standby of former days, “I’d like to thank my wonderful agent, Jan White…”

This practice, naturally, makes it significantly harder to track down who represented what. Wondering why they would want to do this to nice people like us?

You know how I keep telling you that the vast majority of hurtful things agents do in the course of rejecting writers aren’t actually aimed at hurting writers or making our lives more difficult? Usually, our annoyance is merely a side effect, not the explicit goal: sending out form rejection letter, for instance, saves agencies boatloads of time; the fact that such rejections convey no actual feedback to writers is, from their point of view, incidental.

Well, as nearly as I can tell, this one IS specifically intended to make our lives more difficult. But don’t blame the agents (or at any rate, don’t blame ONLY the agents); blame the unscrupulous aspiring writers I was telling you about a couple of days ago, because such actions are in self-defense.

They do it, my friends, because they have heard the same advice at conferences as we all have. Agents are increasingly hip to the fact that people who are neither buying nor reading their clients’ work (i.e., those lingerers in front of shelves at B&N) are still sending them letters beginning, “Since you so ably represented Author X, I am sure you will be interested in my book…”

All of which is to say: the acknowledgments route is not a bad way to come up with a few names, but like so much else in the agent-attracting process, it’s considerably harder to do successfully than it was even five or ten years ago. So, realistically, since you will probably only be able to glean enough for one round of simultaneous queries, you should try to minimize how much time you invest in this method.

On Monday, I shall talk about how to spread your net wider — I’ve been struck by an inspiration upon which I simply must ruminate blogistically (hey, this is a new field; I’m entitled to make up new words to describe it) over the weekend. So tune in tomorrow, campers, and keep up the good work!

Expanding your query list, part III

Before I return to the topic du semaine, let’s all do a little collective jig of satisfaction in recognition of recent triumphs by members of our online community here: excellent writer Toddie Downs (best known here as inveterate question-asker Toddie) has an article in October’s issue of THE WRITER magazine. Way to go, Toddie!

Also our recent guest blogger Jordan Rosenfeld has an article in the current WRITERS DIGEST, an article within which, I have from good sources, I am quoted being either witty, wise, or ridiculous. (I forget which.) Hooray, Jordan!

Please, everybody, join me in a nice round of applause for both. And please do let me know when your triumphs occur, so we can celebrate them here. The path of the writer is often not an easy one, my friends: the more we can rejoice over the victories of our friends, the more joyful the journey will be for all of us.

Really. Honest. All serious writers have days where it’s hard to remember the shape and texture of hope. For me, nothing perks up a dark night of the soul like turning on my computer to learn that a writer I like has just scored points against the system. Go, Team Creative!

Okay, back to business. I’ve been writing over the last couple of days about ways to figure out which agents to query OTHER than simply opening the Herman Guide at random, hammering your finger down on a page, and sending a letter to the one grazed by your fingernail. A query to an agent who does not represent your kind of work is usually not worth the investment in postage, much less your energy.

Yesterday, I was discussing querying the agents who represent writers you like. The “Since you so ably represent Author X…” technique works best, naturally, when the querying writer’s work bears some striking resemblance to that of the cited author. I wouldn’t advise hitting up David Sedaris’ agent (Don Congdon) with ultra-serious literary fiction, any more than I would send a rollicking comedy to Annie Proulx’s (Liz Darhansoff) or hard-right political analysis to Michael Moore’s (Mort Janklow).

However, if your well-read friends and trusted first readers say, “Hey, has anyone ever told you that you write like Francine Prose?” it’s worth checking to see if Francine Prose’s agent (Denise Shannon) is accepting new clients. And mentioning, if at all possible, specific ways in which your work resembles, say, Ms. Prose’s well-respected HUNTERS AND GATHERERS.

Need I repeat here that there are SIGNIFICANT perils attached to drawing parallels to books that you have not read? Never, ever, EVER succumb to the temptation of comparing your book to a book with which you are unfamiliar — especially to the unknown book’s agent, who may well have been the person who purged the book of misspellings and semicolons. The chances of such an analogy backfiring are simply too high.

How high, you ask? Well, ask a writer I know who, while querying a novel filled with scenes of people ripping into rare steaks, succulent veal, etc., happened to spot a copy of Ruth L. Ozeki’s MY YEAR OF MEATS in a bookstore. Without reading anything but the acknowledgments page, the querier shot off a letter full of meat-loving details to Ms. Ozeki’s agent, Molly Friedrich of the Aaron Priest Literary Agency.. Need I even say that MY YEAR OF MEATS is an exposé of abuses in the meat-production industry so vivid that it is considered in some circles an excellent argument for vegetarianism?

Just don’t do it.

Stick to comparisons of important plot, character, or narrative worldview similarities between your book and another. Hedging your bets by vague statements like, “It’s been said that my book reads just like THE DA VINCI CODE” will not win you friends and influence agents. Trust me: such statements are far more likely to annoy than impress.

Why? Well, think about it: just how many times per day do you suppose the average chick lit agent was seeing “This is the next BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY!” in the first paragraphs of query letters when it was a bestseller? Do you really want your query letter to sound like a quarter of the ones already in the rejection pile?

Of course not. You need to make your work sound unique, not just marketable.

Generally speaking, opening a query with something like, “Everyone says I write just like David Guterson,” will not play as well as, “Since you represented SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS, you may be interested in my novel…”

This is true, incidentally, even if one of the people who told you that you wrote just like David Guterson was David Guterson’s mother. (A lovely woman, incidentally; the last time I bumped into her, she held me captive in the frozen food section of our local Trader Joe’s until I promised to rush out and buy a copy of OUR LADY OF THE FOREST that very day. That’s the kind of mother ever writer should have!) It pains me to say it, but the vast majority of agents will simply cast aside a query that quotes someone they have never heard of praising the book being offered.

So you really should avoid saying, “My writing teacher says this is the best book since BLEAK HOUSE,” or “A friend told me that I write just like Audrey Niffenegger.” (Represented by Joe Regal of Regal Literary, I’m told.) Both of these are quotes from actual query letters, incidentally, presented to me for feedback on why they were not garnering enthusiastic responses. Both of the queriers subsequently revised their letter, and are now happily represented, I am delighted to report.

If you can legitimately say, “Colin Powell says my memoir, LUST FOR WAR, is the best war story since ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT,” by all means, say it. But make sure that the person you are quoting is well-known (or at least well-known to the agent you are querying) AND that the quote is truthful. (You’d be amazed — at least I hope you would — at how many queriers gratuitously quote the famous without their permission, on the theory that the agent will never check. FIE!!!)

But, hey, if you can justifiably say that Kurt Vonnegut wept over your text, place that information in the first line of your query letter — whether you are querying his agent (Knox Burger of Harold Ober Associates) or not. It’s too valuable a commendation not to use.

Do not give in to the temptation of quoting out of context, however. Years ago, when I was in grad school, I took a graduate seminar with Saul Bellow. I still have the term paper on which he wrote, “You are a very engaging writer.” Oh, how easy it would have been to present that quote as though he had said it about my first novel, especially as by that time, Professor Bellow was no longer among the living! But obviously, I couldn’t legitimately that luscious little blurb out of context.

I know, I know. Sometimes honesty looks an awful lot like stupidity. But at least I am 100% certain that I will never be caught in a self-promoting exaggeration at an industry meeting, where it could cost me serious credibility points. Leave the puffing up of your work to your publisher’s marketing department; let the quality of your writing speak for itself.

Remember, the reference to the agent’s already-established client is intended not so much as a name-dropping power play, meant to stun with importance, than as a bow to the agent’s past professional successes and a preliminary answer to the obvious question in any query-reader’s mind: “Why is THIS author targeting THIS agency with THIS book?” Just so you know, if any reasonably intelligent English-conversant reader could read more than half of your query letter WITHOUT knowing the answer to that question, the query is almost certainly going to be rejected.

Kind of surprising that most querying classes and guidebooks don’t point this out more often, isn’t it?

Tomorrow, I shall go into how to track down who represents whom, as the standard advice on the subject is, alas, not particularly helpful. As you may have guessed from the ease with which I was able to add who represented whom in this post, there is a trick to it, like so many things in the publishing world. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Honesty: policy, or just a good idea?

Yesterday, I discussed two ways of finding agents to query other than through direct meetings at writers’ conferences (which is still one of the best — and, unfortunately, most expensive — ways to connect with an agent): soliciting agents who spoke at conferences you attended with whom you did NOT speak, and tracking down those who represent your favorite authors. I have a few more words of advice about the latter method yet to dispense, but first, allow me to revisit the former briefly.

It has come to my attention that some wily writers out there habitually surf the web, tracking down major writing conferences, and sending “I so enjoyed your talk at Conference X, and I hope you will be interested in my work…” queries to the agents listed as having spoken there. These unscrupulous souls do this for conferences they have never attended, and yet they write “Conference X attendee” in big red letters on the outside of their submission envelopes. Oh, the shame of it all…

And why do these clever-but-underhand writers do this? Because they have been around the industry long enough to know that (a) by a couple of weeks after a large conference, the average agent might not remember be able to pick everyone who pitched to her out of a police line-up, much less remember who was or was not in the audience during her how-to-wow-me speech, (b) even at a small conference, many writers are too shy to approach an agent directly, so chances are, the agent will not have met everyone there, and (c) at a big agency, a reasonably well-established agent will have a screener going through her queries for her, anyway.

Therefore (these cads reason) the chances of being caught in the lie about attending are next to nil, and since the benefits of being able to claim conference attendance can be fairly significant — as I mentioned yesterday, conference-going queriers’ letters usually end up in the closer scrutiny pile — they have no scruples, apparently, about dressing themselves in borrowed clothes. Why not, these abandoned types reason: at worst, being caught means the query and/or eventual submission’s being rejected, that’s all.

Fie, fie.

Actually, there are a couple of ways in which such bold souls DO get caught, and since I am here to preach practicality, rather than morality, I feel honor-bound to point them out. First, agent rosters for conferences are NOTORIOUSLY malleable; agency screeners love to tell tales of the query letters they’ve received that extolled the pleasures of meeting an agent who was never in the time zone of the mentioned conference. Second, since agents routinely talk about their specific book needs of the moment at conferences, what they say there is often substantially different than what they told the fine folks who put together the standard agents’ guides a year before. (Even if their preferences are wildly different, though, the unprincipled conference-claiming writer will only come across as working from an outdated guidebook. Still, fie.)

Brace yourself for #3, because it represents some pretty hardened criminality. Some dodgy writers are not satisfied with imposing upon a screener with an untrue statement in a query letter: sometimes, they will send the first 50 pages of their manuscripts to an agent who attended a conference, along with a disingenuous letter thanking the agent profusely for requesting the materials at a conference so jam-packed with writers that the agent might well have been pitched to dozens of times in its hallways.

Fie, fie, FIE!!! I find this one particularly offensive, since I know at least three successfully published authors who got their agents this way. But that doesn’t make it right, my friends; it only makes it common.

You’re better than that. I know you are.

Okay, I’m finished tutting; now that we’re all sadder but wiser about the ways in which this wicked, wicked world works, back to how to solicit other writers’ agents.

Yesterday, I talked about the most common advice agents give to aspiring writers: find out who represents your favorite authors, usually through trolling acknowledgments pages, and querying their agents. This can be a dandy way to find a good agent, but do be aware that if the writers whose agents you approach are well-known and/or award winners, their agents may not be altogether keen on picking up the unpublished. Check the standard agents’ guides before you invest a stamp on a query: chances are, too, that the agent representing a major author NOW is not the same one who first took a wild chance on him as an unknown.

Why? Well-established authors often move up to more important agents as they gain prestige, so by the time that a Pulitzer Prize-winner like Alice Walker ends up at the Wendy Weil agency, she may have traded up two or three times. (Or, like John Irving, he may have married his agent, Janet Turnbull Irving of the Turnbull Agency, a feat you could hardly hope to reproduce between now and Christmas.) It’s also not unheard-of for an agent to make her reputation on a single well-known client, and want to concentrate most of her efforts on that client, rather than on new ones. (Crystal ball, why do you keep showing me the image of Alice Volpe of the Northwest Literary Agency, who represents JA Jance? Must be a transmission error.)

My point is, these bestselling authors’ prestige was probably the key that opened the door to the top-flight agencies, rather than their beginning-of-the-career raw talent. Generally speaking, you will be better off if you place the agents of writers on the bestseller lists lower on your priority roster, and concentrate on midlist or first-time authors. If you do decide to go hunting for the big game, bear in mind that that Writers House , for instance, sees a LOT of queries that begin, “Since you represent Ken Follett…” and “Since you sold Nora Roberts’ last book…”

You may not get any points for novelty.

Recall, too, that an agent who represents a bigwig necessarily spends quite a bit of time catering to the bigwig’s business — and thus may well have little time to lavish on a new-but-brilliant client. (If you should ever find yourself within shouting distance of Don Maass of the Donald Maass Agency, ask him about how many days per year he devotes to a client like Anne Perry, as opposed to a client he’s just signed. Go ahead; I seriously doubt he’ll be offended: he talks about it at conferences.) In short, setting your heart on your favorite bestseller’s agent may not be the best use of your time and energy.

Where the “Since you so ably represent Author X, I believe you will be interested in my work…” gambit will serve you best is with lesser-known writers, particularly those who are just starting out. Many agents are nurturing a pet author or two, someone whose books sell only a few thousand copies, but will be breaking into mainstream success any day now.

Where recognition is scant, any praise is trebly welcome, so the clever writer who is the first (or tenth) to identify the up-and-coming writer as THE reason for picking the agent is conveying a subtle compliment to eyes hungry to see it. The agent (or assistant) often thinks, “My, here is a discerning person. Perhaps I should give her writing a chance.”

Good reason to go to public readings of first-time writers, eh? The less famous the writer, the less well-attended the reading usually is. Maybe, if you are very nice (and one of the three people who showed up for the book signing), the brand-new author might even agree to let you begin your query letter, “Your client, Brand-New Author, recommended that I contact you…”

Again, do you think such a letter will get more or less attention than the average query?

A couple of words of warning about using this strategy, however: do NOT imply, even indirectly, that the writer you are citing sent you to her agent UNLESS IT IS TRUE.

Aspiring writers do this all the time; it’s a well enough known dodge that agents routinely ask their clients, “Hey, what can you tell me about this writer?” If you do indeed have a recommendation, great. (And in terms of pure ethics, I think that a famous writer’s telling you at a conference, “Gee, you should talk to my agent” constitutes a recommendation.) If you do not, however, it’s just not wise to tempt fate.

Also, it’s dangerous to use the names of writers whose work you do NOT like as calling cards, and downright perilous to use the names of writers whose work you do not know. Assume that, at some point, you will be having a conversation with the agent about the author whose work you praised.

The more obscure the author, in my experience, the more likely this conversation is to happen. If you hate the prose stylings of Alan Hollinghurst (whose work I love, personally; he’s represented by Emma Parry of Fletcher & Parry), or if you have never read any Dorothy Allison ( Frances Goldin Agency; also represents Barbara Kingsolver, I notice), it’s probably not the best idea to present yourself as an enthusiast to their respective agents, or indeed to anyone who knows their work very well.

Your mother was right, you know: honesty IS the best policy. Go give her a call, and keep up the good work!

The great agent search: “I’d like to thank all the little people…”

Since I spent yesterday’s post lecturing you fine people on why, even if the best agent in the known universe has the full manuscript of your novel sitting on her desk even as I write this, you should keep querying other agents until the ink is actually dry on the contract, I shall spare you further blandishment on the subject today.

Except to say: I know you’re tired of querying; it’s a whole lot of work. You have my sympathy, really. Now go out and send a couple of fresh queries this week. And next. Repeat until you’re picked up.

Today, as promised, I am going to talk about how to find agents to query — not just any agents, but the kind of agents who represent writing like yours. I cannot overstress the importance of targeting only agents appropriate to your work, rather than taking a scattershot approach.

Why, you ask? Well, if you’ve ever heard a successful agent talk about the business for five consecutive minutes, chances are you’ve already heard four times that one of the biggest mistakes the average aspiring writer makes is to regard all agents as equally desirable, and thus equally smart to approach. And if you’ve never heard an agent rail on the subject, let me fill you in: nothing insults them more than being treated as generic representatives of their line of work, rather than highly-focused professionals who deal in particular types of books.

This is true, incidentally, even of those agents who list every type of book known to man in the agency guides. Go figure.

And this, in case you were wondering, is why the mere sight of a query beginning, “Dear Agent,” rather than addressing the targeted agent by name, will make your garden-variety agent so crazy that she wants to put her fist through the nearest window with the query letter still clutched in her bloody fist. Seriously, they tend to react to this kind of salutation as though the querying writer had just kicked their grandmothers: at minimum, they regard it as rude. Agency screeners are uniformly ordered to reject such letters without reading them.

If you’ve been sending out “Dear Agent” letters, go back and read that last sentence again. Fifteen times, if necessary.

The single best thing you can do to increase your chances of acceptance is to write to a specific person — and for a specific reason, which you should state in the letter. Agents all have specialties; they expect writers to be aware of them. (Later in the week, I will go into why this isn’t a particularly fair expectation, but for now, suffice it to say that it’s expected.) Within the industry, respecting the agents’ preferences in this respect marks the difference between the kind of writer that they take seriously and the vast majority that they don’t.

May I assume that this is old news to most of you, though? If you’re taking the time to do research on the industry online, you have probably encountered this advice before, right? Although perhaps not its corollary: don’t approach agents at conferences unless they have a track record of representing your type of writing successfully.

Think about it: do you really want to be your new agent’s FIRST client in a particular genre? Of course not; it will be twice as hard to sell your book. You want an agent who already has connections with editors who buy your type of work on a daily basis.

Which brings me to the most logical first step for seeking out second-round agents to query. If you attended a conference this summer, now is the time to send letters to the agents to whom you were not able to pitch. However, be smart about it: don’t bother to query those whose client lists do not include books like yours. No matter how much you may have liked the agent personally at the conference: the second easiest ground of rejection, after “Dear Agent” salutation, is when the query is for a kind of book that the agent does not represent; like “Dear Agent,” an agency screener does not need to read more than a couple of lines of this type of query in order to plop it into the rejection pile.

Allow me to repeat: this is true, no matter how much you may have liked the agent when you met her, or how well you thought the two of you clicked.

So do a little homework first. If you didn’t take good notes at the conference about who was looking for what kind of book, check out the standard agents’ guides, where such information abounds. (If you attended this summer’s PNWA conference, I did profiles on all of the attending agents back in March and April, to make the research process easier for my readers. You’re welcome.)

Then, when you find the right fits, go ahead and write the name of the conference on the outside of your query envelopes, and mention having heard the agent speak at the conference in the first line of your letter; this will automatically put your query into a different pile, because conference attendees are generally assumed to be more industry-savvy, and thus more likely to be querying with market-ready work, than other writers.

Okay, if you went to a big conference, this strategy might yield five or eight more agents to query. Where do you go after that?

The common wisdom on the subject, according to most writing guides and classes, is that you should start with the agents of writers whose work you like, advice predicated on the often untrue assumption that all of us are so myopic that we will only read writers whose work resembles ours. Me, I’m not so egocentric: I read books by a whole lot of living writers, most of whose styles are nothing at all like mine; if I want a style like my own, I read my own work.

However, especially if you write in a genre or NF, querying your favorite authors’ agents is not a bad idea. Certainly, the books already on your shelves are the easiest to check the acknowledgments page for thank-yous. Actually, you should get into the habit of checking these pages anyway, if you are planning on a career in this business: one of the best conversation-starters you can possibly whip out is, “Oh, you worked on Author X’s work, didn’t you? I remember that she said wonderful things about you.”

Trust me, there is not an agent or editor in the business who will not be flattered by such a statement. You would be amazed at how few of the writers who approach them are even remotely familiar with the average agent’s track record. But who doesn’t like to be recognized and complimented on his work?

So, knowing this about human nature, make an educated guess: would an agent would be more or less likely to ask to see pages from a writer whose well-targeted query began, “Since you so ably represented Author X’s GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL, I believe you will be interested in my work…”

You bet your boots, baby.

More on this ever-absorbing subject tomorrow, of course. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Moving with the times

Pardon my couple of days of silence, please: I have been in California for the last week, packing up my mother’s house, and we drove a U-Haul 1000 miles north over the weekend. I’m just a trifle tired, as a result.

Posting from the Napa Valley was a bit of a challenge. Since my mother is something of a Luddite, her house was still not equipped with a phone jack, and thus e-mail capabilities, until four days ago: that’s right, the rotary dial phone was still hard-wired to the wall, believe it or not.

How the phone company people laughed when I told them that.

Some of you may be too young to remember this (and is there a phrase in the English language that makes the speaker sound older than THAT?), but back in my early childhood, the phone company actually owned one’s home phone, at least in my neck of the proverbial woods; the homeowner merely rented it from the company. In our case, the rental was a model from the early 1950s, already installed long before I was born, a huge, black behemoth with a 3-pound receiver and a metal dial so hard to turn that I needed to use a pen for leverage when I was a kid.

Then one day, the phone company (only one at the time, recall) decided to get out of the rental business altogether, and presented its customers with a fateful choice. You could either pay to have your home rewired for the newfangled phones, the kind that required jacks, and go out and buy a new phone to plug into them, or you could go the cheaper route and just purchase the phone you’d always used. My parents opted for the latter, and that’s why the muscles in my upper arms were so abnormally well developed when I was a teenager.

We didn’t know it at the time, of course, but the phone jack decision represented a fork in the road for my family, one that continues to carry repercussions to this very day — or rather, until four days ago, when my stalwart boyfriend whipped out a screwdriver and installed a phone jack in about seven minutes flat.

What kind of repercussions, you ask? Well, maintaining the big black beast (which, incidentally, came north with me in the U-Haul, both because I have fond memories associated with it and because I could use the upper-body workout these days) limited our communication options for more than two decades. Since it was hard-wired into the wall, we could not, for instance, install such cutting-edge communication technology as an answering machine. Nor, since it was not a significantly more complex instrument than the one which Alexander Graham Bell used to transmit, “Watson, come here; I need you,” could we participate in such sterling community activities as navigating through any given business’ voice mail system, because that requires a touch tone phone. (In case you’re curious about how this can possibly be done at all, what the owner of an old-fashioned phone does is wait on the line until the computer finally figures out that no numbers are being punched in. On average, it takes about 20 minutes.)

So why did we put up with it for so long? Well, habit is a powerful thing, and over time, many of us rationalize away inconveniences as inevitabilities, don’t we? My mother, bless her heart, forgot that that she had plunked down the $30 to buy the phone: she believed — until last Tuesday, to be precise, when I flatly forced a phone company employee to explain that what she believed was no longer possible — that the phone company still owned the phone; she only rented it, and thus was in no position to change how she communicated with the outside world. And after a decade or two of trying to convince her otherwise, I simply gave up and bought her a cell phone five years ago.

I needed to be able to leave messages for her.

I can feel some of you out there squirming in your computer chairs, wondering what this has to do, if anything, with marketing your writing, or indeed, with the writing life in general. Just this: a significant proportion of the advice out there on how to land an agent was minted at approximately the same time as my mother’s decision to buy the phone, instead of moving on to new technology. Heck, some of the truisms you hear about how to hook an editor were old by the time that rotary phone was installed.

That is the way with aphorisms: they are notoriously slow to move with the times.

And that is why, dearly beloved, that those time-honored tips that you learned about querying and submission often do not work anymore. The business has simply changed, like phone technology, and as with the phone jack revolution, if you stick with the old ways, you’re going to come across as a bit behind the times to those who are working on the cutting edge.

That being said, I am going to ask you to accept something that would have been anathema according to the old submission rules, so take a deep breath. Here it is: if you are waiting to hear back from an agent or editor who has requested pages, you will be MUCH better off if you keep querying while you wait.

I’m going to be honest with you here: practically everyone else who is giving writing advice at the moment will tell you otherwise. If you’ve been to a writers’ conference or two, you have almost certainly been told not to do this. When an agent asks to see your book, we’ve all been told, it’s downright offensive to show it to someone else; such a request forms a sacred bond between writer and potential agent, one that will be irreparably harmed if the writer keeps submitting. It’s like cheating on your spouse a week before the wedding.

Yes, and phones all used to be hard-wired into walls. Times change, as do the industry’s expectations.

The fact is, most agents currently working in the United States would be ASTONISHED to hear that a truly talented but unagented writer with a strong manuscript WASN’T doing multiple submissions. Agents may not universally understand much about art, except how to make a profit on it, but they do almost to a man enjoy a deep comprehension of the concept of time being valuable. The idea that a good book would remain under wraps for a couple of months because of a brief conversation at a conference would not only flabbergast most of them — they would regard it as poor marketing strategy, as well as a truly puzzling ignorance of how the industry works.

Oh, there are exceptions, of course, the agencies who refuse even to consider multiple submissions. But they are very, very rare — and quite uniformly state in the standard agents’ guides and on their websites that they have such a policy. If they do not state it as a preference, they simply do not operate that way.

Repeat after me: phones no longer have to be hard-wired into walls. Phones no longer have to be hard-wired into walls.

Until you have actually signed with an agent, you are perfectly free to keep shopping your book around. You are more than within your rights to continue querying — as your book’s best advocate, you should.

I don’t care how many times you have heard otherwise on the writers’ grapevine: the myth that you will mortally insult an agent by showing your book to other agents is even more widely reported than the one about how every query at every agency is logged into a national agents’ database, so that agents can check to see who has already rejected any given book. Or the one about how agencies keep such good track of queries and submissions that if you have ever received a rejection from them, you can never try again.

Frankly, I think that the main purpose of these pervasive but untrue rumors is to help writers feel more important (and certainly more memorable) in the face of an industry that often treats them like interlopers. It’s pretty appealing to imagine an agent falling so in love with your book that she becomes jealous over it, isn’t it, flying into a green-eyed rage when another agent so much as flirts with it? Or that your submission was so memorable that screeners at an agency will, although they have rejected the manuscript, remember your name for years to come? Or that your book is so potentially revolutionary to the world of prose that agencies would devote significant resources to working in concert to preventing its ever landing on bookshelves near you?

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but statistically, none of those ego-pleasing things are at all likely to happen. As important as a submission is to its author, it is, alas, one of an avalanche to the agent. The average agency receives over 800 queries per week, far too many to remember or even catalogue each rejected one individually. Agencies ask to see dozens of manuscripts per week, at minimum, and reject most of those they receive. They simply could not do business otherwise: in order to make money, an agent has to spend most of her time selling the work of her already-signed authors, rather than picking up new ones.

Oh, and phones plug into jacks now.

Don’t feel bad if you believed the old stories — there was a time when most of them were true. (Well, okay: the national database one has never been remotely true. Was there even a national database for missing children before a year or so ago?) But your chances of succeeding in this business go up significantly if you respond to the current conditions within the industry, not what was true when Carter was in the White House.

Adopt, adapt, and improve, as the Knights of the Round Table used to say. Let’s install a phone jack and communicate like the big kids do, huh?

Which brings me to the blog’s mission for this week: I am going to be talking about ways to find new agents to query, over and above going through the standard agents’ guides alphabetically or simply searching online under “literary agents.” Because for the sake of your book, even if you are biting your nails to the elbow, waiting to hear back from the agent of your dreams, you honestly do need to keep querying.

That’s not being pessimistic; it’s just being practical. And it’s doing what the agent of your dreams is probably already assuming that you’re doing, anyway. Times have changed.

So expect to see some good nuts-and-bolts advice here over the next few days. And in the meantime, keep up the good work

Respect the cheese plate!

Super Reader Toddie wrote in the other day with an excellent question:

“Anne – Do you have any words of wisdom/nice template for the follow-up letter/email itself, when we get the temerity to send it? I waffle as to how much to include in order to stay on the good side of the agent vs. being seen as a nasty pest/provoking an automatic rejection.”

Toddie, thanks for asking this as a follow-up to my dictum on follow-ups: until an agency has had your submission — that’s requested manuscript pages, people, not a query letter — for EITHER 8 weeks (not including the 3-week industry summer vacation) OR half again as long as the agent told you to expect (if the agent told you 6 weeks, give it 9 before you follow up), you may legitimately inquire about it without being a pest. Indeed, you SHOULD inquire about it then, because if you wait much longer, the chances of being able to find it again if it is lost are slim.

Note that I said SUBMISSION, and not query letter. If you haven’t heard back on a query letter in 8 weeks AND you sent a SASE with it, just assume that it was lost. Send another, and don’t bother to mention that you’ve queried before. At worst, you’ll get a peevish little note from a screener, saying he already remembers it, but most of the time, it will simply be read as a fresh query. Screeners’ memories are not that good, and often the bodies screening queries in the summer are not the same ones screening them at the same agency in the winter.

But okay, let’s say that you have been waiting for 8 weeks to hear back on requested materials. Or an agency sent you back your manuscript with no letter attached, or you received your SASE with neither letter nor manuscript in it, or you received a rejection letter clearly intended for someone else’s manuscript (and yes, I’ve seen all of these happen. Agencies move a LOT of paper in any given week). Any of these warrants a follow-up note — and if you received someone else’s materials, you should send them back to the agency right away along with that note, because some poor writer is waiting for those.

Do send a note or an e-mail, rather than calling. Why? Well, if any of the outcomes I have mentioned above is true, you’re going to be letting the agent know that someone at the agency has fallen down on the job. At best, the agent will be annoyed at her screener and apologetic toward you; at worst, the agent will resent the implication that she should be working faster. And in every case, yours will be the ring of the phone that does not herald an offer from a publisher for one of her clients’ books.

So tell me: do you really want to be on the initiating end of that call?

Generally speaking, it’s not in your best interest to call anyone in the industry with whom you do not already have a relationship — and no, a nice conversation at a conference does NOT count, by publishing world standards. This is a fairly formal industry, still run by the written word. So it’s best to be as polite as possible — adhere to the Cheese Plate Rule.

What? Don’t tell me that no one ever explained the etiquette of cheese consumption to you. Really? No one but me was raised regretting the Bourbons? What is the world coming to?

Okay, then, I’ll explain: after the dessert course, the hostess presents the guests with an array of cheeses and small knives, right, so that each guest may serve herself? But each cheese is a different shape – an isosceles triangle of Brie, perhaps, next to a rectangle of triple crème, a square of sage Derby, and a wee round of Stilton — so how do you know how to cut off your individual slice?

By preserving the integrity of the cheese: you cut off your piece so as to allow the cheese from which you slice it to remain essentially the same shape as before you began. Thus, you would cut along one long leg of the triangle for the Brie, so the original remains a triangle, across the short way for the triple crème, a shave along the top of the Derby, a pie slice off the Stilton, etc. That way, when the other diners return for seconds, the cheeses will resemble their original shapes closely enough that each eager eater can hone in instantly upon her favorite from round one.

Curious how I’m going to tie this to agents, aren’t you?

Just as one should preserve the integrity of the cheese by conforming to its original shape, a polite writer should preserve the integrity of the budding relationship with an agent by responding via the medium through which the agent requested the materials. If you queried by regular mail, and you received a mailed request to send more materials, sending a follow-up via regular mail preserves the integrity of the relationship, labeling you as polite and considerate: you are letting the agent determine the extent of your intimacy.

In other words, just because you have an agent’s phone number or e-mail address doesn’t mean you should necessarily use it. Respect the cheese plate!

However, if you have already exchanged e-mail with an agent, it is entirely appropriate to follow up via e-mail. If the agent called you personally to ask to see the rest of the manuscript after you’d submitted the first 50 pages, you could legitimately phone – although personally, I would probably e-mail in this instance.

And no, Virginia, if you met the agent at a conference, you do not have to wait until next year’s conference to follow up (although I have known ultra-polite writers who have done so, actually, much to the surprise of the agents). Preserving the integrity of the cheese in this situation would require following up in the same manner as you submitted your materials: either by regular mail or by e-mail.

You’ll never look at cheese the same way again, I assure you.

So, back to Toddie’s question: what should you say? Well, I’m a big fan of allowing people who have messed up an easy means of saving face, so I would advise setting up a way that the agent can do what you want without having to accept any blame whatsoever for the delay. And heck, a little flattery never hurts, either. (Hey, these are touchy people.) So if an agent has had a submission for 8 weeks, I might send a letter that said:

“Dear Mr. X,
Thank you for asking to see the first fifty pages of my manuscript, THE GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL. Since eight weeks have passed since I sent it, I am beginning to fear that perhaps it got lost in the mail. Here are the pages you requested again, with another SASE. If you would not mind dropping the enclosed stamped, self-addressed postcard in the mail so that I know that this copy did indeed arrive intact, I would appreciate it.”

And I would send exactly the same pages again. Ditto if I received an empty SASE or somebody else’s manuscript — because, you see, with that many submissions, it actually is possible that the submission did get lost. In the more likely case that it did not, this letter allows the agency to pretend that it did.

And the submission is read by a contrite screener, rather than a defensive one. Everyone wins!

You will notice, I hope, that I have been speaking exclusively of agency submissions here, rather than of editors. If you have submitted to a small press, the method above is fine — although for your own protection, you should always send manuscripts to a press that accepts direct submissions from authors via a form of mail with a return receipt.

However, if you met a kind editor from a major house at a conference who asked to see your pages and have not heard back, no amount of cheese-paring is going to enable you to make the follow-up request sound polite. Because, you see, all of the major houses have policies that preclude their reviewing unagented submissions — which means that in asking to see your work, the editor was doing you a personal favor, by definition. So, technically, he doesn’t have an obligation to get back to you, alas.

Just let it go.

I should mention, for the sake of completeness, that the organizers of this year’s PNWA conference swore up and down that every single editor who attended was in fact empowered to pick up new authors directly. If that is true, and an editor you met there solicited your material, feel free to follow up. However, as none of the major publishing houses have changed their stated policies on the subject in recent months, I tend to doubt that such a follow-up would receive much of a response.

What you should NOT do, under any circumstances, with either an editor or an agent who has already sent back your work, is ask for insight on why. Any reasonably busy person in the industry simply reads too many manuscripts to remember individual ones a week or two after the fact, unfortunately, so this is universally considered an unreasonable request.

You are right to tread with care, Toddie: this is a notoriously easily-offended industry. But if you both follow the Cheese Plate Rule and make it as easy as humanly possible for the recipient of your follow-up request to read your work immediately, you are far more likely to be happy with the ultimate outcome.

Keep up the good work!

Like I said: real-life dialogue

I’m taking a break in my series of pep talks on keeping your spirits up in the face of an industry that goes on frequent collective vacations without taking reading material along for the ride, because I have just been visiting with a very old friend of mine with a very distinctive speech pattern: she says, “Like I said…” every other minute or so. In a long anecdote — to which she is quite addicted, as a world traveler with unusual tastes in traveling companions — she often uses this phrase ten or fifteen times.

Since we grew up together, you would think I would know where she had picked up this rare trope, but I don’t; it’s an adult acquisition. We have both wandered far from home. But still, you’d think I would have some inkling as to its origin: she and I were so closely allied in high school that at her wedding, her father spent 45 minutes grilling my boyfriend about his prospects and intentions toward me.

You might say that it’s a close-knit community.

Our hometown does in fact have a distinct speech pattern, a mixture of the lilt remaining when a small town in Switzerland (cow and wine country) picked up and became a small town in California (wine and cow country), certain Mexican-influenced words, and a linguistically inexplicable tendency to pronounce “mirror” as “meer.” Being a farming community (the aforementioned wine), of course, certain agricultural tropes abound in season, such as, “Hot enough for you?” “the grapes would have been in by now, 20 years ago” (untrue, incidentally), and “How about this rain? Sure do need it.”

But “like I said,” no.

Now, being a sharp-eyed writer with a strong sense of verisimilitude in dialogue, you may have noticed something about all of these phrases, real-life tropes that actual people say quite bloody often in my native neck of the woods: they would be DEADLY dull in written dialogue. As would a character who was constantly punctuating her personal stories with “like I said…” Or indeed, almost any of the small talk which acquaintances exchange when they bump into one another at the grocery store. Take this sterling piece of Americana, overheard in Sunshine Foods in my hometown on this very day:

A: “See you got some sun today, Rosemary.”
B: “I was picking peaches. How did your dentist appointment go?”
A: (Laughs.) “The dentist won’t be buying his new boat on my dime. Was that the Mini girl who just dashed by?”
B: (Craning her head around the end of the aisle.) Could be. She was supposed to be visiting her mother sometime soon. She’s not married yet, is she?”
A: (Shakes her head.) “Oh, hi, Annie. Visiting your mother?”
Me: (Seeking escape route.) Yes. How’s your son? I haven’t seen him since high school. (Murmurs to boyfriend, covered by Mrs. A’s lengthy description of the relative heights, ages, and weights of her grandchildren.) Thank God.
A: And how’s your mother?
Me: Oh, fine, fine. I’d better be going. Nice to see you.
B: Give my regards to your mother.
Me: (Wheeling cart away.) I will. Remember me to Bobby.
A: Well?
B: (Sighing.) Still no wedding ring.

Yes, it’s how people really talk, but it’s hardly character-revealing, is it? It might tell you a little something about the spying capability of my home town’s feared and respected Little Old Lady Mafia, but it doesn’t tell you much about the speakers as human beings, or our relative positions within society. And if there was a plot (other than to get me married off, which is ongoing and perpetual), its intricacies are not particularly well revealed by this slice o’life.

Oh, how often writers forget that real-life dialogue generally does not reproduce well on the page! If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard a writer say, “But s/he really said that!” or “But that’s what people really sound like!” I would buy my own Caribbean island and send the entire Little Old Lady Mafia on annual vacations there. Just as real-life events often don’t translate well into fiction, neither does most dialogue.

Yes, of course: we want to be true-to-life in our dialogue: as Virginia Woolf wrote, “fiction must stick to the facts, and the truer the facts, the better the fiction.” But let’s not forget that in order to maintain a reader’s interest, a book has to have entertainment value, too – and that however amusing a verbal tic might be in person, repetition is often annoying in a book.

This is especially true when a character is tired, angry, or in pain, I notice: all of a sudden, the dialogue sounds as though all of the characters are trapped in one of those interminable Samuel Beckett plays where the people are doomed to move immense piles of sand from one end of the stage to the other with teaspoons. See if this dialogue sounds familiar:

A: “Oh. You’re home.”
B: “Yeah.”
A: “Have a nice day?”
B: “Um-hm.”
A: “I was cleaning out the attic today, and I came across that picnic blanket we used when we went out to Goat’s Rock Beach to scatter Father’s ashes. How it rained that day, and then the sun broke out as if Father and God had joined forces to drag the clouds aside to smile upon our picnic.”
B: “Yeah. “
A: “Ham sound good for dinner?”
B: “Yeah.”

As a general rule of thumb, I like to flag any piece of dialogue that contains more than one use of yeah, really, yes, no, uh-huh, um, or a linguistic trope such as our old pal “like I said…” Usually, these are an indication that the dialogue could either be tightened considerably or needs to be pepped up.

“Like I said…” would be a particularly easy edit, because it would be a pretty sure indicator that the speaker is repeating herself (although interestingly enough, my old friend habitually uses this phrase when she ISN’T repeating herself, I notice). Yes, people do repeat themselves all the time in spoken English. Is it boring on the page? You bet.

Similarly, anyway and however in dialogue are usually flares indicating that the speaker has gotten off-topic and is trying to regain his point — thus warning the manuscript reviser that perhaps this dialogue could be tightened so that it stays ON point.

My fictional characters tend to be chatty (dialogue is action, right?), and I was once taken to task for it by a fairly well-known writer of short stories. She had just managed to crank out her first novella — 48 pages typeset, so possibly 70 in standard manuscript format — so perhaps unsurprisingly, she found my style a trifle generous with words. “Only show the dialogue that is absolutely necessary,” she advised me, “and is character-revealing.”

Now, since the dialogue in her work seldom strayed beyond three lines, I was not particularly inclined to heed this advice — have you noticed how often it’s true that established writers with little or no teaching background spout aphorisms that all boil down to “Write as I do”? — but I have to say, it has been useful in editing, both for others’ work and my own. I can even derive an axiom of my own from it: if a person said it in real life, think twice before including it. Because if it isn’t interesting or character-revealing, does it really need to be there?

Oh — a member of the Little Old Lady Mafia just walked into the café where I’m writing, so I had better go, before she starts reading over my shoulder. Like I said, they might not be the best producers of dialogue to be passed down to the ages, but since my local reputation will be hanging on how nice I am to this one until I swing back through town again, I’d better be on my best behavior.

Keep up the good work!

Time in the writer’s world

Still hanging in there, patient ones? Yesterday, I was talking about how the typical agent and editor have a VERY different sense of how time passes than, say, the writer whose work is sitting on their respective desks. As maddening as it is for is, a couple of months to turn around a manuscript just isn’t as long to them as it is to us. Today, I would like to discuss how time runs differently for writers than for other mortal souls in other respects.

Have you ever noticed how writers who have recently finished a book speak and even think about the time spent writing as practically endless? Barefoot walks across the Sahara have taken less time, to hear us tell it. Even I, who wrote a memoir that necessarily dredged up some very tender memories in less than a year and a half, first idea to final comma, tend to describe the actual writing process as though it took years upon years. Is it because writing a book ages the writer at an unusually rapid rate, much as moving at the speed of light would make us age backwards, or am I and my writing colleagues, to put it colloquially, whiny wimps?

Because I love you people, I shall spare you the answer that virtually every agent and editor in the business would give to that particular question.

My theory is that most of us exaggerate the time spent writing that first book in order to try to convey to non-writers just how big a chunk of our mind, energy, and soul has gotten sucked into that all-too-often thankless project. Not to mention after writing it, sacre bleu! all of the additional time and anguish to find an agent for it! And then to sell it to a publisher! I think that in our heart of hearts, we want all of those hours to be apparent to outside observers, so that they may be impressed — while, of course, maintaining that writerly fiction that we are such geniuses that our work is invariably perfect on the first draft.

The hours of work, like it or not, are NOT readily apparent to outsiders, sometimes not even those within the industry itself, surprisingly enough. I write comedy, and I can tell you from long, hard experience that most non-writers think jokes flow off my fingertips at the speed of conversation; tell a non-writer that you spent a decade writing a novel, and half the time, he will automatically assume that you are not only lazy, but the universe’s slowest typist.

For most people, the idea of spending hours alone with their thoughts on a regular basis is unfathomable. I am certainly not the only writer in existence whose friends have no idea how she spends her day. Even when our kith and kin catch us in the act, all they really see are hands moving across a keyboard or eyes staring into space. It just doesn’t look like hard work to them. With painters and sculptors and other kinds of artists, it is at least self-evident to outsiders HOW they spend their time.

Coming from an academic background, I used to think that my scholarly friends would understand what I do, but the rules are so different for getting scholarly work published that I have changed their mind. Since “publish or perish” is the rule at the university, academics pretty much automatically get articles and books published if their research is interesting, but the rest of us writers, alas, are not so lucky. When you finish writing your doctoral dissertation, you at least get to wear fancy robes for a day and hear someone in authority say your name out loud in front of a whole lot of people. (I ask you: when’s the last time a large institution set aside a day to celebrate your finishing a novel?) And, unlike academic writing, publication rate is not a particularly good indicator of the quality of the work.

Thus, I think, the extraordinarily high value we writers place on the end product. It is something tangible we can show to people, physical proof that during all of those hours, we were actually DOING something. Not to mention validation of all of our unseen gut-wrenching work.

I have found another line of work with a similar rhythm to ours, though: years of unrecognized work only being retroactively validated by the end product. An old friend from college, a mathematician by trade, called me some time ago to catch up. That was back when I had every reason to believe that my memoir (A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK) would be coming out sometime before I have grown a long gray beard, and although it seems astonishing to me in retrospect, I was tremendously impatient for the release date. In talking about it with my mathematician friend, I heard myself perform that writerly expansion of time, making the writing process sound interminable.

Turns out I had mistaken my audience. Mathematicians, he told me, often spend ten or twenty years on a single problem; there are proofs he does not expect to see solved in his lifetime. Physicists, too, routinely linger this long in thought: did you think someone just woke up one day and imagined the quark? Granted, when mathematicians and physicists crack the big problems, they tend to be rewarded lavishly, with hundreds of thousands of dollars, Nobel Prizes, and similar door prizes. But imagine spending all of that time figuring something out, all the while wondering if someone else is going to solve your equation first. All the while waiting for recognition that can only come after years of hard, patient, lonely work, on a project that may never succeed.

Wait a minute — we’re writers! We don’t have to imagine it; we live it. While a few among us will ultimately be rewarded with lots of money (or, possibly, even the Nobel Prize), the vast majority of us will not. And yet, bless us, still we put in the hours, the years, for the same reason that the mathematicians and physicists do: we want to contribute something new to human thought. We want to explain humanity to itself.

What a nice thing for us to do for the world, eh?

No wonder time seems long to us, with such lofty aspirations. And no wonder that it is absolutely vital that we remind ourselves early and often, particularly during those interminable-feeling periods when we are waiting to hear back from an agent or editor, that we are in fact public benefactors. We just aren’t treated like it until we hit the big time – and because most of the people we know don’t really understand what we do before that point, we can sometimes make the terrible mistake of starting to believe that speedy publication is the ONLY valid measure of the quality of writing.


And I can prove it with an anecdote. Once there was a novelist – a very, very good one– who wrote for years before she became an overnight success at the age of 36. That may seem young for success as a writer, by current standards, but bear in mind that she completed her first full novel at 22; it was not published until 14 years later.

Because she believed in her dreams, she did manage to sell another novel in the interim, to a reputable publisher — she completed it at 24, but it took her five years to sell it — but he paid her only the tiniest of advances. Maddeningly, the publisher ended up holding onto the second book for the rest of her life, publishing it only AFTER her subsequent books had attained significant success.

The author, as some of you may have guessed, was Jane Austen. The first book was SENSE AND SENSIBILITY; the second, the one held hostage by the silly publisher until after her death, was NORTHANGER ABBEY.

Try to remember this, the next time you find yourself feeling that the time between you and publication is apparently endless, in defiance of all the laws of physics. Remember this, whenever you are tempted by non-artistic logic to view difficulty in getting a book published as a sure indicator of low writing quality. Would any reader now say that SENSE AND SENSIBILITY was so poorly written that it deserved to be waitlisted for 14 years?

Again, poppycock.

I say let’s hear it for all of us who keep working in the quiet of our solitary rooms. Don’t let anyone tell you that finishing a book isn’t a significant achievement, regardless of the response of the publishing world. If people ask you what you DO in all of those hours sitting at your desk, tell them that you are emulating your Aunt Jane, trying to make time compress and shed a little light on the world.

Keep up the good work!

The end of the annual publishing vacation — and a minor milestone

Well, congratulations, all of you hardy souls who sent out queries and submissions within the last couple of months and have been waiting with various degrees of patience for that agent or editor to return from summer vacation. (If you have read this blog with any regularity, you are probably already aware that almost everyone in the publishing industry goes on vacation from mid-August until after Labor Day. If you’ve received a reply during that time, you have most likely been dealing with the low person on the totem pole at the agency – or the assistant of a higher-up — the one who is left behind to deal with emergent crises and to turn the lights on and off each day.)

Before you celebrate the end of your long, hot wait too heartily, though, do recall that the vast majority of writers in the United States are not in fact aware of this vacation period, any more than they take note of the Frankfurt Book Fair in October (1-2 weeks of non-mail reading), the winter catch-up period (Thanksgiving to Christmas), or the January overload (presses and agencies only have a month to get out last year’s tax info to their writers; also, half the population of North America’s New Year’s resolutions apparently revolve around sending out queries and submissions right after the first).

The industry-savvy just know not to expect much to get done during these times.

However, since submissions go on unabated, or even increased, in the post-conference period just before Labor Day, your average agent walked into her office this morning to find it buried under at least three weeks’ worth of queries and submissions. (I say “at least” because understandably, not everyone works as hard the day before vacation as the Protestant work ethic might dictate.) And all of those interns who were working as unpaid screeners for the summer have now gone back to school.

Intimidating picture, isn’t it? Just THINK of all the trees lying dead on agents’ desks at the moment.

Sad for the trees, yes, but not tremendous news for you, either: you should probably not expect to hear back this week. Or next.

Yes, even if you sent out your requested materials in mid-July. In fact, you might be better off if the agent of your dreams does NOT read your submission this week: during high-volume periods, the likelihood that the query screener or submission reader is going to be feeling put-upon and annoyed is substantially higher. That almost invariably equals a less sympathetic read. On the whole, you’re be happier with the outcome if your reader is feeling bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.

Yes, I know: it’s horribly frustrating to have to wait so long. Blame it on the rather short-sighted mentality of the industry: as most agents will tell you if pressed (as in under rocks; I’m a very persistent question-asker), it actually isn’t their job to read queries and submissions; technically, that’s prep work for future tasks that might never materialize.

Think about it: realistically, even if the Great American Novel is sitting on their respective desks at this very moment, it’s not going to make money for them for months, or even years. Which lends a certain lack of urgency to plowing through that pile of papers, doesn’t it?

In other words: 99% of the time, the delays have NOTHING to do with you or the quality of your book. Try not to take them personally. Just accept that you have no control over where your query or submission is sitting in that pile.

And do be aware that time when your manuscript is sitting on someone’s desk, awaiting a decision, passes substantially more slowly than time spent in any other way that doesn’t involve incarceration. The Count of Monte Cristo has nothing on us. Before you pick up the phone or log onto your e-mail server to issue a peppery WHAT’S TAKING SO LONG? statement, please, please, please bring this blog to mind and consider the possibility that your sensibilities may be a bit more, well, sensitive than usual. Is this REALLY the best mental state for asking someone to do a favor for you by moving you up in the queue?

Which, in case you didn’t know, what a writer’s question about what’s taking so long sounds like to an agent at any reasonably successful agency: not worry that the submission has been lost, but an unfair request to queue-jump. True, the rule of thumb is that if an agency has had your manuscript for more than 8 weeks, you can legitimately make inquires, but just after the summer holiday, even such a well-justified question can come across as badgering. For prudence’s sake, just subtract that 3-week summer vacation from your 8-week countdown.

Trust me: just as agents’ sense of time is off right now, so is yours. Take a deep breath, then turn away from the phone or e-mail for another week. And if you want to pummel a lavender-scented pillow for a while in the meantime, that might be a good idea, too.

And while we’re at it: this is the 50th blog of my new website! Wahoo!

Yes, I know, it doesn’t look that way, since I’ve been slowly adding the archives from my old blog on the PNWA site. But this is indeed the 50th under the new régime.

To celebrate, why not mention the blog to a couple of your writing friends? I know quite a few my old readers have been having trouble figuring out how to find me — one kind of has to know how to spell my name in order to find the site, and most of my former readers knew me merely as the PNWA’s Guest Writer. So if you would be so kind as to pass the word along (assuming that you’ve been getting something out of the site, of course), that would be a lovely 50th birthday present for this space.

Oh, and in response to a couple of e-mails I’ve gotten recently: if you want to post a question on the site (usually the quickest way to get me to answer them, especially if I’m on the road, as I am frequently), all you have to do is go down to the COMMENTS link at the bottom of each post. Click on that, then scroll down through the already-posted comments there. At the bottom, there will be an ADD COMMENT box. Post your question there, and I’ll get to it as soon as I can!

Happy 50th post, everybody! Please, try not to worry about your submission or query. And keep up the good work!