Contest submissions revisited

The streets may be icy, but here I am, all cozy and warm, going through the backlog of reader questions posted via the COMMENTS function while I was going over the Idol list for lo! those many weeks. My, there have been some great questions posted, and I’m pleased to be getting back to them. Some of my best blogs have come from reader questions, so keep sending ‘em in, everybody!

For those of you who don’t know how to post a question (skip this paragraph if you already do), go to the bottom of any post. There, after the “Posted in…” category information, you will find green type that says either “No Comments” or a number of posted comments listed. Click on the word COMMENT. This will both bring up a page with the blog in question and any comments that have already been posted. At the bottom of this new page, you will find a section entitled “Leave a Reply.” Fill in your chosen screen name (pseudonyms are dandy), your e-mail address (this is not posted; it’s just to cut down on spammers), and your website, if any (and if you want to share it). Then type your question or comment in the little box provided and hit the “Submit Comment” button.

It’s that simple! The nifty blogging program lets me know whenever anyone posts a comment, so feel free to comment on months-old posts.

All right, enough technicalities for today. On to the questions. Serenissima wrote:

“I was wondering if it would make sense to enter an annual contest with a revised version of a piece one had submitted before. Do organizations such as PNWA have the same judges from year to year?”

Here’s the short answer: yes, it would, and yes, they do. Next!

No, but seriously, it does make sense to enter a revised manuscript in a subsequent year’s contest: writers do it all the time. In a contest like the PNWA’s, where entrants receive feedback on their submissions, it’s actually encouraged.

Do read the rules of any contest VERY carefully before you pop your entry into the mail, though, because not all contests allow repeat submissions. In fact, it’s a great idea to go over the rules with the proverbial fine-toothed comb anyway, because the single best thing you can do to improve your chances of winning or placing in a contest is to follow the stated rules to the letter.

Why? Well, for a couple of reasons. First, you would be astonished – at least, I hope you would – at just how few of the entrants in any given contest seem to have READ the contest’s rules. Often, these rules are buried at the end of the entry materials, but by all means, seek them out. Follow them as if your life depended upon it, because let me tell you, a volunteer judge’s patience is likely to become scanty by his fifth entry of the evening.

Rule non-followers are very, very easy targets for a begrumbled judge’s momentary ire.

The second reason is rather more sinister, and definitely less widely-known. As with submissions at agencies and publishing houses, any well-respected contest (translation: a contest prestigious enough that it would help your writing career to win) receives so many well-written entries that choosing the finalists is generally quite hard. It saves judges a LOT of time if they can simply rule out the entries that did not follow directions; if an entry contains a disqualifying element, the judge is usually instructed to stop reading, and for most contests, a rule violation results in automatic disqualification.

Do the math: over the course of a few hundred entries, even a 5% disqualification rate would equal a substantial reduction in reading time. So how many entries would a contest have to get every year before adding additional rules designed to trip up the entrant would start to seem worthwhile?

I have to be honest with you: even as a contest judge, I often find contest rules poorly-written, difficult to understand, and sometimes downright arbitrary. It’s been my experience, though, that the more senseless the requirement, the more likely it is to be used to disqualify entries. In fact, it is not unheard-of for very popular contests to employ initial screeners, whose SOLE function is to check the entries for rule violations before the non-rule breaking entries are passed along to the judges.

Please, tread with care. If you find yourself too sorely tempted to skip any specific requirement listed – such as, say, the information that must appear on the title page, an often-fudged requirement – save yourself some time and money, and just don’t enter the contest. Use the money to take a writing class, or to enter another contest, because if you don’t follow the rules, your chances of winning plummet to practically zero.

On the re-entry issue, it pays to be a rule-hugger. Many contests specify that you cannot enter EXACTLY the same manuscript in subsequent years, but they usually leave it up to the author to decide just how much revision constitutes significant change. (If memory serves, the Faulkner contest is the only major one in the country whose rules actually specify how much must have changed from last year — although I do know a very good poet who won third place with identical poems in the Faulkner two years back-to-back. So I don’t know how seriously they enforce it.)

You’ve hit the nail on the head, though, Serenissima, in identifying the primary problem of the repeat entrant: the only way that she would get caught repeating a submission would be by a returning judge. Most contests’ judge rolls are swollen with those who have done it before – which is to say, the pool of those who have both the reading chops and the time to donate (in virtually every contest in the country, even the very expensive ones, the first-round judges are volunteers, not paid staff) is relatively small.

Judging is a big time commitment, after all, and not one to be undertaken lightly. In the PNWA contest, each first-round judge is asked to read at least 10 full entries, as well as provide both extensive written feedback for the entrant AND a separate write-up for the section chair; in years where there is a shortage of volunteers, they may read as many as 20 each. Multiply that by, say, a 25-page page limit, and judges are facing reading a fairly hefty book, cumulatively.

However, which judge gets which entry is randomly assigned, so the chances of a judge getting the same submission two years in a row are rather slim. It does happen, though — in fact, it has happened to me as a judge, and in that contest, I was not required to return the repeat entry for reassignment. Rereading isn’t necessarily a problem, especially in contests where entrants receive written feedback — seeing one’s advice followed is, after all, rather gratifying — but if the judge who gets an entry twice happens to be a habitual Big Old Grump, he might not be very nice about it.

My, did I just suggest that not everyone who volunteers to be a contest judge does so to assuage a rampant love of literature alone? Could I have been implying that some judges, such as the BOG mentioned above, do it because they like the power? And is it remotely possible that I might be hinting that if your entry ends up in the beefy hands of a BOG, you are likely to receive some pretty nasty criticism, whether or not BOG has seen it before?

Nah, I couldn’t mean any of that, could I? Every contest judge is an angel incarnate, and literary contests are judged on demonstrated writing talent alone. A judge’s personal bias, bad day, or annoyance at reading the same entry twice knocking a good entry out of prize consideration is as uncommon as — well, snow in Seattle in November.

In a nutshell: if the rules do not explicitly exclude resubmission, I say go ahead and resubmit. You can’t entirely rule out the possibility of your entry’s landing on the same BOG’s desk twice, but the chances of it are rather low. (And incidentally, readers: if you encountered a BOG who was gratuitously mean on your last year’s entry feedback forms, you should let the contest-giving organization know as soon as possible. The PNWA, at least, does try to weed out the BOGs. They’re bad for repeat business.)

As we get closer to PNWA entry time, would you like for me to run another series on contest dos and don’ts? Drop me a note via the COMMENTS function (now that everyone knows how to use it!), if so, and I’ll start cranking up the insight mill. And, as always, keep up the good work!

To pen name or not to pen name, part II

Yesterday, in response to a reader’s question, I went into the contentious issue of whether an author who writes in a number of different genres or book categories should use a unique nom de plume for each. As I pointed out yesterday, there are many in the industry who would say that unless your work sells awfully well, it simply doesn’t matter: unless the two books are likely to end up on the same bestseller table, who besides the alphabetizers at Amazon and a few scattered librarians is likely to notice?

Those who favor a different name for each book category would disagree: seeing the same name on disparate book spines can only lead to confusion, they aver. Not only does it make it harder for readers in a particular genre to track down the book they want online (for much the same reason that fans of an author named John Smith might have difficulties: a whole lot of hits would come up in a web search), but it also renders it less likely that an employee in a bookstore is going to be able to lead a curious potential customer to your book. 80% of the books sold in North America are still sold in bookstores, so word of mouth among bookstore employees is almost as important as it ever was.

Do you really, such arguers will ask an aspiring writer archly, want to make it harder for them to push your book?

It’s not quite this simple, however, and it’s probably no accident that defenders of the one-name-one-genre rule tend to be older people, ones who have been in the biz for 20 or 30 years. Quite a bit has changed in the interim: which books got face-out space on shelves, for instance, and positions on those tables near the cash registers, used to left up to the discretion of bookstore managers, but now, in the big chain stores, publishers rent that space in order to push their books. (I know; disillusioning, isn’t it?) And most buyers familiar with online shopping are too used to getting 3,000 hits on a single query to hold it against a particular author.

Also, computers have made it much, much easier for booksellers to track an individual author’s sales than in the bad old days – which makes it harder for distributors to push a second or third book to the big chains, if the author’s first book did not sell well. Or his most recent.

Which leads me to the most current reason semi-established writers adopt different names for themselves for new books, even if a subsequent book is in the same book category as earlier ones: to start fresh within the booksellers’ databases. It’s an industry-accepted means to clear the substantial stigma of a flop.

So the next time you pick up a book and think, “Gee, this new writer, George Washington, reminds me of Betsy Ross, that writer I liked five years ago. I wonder what ever happened to ol’Betsy,” maybe you shouldn’t wonder whether George was a writing student of hers in some obscure MFA program. Maybe you should wonder if Betsy had a name makeover instead.

All that being said, there are more one-name-one-genre advocates in the industry than those who advocate a more laissez-faire approach; unless a name is already fairly well established, many agents will advise writers to have different names for their fiction and nonfiction works, at least.

This does not apply to academic works, interestingly enough, from the industry’s point of view; frankly, practically no one in mainstream publishing follows academic publishing closely enough to notice if an author is getting published in both. Since there are an awful lot of professors who write fiction on the side, the more literary the book categories concerned (i.e., the better-educated the anticipated readership), the more acceptable keeping the same name is considered by agents and editors.

So it is indeed worth considering picking one name for each type of book you write. No one in the industry will fault you for doing it, certainly, and in a business that runs very heavily on name recognition, it’s not a bad idea to brand your mysteries differently from your literary fiction.

Which brings up an interesting question: given your druthers, which book cover would you rather have your real name gracing?

How do you pick otherwise? The standard wisdom dictates that if you already have articles on a subject published under a given name, every subsequent publication on that subject should be under that name. It establishes you as an expert – and that’s important for NF, for you will want to include these old clippings in your book proposals. If you have the luxury of publications under one name across a wide array of topics when you are moving on to books, figure out which articles had the widest readership, and keep the original writing name with those topics.

However, if your fiction and nonfiction is on similar subject matter, have a serious talk with your agent about whether you are more likely to retain your former readership under one name or two. Readers think a whole lot less about book categories than folks in the industry do: as much as publishing types like to tell one another that only a particular type of person buys a particular category of book, the fact is, the most cursory glance at how book buyers move around a bookstore will demonstrate that few readers look at only one or two shelves. If you are a good writer, your readers may well want to follow your work around the bookstore.

Recycle those past readers, I say.

So what does all this mean for strategizing your writing career? Well, obviously, if you are planning to write a book on a topic, it will be easier to sell to agents and editors if you have already published articles on the topic, under any name; equally obviously, if you are unfortunate enough to have released a book that did not sell well, you might not want to carry that contretemps into your next book’s marketing.

But regardless, naming decisions are generally made toward the end of the publication process, rather than the beginning: at the getting-an-agent stage, it matters far more that you HAVE past publications than which nom de plume you chose to slap upon them. Because even if you do decide to publish under several different names, it’s not as though you are going to keep your real identity a secret from your agent or editor, right?

You’re not Superman, after all. Although, come to think of it, have I ever seen you and Superman together?

Because, ostensibly, you would like your advance and royalty checks to be made out to the name your bank manager likes to call you, your real name AND any pen name you elect to use will be on the title page of any manuscript you submit to an agency or publishing house. (If you’re not sure how to pull this off gracefully, check out the Your Title Page category at right. There’s a standard formatting trick for this situation.) Trust me, if your agent thinks you should be marketing your next book under a new name, you’ll be the first person she’ll tell.

My advice: if you write across a number of genres or book categories, and are getting material published – hallelujah! – start establishing a different name for each type of unrelated work you write. That way, by the time you start publishing books in each of those genres or categories, your readers will already know your name(s).

After all, in the long run, isn’t your loyal fans being able to find your books far more important than what the industry wants you to do?

Keep up the good work!

P.S. Hey, if you live in the greater Seattle area, are even vaguely interested in children’s or YA fiction, and are not completely iced in this coming Saturday, December 2nd, why not check out the Secret Garden Bookshop’s 30th Annual Holiday Author Celebration? It runs from 10 am to 6 pm at 2214 NW Market Street (in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle, so if you get a craving for lutefisk while you’re there, you’ll only have to step around the corner to get it), and they have an impressive array of well-respected writers all lined up to read their work – and chat with those who would like to emulate their successes.

Quite apart from the facts that this event is extraordinarily likely to be a lot of fun for kids and adults alike AND is a good opportunity for those of you with aspirations to write for the under-voting-age crowd to make excellent connections, the Secret Garden has a long track record of being simply marvelous about supporting local writers. It’s a genuinely marvelous independent bookstore, and that alone is worth celebrating! I’ll be there after 4:30 or so; if you can swing by to say hello, please do!

A writer by any other name…

Oh, the luxury of having polished off a long series of posts! I get to write about whatever I want again. And what I want to do is revisit some of the many excellent questions readers have been posting as comments in recent weeks. My psychic detectors (and feedback from some readers) tell me that not everyone follows the comment strings — which, in many cases, would involve revisiting an already-read post — so I want to make sure that these important issues get addressed in the larger forum, too.

For instance, weeks back, inveterate wonderful question-formulator MooCrazy asked:

“Can a writer publish in different genres or on several different topics without diluting her ‘product’ and confusing the ‘customer?’ I think having been a free-lance magazine writer has resulted in my thinking that I can hop from one fascinating topic to the next. Please do a blog or series sometime about strategizing a writing career. Thanks!”

Moo, this is a great question, one that I know will speak to many, many writers. Most of us suffer from what Flaubert called, “the lust of the pen,” don’t we, an excited desire to write on a wide array of topics? Yet opinions differ widely within the industry about whether all of these literary effusions should be released under your primary handle: it really does depend upon both how well-known your writing is AND how common your name is. So lots of meaty discussion material here.

As with so much else that goes on in publishing, the prevailing wisdom varies on this point. Ask any given agent or editor whether a writer should (or could) use the same nom de plume across genres, and you will either be told that it just doesn’t matter OR that it would be absolute folly to use the same name on a horror novel and a mystery.

According to this latter school of thought, revealing that you have, like most mortal souls currently wandering the planet, a broad array of interests is a luxury reserved for only the best-known of writers: Anne Rice, for instance, or Stephen King. For lesser luminaries, this ilk advises, stick to one name per genre.

Well, that clears it up nicely, doesn’t it? Next!

No, but seriously, it’s worth looking into why each school of thought has its adherents before you make a decision on the subject. Publishing is a business, after all: presumably, if how we bill ourselves is of interest to the people who sell our books, it can only fascinate them for reasons related, however obliquely, to marketing. If using the names on our birth certificates for everything we write is going to be problematic, obviously, we should know about it.

About 75% of the authors I know who use pen names do so for non-marketing reasons, however. They may want to use their maiden names, perhaps, having spent their high school years fantasizing about how “Edna Curmudgeon” would look on a dust jacket. They may want not to use their current names, because they are writing a roman à clef, or because they have a nasty habit of incorporating their coworkers’ secrets into their novels, or because they really do not want their junior high school-age children to know that Mommy writes erotica. Sometimes, they just hate their birth names, or want to honor a passed-away grandmother. The reasons vary.

Or – and this is more common than one might suspect, given how hard it is for a writer to gain recognition in the first place – they want to retain their privacy. Now, there may be some very solid reasons for this; do you want, for instance, the signature you scrawl at book signings to be identical to the one that graces your checks? (I know a LOT of authors who develop a book signing-specific signature for this reason.) Do you want your readers to be able to look you up on the internet? In the local telephone directory? To be able to show up on your doorstep to argue with you about an ending they disliked?

Hands up, everyone who saw or read MISERY. (Speaking of writers with a history of writing under a number of different names.)

I have to say, having grown up around writers famous enough to have fans actually showing up on their doorsteps from time to time, I did have to think seriously about whether I wanted to publish under my real name. Both Philip K. Dick and Henry Miller, for instance, were well-established enough by the time I appeared on this terrestrial scene to attract the occasional stalker; I could tell you stories about science fiction conference incidents that would turn your hair gray overnight.

And, truth be told, I do have nonfiction published under several different names, so it would not be confused with my academic work. Most of the time, the objections to an academic’s publishing fiction under her real name comes from the academy side, not the publishing side, driven by the fear of being denied tenure, rather than confusing potential readers. Rumor has it, for instance, that there’s a quite prominent sociologist at a local university that shall remain nameless who writes steamy novels about her coworkers under an absurdly obvious pseudonym. But I digress.

However, once I decided to write a memoir, I made the decision: if I’m going to be honest about everything else in my life, why not own up to my real name? (Yes, believe it or not, Anne Mini is in fact the name on my birth certificate. My parents thought about my publishing career, too: according to family legend, they asked the maternity nurse to type out the name possibilities for me before they committed, so they could see what each would look like in print – and thus on a dust jacket.)

I’ve met a LOT of aspiring writers who fear the invasion of their privacy, but let’s be realistic about this for a moment: how many of your favorite authors would you recognize if you walked by them on the street? Most jacket photos are seriously outdated – sometimes for reasons of vanity, sometimes for reasons of economy, sometimes to make the author more fan-repellent – and let’s face it, few fiction writers are famous enough to be interviewed much on television. The chances of your being spotted just because you travel under your pen name are minimal. And if your name is a common one, changing it will not protect you.

Many writers change their names to make them either less common, less ethnic, or more memorable — the writer’s choice, mind you, rarely the agent or publisher’s. I happen to have been born with a very memorable name (a good indicator: how easy it was for kids to make fun of it in elementary school; I’ll spare you what they came up with for me), but if your name is, say, John Smith, you might want to punch it up a trifle. Ditto if you happen to have been christened Ernest Hemingway or Alice Walker – you really do want a name that readers will identify solely with you.

The ethnicity question is less straightforward. On general principle, I tend to frown upon writers (or actors, or directors, or politicians) Anglicizing their names, because collectively, it conveys the false impression that authors with non-northern European monikers are less worth reading. If you doubt the cumulative effect, think about the movie stars of yesteryear: to judge by their stage names, almost all of them hopped directly from the British Isles to Hollywood. And practically none of them, according to the names spelled out in lights, were Jewish, a fact that must have come as something of a surprise to their mothers.

The practice of automatic Anglicization is less common than it used to be, of course, but people still do it, alas. The usual argument is that more mainstream names are less likely to be mispronounced, and speaking as someone with Greek middle names, I guess I can understand that. Although my second middle name, Apostolides, is on every diploma I have ever received, and I always provided a phonetic transcription of it, every graduation of my life has been exactly the same: the degree-conferrer looks down at my diploma, pales visibly, looks up at me helplessly – and then announces me as only Anne Mini. Polysyllabic names are not for the faint of heart. And naturally, there is a good argument to be made in favor of your potential readers being able to walk into a bookstore and ask for your work by name, rather than stammering, “Do you have a book by Anne Apos…um…Apos…you know, that Greek lady?”

Does all of this seem incidental to the issue of whether or not it makes sense to use different pen names for different types of book? Actually, it isn’t: for those who say it doesn’t matter, the concerns above are the primary reasons for a writer to use an alternate name. Unless you sell a significant number of books in one genre, they argue, it’s not likely to confuse anyone who has ever done a computer search before to find you listed as an author in another genre.

If it excites comment at all amongst booksellers, they say, it will be of the “Margaret Atwood writes mysteries, too? No kidding?” variety, not the “Oh, my God, there’s a Margaret Atwood listed under fiction, and one under cookbooks! Am I going INSANE?!?” type.

Tomorrow, I’ll deal a bit more with the other, and rather more common, view on the subject. In the meantime, write widely, dear readers – and keep up the good work!

Let’s talk about this: what would be useful rejection information?

Since I’ve been talking for the last month about rejection criteria that is news to most querying writers, and yesterday about how little actual information the average agency tends to send back with a rejected manuscript, it’s pretty clear (to me, at least) that there is an awfully large communication gap between aspiring writers and the agents to whom they submit their work. Having talked about the issue with people on both sides of it, I have come to the conclusion that this lapse is actually quite frustrating for both sides: agents report feeling that writers don’t seem to understand just how little time they can devote to each query and/or submission; writers report that they feel that their work is being treated with disrespect, and that it’s hard to improve without getting actual feedback on what they’re doing wrong.

One aspect of this conflict particularly caught my attention: most of the agents with whom I have discussed this seem to believe that it’s the FACT of rejection that annoys writers so, rather than the form it takes. Simply put, many of them seem to feel that there is no way that they could reject a manuscript without angering its writer, and that form letters are, in part, a recognition of that reality. But is this true?

So let me turn the question out to you, dear readers: what kind of information would you LIKE to see in a rejection letter? Feedback on how to improve your querying style? A simple statement about why your work in particular is not for that agency? A photocopied form listing common problems, with the appropriate ones checked off?

Alternatively, are you of the school of thought that would prefer to be told no as quickly as possible, without fanfare, so you may move on to the next agency on your list? Would you prefer form letters that did not attempt any explanation at all, and spared you the usual platitudes?

And, finally: is there anyone out there who actually prefers form letters to a personalized response?

Now is your time to vent, everybody – but please, eschew profanity (I already get enough spam comments from porn-site teasers trying to post here, thank you very much), and for your own protection, let’s avoid naming specific agents. It’s just not that big an industry, and I don’t want to encourage you to be burning any bridges that might be useful to you down the line.

But seriously, if you were in their shoes, how would you do it differently?

Form-letter rejections revisited

Throughout my recent series on all of the many complex reasons that agents and their screeners often reject submissions based upon the first page alone (ulp!), I have caught myself thinking over and over again: how much better it would be for everyone concerned if those doing the rejecting took the ten seconds required to scrawl a reason on a form rejection before stuffing a manuscript back into a SASE. This does happen, on occasion: I’ve seen fairly detailed rejection excuses hand-written on the query letter itself, or with the cover letter for the submission.

But not often.

The vast majority of the time, even submissions that only missed being picked up by a hair will be greeted with that pet peeve of writers everywhere, the form letter rejection. If you’ve been brave enough to send your work out on a regular basis — and hurrah for you if you have — I’m sure you have received at least one of these annoying responses. They tend to run something like this:

“Dear author:
Thank you for submitting your work to us. Unfortunately, it does not meet our needs/does not fill an obvious market niche/I do not feel confident I can sell it at this time. Best of luck in your future writing career.”

Even though this response was clearly mass-produced, and thus could not possibly have been a heartfelt piece of reader feedback, getting it probably made you feel every bit as lousy as if it had been a personal response. Let me guess: you wavered between disbelief (“How could this happen to me? I slaved over that submission for months!”) to fury (“Did the agent even read it?”) to despair (“It must have been so bad that the agent couldn’t bear to comment upon it.”) But you kept your fluctuations to yourself, brave little trooper that you are, picked yourself up, and sent out another query immediately.

At least, I hope you did. Or perhaps you reworked the entire manuscript before you sent it out again. Or became too discouraged to send it out again at all.

What you probably didn’t do, unfortunately, is grab the form letter and go running to your writing buddies, to see if they had ever been brushed off in this way. And why not? Because there is a pervasive myth within the writing community that only poor writers get form letter rejections — which renders owning up to receiving one embarrassing.

The prevailing wisdom lags far behind the reality – and for good reason. If you’ve been to a few conferences, you have probably heard at least one agent assert the old truism that good writers don’t get form letter rejections; they get personalized rejections, thoughtful, in-depth analyses about what needs to change in the work before it is market-ready. The personalized rejection (known amongst my friends as “the rave rejection”) is thus a sort of twisted compliment, a reason to hope, a sign from an often-intimidating industry that a writer is doing something right.

In fact, I heard a fairly prominent agent (I name no names, of course, but if I did, his might rhyme with Meff Spinezam) spout this dogma as recently as last month: if you send out ten rejection letters, he told his already-discouraged audience, and get only form responses, there must be something wrong with your submission. Probably, he opined, the writing, but then, he is an agent who likes to receive the first five pages of the book along with the query –so he can put them through exactly the scrutiny we’ve been discussing in the Idol series. If your work were truly good, he said, some agent would have asked to see the book, or at the very least, a few of those rejections would have been personalized.

Perhaps he honestly does take the time to write personalized rejections to promising writers. If he does, however, he is out of step with the industry, which now rejects both very good and very bad queries and submissions with a single boilerplate letter.

Yet in the prevailing view, echoed by this agent, the form letter rejection is reserved for those benighted souls who haven’t the vaguest idea what they are doing. It is never, we are assured, sent to a writer with talent and a firm handle on craft. It is, these agents are fond of telling captive audiences at writers’ conferences — who are, after all, there to be told what they are doing wrong — the industry’s way of telling the author to go out and get some serious help, pronto.

Poppycock. If you had gone crying to your friends about your first form letter rejection, you would have found that every good writer you know has received scads of them. Including, incidentally, yours truly.

The fact is, form letter rejections have been the norm since the invention of the photocopying machine. They are used in order to save the rejecting agent or editor time — period. And yes, Virginia, it is positively common for an agent who enthused over a pitch at a conference to send precisely the same form rejection to the writer over whom she gushed as to a writer to whom her invitation to submit was at best lukewarm. Form letters save time precisely because they require so little energy to use.

Why is this desirable, from the agent’s point of view? Because in recent years, the sheer volume of queries the average agency receives has risen astronomically. In an agency that received fifty or a hundred queries per week (as was common twenty years ago), it would actually be possible for some kind soul to write a personal message back to every aspiring writer. In an agency that receives a couple of hundred queries per day, as the big agencies do, it would require a full-time employee just to tear open the query letters, sort them into possibles and impossibles, and send out one preprinted form letter to the folks in Stack A and another to the folks in Stack B.

And that’s assuming dealing with the incoming queries is all that particular employee has to do that day.

Let’s consider the math for a second. Presumably, any query or submission that does not meet agency criteria would automatically go into Stack B, the rejection pile, unread. There are apparently a whole lot of these: if you’ve been to more than one writers’ conference, I’m sure you have heard at least one agent’s tirade about how writers often don’t read the write-ups in the agent listings closely enough to send EXACTLY what the agency prefers in its submissions; it seems to be a rather wide-spread pet peeve.

Also going straight to Stack B would be any query letter that was obviously poorly written, or pitched a genre that the agency did not represent, or, to reproduce another pet peeve that one hears agents complaining of at conferences, begins “Dear Sir/Madam,” rather than being addressed to a specific name. (And yes, even agents who routinely send out “Dear Author” form rejections object to being addressed impersonally. Ironic, isn’t it?) All of these, then, would be returned in the accompanying SASE with the standard Stack B rejection letter, which probably resembles the one above.

But your work is better than that: you’ve written a good query letter; you’ve submitted only what they asked to see, and you did your homework about the agency. So how might your submission have ended up in Stack B as a form-letter receiver?

I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: there are several possibilities that may well have nothing to do with the quality of your query. You may have addressed an agent who is no longer with the firm, for instance, or sent a submission in a category they no longer represent. Agents move around so much that it is very possible that the particular agent you have targeted will have moved on since the guide you used for research went to press. The agency may have listed more types of book than it actually represents — very small agencies are particularly prone to this, as they do not want to miss out on the next bestseller by listing too-narrow foci in the agency books. Annoying, yes, but not uncommon – and there is no way you could have known about it in advance.

The same holds true for submissions: what an agency was seeking three months ago at a conference may not be what it is seeking now. Think about those poor souls who were marketing memoirs when the A MILLION LITTLE PIECES scandal broke — over the course of a few days, memoirs went from hot to dangerous, in the industry’s collective mind. And I absolutely guarantee you that none of those submitters received a rejection that read, “Gee, we’re sorry, but we decided not to read your submission at all, because the market has just turned memoir-shy. Try again in a year or two.”

No, that would have been too time-consuming. So when they opened their mailboxes and read, “Dear author: Thank you for submitting your work to us. Unfortunately, it does not meet our needs at this time,” naturally, 99% of them thought the problem was with their work, not with the market.

Your writing life will be happier, I suspect, if you avoid the temptation of taking every rejection as if it were a well thought-out professional deliberation upon your future as a writer. Accept what the form letter says — that your work, for whatever reason, does not meet their needs at this time — and query another agent RIGHT AWAY.

As in before you expend a day – or a week, or a month – of your precious writing time seething about it. And before the evil little hobgoblins of self-doubt have a chance to whisper in your ear that the only reason you could possibly have received a form rejection is that your work is lousy. It’s not the only conceivably reason — in fact, it’s not even the most likely reason.

It is not, in fact, useful criticism of your work at all.

If learning that what has been making you miserable is in fact making millions of aspiring writers everywhere miserable makes you even more angry at the sight of the next form rejection than you had been before, you might want to try taking Carolyn See’s advice. Carolyn, whose MAKING A LITERARY LIFE certainly belongs on the bookshelf of every English-speaking writer, counsels writers to send thank-you notes to everyone who rejects them. Instantly, before the anger stops and the inevitable self-criticism begins. It can ease the process of banishing such disrespect from one’s mind.

I have to confess: although I find this advice excellent, I have never actually managed to bring myself to send a thank-you letter in response to a form-letter rejection — or, rather, have never managed to compose a thank-you letter that sounded remotely sincere, or indeed, less than quite sarcastic. I did, however, always force myself to send out a new query within an hour of opening a rejection.

You’ve got to get right back on that horse after a fall, or those hobgoblins are going to come a-running, telling you that you should never try riding again.

I knew to do this, because of a family story I heard many, many times while growing up. When my mother’s first husband was trying to break into the writing biz in the early 1950s, he routinely had fifteen or twenty short stories circulating amongst magazines at any given time. Back then, they did not have the luxury of photocopiers and computer printers: every fresh copy of a short story had to be retyped afresh before it could be sent out again.

One day, after a couple of years of hard writing and hopeful submission, my mother went to check the mail — and discovered 17 rejected manuscripts scattered all over the miniscule front porch, every single one of which containing a scrap of mimeographed paper that began, “Dear author: Thank you for submitting your work to us, but…” The tiny mailbox had not been able to hold that much negativity.

Did she and her husband sit down and cry? Did they take it as a sign from the universe that he would never get published? Did they rend their hair and trouble the heavens with their bootless cries?

No: they acted like writing professionals. They opened each envelope carefully, ironed the travel-wrinkled short story within into some semblance of respectability, and sent all 17 out again that very day.

The rejected party, incidentally, is now arguably the world’s most famous science fiction writer, Philip K. Dick. And a movie version of one of those rejected stories did pretty well a few years back: it was called, if memory serves, THE MINORITY REPORT.

As Julius Caesar was fond of saying, don’t let the bastards get you down. Keep your work moving. And keep up the good work!

P.S.: Don’t forget — long-time reader and FAAB (Friend of Author! Author! Blog) Brian Mercer will be talking about his book, MASTERING ASTRAL PROJECTION on the radio show, The Darkness on the Edge of Town. The radio show will air THIS Sunday at 10 PM Central Standard Time at 1470 AM (for those of you in the greater Minneapolis area) or streaming live via the show’s website.

Conference-gleaned wisdom, Part XV: wrapping it all up and tying it with a nifty bow

Some exciting news today, campers: remember how I spent the month of October locked in my studio, making revisions on my novel, as requested by an editor at a major publishing house? No? Well, remember that long period when I was extremely grumpy? It has evidently borne some fruit: I have been asked to make a second set of revisions. Which, believe it or not, is good news; it means the editor liked my first set of revisions. Hooray!

Was that gasp I just heard the sound of a quarter of my readers clutching their hearts, crying, “Wait – a publisher can make an author revise a book TWICE before making an offer?”

Well, to tell you the truth, the second go-round is a touch unusual, but it’s not at all uncommon anymore for an editor to ask for some fairly hefty one-time revisions before there is even any talk of filthy lucre changing hands. And yes, in the past, it was traditional for a publishing house to buy the book first, before the fine-tuning began. So the next time anyone tries to tell you that the publishing industry is anything like it was even ten years ago, you know what to reply: the fiction market, and indeed the book market in general, is a lot tighter than it used to be.

All of which seems like a perfect lead-in to my last post on the Idol rejection reasons (if you do not know what these are, please see my post for October 31), because, really, it’s important to recognize that agents (most of them, anyway) don’t hold submissions to such high standards in order to be mean — they want to take on books that they know they can sell within today’s extremely tight market. It’s not enough for an agent to love your work; the agent needs to be able to place it at a publishing house for you.

And while, in the past, agents tended to be open to working with their clients in order to work out the technical kinks prior to submission to publishing houses, now most of them expect writers to submit manuscripts so clean and camera-ready that the agency screener could confidently walk them directly from the agency’s mail room to the desk of even the pickiest editor. Thus these last few weeks of weeding out the most common submission problems.

Today, however, we get the reward: the description of the kind of book that makes agents weak in the knees.

Surprisingly, agents tend not to talk too much about what they love about books at conferences — they tend to stick to describing what is marketable, because that is, after all, their bread and butter. But as those of you who have been querying strong, marketable projects for a while already know, agents often reject submissions for perfectly marketable books, a fact that is very confusing to those who have been taught (sometimes by agents at conferences) to believe that every agent is looking for the same thing, or to those who believe that a single rejection from a single agent means that everyone in the industry will hate a book.

Especially for first fiction, it’s not enough for an agent to recognize that a writer has talent and a book has market potential: they like to fall in love. If you’re a good pitcher, you already know the reaction I’m talking about: the eyes becoming moist with desire, the mouth appearing to go dry with lust. When an agent wants a project, the symptoms strongly resemble infatuation, and as the Idol series has taught us, it’s often a case of love at first sight.

As with any other type of love, every agent has his own particular type that is likely to make his heart beat harder, his own individual quirks and kinks. Just as an agent will train his screeners to rule out submissions containing his pet peeves, he will usually set some standards for the kind of project he would like to see forwarded to his desk. So, in a way, our old pal the underpaid, latte-quaffing, late-for-her-lunch-date screener is her boss’ dating service.

Here’s the list of what the Idol panelists said would light their fires sufficiently to ask for a second date — in other words, what would lead them to want to read beyond page 1 of a submission:

1. A non-average character in a situation you wouldn’t expect.
2. An action scene that felt like it was happening in real time.
3. The author made the point, then moved on.
4. The scene was emotionally engaging.
5. The narrative voice is strong and easy to relate to.
6. The suspense seemed inherent to the story, not just how it was told.
7. “Good opening line.”
8. ”There was something going on beyond just the surface action.”

“Hey,” I hear some of you out there saying, “isn’t there something missing from this list? Shouldn’t ‘This is a marvelous writer,’ or ‘That’s the best metaphor I’ve ever seen for a love affair gone wrong,’ or “Wow, great hook” have made the list? Shouldn’t, in fact, more of these have been about the craft of writing, rather than about the premise?”

Excellent questions, both. Would you like the cynical answer, or the one designed to be encouraging to submitters?

Let me get the cynicism out of the way first: they are looking for a book that can sell quickly, not a writer whose talent they want to develop over a lifetime, and that means paying closer attention to an exciting plot than to writerly skill. In essence, they are looking to fall in love with a premise, rather than a book.

The less cynical, and probably more often true, reason is that this is not the JV team you are auditioning to join: this is the big league, where it is simply assumed that a writer is going to be talented AND technically proficient. Unless an agent specifically represents literary fiction — not just good writing, mind you, which can be produced in any book category, but that specific 3-4% of the fiction market which is devoted to novels where the beauty of the writing is the primary point of the book — the first question she is going to ask her screener is probably not going to be, “Is it well-written?” Presumably, if a submission weren’t fairly well-written and free of technical errors, it would not make it past the screener. As we have seen before, the question is much more likely to be, “What is this book about?”

Before you sniff at this, think about it for a minute: the last time you recommended a book to someone, did you just say, “Oh, this is a beautifully-written book,” or did you give some description of either the protagonist or the plot in your recommendation? Even the most literary of literary fiction is, after all, about SOMETHING.

Ideally, any good novel will be about an interesting character in an interesting situation. Why does the protagonist need to be interesting? So the reader will want to follow her throughout the story to come, feeling emotionally engaged in the outcome. Why does the situation need to be interesting? So the reader will not figure out the entire book’s plotline on page 1.

If you have both of these elements in your premise, and you present them in a way that avoids the 74 rejection reasons I’ve been discussing throughout this series, most of the rest of the criteria on this love-it list will follow naturally. If the reader cares about the protagonist, the stakes are high enough, and the pacing is tight, the scene is much more likely to be emotionally engaging than if any of these things are not true. If you eschew heavy-handed description and move straight to (and through) the action, conflict is more likely to seem as though it is happening in real time, no one can complain that you are belaboring a point, and the suspense will develop naturally.

So really, all of this critique has been leading directly to the characteristics of an infatuation-worthy book.

Of course, all of this IS about the quality of the writing, inherently: in order to pull this off successfully, the writer has to use a well-rehearsed bag of tricks awfully well. Selecting the right narrative voice for a story, too, is indicative of writerly acumen, as is a stunning opening line. All of these elements are only enhanced by a beautiful writing style, of course.

However, most agents will tell you that lovely writing is not enough in the current market: the other elements need to be there as well. As well as a certain je ne sais quoi that the pros call an individual voice.

All of which is to say: submission is not the time to be bringing anything but your A game; there really is no such thing as just good enough in the current market. (Unless you’re already established, of course, or a celebrity, or you happen to have written the story that the agent always wanted to write himself, or…) Playing in the big leagues requires more than merely telling a story well — that’s the absolute minimum for getting a serious read within the industry.

Which brings me to #8, ”There was something going on beyond just the surface action.” Submission mail bags positively burgeon with clear accounts of straightforward stories, as well as with manuscripts where every nuance of the plot is instantly accessible to the reader as soon as it is mentioned. Books that work on a number of different levels simultaneously, that give the reader occasion to think about the world to which the book is introducing her, are rare.

That the Idol agents would be looking actively for such a book might at first blush be surprising. How much subtlety could a screener possibly pick up in a 30-second read of the first page of a manuscript?

Well, let me ask you: the last time you fell in love, how much did you feel you learned in the first thirty seconds of realizing it?

Pat yourselves on the back for making it all the way through this extremely sobering series, everybody: this was good, hard, professional work, the kind that adds serious skills to your writer’s tool bag. Be pleased about that – and keep up the good work!

P.S.: Hey, those of you interested in alternate realities: long-time reader and FAAB (Friend of Author! Author! Blog) Brian Mercer will be talking about his book, MASTERING ASTRAL PROJECTION on the radio show, The Darkness on the Edge of Town. The radio show will air on Sunday at 10 PM Central Standard Time at 1470 AM (for those of you in the greater Minneapolis area) or streaming live via the show’s website.

Conference-gleaned wisdom, Part XIV: the over-stuffed bird

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! The turkey is in the oven now, and I have taken a break between making the cardamom carrots and the cinnamon-honey sweet potatoes in order to write to you. So don’t ever think that you don’t rate.

Here is something for which we should indeed be thankful: I shall be going over the last of the Idol rejection reasons (see post of October 31, if this reference seems cryptic) today! Even in this extensive list of fairly subjective criteria, I have saved the most subjective for last – in fact, this set is so couched in individual response that I have reported them all within quotation marks. For these, my friends, are the rejection reasons defined entirely by the reader’s response to your work:

64. “Overkill to make a point.”
65. “Over the top.”
66. “Makes the reader laugh at it, not with it.”
67. “It’s not visceral.”
68. “It’s not atmospheric.”
69. “It’s melodramatic.”
70. “This is tell-y, not showy.”

“Unbelievable” also came up a lot, but usually in conjunction with other reasons. This is telling: basically, whether a situation is believable or not is largely dependent upon the reader’s life experience, isn’t it? Since my childhood strongly smacked at times of having been directed by Federico Fellini, I would expect that I would tend to find a broader array of written situations plausible than, say, someone who grew up on a conservative cul-de-sac in an upper middle-class suburb, attended to a minor Ivy, and was working at my first job in Manhattan while my parents paid a significant portion of my living expenses.

Which is to say, of course, that I would probably be a more sympathetic reader for most manuscripts than the average agency screener or editorial assistant. No matter how sophisticated you expect your target audience to be, remember, the first person who reads your submission at an agency or publishing house is probably going to be new to the milieu you are painting in your book. (Sometimes, this shows up in surprising ways. Recently, I found myself dealing with a well-respected publishing professional who was surprised to learn that couples often pay for their own weddings now, rather than relying upon their parents. Apparently, she was not yet old enough to have many friends well-heeled enough to run their own shows.)

However, the numbered reasons above speak to less personal-experiential approaches to judgment. #64, overkill to make a point, and #65, “over the top,” usually refer to good writing that is over-intense in the opening paragraphs. And this can be counter-intuitive, right, since most of us were taught that the opening needs to hook the reader?

The trick to opening with intensity is to get the balance right. You don’t want to so overload the reader with gore, violence, or despair that she tosses it aside immediately, nor do you want to be boring. Usually, though, it is enough to provide a single strong, visceral opening image, rather than barraging the reader with a lengthy series of graphic details.

Before half of you start reading the opening page of THE LOVELY BONES to me, allow me to say: I know, I know. I don’t make the rules, after all: I just comment upon them.

All I can say is this: there is no such thing as a single book that will please every agent and editor in the industry. If you are worried that your work might be too over the top for a particular agency, learn the names of four or five of their clients, walk into your nearest well-stocked bookstore, and start pulling books from the shelves. Usually, if your opening is within the intensity range of an agency’s client list, your submission will be fine.

#69, “It’s melodramatic,” and #66, “Makes the reader laugh at it, not with it,” are the extreme ends of the believability continuum. What’s the difference between melodrama and drama? The pitch at which the characters are reacting to stimuli – if your protagonist bursts into tears because her mother has died on page 1, that will generally feel real, but if she throws a tantrum because there is no milk for her cornflakes on page 1, chances are good that you’ve strayed into melodrama.

Need I even say that the rise of reality TV, which is deliberately edited to emphasize interpersonal conflict, has increased the amount of melodrama the average agency screener encounters in submissions on any given day?

Usually, melodrama is the result of the stakes of the conflict not being high enough for the characters. As a general rule of thumb, it’s dramatic when a character believes that his life, welfare, or happiness is integrally involved with the outcome of a situation; it’s melodramatic when he ACTS as though his life, welfare, or happiness is threatened by something minor. (And no, “But the protagonist’s a teenager!” is not an excuse that generally works within the industry.)

So if you open with a genuine conflict, rather than a specious one, you should be fine.

And this goes double if you are writing comedy, because the line between cajoling the reader into laughing along with the narrative and at it is a fine one. Overreaction to trifles is a staple of film and television comedy, but it’s hard to pull off on the printed page. Especially on the FIRST printed page, when the reader is not yet fond of the protagonist or familiar with his quirks – much sitcom comedy relies upon the audience’s recognizing a situation as likely to trigger character responses before the character realizes it, right?

Generally speaking, comedy grounded in a believable situation works better in a book opening than a scene that is entirely wacky, or where we are introduced to a character via his over-reactions. The more superficial a situation is, the harder it is for the reader to identify with the protagonist who is reacting to it.

#71, “It’s not visceral,” and #72, “It’s not atmospheric,” also share a continuum. The latter deals with a sense of place, or even a sense of genre: if a reader can make it through the first page and not be sure of the general feeling of the book, you might want to rework it before you submit. Not that you should load down your opening with physical description – that was a bugbear described earlier on the Idol list, right? Just provide enough telling details to make the reader feel as if he is there.

And, if you can, do it through action and character development, rather than straightforward narrative. That way, you will avoid pitfall #70,“This is tell-y, not showy.”

Let me let you in on a little secret gleaned from years of hanging out with agents and editors at conferences: after they’ve had a few drinks, most of them will start describing the manuscripts they long to pick up in much the same way as a hungry person describes meat. They want something they can sink their teeth into; they want a satisfying sensual experience; they want to savor flavors they’ve never tasted before. They want to be seduced, essentially, by the pleasurable shock of stepping into a ready-made world that is not their own.

Piece o’cake to pull that off on a first page, right?

The visceral details are often crucial to pulling off this magic trick. As I have bemoaned repeatedly in this very forum, the prominence of film and TV as entertainment has led to a positive plethora of submissions that rely exclusively upon visual and auditory details to set their scenes. (During the reign of radio, I am told, sound played a more important role in the average manuscript.) This may be hard to believe, but out of every hundred manuscripts a screener reads, perhaps two will include solid, well-described sensual details that are not based upon either sight or sound.

Movies and television limit themselves to these two senses for a very good reason: it’s all they have. But a book can work with all the senses – even that sixth one, the one that senses danger and picks up unspoken vibes. If you can work at least one of these other senses into the first few paragraphs of your submission, you will be sending a signal to that screener that perhaps yours is the book that will seduce her boss this week.

And that, my friends, is something to celebrate.

If you doubt your ability to do this, try this exercise: sit down late tonight and write a description of your Thanksgiving dinner using ONLY the senses of vision and hearing. Then set it aside and write another one that uses only smell, taste, touch, and interpersonal vibration. Tomorrow, read them both: which tells the story better? Which makes the reader feel more as though she had been sitting at the table with you?

Speaking of which, I have some sweet potatoes to season.

But before I go, since a lot of people like to take stock of their lives this time of year (partially, I suspect, to construct the dreaded New Year’s resolution), allow me to suggest something: when you are assessing how far you have progressed toward achieving your writing goals and what you would like to achieve by this time next year, don’t use the yardstick of an author who is already on the bestseller list. Chances are, it took that writer years of patient, frustrating effort to get to that point, and really, the ultimate goal of successful publication, or the interim goal of landing an agent, are not the only desirable achievements for a writer.

Here is the standard I like to use: am I a better writer than I was two years ago? (Two years is better than one year, as it often allows consideration of more than one project.) Have I added skills to my writer’s bag of tricks in the last two years? Have I found friends, connections, resources that can help me on my way in that time? If my work is being rejected, am I getting better rejections? And what can I decide to do in the year to come to improve my work still more?

I am very, very lucky, my friends: I started this blog 15 months ago, and it has undoubtedly made me a better writer, both because it has forced me to take a long, hard look at the premises under which our industry operates and because I have had the opportunity to answer questions from writers at all levels. I have met many wonderful writers, agents, and editors over the past two years, and I have taken continuing education classes to hone my skills. I have exchanged work with very good writers from backgrounds different from mine, and have benefited from their advice. I have finished manuscripts, and I have revised them.

And all of this, believe it or not, is actually a better indicator of my progress as a writer than the fact that I have sold a book to a publishing house in the last two years, or that I have a novel under serious consideration at another house right now. Why? Because these activities sharpened my writing and marketing skills; successfully marketing my books was my excellent agent’s achievement, ultimately. For all of this, I am grateful.

My gut feeling is that all of you who read this blog regularly have been doing some fairly hefty writer’s toolbag refurbishment, too. Don’t forget to pat yourselves on the back for that.

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody, and keep up the good work!

Conference-gleaned wisdom, Part XIII: the writing itself

No, I did not run off to Latin America with the documentary film crew: I’ve just been rushed off my feet since I got back to Seattle. I got a real burst of energy from the realization that no matter happens from here on out with my memoir — on which: still no word from my publisher — part of my story will be out there for the world to hear. (If this comment seems cryptic to you, please see the MY MEMOIR’S SAGA category at right. It’s been quite a ride.) It’s a small step toward getting the truth out there, but at least it’s a step.

It’s a pretty odd sensation, having to wonder every time I open my mouth or set fingers to keyboard to communicate about my life whether THIS statement will be the one that causes the situation to escalate again. Bizarre, isn’t it, that there is some serious question over whether I own the story of my own life?

But honestly, I know several other memoirists in similar binds. Granted, my book has been carrying the additional burden of a threatened $2 million lawsuit, but this is such a hostile publishing environment for memoirists in general — for A Million Little Reasons — that the already tight memoir market has become practically moribund for the second half of this year.

Hands up, every memoir-writer out there who has been told within the last six months that no one is buying memoirs anymore. (Or rather, to be precise, that publishing houses are no longer buying them. Readers, if the industry figures are correct, still are buying memoirs at roughly the same rate as ever.) Or that any memoir that contains dialogue is now considered automatically suspect. It’s tougher than it was even a year ago, isn’t it?

Speaking of which, I would like to wrap up the last of the Idol rejection reasons (if you do not know what these are, please see my post of October 31) as soon as possible, so you can get on with sending out your last barrage of queries of the year this weekend.

Why the last? Well, you could keep sending ‘em out, but since the publishing industry more or less closes down between Thanksgiving and Christmas (YOU try getting an editorial committee together during that month, with all of the various religious observances), agencies tend to slow their response rate then, too.

How slow? Well, let me put it this way: if you send out your queries right now, you might conceivably hear back this year. But not necessarily.

However, if you want to get your work under an agent’s eyes prior to say, February, you should send it toute suite, for reasons that not even the most reactionary industry die-hard could not manage to pin on James Frey (who has been blamed for every other industry ill of the year). Actually, the January phenomenon is one of the few industry conditions caused by collective action amongst writers: practically every unpublished writer in America makes a New Year’s resolution to get his work out the door.

So guess what happens at the average agency on January 2? That’s right: an avalanche of queries, accompanied by submissions from all of those writers who were asked for their materials over the last year, but spent the intervening months going over it again and again to make sure it was perfect. (SIOA!)

Thus, as simple mathematics will tell you, the competition is greater between New Year’s and Martin Luther King, Jr. Day — the average New Year’s resolution lasts a grand total of three weeks — so it doesn’t make too much sense to query then. If our old pal, the underpaid (or unpaid intern) agency screener is grumpy on every other Monday of the year, just imagine how much grumpier she is likely to be with an extra mailbag’s worth of queries dumped on her desk every single day.

Why, there’s hardly room for her to set down her scalding-hot latte.

So let’s get on with the rejection reasons, shall we? As you may have noticed over the course of this series, most of these pet peeves are at the larger level – paragraph, conception, pacing, etc. – but today’s list falls squarely at the sentence level:

55. Took too many words to tell us what happened.
56. The writing lacks pizzazz.
57. The writing is dull.
58. The writing is awkward.
59. The writing uses too many exclamation points.
60. The writing falls back on common shorthand descriptions.
61. Too many analogies per paragraph.

Most of these are fairly self-explanatory, but I want to zero in on a couple of them before I talk about them in general. Objection #55 (took too many words to say what happened) is, of course, the offspring of our old friend, the thirty-second read, but to professional eyes, overly prolix text is not problematic merely because it takes too long to get the action going. To an agent or editor, it is a warning signal: this is probably a book that will need to be edited sharply for length.

Translation: this manuscript will need work. As we have learned over the course of this series, agents would much rather that any necessary manuscript reconstruction occur prior to their seeing the book at all, so this is a major red flag for them. It is likely to send them screaming in another direction.

Also, because so few submissions to agencies come equipped with a professional title page, most screeners will also automatically take the next logical (?) step and assume that a prose-heavy first page equals an overly long book. (Interestingly, they seldom draw the opposite conclusion from a very terse first page.) See why it’s a good idea to include a standard title page — if you do not know the other good reasons to do this, please see the YOUR TITLE PAGE category at right — that contains an estimated word count?

In short, it is hard to over-estimate the size of the red flag that pops out of an especially wordy first page. And in answer to the question that half of you howled at me in the middle of the last paragraph, for years, the standard agent advice to aspiring writers has been to keep a first novel under 100,000 words, if humanly possible.

Before any of you start rushing toward the COMMENTS function below to tell me that you asked an agent at a recent conference about your slightly longer work, and she said rather evasively that it was fine, 60,000 – 110,000 words is fairly universally considered a fine range for a novel. (This is estimated word count, of course, not actual; if you do not know why the pros figure it this way, or how to estimate the way they do, please see WORD COUNT at right.)

Shorter than 60,000, and it’s really a novella, which would usually be packaged with another work (unless the author is already very well-established); longer than 110,000, and it starts becoming substantially more expensive to print and bind (and yes, they really do think about that as soon as they lay eyes on a novel). Do check, though, about the standards in your particular genre and sub-genre: chick lit, for instance, tends to be under 90,000 words, and there are many romances and mysteries that weigh in at a scant 40,000 – 60,000.

#59 (too many exclamation points) and #61(too many analogies) are also sins of excess, but the conclusions screeners tend to draw from them are more about their perpetrators than about the books in question. To a professional reader, a manuscript sprinkled too liberally with exclamation points just looks amateurish: it’s seen as an artificial attempt to make prose exciting through punctuation, rather than through skillful sentences.

Since this particular prejudice is shared by most of the writing teachers in North America, agents and editors will automatically assume that such a manuscript was produced by someone who has never taken a writing class. Not a good one, anyway. And while that is not necessarily a bad thing (they often complain that they see too much over-workshopped writing), they tend, as a group, to eschew writers whom they perceive to still be learning their craft.

Yes, of course, we’re all still learning our craft as long as we live, but to be on the safe side, save the exclamation points for dialogue.

#61 (too many analogies), on the other hand, is often the result of having been exposed to too much writing advice. Most of us, I think, had similes and metaphors held up to us as examples of good writing at some point in our formative years, and I, for one, would be the last to decry the value of a really good analogy.

But too many in a row can make for some pretty tiresome reading. Take a gander at this, for instance: “Like a rat in a maze, Jacqueline swerved her panther of a sports car through the Habitrail™ of streets that is South London as if she were being pursued by pack of wolves howling for her blood. Her eyes were flint as she stared through the rain-flecked windshield, as reflective as a cat’s eye at night. She had left her heart behind at Roger’s flat, bloodied and torn; she felt as though she had put her internal organs through a particularly rusty meat grinder, but still, she drove like a woman possessed.”

Now, that’s not a bad piece of writing, even if I do say so myself, but it’s awfully analogy-heavy, is it not? Taken individually, there is nothing inherently wrong with any of the clauses above, but all in a row, such writing starts to sound a bit evasive. It reads as though the author is actively avoiding describing the car, the streets, or Jacqueline’s feelings per se. To a screener who is, after all, in a hurry to find out what is going on in the book, it can be a bit distracting.

#60, writing that falls back on common shorthand, could be interpreted as a subsection of the earlier discussion of clichés, but actually, you would have to read an awful lot of manuscripts before you started identifying these as tropes. The Idol agents specifically singled out the use of phrases such as, “She did not trust herself to speak,” “She didn’t want to look,” and a character thinking, “This can’t be happening” — all of which, frankly, from a writer’s POV, are simple descriptions of what is going on.

But then, so is the opening, “It was a dark and stormy night,” right?

To a professional reader, such phrases represent wasted writing opportunities. Yes, they convey what is going on concisely and clearly, but not in a way that hasn’t been done before. Remember, you want an agent to fall in love with YOUR unique voice and worldview, so using the phrases of others, even when apt, is not the best way to brand your work as your own.

Ultimately, though, all of today’s objections imply something to a professional reader that you might not want to convey: because virtually any good first reader would have called the writer’s attention to these problems (well, okay, perhaps not #60), they make it appear as though the screener is the first human being to read the submission. (Other than the author’s mother, spouse, lover, best friend, or anyone else who has substantial incentive not to give impartial feedback, that is.) To the pros, these mistakes make a submission read like a work-in-progress, not like one that is ready to market.

Uh-oh. Did that red flag just mean that this submission needs further work?

Remember, virtually every agent and editor in the industry perceives him/herself to be the busiest human being on the planet. (Try not to dwell on the extremely low probability of this being true; it will only confuse the issue.) Your chances of impressing them favorably rise dramatically if your work cries out, “I will not make inroads onto your time!”

Acknowledging that you need feedback to bring your work to a high polish does not make you a bad writer; it makes you a professional one who recognizes that there is more going on in a submission that your expressing yourself. It makes you a savvy one who knows that a book is a product to be sold, in addition to being a piece of art. It makes you, if I may be blunt about it, smarter than 98% of the aspiring writers who will be enthusiastically fulfilling their New Year’s resolutions by licking stamps for SASEs on January first.

Please, I implore you, do not make an agency screener the first impartial reader for your work. Frankly, they just are not going to give you the feedback you need in order to learn how to bring your book to publication. They don’t have – or believe they don’t have – the time.

Tomorrow (yes, I intend to blog on Thanksgiving, because I skipped a couple of days earlier in the week; turkeys cook for a long time), I shall finish up the last of the Idol rejection reasons. Hooray! In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Entr’acte: Lights, camera…

Okay, I promised that I was going to send you all news from the front while I was being interviewed for the documentary, and it doesn’t get any closer to the front than this: they’re setting up the light and sound equipment right now.

To be precise, I’m sitting in a hotel room designed for one person to be able to walk around in relative comfort, surrounded by two technicians and the director, who are arranging and rearranging furniture and lighting equipment in an effort to create the illusion that I am alone in an extremely well-lit room, narrating my own past to myself. As one does.

I am writing this partially to stay out of their way. I distracted them earlier by asking them to tell me the names of Argentine novelists I should be reading (other than Borges, of course; I already knew him), and apparently, in this context, asking questions that prompt people to sit down and think is not the most helpful activity. Remember this, please, when you are famous: it’s frowned-upon for interviewees to interview the interviewers. I can never help myself.

Now that I have released them from bibliographic duty, they all seem to be talking at once; a tad disconcerting, as I understand about four words of Spanish (non-consecutive). Normally, it’s only your imagination that people who are speaking in foreign tongues around you are talking about you, but when there is a boom mike, monitor, and three light poles within grabbing distance, you may be fairly sure that they ARE talking about you, at least indirectly. The sound guy keeps saying, “Hola, hola,” into various little black items, the lighting guy seems determined to rearrange every object in the room seventeen times, and never has a hotel room been this brightly lit.

Apparently, someone intends to do surgery here sometime soon. It is not conducive to interview subject relaxation.

All of you out there who are ever planning to interview living, breathing individuals for your books: do be aware that being an interview subject is quite nerve-wracking. Most people (at least the ones who are not indicted for or witness to a felony) are not expected to be able to blurt out coherent accounts of the most trying moments of their lives on a moment’s notice. Nor is it reasonable for interviewers to expect interviewees to read their minds, to search through a lifetime of complex memories to pull up precisely the anecdote that corresponds most exactly to the interviewer’s preconceived notion of an event.

Yet 99% of the time, this is what interviewers do expect. And an interview subject is very likely to notice this, because it’s not as though any question in the process is asked only once. Everything is asked four or five times, sometimes in different background environments, so they can later piece together the answer they want. From the subject’s POV, this is rather like being cross-examined. From the documentarian’s POV, I suspect it is rather like editing a novel: cutting away the extraneous in order to create plausible characters.

Oh, come on: you didn’t think those reality shows weren’t edited to create a storyline, did you?

I ask the director about editing for character creation. Since it’s the only English that’s been heard in the room for a quarter of an hour, my voice startles everyone. He laughs, then talks about the difficulties and joys of trying to be an observant spectator of a range of people whose views of events differ rather wildly. It’s hard, he says, to ask questions that will provoke revealing responses without appearing to take sides.

“That’s just what a novelist does,” I tell him, “in constructing a narrative.” This is translated into Spanish, so everyone can enjoy the irony.

Having just lived through exhaustive pre-interviews and seemingly miles of let’s-walk-around-Berkeley shots (we seriously spent an hour today following my mother as she drove familiar streets, blasting Puccini, with the cameraman hanging dangerously out of the side of the production van), I have gleaned what I hope will be a useful tip for all of you would-be interviewers out there: it might not be the best idea to tell your interview subject what all of your other interview subjects have said about her. It taints what is, after all, a meeting with an inquisitive stranger with the annoying air of a visit from unpleasant relatives.

Not that I’d be saying this from personal experience or anything. It’s not as though, for instance, people who live off the proceeds of the late Philip K. Dick’s writing have been going around making sweeping statements about a memoir they haven’t read. Since you, my fine readers, are actually implicated as co-conspirators in some of these sweeping statements, I feel that I should let you know about one of them: certain sources who are not speaking to me have been telling third parties with recording devices that I have been posting large parts of my memoir here, on this very blog, for well over a year now.

I ask you, the people who would know this best: have I?

Actually, I couldn’t have, legally: once a publisher buys the rights to a book, the contract tends to be pretty darned specific about what the author can do with the contents. Amazingly enough, publishers seem to be under the impression that what they are buying when they acquire a book is the right to disseminate its contents. And if I had not retained the film rights to A FAMILY DARKLY, I would not be able to give this interview without explicit permission from my press.

I still own the film rights, though. And the foreign language rights. As I think I have explained before, what publishers usually buy from first-time authors on our continent (actually, it’s not my first NF book; I wrote a couple of travel guides years ago, but let’s say it’s my first, for purposes of illustration) are the first-time North American English-language rights only. Most of the time, if a book comes out first in hardcover, the paperback rights are sold separately; typically, a novel would need to sell in the neighborhood of 10,000 copies before a press would be interested in the paperback rights.

I have only just realized that the cameraman has been filming me writing this for the last couple of minutes, the observer of the observers being observed observing. (Try to wrap your brain around THAT one.) The sound guy has just lowered what looks like a space probe to eight inches in front of my nose, nine inches up. If I don’t stare either dead ahead or down at my computer screen, it will be very distracting.

I’m getting indications that it’s time for me to start strolling down memory lane, to recall some of the most painful and joyous moments of my life. Due to the lights and proximity of bodies in a too-small space, it is now thirty degrees hotter in the room than it was when we began. I am advised not to sweat. And to relax.

And we begin.

Conference-gleaned wisdom, Part XII: reading from the other side of the envelope

I’m sitting in a Berkeley espresso place right now, surrounded by people who apparently stepped directly out of either my memoir (my parents were local beatniks) or the novel currently in editorial limbo (my protagonist’s parents were local hippies). Seriously, I could cast movies of either very comfortably without walking outside into the prevailing misty fog.

Why am I here? Well, I’m waiting to be interviewed for a documentary about Philip K. Dick. My mother is in front of the cameras right now, and since, as filmmakers and physicists agree, the process of being observed changes that which is being observed, I have taken myself off to blog. This is only the second time I’ve ever allowed myself to be interviewed about Philip (contrary to what the PKD estate claims on its fan forum), and the first on film, and I’m finding the process absolutely fascinating. Naturally, any procedure that encourages my mother to drive around Berkeley with a movie camera strapped to the hood of her truck gets my vote, but now I’m thinking that I should add a short chapter to the memoir about it, the observed observing the observers.

Okay, back to business, before I am called upon to reminisce again. I think taking on the Idol rejection reasons (see my post of October 31) one by one is being very fruitful, but heavens, there are a LOT of them, aren’t there? I’m moving through them as fast as I can. I’ve gotten a lot of great questions from readers while I have been going through them, matters about which I normally would have written a post right away, but I did not want to disrupt the Idol flow. I’m anxious to get back to them!

Today, I want to deal with the rejection reasons that did not fit comfortably into general categories — the odd ducks, as it were:

39. Too many generalities.
40. The character shown is too average.
41. The stakes are not high enough for the characters.
60. The details included were not telling.

Shaking your head over the practically infinite subjectivity of this set? There’s a good reason for that: just as one agent’s notion of fresh is another’s idea of weird, one agent’s Everyman is another’s Ho-Hum Harry.

And this is problematic, frankly, to most of us who have lived through Creative Writing 101. Weren’t we all told to strive for universality? (Which, until fairly recently, was code for appealing to straight, white men.) Weren’t we all ordered to write what we knew? (Which led to forty years’ worth of literary journals crammed to the gills with stories about upper middle class white teenagers.) Weren’t we implored to be acute observers of life, so we could document the everyday in slice-of-life pieces of practically museum-level detail? (Which left us all sitting in writing class, listening to aspiring writers read thinly-fictionalized excerpts from their diaries.)

I can’t be the only one who had this writing teacher, can I? A quick survey of my fellow espresso-drinkers here in Berkeley reveals that most of them received similar advice in their formative writing years.

Unfortunately, from an agent’s point of view, all of the good students following this advice has led to a positive waterfall of submissions in which, well, not a whole lot happens. (See #6, took too long for anything to happen, along with its corollary, the story’s taking time to warm up, as well as #7, not enough action on page 1.) These opening scenes may be beautifully-written, lyrical, human life observed to a T. But from a marketing professional’s perspective — and, despite the fact that agents are essentially the first-level arbiters of literary taste these days, they need to be marketers first and foremost, or they are of little use to those they represent — such an opening translates into
“hard to sell.”

And, to be perfectly frank, most of them simply do not have the time or the patience to read on to see what this story IS about. Remember that burnt-tongued unpaid intern whom I told you to channel last week? She might well be a few minutes late for her lunch date for the sake of a page of gorgeous prose, but if she doesn’t have an inkling of a plot by the end of it, she’s probably not going to ignore her stomach’s rumblings long enough to turn to page 2.

Sorry. As I believe I have mentioned before, this is not how it would work if I ran the universe. If I did, all good writers would be eligible for large, strings-free grants, photocopying would be free, and all of you would be able to share the particularly delicious pain au chocolat I am enjoying at this very moment. So gooey that the bereted gentleman (yes, really) at the wee round table next to me offered a couple of minutes ago to lick the chocolate off my fingers so I could readdress my keyboard in a sanitary manner.

The locals are very friendly, apparently. And very hygiene-minded.

This (the ordinariness of characters, that is, rather than licking chocolate off fingertips) is something that comes up again and again in agents’ discussions of what they are seeking in a manuscript. “An interesting character in an interesting situation” is in practically all of their personal ads on the subject, particularly if the protagonist is not the character one typically sees in such a situation. A female cadet at a prestigious military academy, for instance. A middle-aged stockbroker arrested for protesting the WTO. A veteran cop who is NOTA paired in his last month of duty with a raw rookie. That sort of thing.

So while a very average character may spell Everyman to a writing teacher, an average Joe or Joanna is typically a very hard sell to an agent. As are characters that conform too much to stereotype. (How about a cheerleader who isn’t a bimbo, for a change? Or a coach who isn’t a father figure? A mother who doesn’t sacrifice her happiness for her kids’?) An interesting character is surprising, at some level: could you work an element of surprise onto page 1, the best place to catch an agent’s eye?

One of the best ways of preventing your protagonist from coming across as too average is to raise the importance of what is going on in the opening for that character — which leads us nicely to critique #41, the stakes not being high enough. “Why should I care?” is an extremely common question for screeners to ask — and if the book opens with the protagonist in an emotionally-fraught or otherwise dangerous situation, that question is answered immediately.

Yet another reason, to revisit a topic from a few days ago, that too-typical teenage characters often fall flat for screeners: a character who is trying to be cool and detached from a conflict can often convey the impression that what is going on in the moment is not particularly important. But what’s more engaging than a protagonist who feels, rightly or wrongly, that what is going on before the reader’s eyes is the most important thing on earth right now? When the protagonist wants something desperately, that passion tends to captivate the reader.

It doesn’t always work to open with an honestly life-or-death situation, of course, but far too many novels actually don’t start until a few pages in. Seriously — it’s not at all uncommon to find a terrific opening line for a book on page 4 or page 10, or for scene #2 to be practically vibrating with passionate feeling, while scene #1 just sits there. (Again, I think this is a legacy of the heroic journey style of screenwriting, which dictates that the story open in the protagonist’s everyday reality, before the challenge comes.) Choosing to open with a high-stakes scene gives a jolt of energy to the reader, urging her to keep turning the pages.

Many, many writers want to keep something back, to play their best cards last, to surprise and delight the reader later on. But for very practical reasons, this is not the best strategy in a submission: if this Idol series has made anything clear, it is that you really do need to grab a professional reader’s attention on page 1.

#39, too many generalities, is a trap that tends to ensnare writers who are exceptionally gifted at constructing synopses. In a synopsis, it is very helpful to be able to compress a whole lot of action into just a few well-chosen words; it’s a format that lends itself to a certain amount of generalization. It is tempting, then, to introduce a story in general terms in the book itself, isn’t it?

So why do agents frown upon this practice? Well, it feels to them like the writer is warming up, rather than diving right into the story. The average fiction agent is looking for good, in-the-moment sensations on the first page, visceral details that will transport her quickly to the time and place your characters inhabit. The writer is the travel agent for that trip, and it’s your job to make the traveler feel she is actually THERE, rather than just looking at a movie or a photograph of the events described.

Long-time readers of this blog, chant with me now: too many writers rely too heavily on visuals. Sensual details sell. Or, to put it another way: doesn’t your protagonist have a NOSE?

Which segues very nicely into #60, the details included were not telling. The wonderful short-short story writer Amy Hempel once told me that she believes that the external world her characters inhabit is only relevant insofar as it illuminates the character’s mood or moves the plot along. I’m not sure I would put it quite so baldly, but I think there is a lot to this. If a protagonist is sad, I want to hear about the eucalyptus trees’ drooping leaves; if she is frenetic, my sense of her heartbeat will only be enhanced by the sound of cars rushing by her as she jogs. And, of course, if I’m going to be told about her shoes — which, I must confess, don’t interest me much as objects — they had better reveal something about her character.

Few good short story writers would think to take up space with unrevealing details, but even very good novelists frequently get bogged down in description for its own sake. (See the Idol list for abundant evidence that this is not the best strategy on page 1 of a book.) But if the description is peppered with revealing details, it is hard for it to feel extraneous to what is going on.

For instance, I could tell you that the café I currently inhabit is brightly-lit, with windows stretching from the height or my knee nearly up to the ceiling, small, round tables with red-varnished wooden chairs, and a pastry case full of goodies. A young and attractive barista is making the espresso machine emit a high-pitched squeal. I just held the door for a woman on crutches who was wearing a yellow rain slicker and a green scarf, and four of us here are working on laptops.

That description is accurate, certainly, but what did it tell you as a reader? I could be in virtually any café anywhere in the world; it is probably raining outside, but my reader does not know for sure; you don’t even know the sex of the barista.

But what if I told you that in order to work, I have had to turn my back to the glass doors that keep sending fog-chilled blasts past my skirt as patrons shed their coats in the doorway? That gives you both seasonal detail and information about me: I am concentrating; I am wearing a skirt despite the cold weather; I am not expecting to meet anyone I know here. Or that the barista’s three-day stubble reminds me of a Miami Vice-loving guy I dated in college? That both describes the guy in my peripheral vision and tells the reader my age, in rough terms. Or that I am bouncing my leg up and down at roughly the same rate as the fresh-faced girl in sweats across the room, scowling into a sociology text book? That conveys both caffeine consumption and the fact that I’m near a university.

Get the picture?

Now how much more do you feel you are here with me if I add that the air is redolent with the smell of baking cheese bread, the oxtail soup of the flat-shoed retiree at the table next to me, and the acrid bite of vinegar wafting from her companion’s I’m-on-a-diet salad? What if I mention that I have been moving my cell phone closer and closer to me for the past 15 minutes, lest the clanking of cups, nearby discussions of Nancy Pelosi and the war in Iraq, and vintage Velvet Underground drown out my call to flee this place? What about if I tell you that the pony-tailed busboy currently unburdening the overflowing wall of meticulously-labeled recycling bins — a receptacle for glass, one for plastic, one for newspaper, one for cardboard, one for compostable products — a dead ringer for Bud Cort, of Harold & Maude fame, put down his volume of Hegel to attend to his duties, and ran his beringed hand across the Don Johnson clone’s back as he passed?

All of these details help set a sense of place, and of me as a character (rather nervous, I notice from these details; must be the coffee) within it.

All right, I’ve outstayed the beret-wearing finger-lover, so I am going to venture out onto the street now. My call may come at any minute, and I probably should not drink any more coffee.

Keep up the good work!

PS to Matthew: I answered your (very good) question via that same June comment; I try to respond to questions actually on the site as much as possible, so folks later reading those posts may see the response, too. I’m going to try to write a blog on the subject next week, too, though — I suspect that you’re not the only one in that particular boat!

Conference-gleaned wisdom, Part XI: More technicalities

My flight has been delayed for an hour (due to leprechauns? Wing demons? The flight crew’s suddenly having been spirited off to Oz? No explanation appears to be forthcoming), so I am taking advantage of the unexpected time to write to you. Now that all of my liquid possessions are safely trapped in the now-mandatory clear plastic bags (since airline security is now apparently being handled by the Glad corporation), my feet are clad in seasonally-inappropriate shoes (because heaven forfend one should hold up the security line to deal with anything with laces), and having successfully wrestled with the question of whether to check the 50-year-old phone I needed to bring along for my interview (don’t ask) or carry it on, I am happy to use my remaining time in limbo to revisit more of the Idol rejection reasons (see my post of October 31).

By the way, I’ve been doing the dialogue experiment I suggested to you yesterday here in the airport, and I was mistaken in telling you that 99.9% of overheard conversations would not work in print. Based on today’s sample, I radically overestimated how much would be useable.

Which brings me to #32 on the Idol list, real-life incidents are not always believable on paper. I’ve blogged about this fairly recently (see my post for September 6, for instance, and a series in the second week of October), so I’m not going to dwell too long upon why any writer who includes a true incident within a fictional story needs to make ABSOLUTELY certain that the importation is integrated seamlessly into the novel. Or do more than nudge you gently about making sure that the narrative in including such incidents is not biased to the point that it will tip the reader off that this IS a real-life event. I’m not even going to remind you that, generally speaking, for such importations to work, the author needs to do quite a bit of character development for the real characters — which most real-character importers neglect to do, because they, after all, know precisely who they mean.

No, today, I’m going to concentrate on the other side of including the real, the way in which the Idol panelists used it: the phenomenon of including references to current events, pop culture references, etc. in a novel. The advice that utilizing such elements dates your work is older than the typewriter: Louisa May Alcott was warned to be wary about having characters go off to the Civil War, in fact, on the theory that it would be hard for readers born after it to relate to her characters.

Many, many writers forget just how long it takes a book to move from its author’s hands to a shelf in a bookstore: longer than a Congressional term of office, typically, not counting the time it takes to find an agent. Typically, an agent will ask a just-signed author to make revisions upon the book before sending it out, a process that, depending upon the author’s other commitments — like work, sleep, giving birth to quintuplets, what have you — might take a year or more. Then the agent sends out the book to editors, either singly or in a mass submission, and again, months may pass before they say yea or nay. This part of the process can be lengthy.

Even after an editor falls in love with a book, pushes it through the requisite editorial meetings, and makes an offer, it is extraordinarily rare for a book to hit the shelves less than a year after the contract is signed. Often, it is longer.

Think how dated a pop culture reference might become in that time. Believe me, agents and editors are VERY aware of just how quickly zeitgeist elements can fade — so seeing them in a manuscript sends up a barrage of warning flares. (Yes, even references to September 11th.)

About five years ago, I was asked to edit a tarot-for-beginners book. I have to say, I was a trifle reluctant to do it, even before I read it, because frankly, there are a LOT of books out there on the tarot, so the author was shooting for an already glutted market niche. (If memory serves, tarot books were at the time on the Idiot’s Guide to Getting Published list of books NOT to write.) So this book was heading for agents and editors with one strike already against it.

The second strike was a superabundance of references to the TV shows of the year 2001. In an effort to be hip, its author had chosen to use characters on the then-popular HBO show SEX & THE CITY to illustrate certain points. “In five years,” I said, “this will make your book obsolete. Could you use less time-bound examples?”

The author’s response can only be characterized as pouting. “But the show’s so popular! Everyone knows who these characters are!”

She stuck to her guns so thoroughly that I eventually declined to edit the book; I referred her elsewhere, and eventually, about a year and a half later, she managed to land an agent, who did manage, within the course of another year, to sell the book to a small publisher. The book came out at almost exactly the time as SEX & THE CITY went off the air.

The book did not see a second printing.

My point is, be careful about incorporating current events, especially political ones. Yes, I know: you can’t walk into a bookstore without seeing scads and scads of NF books on current events. Take a gander at the author bios of these books: overwhelmingly, current events books are written by journalists and the professors whom they interview. It is extraordinarily difficult to find a publisher for such a book unless the writer has a significant platform. Being President of Pakistan, for instance, or reporting on Hurricane Katrina for CNN.

One last point about pop or political culture references: if you do include them, double-check to make sure that you’ve spelled all of the names correctly. This is a mistake I see constantly as a contest judge, and it’s usually enough to knock an entry out of finalist consideration, believe it or not. Seriously. I once saw a quite-good memoir dunned for referring to a rap band as Run-DMV.

Half of you didn’t laugh at that, right? That joke would have slayed ’em in 1995. See what I mean about how fast pop culture references get dated?

Okay, my plane has finally arrived, so I am going to sign off now. Happy trails, everyone, and keep up the good work!

Conference-gleaned wisdom, Part X: Let’s have a little chat

Pardon my missing a post yesterday, please — things are a trifle hectic chez Mini at the moment. I’m being interviewed for a Latin American documentary about Philip K. Dick at the end of this week. I’m told that the Dick estate has refused to allow the documentarians access to even photographs of Philip, much less interviews. Since documentaries, like other movies, rely heavily upon visual stimuli, there has been a last-minute scramble to try to find filmable objects. Complicating the process: literally everyone affiliated with my family is and was camera-shy, and PKD biographers, biographer-wannabes, and fans have been filching snapshots from the family albums throughout my entire lifetime.

So to those of you who are planning on being famous after your deaths: document, document, document. Then seal the evidence someplace safe. Your biographers will thank you, and so will your documentarians.

Now, you’d think that, given that I wrote an entire memoir about my relationship with Philip (and no, still no news from my publisher about whether he’s made a final decision about going through with publishing it or not. I honestly haven’t been kidding when I’ve said that decisions within the industry are often made at a rate that would make an evolutionary biologist wildly impatient), I would be used to be interviewed on the subject, but actually, for most of my life, I have been actively avoiding being interviewed by Philophiles.

So this will be the first time I have ever spoken on camera about him, believe it or not. It’s a tad intimidating to talk in public, even in Spanish (okay, so I’ll be dubbed), on my personal experience: as long-term readers of this blog will recall, when I tried to write about it, the Dick estate’s attorneys threatened my publisher. Early and often.

So think good thoughts for me between now and Monday, please. I’ll try to log on and pass along details from the front, of course, but I’m not sure how often I’ll be able to get away to post. Therefore, I’m going to be covering a LOT of conceptual ground today, to give you lots to think about while I’m on hiatus.

Dialogue came in for quite a lot of lambasting on the Idol first-page rejection reasons list, didn’t it? (If you’re unfamiliar with this list, please see my post of October 31.) To refresh your memory, here are all of the dialogue-related quibbles:

17. The characters talk about something (a photo, a person, the kitchen table) for more than a line without describing it, creating false suspense.
25. The first lines were dialogue. (To be fair, only one of the agents, Daniel Lazar, seemed to have a problem with this.)
26. When the first lines are dialogue, the speaker is not identified.
30. Overuse of dialogue, in the name of realism.
51. What I call Hollywood narration — when characters tell one another things they already know. (They don’t call it by my term for it, but they don’t like it, either.)
52. The tag lines are more revealing than the dialogue. (The example used: “She squawked.”)

I’ve dealt with the first three objections in previous posts, but it’s worth noting that a full 8.1% — roughly an eighth — of the Idol objections were dialogue-based, more than on any other single technical aspect. The moral, I think: be very, very sure that any dialogue you use on page 1 is flawlessly executed, scintillating in content, and absolutely necessary. Because, as we may see, agents seem to be a trifle touchy about it.

Actually, while I’m at it, I’m going to add a quibble of my own: too many tag lines. For those of you who don’t know, a tag line is the “he said” part of the dialogue, and a healthy percentage of the industry was trained to believe that in good writing, (a) in two-person dialogue, tag lines are usually disposable, thus (b) writing with fewer tag lines tends to be better than writing with more, and (c) the vast majority of the time, “said” is a perfectly adequate word to describe a human being speaking.

(c), obviously, underlies the critique of “she squawked.”

While, equally obviously, the degree to which a particular speaking verb is problematic varies from reader to reader, #52 (the tag lines are more revealing than the dialogue), is a fairly industry-wide objection. Most of us have had English teachers who subscribe to this school of thought, the type who rapped us on the knuckles if we dared to use an adverb in a tag line, because, well, Hemingway never would have done it, and if the dialogue itself were descriptive enough, no one would need to know that Charles said it laconically.

I’ve posted enough, I think, on the issue of dialogue-only scenes, where the reader isn’t given one iota of hint about how certain things are said or what is going on in the room, for my regular readers to know my opinion on bare-bones dialogue. But over-used tag lines are something different: trust me, if your job were reading hundreds of pages of prose every single day, unnecessary verbiage would be likely to start to annoy you FAST. To try to show you why you might want to go a little light on the tag lines (and on the squawking, while we’re at it) on page 1, here’s a fairly average chunk of dialogue:

“It’s about time you got home,” Andrew said snappishly. “Your soup is ice-cold.”

Joanna sighed, “I told you that I was going to have to work late. It’s inventory time at Poultryco, honey, and as you know, I am the barnyard manager. Who is going to count the geese, if not me?”

“Like that’s hard work,” Andrew snorted. “The dumb clucks just sit there.”

“No, actually,” Joanna said priggishly. “Geese are quite aggressive. They’re territorial, in fact. Why, don’t you remember just last year, when young Jeremy Faulkner was pecked to death in the granary?”

“Yes, of course, I remember,” Andrew huffed. “I sang the Ave Maria at his funeral, right? You know I’m the only tenor in the local Methodist church choir who can hit that top C. But that doesn’t explain why you need to stay out until eleven p.m.”

“We have to wait until after dark,” Joanna moaned, “until the birds are asleep.”

“We?” Andrew pounced. “Don’t tell me that good-looking ruffian Dario Blaine is working for you again. Why, every husband here in Karaoke City knows his reputation with the ladies. He’s the Don Juan of chicken pluckers.”

Now, this excerpt would be especially annoying to a tag line minimalist, as it is reflects a quite common writerly misconception, that the mere fact of enclosing phrases within quotation marks is not signal enough to the reader that a character is speaking the words out loud, rather than just thinking them. To adherents of this theory, the mere idea of not both identifying every speaker and stating specifically that he is, in fact, saying these words out loud is a one-way ticket to anarchy.

However, to most folks in the industry, it just seems repetitive — or, to put it in the language of the biz, time-wasting. Remember, our over-worked and under-dated agency screener has to write a summary of the story of any submission she recommends her superior reads; she wants you to cut to the chase.

So what’s the writer to do, just cut out all but the absolutely essential tag lines, in order that her first page would read 42 seconds faster? Let’s take a gander at what would happen:

“It’s about time you got home,” Andrew snapped. “Your soup is ice-cold.”

Joanna sighed. “I told you that I was going to have to work late. It’s inventory time at Poultryco, honey, and as you know, I am the barnyard manager. Who is going to count the geese, if not me?”

“Like that’s hard work. The dumb clucks just sit there.”

“No, actually, geese are quite aggressive. They’re territorial, in fact. Why, don’t you remember just last year, when young Jeremy Faulkner was pecked to death in the granary?”

“Yes, of course I remember. I sang the Ave Maria at his funeral, right? You know I’m the only tenor in the local Methodist church choir who can hit that top C. But that doesn’t explain why you need to stay out until eleven p.m.”

“We have to wait until after dark, until the birds are asleep.”

“We? Don’t tell me that good-looking ruffian Dario Blaine is working for you again. Why, every husband here in Karaoke City knows his reputation with the ladies. He’s the Don Juan of chicken pluckers.”

A trifle sparse, admittedly, but there isn’t any serious question about who is speaking when, is there? Personally, I would opt for breaking up the dialogue a bit by adding a few character-revealing descriptive elements that are not speech-related, such as the facts that Andrew is wearing a giant panda costume and the soup is cream of bamboo. (Rather changes your view of Joanna’s tardiness, doesn’t it? Would you rush home to that, particularly if you knew that every Thursday’s dessert was Pinecone Flambé?)

Do I hear some of you whimpering impatiently out there, hands in the air, to tell me what else is wrong with this chunk of dialogue? The de-tag lined version made it even more apparent, didn’t it?

Sorry, the Idol agents beat you to it: #51. when characters tell one another things they already know, so that the reader will be filled in on necessary background. Those of you familiar with this blog already have a name for this phenomenon, Hollywood narration; in the science fiction/fantasy community, it also has a name, “So as I was telling you, Bob…”

Either way, it is logically indefensible. It is absurd to the point of impossibility that Andrew does not know his wife’s job title or where she works, just as it is exceptionally improbable that he would have forgotten Jeremy Faulkner’s traumatic death, or that Joanna would have forgotten either the funeral or her husband’s participation in the church choir. And don’t even get me started on ol’ Dario’s local reputation.

More importantly for our purposes here, Hollywood narration tends to annoy the dickens out of your garden-variety agency screener. Not merely because it is so common — and believe me, it is: TV and movie scripts abound with this sort of dialogue, which in turn influences both how people speak and what writers hear — but because it’s kind of an underhanded way of introducing backstory. In a script, it’s understandable, as film has only sound and sight to tell a story. But a book has all kinds of narrative possibilities, right?

There was a sterling example of a VERY common subgenus of Hollywood narration read at the Idol session. It was apparently a mystery that opened with the mother of a recently-recovered kidnap victim badgering the detective who was handling the case to find the kidnapper, pronto. My, but Mom was informative: within the course of roughly ten lines of back-and-forth dialogue, she filled in the detective on the entire background of the case. Because, naturally, as the primary investigator, he would have no recollection of anything associated with it. (Maybe he was suffering from amnesia; having heard only the first page, I couldn’t tell you.) And, equally naturally, she insisted upon being brought in to collaborate on the investigation.

The Idol panelists’ reaction to this piece was fascinating, because every time one of them started to wind down his or her critique of it, another found yet more reason to object to it. Among the objections:

*The characters are telling one another things they already know.
*The opening scene was almost entirely dialogue, without giving the reader a sense of place or character.
*This scene has been in a LOT of books and movies. (Hey, blame Dashiell Hammett.)
*”I’ve never understood why third parties in mysteries always want to investigate the crimes themselves.” (I’m guessing that the agent who said this doesn’t represent a whole lot of cozy mysteries.)
*(After a slight lull in the bloodbath.) “If the kid is back safely after the kidnapping, why should we care?”

Brutal, eh, for less than a single page of dialogue? If you learn nothing else from this series, please take away this one thing: agency screeners virtually never cut any writer any slack. That opening page needs to SCREAM excellence. So it would really behoove you to check your dialogue-based opening scenes very, very carefully to make sure that they are saying PRECISELY what you want them to say about you as a writer.

Where this becomes most problematic, of course, is in very realistic dialogue — which brings me to #30, over-use of dialogue, in the name of realism. We writers pride ourselves on our ears for dialogue, don’t we? A gift for reproducing on the page what people really sound like is highly revered, in our circles. It’s an important part of characterization, right?

So why do some of our best, most true-to-life dialogue scenes make agency screeners yawn? Well, most real-life dialogue is pretty boring when reproduced on a page. Think about it: when was the last time you read a trial transcript for FUN?

If you doubt this, try a little experiment. Take a pad and paper to a public venue — a crowded bus, a busy restaurant, that tedious holiday potluck your boss always insists will boost company morale, but only makes it apparent that the company is too cheap to spring for caterers — pick a couple of conversers, and jot down everything they say for a couple of minutes. No fair eavesdropping on a couple having an illicit affair or a duo plotting the overthrow of the city council, now — pick an ordinary conversation.

Then go home and type it up — dialogue only, mind you, not your embellishment upon it. Just as you would in a novel, take out any references to current TV shows, movies, or political events, because that would date the manuscript. (In many cases, this will eliminate the entire conversation.) With a straight a face as you can, hand the result to one of your trusted first readers. Say that you are trying out a new style of dialogue, and ask if the scene works.

99.9% of the time, it won’t.

Why? Well, real-life dialogue tends to be very repetitious, self-referential, and, frankly, not something that would tend to move a plot along. If you’re in conversation with someone with whom you speak quite frequently, you will use shared metaphors that might not make sense to an outside observer, but you’re not very likely to be discussing anything crucial to the plot of your life over coffee with a coworker.

And even if you ARE, unlike a conversation in a book, where much matter can be compressed into a single exchange, there’s just not a whole lot of incentive in real life for the stakes to be high enough to settle major life decisions within just a couple of minutes’ worth of highly relevant dialogue. Nor are you likely to import lovely language or trenchant symbolism that enlightens the reader about the human condition. It’s not even all that likely to be entertaining to a third party. It’s just talk, usually, something people do to lubricate relationships and fill time.

I’m all for relationship-lubrication on the page, but time-filling can be deadly, especially on page 1 of a book. Remember: move it along. Remember, too, that no writer in the world gets to stand next to a screener, agent, or editor during a first read, saying, “But it really happened that way!”

In a submission, it’s always good to bear in mind that even the readers of the most serious books in the world are generally interested in being entertained. So entertain them.

And, naturally, keep up the good work!

Conference-gleaned wisdom, Part IX: why so tense?

No time for small talk today — I’m still plowing through the list of Idol first-page rejection reasons (please see my post of October 31, if you do not know what that means), and I have a lot of ground to cover today. Because this is the day, my friends, that we get into the real nitty-gritty: the technical authorial choices. First up on the roster: tense.

So fasten your seatbelts, campers; it’s going to be a bumpy night.

Only two of the Idol rejection reasons concerned authorial tense choices: #53, the writing switching tenses for no apparent reason, and #71, “Why is this written in the present tense?” The first, as any agency screener will tell you, is surprisingly common in submissions, for reasons unfathomable to them.

I have a pretty good guess, however, so let me take a crack at it: many, many books begin their sojourns on this terrestrial sphere written in the present tense, only to be changed to the past tense later on, when the author realizes some of the practical difficulties of perpetually speaking in the present. And visa versa. Sometimes, writers just do not remember to go back and change every single verb. Thus, unintentionally, quite a lot of submissions appear to be written in two tenses, rather than one.

Which means, ultimately, that unexplained tense switches are very frequently not deliberate choices, but proofreading problems — and ones that your word processor’s spelling and grammar checker is unlikely to catch, since it concentrates at the word and sentence level. Even — and I tremble to tell you this, but it’s often true — if two of the tenses fall within a single sentence.

“Wait!” I hear a bevy of suddenly pale souls out there crying. “What do you mean, my grammar checker won’t catch tense problems? Isn’t that what it’s there to do?”

Counterintuitive, isn’t it? But long experience has led me to conclude that on the whole, the Microsoft Corporation just does not care very much about whether the first and fourteenth sentences of your novel are consistently tensed, or even the first and the second. Yet another reason, in case you needed still more, that computerized spell- and grammar-checkers alone are not adequate replacements for good old human proofreaders.

Don’t believe me? Okay, I’m writing this in Word; let’s see what happens when I start to write a story with severe tense problems. I have to say, I’m not sanguine about this experiment, since my grammar checker routinely begs me to use the wrong form of there, their, and they’re and frowns upon every single use of a semicolon, apparently on general principle, but hey, I’m open to being mistaken about this. Here goes:

Jane threw up on her date, Stan, who backs away in horror. It was a cold, clear, moonlit night, ideal for dating. Yet Jane is sad, not because she is drinking so much, per se, but because Stan soon will be so plying her with alcohol that she will no longer have been able to tell the difference between the past, present, and future. The realization made her weep all the harder. Stan weeps as well.

Okay, now I’m running this paragon of purple prose through my very up-to-date Word grammar checker… which, you will no doubt be thrilled to hear, did not raise a single objection to the preceding paragraph. It did, however, raise all kinds of red flags about my correct use of the word “which” in my last sentence.

I rest my case. Proofread VERY carefully for unintentional tense switches, particularly if you are writing in the present tense.

Tense lapses are a problem very difficult to catch when proofreading on a small computer screen, too, or indeed, any computer screen at all, since backlit screens tend to make all of us skim. Long-term visitors to this site, shout along with me now: there is just no substitute for reading your work IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD before you send it out. Yes, it is a touch wasteful of paper (you can always use the back side to print future drafts, right?), but no other method is as likely to catch rhythmic, continuity, and yes, tense problems.

Do I hear a bit of disgruntled murmuring out there at the idea that first-page tense switches could happen only inadvertently? Come on, speak up. No? Too shy after the Idol barrage?

Okay, then, I’ll suggest a logical possibility: the narrative could be switching between the present and the past deliberately, perhaps because the protagonist is having a flashback, or because she is not very well grounded in present reality for reasons that do not bode well for her future mental health. Maybe she is sitting in a time machine, hopping around between the era of the dinosaurs and the reign of Charles I. Or perhaps — and this is one I have seen quite often — the book concerns a traumatic event, recalled in the present tense (and usually the first person as well), so the reader will get a brief flash of it before launching into the past-tense narrative…

All right, I can feel in my bones that there are dozens of you jumping up and down at this point, hands in the air, begging to say why any of these tactics is likely to get a writer in trouble on the first page of a submission. Go ahead, shout out the answer.

Yes, you’re right: they all COULD be construed as tricking the reader, a practice we established a few days back as something the average agent admires about as much as the bubonic plague. So while this is a technique that we’ve all seen used, and used well, by successfully published authors, using it within the first couple of pages of your submission is inherently risky.

Because this is such a common authorial choice for page one, allow me emphasize just how many of the Idol rules such an opening would break, so you will get a clear sense of HOW big a risk it is. To be precise, it would run directly afoul of rejection reasons #27 (the book opened with a flashback, rather than what was going on now) and #54 (the action is told out of temporal order). Often, such openings also stumble over #10 (the opening contained the phrase or implication, “This can’t be happening.”) and #11 (the opening contained the phrase or implication, “And then I woke up.”) as well. Then, too, unexplained switching back and forth could be construed as #20 (non-organic suspense, created by some salient fact being kept from the reader for a long time), or dismissed quickly as #34 (confusing).

In other words: you can certainly do it, if you are up for attempting a stylistic high-wire act, but the chances of tumbling are awfully high. On the plus side, if you can pull off a standing triple back flip from 30 feet in the air, it is going to be a heck of a lot more impressive than doing it while both your feet begin and end on solid ground, isn’t it?

#71, “Why is this written in the present tense?”, comes as a surprise to a lot of writers. “But the present tense makes the action more immediate!” they cry. “It makes emotion pop off the page in the now! The reader gets to experience what is happening right along with the protagonist!”

Actually, there’s not a whole lot of evidence that readers DO necessarily find a well-written present-tense scene any more immediate than a well-written one in the past tense. Honestly — ask anyone in the industry. It’s the quality and tension of the writing that keeps a reader involved, they will assure you, not the tense. And I hate to be the one to tell you this, but there are plenty of industry readers who believe, rightly or wrongly, that use of the present tense is a sneaky writerly subterfuge intended to cover up pacing and plotting problems in the text.

Now, obviously, this is not particularly fair; as we all know, many writers select the present tense for perfectly valid stylistic reasons, not the least important of which is that they just think their prose sounds better that way. However, occasionally, the agents and editors who dislike the present tense have a point: writing in the present tense is inherently prone to some rather perplexing timing problems, especially if flashbacks are also told in the present tense. (Actually, it’s not all that uncommon for a story to be told in the past tense, with the flashbacks in the present, to emphasize them as thought. Three guesses how well any of the agents on the Idol panel would have liked THAT.)

How do you deal with memory, for instance, or sensations in the present that remind the protagonist or narrator of something in the past? How do you differentiate between what happened five minutes ago and what happened five years ago? And what about ongoing feelings — true yesterday, true today, and probably true tomorrow, but subject to fluctuations throughout — for which French, say, has a perfectly useable tense, but in English requires a bit more finagling?

Human beings are complex creatures, I think; in a sense, we think of ourselves in the past, present, and future fairly continuously. In practical terms, this means that conditionals, quite frankly, can become a nightmare of verbiage in the present tense, even when the same sentiment is fairly straightforward when expressed in the past.

For example, in the past, it is easy enough to say that Lauren might have done X, had not event Y occurred while ongoing condition Z was going on. Nothing too convoluted about that, right? But look how much harder it is to explain poor Lauren’s state of mind in the present: Right now, Lauren is inclined to do X. However, between the time she initially felt that way (which is, technically, already the past by this point, right?) and when she could actually put thought into action to do X, event Y occurred, making her think twice about doing thing X. It was not just Y occurring, though, that influenced her in that split second: it was also the fact that condition Z was in play at the same time, having presumably started prior to either the moment when Lauren thought X was a good idea AND the moment when Y’s intrusion convinced her that it was not, and continued into the future after both Y’s occurrence and Lauren’s response to it.

Kind of exhausting, isn’t it? After you’ve read a few thousand manuscripts, you might well start anticipating running into those problems as soon as you read a first sentence in the present tense. You might, in fact, fall into the unfair habit of automatically regarding present-tense manuscripts as needing more editing on the way to publication. And if you were the type of person who broke out in hives at the prospect of having even 32 consecutive seconds of your life taken up by an extra line or two in a query letter, you might, unfortunately, decide to save yourself some trouble by regarding being written in the present tense as a strike against a book.

This is not to say that you should not write in the present tense, if you feel it serves your story and your style best. Most emphatically not. It does, however, mean that it would be prudent to make sure that the first few pages of a present tense submission are ultra-clean, ultra-logical — and that they demonstrate some very tangible payoff for the work’s being written in the present tense, rather than the past. A payoff, ideally, that will make even a prejudiced anti-present-tenser sit up straight and cry, “Why, have I been wrong for all these years? Here is a perfectly marvelous outcome of using the present tense!”

Remember what I said earlier about high wire acts?

So if you favor writing in the present tense, it might be a good idea to read your opening over and ask yourself: “Okay, absent reasons of immediacy, is it clear here what purpose is being served by this tense choice, just in case my submission falls under the eyes of a present tense-hater?”

And remember, that answer should be pretty apparent on the page, if it is going to help your work get past the screener. No matter how fine your off-page justification is, it will not help if your submission gets rejected before you get a chance to talk with the agent about your work.

I had hoped to get to dialogue today, but I seem to have gotten carried away by the tense issue. More tomorrow, and in the meantime, keep up the good work!

Conference-gleaned wisdom, Part VIII: those pesky talking corpses

The more I go through the Idol list of rejection reasons (if you do not know what I am talking about, please see my post of October 31), the more it strikes me: yes, agency screeners read a lot of submissions in a day, but how hard would it be to scrawl a single sentence fragment in the margins at the point where they stopped reading, so the submitting writer would know why it was rejected? Or even just make a mark on the page, so the writer would know where the screener stopped reading? Heck, since most of the reasons are very common, they could just place the appropriate sticker on each page, or invest in a few rubber stamps: “Show, don’t tell,” or “Where’s the conflict?” At least then we’d know.

But, hard as it may be to believe, not everyone in the industry follows my advice… So the best I can do is to try to help you insulate your submissions against the most frequent complaints. Back to the Idol list. Today, I want to concentrate on the rejection reasons that would make the most sense for agency screeners to rubber-stamp upon submissions: these are the common technical problems that are relatively easy for the writer to fix.

If she knows about them, that is.

My favorite easy-fix on the list is #50, an adult book that has a teenage protagonist in the opening scene is often mistakenly assumed to be YA; this is funny, of course, because even a cursory walk though the fiction section of any major bookstore would reveal that a hefty percentage of adult fiction IS about teenage protagonists.

Why is this a problem at the submission stage? Well, in an agency that does not represent YA, the book is likely to be shunted quickly to the reject pile; there is no quicker rejection than the one reserved for types of books an agency does not handle. (That’s one reason that they prefer query letters to contain the book category in the first paragraph, FYI: it enables agency screeners to reject queries about types of books they do not represent without reading the rest of the letter.) And in an agency that represents both, the submission would be read with a different target market in mind, and thus judged by the wrong rules.

“Wait just a cotton-picking minute!” I here some of you out there murmuring. “This isn’t my fault; it’s the screener’s. All anyone at an agency would have to do to tell the difference is to take a look at the synopsis they asked me to include, and…”

Stop right there, oh murmurers, because you’re about to go down a logical wrong path. If you heed nothing else from today’s lesson, my friends, hark ye to this: NO ONE AT AN AGENCY OR PUBLISHING HOUSE EVER READS THE SYNOPSIS PRIOR TO READING THE SUBMISSION, at least not at the same sitting. So it is NEVER safe to assume that the screener deciding whether your first page works or not is already familiar with your premise.

Why is this the case? Well, for the same reason that many aspects of the submission process work against the writer: limited time. That screener needs to figure out whether the submission in front of her is a compelling story, true, but she also needs to be able to determine whether the writing is good AND the style appropriate to the subject matter. An adult style and vocabulary in a book pitched at 13-year-olds, obviously, would send up some red flags in her mind.

So, given that she has 50 submissions in front of her, and she needs to get through them all before lunch, is she more likely to (a) devote two minutes to reading the enclosed synopsis before she turns her attention to the writing itself, or (b) only read the synopses for the submissions she reads to the end?

If you didn’t pick (b), I would really urge you to sign up for a good, practical writing class or attend a market-minded conference as soon as humanly possible. A crash course in just how competitive the writing game is would be really helpful. From the point of view of a screener at a major agency, two minutes is a mighty long time to devote to a brand-new author.

I know; it’s sickening, and it’s disrespectful to us. But knowing the conditions under which your baby is likely to be read is crucial to understanding how to make it as rejection-proof as possible. For those of you who write about teenagers for the adult market, I have a bold suggestion: make sure that your title and style in the opening reflect a sensibility that is unquestionably adult, so your work is judged by the right rules.

This can be genuinely difficult if your narrator is a teenager — which brings me to #49 on the Idol list, narration in a kid’s voice that does not come across as age-appropriate. (For the record, both an agent who represents solely adult fiction and one who represents primarily YA noted this as a problem.) This issue crops up ALL the time in books aimed at adults that are about children; as a general rule of thumb, if your protagonist is a pre-Civil War teenaged farmhand, he should not speak as if he graduated from Dartmouth in 1992. Nor should a narrator who is a 6-year-old girl sport the vocabulary of an English Literature professor.

Usually, though, the problem is subtler. Often, teenage protagonists are portrayed from an adult’s, or even a parent’s, point of view, creating narrators who are hyper-aware that hormones are causing their mood swings or character behavior that is apparently motivated (from the reader’s point of view, anyway) solely by age. But teenagers, by and large, do not think of themselves as moody, impossible, or even resentful; most of them, when asked, will report that they are just trying to get along in situations where they have responsibilities but few rights and little say over what they do with their time and energy.

And yet screeners are constantly seeing openings where teenage girls practice bulimia simply because they want to fit in, where teenage boys act like James Dean in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, where teenage characters flounce off to their rooms to sulk. Yes, teenagers do these things, undoubtedly, but in novels, these things have been reported so often that they come across as clichés. And teenage characters and narrators who diagnose these behaviors as an adult would are accordingly rife.

Also, agency screeners and editorial assistants tend to be really young: they weren’t teenagers all that long ago. Sometimes, they are still young enough to resent having been pigeonholed, and if your manuscript is sitting in front of them, what better opportunity to express that resentment than rejecting it is likely to present itself?

So do be careful, and make sure you are showing the screener something she won’t have seen before. Not to give away the candy store, but the best opening with a teenage protagonist I ever saw specifically had the girl snap out of an agony of self-doubt (which could easily have degenerated into cliché) into responsible behavior in the face of a crisis on page 1. To submission-wearied professional eyes, reading a manuscript where the teenaged protagonist had that kind of emotional range was like jumping into a swimming pool on a hot day: most refreshing.

One of the most common ways to set up a teenage scene in the past brings us to reason #63, the opening includes quotes from song lyrics. Yes, this can be an effective way to establish a timeframe without coming out and saying,
“It’s 1982,” but it is also very, very overused. I blame this tactic’s use in movies and TV: in the old days, soundtracks used to contain emotionally evocative incidental music, but in recent years, the soundtrack for any movie set in the 20th-century past is a virtual replica of the K-Tel greatest hits of (fill in timeframe), as if no one in any historical period ever listed to anything but top 40.

I’m fairly confident, for instance, that there was no period in American history where dance bands played only the Charleston, where every radio played nothing but AMERICAN PIE, or every television was tuned to THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW. Yes, even when Elvis or the Beatles appeared on it. We’re creative people — can’t we mix it up a bit more?

Other than ubiquity, there are other reasons that agents and their screeners tend to frown upon the inclusion of song lyrics in the opening pages of a book. Unless the song is within the public domain — and the last time I checked, HAPPY BIRTHDAY still wasn’t, so we are talking about a long lead time here — the publisher will need to get permission from whoever owns the rights to the song in order to reproduce it. So song lyrics on page one automatically mean more work for the editor.

Also, one of the benefits of setting a sentiment to music is that it is easier to sound profound in song than on the printed page. No disrespect to song stylists, but if you or I penned some of those lines, we would be laughed out of our writers’ groups. For this reason, song lyrics taken out of context and plopped onto the page often fall utterly flat — especially if the screener is too young to have any personal associations with that song.

#45, it is unclear whether the narrator is alive or dead, started cropping up on a lot of agents’ pet peeve lists immediately after THE LOVELY BONES came out. Ghostly narrators began wandering into agencies with a frequency unseen since the old TWILIGHT ZONE series was influencing how fantasy was written in North America on a weekly basis. And wouldn’t you know it, the twist in many of these submissions turns out to be that the reader doesn’t learn that the narrator is an unusually chatty corpse until late in the book, or at any rate after the first paragraph of the first page.

Remember what I was saying the other day about agents not liking to feel tricked by a book? Well…

I need to sign off for today — I’m off to have dinner with a sulky teenager who prattles on about peer pressure, a child who speaks as though she is about to start collecting Social Security any day now, and a fellow who may or may not have kicked the bucket half a decade ago. Honestly, if agents and editors would only recognize that we writers are merely holding, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature, all of our lives would be so much easier, wouldn’t it?

Keep up the good work!

Conference-gleaned wisdom, Part VII: making your submission hangover-proof

Excuse my late posting, everybody: I have been in one editing or writing meeting or another ALL day. So for this evening, I will tackle the set of Idol rejection reasons (see post of October 31 for the full list and rationale) that would most naturally occur to anyone doodling on her agenda through the fourth meeting of a very long day: the agents’ euphemisms for being bored by a submission.

I know, I know — this one couldn’t possibly apply to any of MY readers, all of whom are as scintillating as scintillating can be, both on and off paper. But believe it or not, agents, editors, and their respective screeners routinely report finding many submissions yawn-inducing.

Thus that latte the agency screener in my examples keeps chugging, regardless of the danger to her oft-burnt tongue.

Yet, interestingly enough, when one hears agents giving advice at conferences about how to guide manuscripts through the submission process relatively unscathed, the rather sensible admonition, “don’t bore me” is very seldom heard. Partially, I think, this is due to people in the industry’s reluctance to admit in public just how little they read of most manuscripts before rejecting them: as those of you who attended the Idol session know, the average is less than a page.

And I can easily imagine how an agent might feel a tad sheepish about admitting in front of a group of total strangers that she has an attention span that would embarrass most kindergarteners. Or that on certain mornings, the length of time it takes to bore a screener is substantially shorter than others, for reasons entirely beyond the writer’s control.

They don’t call it the city that never sleeps for nothing, you know. But heaven forfend that an agent should march into a conference and say, “Look, I’m going to level with you. If I’m dragging into the office on three hours of sleep, your first page is going to have to be awfully darned exciting for me even to contemplate turning to the second. Do yourself a favor, and send me an eye-opening opening.”

No, no, the industry logic goes, if the reader is bored, it must be the fault of the manuscript — or, more often, with problems that they see in one manuscript after another, all day long. (“Where is that nameless intern with my COFFEE?”) As it turns out, while the state of boredom is generally defined as a period with little variation, agents have been able to come up with many, many reasons that manuscripts bore them. Presumably on the same principle as that often-repeated truism about Arctic tribes having many words for different types of snow: to someone not accustomed to observing the variations during the length of a long, long winter, it all kind of looks white and slushy.

Here are the reasons the Idol panel gave (and the numbering is from the initial list of 74 rejection reasons):

7. Not enough happens on page 1
32. Where’s the conflict?
35. The story is not exciting.
36. The story is boring
38. Repetition on pg. 1 (!)
55. Took too many words to tell us what happened.
57. The writing is dull.

Now, to those of us not lucky enough to be reading a hundred submissions a week, that all sounds like snow, doesn’t it? Just imagine being in a job that compels you to come up with concrete criteria to differentiate between “not exciting” and “boring.” Actually, all seven of these actually do mean different things, so let me run through them in order, so you may see why each is specifically annoying, even if you weren’t out dancing until 4 a.m.

All of them are subjective, of course, so their definitions will vary from reader to reader, but here goes.

#7, not enough happens on page 1, is often heard in its alternative incarnation, “The story took too long to start.” Remember earlier in the week, when I urged you to sit in the chair of that burnt-tongued screener, racing through manuscripts, knowing that she will have to write a summary of any story she recommends? Well, think about it for a moment: how affectionate is she likely to feel toward a story that doesn’t give her a solid sense of what the story is about on page 1?

Sound familiar? It should: very frequently, novel openings are slowed by the various descriptive tactics I described a couple of days ago. On behalf of agency screeners, hung over and otherwise, all over Manhattan: please, for the sake of their aching heads and bloodshot eyes, get to the action quickly.

Which brings me to #32, where’s the conflict? This objection has gained more currency since writing gurus have started touting using the old screenwriter’s trick of utilizing a Jungian heroic journey as the story arc of the book. Since within that storyline, the protagonist starts out in the real world, not to get a significant challenge until the end of Act I, many novels put the conflict on hold, so to speak, until the first call comes. (If you’re really interested in learning more about the hero’s journey structure, let me know, and I’ll do a post on it. But there are a LOT of writing advice books out there that will tell you this is the only way to structure a story. Basically, all you need to know for the sake of my argument here is that this ubiquitous advice has resulted in all of us seeing many, many movies where the character learns an important life lesson on page 72 of the script.)

While this is an interesting way to structure a book, it tends to reduce conflict in the opening chapter. Which is interesting, actually, because most people’s everyday lives are simply chock-full of conflict. Even if you want to start out in the normal, everyday world before your protagonist is sucked up into a spaceship to the planet Targ, make an effort to keep that hung-over screener awake: ramp up the interpersonal conflict on page 1.

#35 and #36 — not exciting and boring, respectively — are fairly self-explanatory on their faces, but usually refer to different types of text. A not exciting story is one where the characters are well-drawn and the situation is interesting, but either the stakes are not high enough for the characters or the pace moves too slowly. Basically, having your story called not exciting by an agent is reason to be hopeful: if you tightened it up and made the characters care more about what was going on, it would be compelling.

A boring story, on the other hand, is devoid of any elements that might hold a droopy screener’s interest for more than a line.

Again, I doubt any of MY readers produce boring stories, but it’s always worthwhile to run your submission under a good first reader’s eyes to make sure. The same diagnostic tool can work wonders for a not-exciting opening, too: there’s no better tonic for a low-energy opening than being run by a particularly snappish critique group.

The final three — #38, repetition on page 1, #55, took too many words to tell us what happened, and #57, dull writing — also respond well, in my experience, to input from a good first reader, writing group, or freelance editor. Agents have good reason to avoid redundant manuscripts: editors are specifically trained to regard repetition as a species of minor plague, to be stamped out like vermin with all possible speed. Ditto with excess verbiage: publishing houses issue those people blue pencils for a reason, and they aren’t afraid to use them.

The best way to determine whether your submission has any of these problems is — and longtime readers of this blog, please chant it with me now — to read your submission IN HARD COPY, OUT LOUD. If the page’s vocabulary isn’t broad enough, or if it contains sentences of Dickensian length, believe me, it will be far more evident out loud than on the printed page. Or on your computer screen. Trust me on this one.

Oh, I feel a well-deserved post-meeting nap coming on. Sleep well, everybody, and keep up the good work!

Conference-gleaned wisdom, Part VI: fabricated suspense and other ways to annoy an agency screener without really trying

Sorry I missed posting yesterday — an editing client had a last-minute deadline rush. I’ll do an extra-long post today, the kind that will more than make up for that unpaid overtime your boss made you work last week, to make up for it. (Oh, as if no one ever surfed the net at work. It’s what we Americans get instead of coffee breaks.)

Dealing with other people’s deadlines is just a fact of life in the freelance editing business, and, indeed, in the publishing world in general. Much to the chagrin of plan-ahead people like me, sudden “Oh, my God, I need it by Wednesday!” deadlines abound in the industry. The publishing world is a serious underwriter of overnight shipping.

So it seems like a good time to remind you, my friends: cultivate flexibility. And really fast-typing fingers. You’re going to need both in spades, if you’re going to stick around the industry for the long haul.

After my last post on opening paragraph problems, a reader was kind enough to pass along an amusing factoid, gleaned from a recent Seattle Post-Intelligencer trivia spot: the first sentence of Charles Dickens’ OLIVER TWIST apparently contains 98 words, seven commas, and three semicolons. Somehow, I doubt any of the Idol panelist agents would have made it even halfway through!

Speaking of the list of Idol rejection reasons, let’s get back to it. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about here, please see my post for October 31.) Going over it is providing a lot of useful insights, isn’t it? More than I expected, I have to admit: the fact is, the first pages of our novels are not what writers tend to sit around and talk about when we get together. And all of us would like to think that an agent who liked our pitch or query well enough to request the first 50 pages would have the patience, if not the courtesy, to commit to reading at least the first 5 of those pages…

Ah, well, live and learn. I’m sure that some great cosmic record-keeper in the sky is keeping tabs on which side of the book-producing process is the more courteous. Go, Team Creative!

Today, I would like to concentrate upon the rejection reasons that have to do with how that latte-drinking, lunchtime date-awaiting, radically underpaid agency screener who is only doing this job for a few years to learn the business does and doesn’t get drawn into the story. (Yes, yes, I know: from a writer’s point of view, talking about how much a reader could possibly get pulled into a story between, say, line 2 and line 3 of page 1 is kind of ridiculous. Bear with me here.) Specifically, I would like to introduce you to the oft-cited concept of being pulled out of the story by something in it.

“Wha–?” I hear many of you cry.

Being pulled out of a story is industry-speak for when you are reading along, happily following a story line — and then you encounter something that you do not like. A jarring or anachronistic element, for instance, or an unexplained switch in perspective or tense; it is very much in the eye of the beholder. Whatever instigates it, the reader’s mind starts wandering off the storyline and onto other matters — usually, to the fact that this particular element is annoying and distracting.

Let me give you a concrete example, so you may recognize the phenomenon when you spot it in the wild: “Caleb Williams stood on the still-smoldering deck of Her Majesty’s Ship Wasp, contemplating the ruins of the ship that had sheltered him since he was a cabin boy. What had become of Beatrice, his long-suffering fiancêe? He peered through the smoke, shouting for her, but the dying man clinging to his leg was slowing his search efforts considerably. Impatiently, he drew a Ginsu knife from his Georgio Armani tool belt and slit the man’s throat, so he could move forward unimpeded through the brine seeping up from below. Too soon, however, he tripped over a bloated mass floating before his knees: Beatrice, his heart cried, or just another bos—un’s mate?”

Okay, I know it was subtle, but was there a point where you stopped following Caleb’s saga, wondering for a nanosecond or two what the author was thinking? Yup. In that moment, you were pulled out of the story.

Universally, agents, editors, and their screeners cite being pulled out of the story as a primary reason to stop reading a submission on the spot. This is why, in case you’re curious, agents at conferences so often give the same tired suggestion for evaluating where to revise a novel: “Take a pen,” they advise, “or better yet, have a reader take a pen, and run it vertically down the side of the page as you read. Every time you look up, or your mind starts to wander, make a horizontal line on the page. Then, after you’ve finished reading, go back and revise any spot with a horizontal line.”

Now, in my rather lengthy editing experience, this does not work particularly well as a pre-revision technique; basically, all it spots are boring bits and places where you’re pulled out of the story, and it penalizes those of us who like to read our work in public places (Oh, yeah, like you don’t look up when someone cute walks by) or who live near firehouses. For a good revision, you need to pay attention to more than just flow.

However, it is an incredibly good way to try to see your submission from an agent’s point of view. Instead of drawing the horizontal line, however, just stop reading. Permanently.

Obviously, then, you would probably like to avoid including elements that will pull the reader out of the story on your first page. Here are the reasons on the Idol list most closely affiliated with this phenomenon:

16. The opening has the protagonist respond to an unnamed thing (e.g., something dead in a bathtub, something horrible in a closet, someone on the other side of her peephole…) for more than a paragraph without naming it, creating false suspense.
17. The characters talk about something (a photo, a person, the kitchen table) for more than a line without describing it, creating false suspense.
19. An unnamed character (usually “she”) is wandering around the opening scene.
20. Non-organic suspense, created by some salient fact being kept from the reader for a long time (and remember, on the first page, a paragraph can be a long time).
27. The book opened with a flashback, rather than with what was going on now.
28. Too many long asides slowed down the action of an otherwise exciting scene.
29. Descriptive asides pulled the reader out of the conflict of the scene.

The last two, #28 and #29, are fairly self-explanatory, aren’t they? Basically, these are pacing problems: the agent wanted to find out what was going to happen with the story, but the narrative insisted upon describing every third cobblestone on the street first. (I’m looking at YOU, Charles Dickens!) Or the narrative gave too much background between pieces of action or dialogue (don’t you try to slink away, Edith Warton!), or our old bugbear, the narrative stopped the action cold in order to describe the room, what the protagonist is wearing, the fall of the Roman Empire, etc., in between showing the plot in action. (You know I’m talking to YOU, Victor Hugo!)

The others on the list are a trifle more subtle. Pop quiz, to see how good you are getting at thinking like an agency screener: what underlying objection do all of the remaining reasons have in common?

Give up? They all reflect a serious aversion to being tricked by a manuscript. While a casual reader might not object to early-on plot, structural, or naming choices that encourage him to guess what is going on, only to learn shortly thereafter — gotcha! — that those assumptions were wrong, an agent or editor is more invested in the storyline (and, arguably, dislikes being wrong more). So that gotcha! moment, instead of impressing them with how very clever the author is, tends merely to pull them out of the story.

And we all know what happens when that occurs, right? Straight back into the SASE for that submission. Moral of the story: folks in the industry like being right too much to enjoy being tricked.

Go ahead, have that inspiring axiom tattooed on your mousing hand, so you will never forget it. I’ll wait.

So why, given that your average agency screener loathes first-page bait-and-switches with an intensity that most people reserve for thermonuclear war and tax day, do so many writers elect to trick their readers early on? Unfortunately for our team, many of us were taught at impressionable ages that lulling the reader into a false sense of security, then yanking the rug out from under him, is a great format for a hook. It can work well later in a story, certainly, but as a hook, it tends not to catch many fishes at an agency, if you catch my drift. (My, I am being nautical today, amn’t I? Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!)

Mostly, though, I think most writers don’t think of these strategies as reader-tricking at all. Take, for instance, #27, opening the book with a flashback, rather than in the present reality of the rest of the book. Now, there might be many perfectly valid narrative reasons to do this, right? (A word to the wise: if you are going to flash back briefly first, don’t italicize the flashback to differentiate it from the rest of the text: most screeners will automatically skip over openings in italics, on the theory that they aren’t really germane to the opening scene.) You’re making an interesting commentary on the nature of human memory, perhaps: no one of at least average intelligence, you probably think, is at all likely to be tricked by this.

Not to cast aspersions on anyone in the industry’s smarts, but frankly, they just don’t see it this way, because — actually, no: you take a shot at thinking like a screener, for the practice. On your marks, take a sip of that scalding latte, and GO!

If it occurred to you that the screener might resent being drawn into the action of one scene (the flashback), then expected to switch gears to become involved in another (the present of the book), give yourself high marks. If you also thought that the screener might get a tad testy because, after getting comfortable in one timeframe (the flashback), the time shifts to the present of the book, give yourself extra credit. But really, if you came up with any flavor of, “Hey, this narrative tricked me! I hate that!” or “Hey, that switch pulled me out of the story!”, you’re doing pretty well.

Now that you’re getting the hang of it, figuring out the problem the screener would have with #19, an unnamed character (usually “she”) wandering around the opening scene, should be relatively simple. Here’s a hint: this one usually pulls the screener out of the story the second time the pronoun is used. Why?

Oh, you’re getting so good at this: a gold star to those of you who realized that what pulled the reader out of the story in this case is the reader’s own annoyance with the character’s not being identified by name. “Who is this chick?” the screener cries, eyeing her watch as her lunch date ticks ever-closer. “And why the heck can’t I know her name?”

Which brings me to the most popular reader-tricking tactic on the list, the creation of false suspense (also known as non-organic suspense, if you want to get technical) by the narrative’s withholding necessary information from the reader. Again, this can work as a long-term plotting strategy (and is one of the reasons that many novelists find maintaining tension easier in a first-person narrative, as the reader learns things at the same rate as the narrator, thus necessitating withholding information from the reader), but done too early in a book — in this case, on the first page — it can come across as a trick.

And we all know by now how agents and editors feel about those, right?

Again, in most submissions, tricking the reader is the farthest thing from the author’s mind: usually, she’s just trying to create a tense, exciting opening scene. Yet consider the following rejection reasons, and think how these well-meant tension-building techniques went awry:

16. The opening has the protagonist respond to an unnamed thing (e.g., something slimy in her shoes, something dead in the back seat of her car, a particularly hateful program on the TV set in the room…) for more than a paragraph without saying what the responded-to thing IS.
17. The characters talk about something (a book, another character, a recent trip one of them took to Antarctica, or, the most popular option of all, a recent trauma or disappearance) for more than a line without describing what the discussion topic IS.
20. Some salient-yet-crucial fact being kept from the reader for several paragraphs, such as the fact that the protagonist is on trial for his life or that Rosebud is a sled.

Place yourself in the tattered jeans of that agency screener, my friends, then chant along with me why all of these choices are problematic: they pull the reader out of the story, in order to wonder what IT is.

But that response — which is usually what the agent gives as a reason for rejecting tactics like these — tells only half the story. Engendering reader speculation can be a very good thing indeed, so what’s the real objection here? Simple: the agent fears that she is being set up to be tricked later on.

She doesn’t like that, you know; worrying about whether she is guessing right tends to pull her out of the story. Keep her in it as long as you possibly can — and keep up the good work!

Conference-gleaned wisdom, Part V: the usual saws

Were you surprised that I took the weekend off? It’s part of a new plan of mine, called GETTING A LIFE, over and above my writing. Having just finished a major revision — and composing a list of what I had and had not revised at the editor’s suggestion — I felt the need to, well, not work my usual 7-day week this week. Call me wacky.

“Wait just a second,” I hear some of you cry. “A list of changes in the manuscript? Why? And why on earth would any sane person ask a writer to produce such a list immediately after completing a revision, when the writer is likely both to be exhausted and a trifle touchy about her choices?”

The list of revisions is not all that unusual a request, once an editor at a major house is involved with a book. Essentially, it’s a time-saving technique. (Remember last week, when I was telling you about how busy such people are? Well…) Since manuscript changes are often quite subtle, and the editor is not going to sit down and read the old version and the new side-by-side (sorry to be the one to break that to you), many agents like to have the author provide a list, to forestall the objection that not enough of the requested changes were made.

Also, in the unlikely (a-hem) event that the editor does not have time to read the whole thing again, with such a list in hand, it would technically be possible for an editor to flip through and see what changed very quickly. Essentially, the list is the equivalent of having the author produce the kind of 1- or 2-page report that editorial assistants routinely provide on a project being considered.

I’m giving you a heads-up about it now, because very frequently, such a request comes as the proverbial ball out of left field to the writer, who is then left scrambling. If you know it’s a possible future request, you can just keep a list while you are revising. Clever, no?

And no, Virginia: no one in the industry will ever ask you for such a list for revisions performed BEFORE they saw the manuscript in the first place. So unless you want to get in practice maintaining such a list (not a bad idea, actually), there’s really no reason to keep track of your changes in such a concrete way until after you sign with an agent. But thereafter, it can be very, very helpful to be able to say, “What do you mean, I didn’t take your advice? Here’s a list of what I changed at your behest!” and be able to back it up.

Okay, back to demystifying the Idol list. (If that sounds as though I have suddenly begun speaking in tongues, please see my post for October 31.) I know I’ve been harping on it at some length now, but my theory is that conference advice is not all that useful as long as it remains, well, general. I think it’s important to take the overarching principles and show how they might be applied to a specific manuscript.

That being said, today’s group is the most literal, and thus the easiest to remove from a manuscript. These are the rejection reasons that are based upon sheer repetition: any agent in the biz has not only seen these phenomena before at least 147 times — and thus will automatically assume that a submission that contains them on the first page is not fresh — but has, in all probability, seen any particular one at least once already on that same DAY of screening.

So best to avoid ’em, eh?

I know, I know: a great deal of the advice out there, including mine, is about standardizing your manuscript prior to submission. But standard format and avoiding certain common mistakes is, perhaps counterintuitively, a way to make the individuality of your writing shine more. To put it the way my grandmother would: fashion can make almost anyone look good, but if a woman is truly beautiful, wearing conventional clothing will only make it more obvious that it is the woman, and not the clothes, who caught the eye of the observer. (Need I add that my grandmother was VERY pretty, and that a great many of her metaphors were style-related?)

The rejection reasons listed below are something different: they are common shortcuts that writers use, and thus, not particularly good ways to make your writing stand out from the crowd. Using the numbering from the original list, they are:

9. The opening contained the phrases, “My name is…” and/or “My age is…”
10. The opening contained the phrase, “This can’t be happening.”
11. The opening contained the phrase or implication, “And then I woke up.”
12. The opening paragraph contained too much jargon.
13. The opening contained one or more clichéd phrases.
14. The opening contained one or more clichéd pieces of material. Specifically singled out: our old pal, a character’s long red or blonde hair, his flashing green eyes, his well-muscled frame.
21. The character spots him/herself in a mirror, in order to provide an excuse to describe her long red or blonde hair, his flashing green eyes, his well-muscled frame.

Why do I identify them as shortcuts, and not clichés? Well, obviously, the clichés are clichés, but the rest are the kind of logical shorthand most of us learned in our early creative writing classes. Introduce the character (which manifests as “My name is…” and/or “My age is…”). Show perspective (“This can’t be happening.”). Add a twist (“And then I woke up.”).

The result is that agents and their screeners see these particular tropes so often that they might as well be clichés. They definitely don’t scream from the page, “This is a writer who is doing fresh new things with the English language” or “This story is likely to have a twist you’ve never seen before,” at any rate, and when a screener is looking to thin the reading pile, those are not the messages you want to be sending.

Another early English-class lesson has shown up with remarkable frequency on this list. Guesses, anyone? (Hint: the applicable rejection reasons are #9, the opening contained the phrases, “My name is…” and/or “My age is…”, #14, a character’s long red or blonde hair, and #21, the character spots him/herself in a mirror.)

Congratulations, all of you graduates of Creative Writing 101: they all stem from the oft-repeated admonition to provide physical descriptions of the character right away. As in within the first nanosecond of their appearing in a scene.

Also, I suspect, a lot of us read short stories and books in our formative years that used the age, sex, and/or gender (yes, they’re different things: sex is biological, gender is learned) as THE twist. I, personally, have never gotten over my disappointment that Stanley Kubrick’s film of Anthony Burgess’ book A CLOCKWORK ORANGE glossed over the single most shocking line in the book, when we learn that the thief, rapist, and murderer who has been narrating the story is only 15 years old. (Hey, that was still shocking, back in the 1960s.)

Basically, all of these rejection reasons share the same underlying objection: there’s nothing wrong with providing some physical description of your characters right off the bat, of course, but by all means, be subtle about it. And need a full description come on page 1?

Yes, I know that movies and TV have accustomed us to knowing what a character looks like from the instant he’s introduced, but is there a particular reason that a READER’S first experience of a character need be visual?

We are left to wonder: why are characters so seldom introduced by smell? Or touch?

But no: day in, day out, screeners are routinely introduced to characters by front-loaded visual images, a good third of them bouncing off reflective vases, glasses of water, and over-large silver pendants. We’ve all seen it: the first-person narrator who catches sight of his own reflection in a nearby mirror in order to have a reason to describe himself. Or the close third-person narration that, limited to a POV Nazi-pleasing single-character perspective, requires that the character be reflected in passing sunglasses, a handy lake, a GAP window, etc., so that he may see himself and have a reason to note his own doubtless quite familiar physical attributes.

Just once, could a passerby gag on a hero’s cloud of cologne?

Setting aside for a moment just how common the reflective surface device is — in the just over two hours of the Idol session, it happened often enough to generate laughs from the audience, so multiply that by weeks, months, and years of reading submissions, and you’ll get a fair idea — think about this from the screener’s perspective. (Did your tongue automatically start to feel burned by that latte?) That screener is in a hurry to find out what the novel’s story is, right?

So ask yourself: is that harried reader likely to regard superadded physical description of the protagonist as a welcome addition, or as a way to slow the process of finding out what the story is about? And how is she likely to feel about that, 5 minutes into her ostensible lunch break?

I know; it’s disillusioning. But as I keep reminding you, no one in the industry regards the submitted version of a manuscript as the final version. Nor should you. If you’re absolutely married to an upfront physical description, you can always add it back in to a subsequent draft.

The last remaining reason — #12, the opening paragraph rife with jargon — is, too, a shortcut, usually a means to establish quickly that the character presented as a doctor, lawyer, police officer, soil engineer, President of the United States, etc., is in fact a doctor, lawyer, police officer, soil engineer, or President of the United States. However, how often do you think a screener — or any other reader, for that matter — gets a couple of lines into a novel, then throws it down in disgust, exclaiming, “There’s just not enough esoteric technical talk here! I just do not believe that this character actually is a doctor/lawyer/police officer/soil engineer/President of the United States!”

Doesn’t happen. The opposite, however, does: when there’s too much profession-specific word usage, it can be very off-putting for the reader. And for the screener. With predictable results.

Do I hear some disgruntled murmuring out there? Are some of you saying, “But people talk like that in real life!”

Yes, they do. There are also plenty of people who say, “Um…” at the end of every other sentence, and mobs of nice folks who interlard every conversation with, “like” and “y’know.” Heck, there are millions of people in the world who speak Estonian — yet you would not even consider submitting a manuscript to an English-speaking agent or editor where every third word was in that fine language, would you? Even if your story were actually set in Estonia?

Save it — if not entirely, then at least until after page 5. Or after you have successfully cleared the submission hurdle.

We’re just whipping through this list, aren’t we? Soon, all of our first pages will be so snazzy that none of us will get rejected until page 2. In that happy hope, keep up the good work!

Conference-gleaned wisdom, Part IV: we have a schedule to keep here, people!

I had taken the time to write a long, luxurious post today, a nine-pager all about various rejection criteria on the Idol list (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, check out my post for October 31), but much to my annoyance, my computer just ate it in a single bite. Not a trace of it left.

So I seriously considered not investing the time in trying to recreate it — but then I realized my current annoyed-and-pressed-for-time mood is actually quite close to the average agent’s attitude when she’s screening a mountain of submissions, and thus might be the perfect mindset for writing about the most common category of rejection reasons: those that are about wasting the agent’s TIME.

So pay attention, people: I’m only going to say this once.

As I mentioned yesterday, the Idol list can be a pretty intimidating (and internally contradictory) set of guidelines if you try to follow each and every one of them to the letter. In the interests of gleaning insights that you can actually use in your writing, I’m breaking them down into conceptual bundles, so you can get into the habit of writing opening pages that hold agents’ and editors’ attention. Today, I have selected the rejection reasons that are temporally-based:

#1. An opening image that did not work.
#2. Opened with rhetorical question(s).
#3. The first line is about setting, not about story.
#4. The first line’s hook did not work, because it was not tied to the plot or the conflict of the opening scene.
#5. The first line’s hook did not work, because it was an image, rather than something that was happening in the scene.
#6. Took too long for anything to happen (a critique, incidentally, leveled several times at a submission after only the first paragraph had been read); the story taking time to warm up.
#8. The opening sounded like an ad for the book or a recap of the pitch, rather than getting the reader into the story.
#18. The unnamed protagonist cliché: The woman ran through the forest…
22. The first paragraph was straight narration, rather than action.
23. Too much physical description in the opening paragraph, rather than action or conflict.
24. Opening spent too much time on environment, and not enough on character.
26. When the first lines are dialogue, the speaker is not identified.

Now, not all of these appear to be time-wasters at first glance, do they? But from an agent’s point of view, they are — if, as they do, you count the time to be wasted in nanoseconds. Because, you see, all of them require the reader to spend time figuring out what the writer is doing.

Okay, let’s get you into the mindset of an agency screener, to help you understand why this might be the case: you have fifty submissions to read in the next hour; you have worked through your lunch hour for the last three days straight, and since you have a date today, you have no intention of doing it again, considering how little you’re paid to do this work; you are spending your evenings wading through grad school applications, and you have, of course, just burned your tongue on a too-hot latte.

Got all that firmly in your mind? Good. Now, start reading.

First, let’s start with a set of manuscripts that have the following problems: #2, opened with rhetorical question(s); #4, the first line’s hook did not work, because it was not tied to the plot or the conflict of the opening scene; #5, the first line’s hook did not work, because it was an image, rather than something that was happening in the scene; #8, the opening sounded like an ad for the book or a recap of the pitch.

“My God,” you think, rejecting all of them by the end of the first paragraph, “do these writers think I’m made of time?” Okay, let’s think about why: what do all of these objections have in common?

I won’t keep you in suspense long (because I have THINGS TO DO, people!): they all are, from the screener’s point of view, delaying tactics that prevent the start of the story of the book.

Oh, and I suppose now you would like me to show you how and why… oh, okay, but let’s make this quick. #2 (opening with a rhetorical question) and #8, (the opening sounded like a recap of the pitch) are over-selling: these techniques can work beautifully in a query letter, pitch, or NF book proposal, but obviously, if anyone at an agency is reading your opening page, these sales techniques have already worked.

Don’t over-close; by the time they reach the first page, they expect the pitch to be over and the substance to have begun. (This is also, incidentally, one of the reasons that the kinds of generalities that work so well to sum things up in a synopsis often don’t receive a warm reception on the first few pages of a manuscript: agents expect the specific writing to begin on page 1.)

#4 (the hook was not tied to the plot or the conflict of the opening scene) and #5 (the hook was an unrelated image, rather than something that was happening in the scene) are also, from the point of view of the industry, delaying tactics. Instead of launching right into the story, such openings are a pre-show come-on; rather than being indicators of what is to come, they simply attract the reader’s attention to the book. And since agents don’t like to be tricked, they tend to instruct their screeners to stop reading as soon as it is apparent that such a bait-and-switch has occurred.

Why? Well, picture yourself as that screener with the sore tongue. You are going to have to be able to pitch any manuscript that survives that first read, and with fiction, that means being able to recap the story. So the second question you are going to ask yourself as you lean over the page is, “What is this story about?” (Your first question, of course, will be, “Is this in standard format?” Your third will be, “Can this author write?”) So if you have to read beyond the first third of a page to figure out what the story IS, you’re probably going to get a trifle miffed.

Hey, your lunch date is waiting.

The fact that a hook can be a deal-breaker is a little counterintuitive to anyone who has ever taken a writing class in North America, isn’t it? We’ve all been told time and time again that every manuscript needs a hook, a stunning first line, opening image, or conflict to draw the reader into the rest of the work. Since this advice is so ubiquitous, unfortunately, there are a lot of manuscripts out there where unrelated matters have been grafted onto the first page or so, to provide, the author thinks, a kick that the opening of the story itself does not provide.

Not too offensive, really, as shortcuts go. But imagine reading a hundred manuscripts that used this trick every week. It would get a trifle old, wouldn’t it?

The moral of these first four admonitions: don’t provide a preamble to your story; jump right in.

See, that wasn’t too intimidating, was it? We all could remember to do that much.

Burn your lips afresh, campers, and get back into your agency screener costume, because we’re going to move on to the next set of rejection reasons. What do all of the following have in common: #3, the first line is about setting, not about story; #22, the first paragraph was straight narration, rather than action; #23, too much physical description in the opening paragraph, rather than action or conflict; #24, the opening spent too much time setting up the environment, and not enough on character.

Seeing a pattern here? The essential complaint is the same in them all: the narrative does not open with the story itself, but with setting the scene for it; essentially, such first pages begin before the story opens.

And that’s going to set that latte-scalded tongue swearing, believe you me. Why? Because the author has just expected her to read a whole lot of verbiage that isn’t going to help her one iota in constructing a pitch for that book. Next!

Again, this is a touch counter-intuitive to anyone who has spent five consecutive minutes in a room with an English teacher, isn’t it? We’ve all been taught that good writers set the scene meticulously; most of us like to show what our characters look like and where they are right off the bat, so the reader can picture them, or even give background information so the reader can understand where the protagonist has been, and where she finds herself now.

Brace yourself, because this is going to make your pacifist, Hemingway-loving tenth grade English teacher reach for a meat clever with the intent of committing homicide, but in the current industry, this type of opening is almost universally frowned upon in novels. Plenty of readers like the physical details minimal, so they can picture the characters for themselves (so all of that oh-so-common tossing around of long red or blonde hair on opening pages is often gratuitous), and actually, for most scenes containing conflict, the most interesting thing about the characters is not how they look or the room that they’re in, but what is going on amongst them.

Unless you’re Charles Dickens (who I doubt would care much for my blog), those types of details can be introduced slowly — and often, background information actually doesn’t need to be in Chapter 1 at all. Folks in the industry — and that includes both potential representers of your work and potential publishers of it — consistently express a preference for jumping directly into the action early and often.

So the moral of this set: begin in the scene, not before it. Let’s not waste the nice screener’s time.

At first blush, the remaining rejection reasons — #1, an opening image that did not work; #6, took too long for anything to happen; #18, the unnamed protagonist cliché, and #26, when the first lines are dialogue, the speaker is not identified — might not appear (other than #6, of course) to be about how long it takes for the screener to make it through the first paragraph. This is why it’s so important to place yourself in the screener’s shoes in order to evaluate your own work: from her point of view, all of these are about wasting her time.

Let’s take them one by one, to see why. #6 is the easiest to comprehend, of course — although from a lay person’s point of view, the idea that any sane person would start moaning about a slow opening by the end of line 3 seems a trifle, well, insane. Yet in order to be able to answer that crucial second question (“What is this story about?”), the screener needs to find out what the story IS. With her tight schedule (see above), what do you think the chances are that she’s going to read all the way through a slow opening scene to get to the meat of the conflict?

That’s right: not high. Once again, this is a fact that will drive the average English teacher into a straitjacket, but remember, we’re not talking here about advice that’s going to teach you how to produce great literature; all of these tips are geared toward helping you understand why certain submissions are welcomed by agents and editors and others rejected within a matter of seconds.

That is a line that gets blurred, I think, at too many writers’ conferences: the advice from the business end of the industry isn’t about art — it’s about what sells. That’s what they mean by good writing.

And no, tenth-grade English teacher, those don’t need to be mutually exclusive, so put down that axe you’re wielding.

To see why #18, the unnamed protagonist cliché, is a time-waster from a screener’s point of view, here is an example of it in action: “The woman fled through the forest, her long, red hair cloaking the bundle clutched to her ample bosom, shielding her precious bundle from the driving rain. She couldn’t feel if the baby was still breathing; she had no time to stop and check. All she could do was speed them both away from the marauding (insert enemy of choice here) troops, away from any possible medical help for her too-soon born babe, away from everything she had ever known.”

Now, there’s really no shortage of action in that opening, is there? Nor is there any serious question about what the book is about: the story is obviously going to concern this woman, her baby, and all of that red hair in their collective attempt to reach safety. Assuming that the long, red hair cliché and the “everything she had ever known” exaggeration didn’t knock this submission out of consideration, why, then would it be rejected this far into the text?

Hint: think like a time-pressed screener here, not like a writer, or even like a reader. It’s vital to bear in mind that folks in the industry, bless their nit-picking hearts, do not think like writers. We tend to be acute observers of human behavior, in love with rhythm and form; they tend to be acute observers of the printed page, with a preternatural drive to ferret out what’s wrong with it.

So while a lay reader might read the opening above and think, “Heavens, will she get away? What is pursing her? Is the baby alive?”, and a writer might think, “Wow, the pacing is good here, but I would like to see more character development for the woman,” the agency screener would think, “Is there any particular REASON that I’m being held in suspense about this broad’s NAME? Is it really MY job to read on until the author deigns to tell me? This writer has seen too many movies; in a book, you don’t need to wait until someone addresses the protagonist to find out her name. And oh, damn, I’ve already spent a minute and a half waiting to find out!”

Trust me, you’re better off identifying your characters right away.

#26, the speaker of the first line of dialogue’s not being identified, is another indirect time-waster — and an effect of the Thou Must Create a Hook school of writing advice: a startling statement can make a great opening for a book. But again, let’s take a field trip into that screener’s head while she’s reading such a manuscript: “Oh, great, I’m left to guess who said this. Guess I’ll have to keep reading into my lunch hour to find out who’s who here — NOT! But at least there’s no long, red hair in this one.”

The moral of the last three: do not waste the nice reader’s time, even indirectly. The animals become fractious around feeding time.

#1, the opening image that did not work, is subjective, of course, but to a screener, it’s also a time-management issue. She can either spend the next five minutes bending her problem-solving mind to figuring out WHY that opening image, metaphor, line of dialogue, etc., didn’t flow right on the page, or reject it right away and spend the other four and a half minutes screening other manuscripts. Heck, if they all have opening paragraph problems, she might get through ten or fifteen of them in that time.

Okay, time to check whether I’ve been too subtle here: what is that overarching lesson to be learned from all of these?

I’d tell you the answer, but I just don’t have time. I have a whole lot of reading to do.

Keep up the good work!

Conference-gleaned wisdom, Part III: will someone hold this massive grain of salt for me?

The last couple of days’ posts have been kind of in-your-face, haven’t they? Sorry about that — it’s the nature of the beast, when the ruling out of submissions is the subject. It makes us all feel as if we’ve been mauled by wildebeests.

Still, there’s no need to despair: to succeed in this business, all you need to do is make your initial pages technically perfect, fresh without being weird, and not hit either any of the pet peeves listed on the Idol list (see Halloween post) or personal ones that the agent in question might have. Your characters need to be original, your premise interesting, and your plot riveting, beginning from Paragraph 1. Oh, and you need to be lucky enough not to submit your brilliant novel about an airline pilot on the day after the agent/screener/editorial assistant/editor has had his/her heart broken by one.

Piece o’ proverbial cake, right? Well, my work is done here. Let me know how it all turns out!

Okay, so it’s not such a piece of cake: it’s a genuinely tall order, and a long list of don’t can be very, very intimidating. Before you throw up your hands in despair, let’s break down the Idol list of rejection reasons into bite-sized chunks.

The first thing to realize about this list of agents’ pet peeves is that some of them are, in fact, personal pet peeves, not necessarily industry-wide red flags. The trick is recognizing which ones. Right off the bat, a cursory glance at the list identified these as probably personal, rather than endemic:

15. The opening had a character do something that characters only do in books, not real life.
25. The first lines were dialogue.
33. Agent can’t identify with the conflict shown.
37. The story is corny.
42. The opening scene is too violent (in the example that generated this response, a baby’s brains were bashed out against a tree).
43. Too gross.
44. There is too much violence to children and/or pets.
46. The story is written in the second person.
47. The story is written in the first person plural.
48. The narrator speaks directly to the reader (“I should warn you…”), making the story hyper-aware of itself qua story.

How do I know these are not widely-shared rejection criteria? Well, experience, but also, critical analysis. Allow me to explain.

Before I start dissecting them, however, one caveat: just because these particular pet peeves are agent-specific does not mean that you should simply disregard them. If you are planning to submit to any of the agents on that particular panel, it would behoove you to take them very seriously indeed: one of the reasons that savvy writers go to conferences, after all, is to pick up information about the specific likes and dislikes of particular agents, right? Use this information strategically, to help target your queries and submissions to the agents most likely to enjoy your work.

When you’re listening to such a panel, there are a couple of signals that will alert you to something being an individual’s pet peeve, rather than a general rule. First — and this happens surprisingly frequently — the person uttering it will actually say, “Maybe it’s just my pet peeve, but…” or “It really bugs me when…” It’s a pretty safe bet that what is said next is a personal preference.

I know: it’s subtle.

Also — and this happened on the Idol panel — sometimes an agent will express an opinion, and the other agents will guffaw at him, fall over backwards in surprise, slap him across the face and tell him he’s an idiot, etc. Again, all of these are pretty good indicators that we’re not talking about a widely-recognized agency norm here.

Take, for instance, #25, when agent Daniel Lazar’s having flagged a submission because the first lines were dialogue. Now, this is a pretty sweeping criticism, isn’t it? A lot of very good books open with dialogue. So how did the people in the Idol audience know it was his pet peeve? Well, he began his critique with, “Maybe it’s just me, but…” And after he said it, the agent sitting next to him turned to him and said, “Really?”

Starting to get the hang of this?

I know I’ve been saying it a lot lately, but it bears repeating: no matter how much talk there is about how agents all want to represent the same kinds of books, it’s just not the case — they are individuals, with individual tastes. And thus, logically, if your submission is rejected by one, you have most emphatically NOT been rejected by the entire industry: you’ve been rejected by one individual within it. Learn what you can from the experience, then move on.

This can be very, very tough for writers who have just spent a small fortune on a conference, pitched to five agents, and had requested materials rejected to do. Yet at even the best conference, no group of agents small enough to fit in the same room, much less on the same panel, are a representative sample of how the entire industry will react to your work. I know it’s discouraging, but it just doesn’t make statistical sense to throw up one’s hands after a single round of rejections.

To put this in perspective, it’s not uncommon for an agent to submit a client’s work to as many as 50 different editors. If #48 says yes, that’s a win, just as surely as if #1 did. Should you really be any less tenacious in marketing your book to agents than you would expect your agent to be in marketing it to editors?

Now that you know why it is so important to differentiate between what you absolutely must change on your first page and what you should change for a particular agent’s eyes, let’s go back to our list of rejection reasons. When in doubt, ask yourself, “Why is that particular one problematic?” Often, the most obvious answer will be that it’s the agent’s personal opinion.

Let’s apply this test to #15, the opening had a character do something that characters only do in books, not real life. On the panel, Rachel Vater cited this reason quite often, but neither of the other agents mentioned it. (Did that make your personal-preference antennae perk up, campers?) She gave those who were listening another clue: a couple of times, she cast this objection as,
“Well, I’VE never done what the character does here…” Ding ding ding!

Even if she had not been kind enough to flag this as a personal preference, we probably could have figured it out. In this context, she specifically singled out a character who shook his head to clear an image or bring himself back to reality, as in, “he shook his head to clear the cobwebs.” Now, as an editor, I do have to admit, this is an action that one sees occur with GREAT frequency in manuscripts; in fact, I suspect one could make a pretty good case without trying very hard for labeling it as a cliché.

However, this is not how the rejection reason was phrased, was it? No, it was cast as “this is something a normal person would not do.” Unless we’re talking about psychopathic behavior, a statement like this is almost certainly based upon personal experience. Everyone’s opinion of normal is different.

So what this critique is really saying is, “People in my circles and from my background don’t do such things.” Fine; good to know: now we can target the submission away from the agent who cannot imagine doing such a thing and toward an agent who can.

Getting the hang of this yet?

The same logic test can be applied, with the same result, to #33 (agent can’t identify with the conflict shown, which is obviously based upon personal taste) and #37 (the story is corny, which must be based upon the observer’s background and worldview). Note the preference, and move on to the next agent.

If you get the same response from a few different agents, it might be worth a second look at your opening pages for plausibility. For the sake of your future success, it is probably worth bearing in mind that an awfully high percentage of agents and editors are from upper-middle clad backgrounds, and thus graduated from rather similar English departments at rather similar liberal arts colleges, mostly in the northeastern part of the country. Their brothers (and sisters) dated one another’s sisters (and brothers). If you can’t imagine reading from such a point of view, it might behoove you to find a first reader who can, to subject your manuscript to the Minor Ivy Plausibility Test.

The personal preference test, believe it or not, can also be applied to reasons associated with voice choice. Yes, I know: since it’s a technical matter, it seems as though rules should govern whether it’s acceptable, right? Not really. There are plenty of agents and editors who don’t like the first person voice much, and, as we saw on the list, other voices may raise hackles: 46. The story is written in the second person; 47. The story is written in the first person plural. What could such statements be OTHER than personal preferences?

#48 (the narrator speaks directly to the reader, making the story hyper-aware of itself qua story) is also a personal preference about narrative voice, albeit a more subtle one: for some readers, including the agent who cited this rejection reason, a first-person narration that breaks the third wall is jarring, a distraction from the story. However, there are plenty examples of published books that have used this device to great comic or dramatic effect: I would not send the agent that expressed this preference THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK, for instance.

Now, I suspect that those of you intrepid souls out there devoted enough to literary experimentation to write a narrative in the first person plural (like THE VIRGIN SUICIDES) or second person (like BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY) are probably already aware that your work will not be to everyone’s taste, any more than excellent fantasy writing will be to the taste of an agent who prefers hard-bitten realism. But this doesn’t mean that the experiment isn’t worth trying, is it? Just choose your querying targets accordingly.

I should wrap up for today, but before I do, I want to take a quick run at another group of reasons, #42 (the opening scene is too violent), #43 (the opening scene is too gross), and #44 (there is too much violence to children and/or pets). The first two are obviously in the eye of the beholder: a quick look at any bookstore will tell you that there is no shortage of violent material. So it can’t possibly be an industry-wide rule, right?

However, pay close attention when an agent draws a line about this: this is not an agent to query with a violent piece, and he’s doing the people who write violent pieces a favor by being up front about it. (For instance, an agent who asks that I do not mention him here — see post of May 10, 2006 for explanation — routinely tells conference attendees not to send him children-in-peril stories; he doesn’t like them.) Do be aware that although most of us have had writing teachers beat into our brains that a story needs an opening hook, to draw the reader in, it is possible to go too far.

And because 99% of the writers out there have had this advice beaten into their brains, too, agents see a LOT of shocking things on first pages. A super-violent opening scene, then, will not necessarily make your submission unique.

Which is why I slipped in #44 (there is too much violence to children and/or pets). Yes, this is a matter of personal preference — how much violence is too much and how much is just right is in the eye of the beholder, just as much as ideal porridge temperatures were on the tongues of the Three Bears — but this one happens to be a preference that at LOT of editors share, and for good reason: it can be very hard to market a book that features a lot of violence against wee ones. And don’t even get me started about how hard it would be to sell a cozy mystery with a dead cat in it…

My overall point has, I hope, become clear. Everyone chant together now: “Never kill off the detective’s pet kitty.”

Well, yes, that’s a pretty good rule of thumb, but I was really thinking of a broader point about submission and conference lore: not everything that pops out of an expert’s mouth should be regarded as a hard-and-fast rule. Use your judgment, or you might end up staggering under the weight of such a heap of pronouncements that you’ll be terrified of breaking a rule every time you sit down at your keyboard.

I’ll try to demystify more of the Idol rejection reasons tomorrow. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Conference-gleaned wisdom, Part II: why are those first readings so harsh, anyway?

Are you recovered yet from the trauma of yesterday’s post? It honestly is jarring to step into an agent’s shoes, even for a couple of hours: theirs is a significant responsibility, one that tends to incline even the nicest person to peevishness. I’m going to talk about this responsibility today, because if you are going to use yesterday’s list of general rejection reasons fruitfully to improve your chances of submission success, you are going to need to understand why an industry ostensibly devoted to bringing the best writing to the reading public runs on knee-jerk first reactions to the first paragraphs of submissions.

In the old days, when editors would routinely take on writers of promise and work with them on a line-by-line basis to make their first books better, agents often signed writers whose voices they liked but whose presentation was less than perfect, or whose plots needed polishing, and send out their work. Now that agents are expected to screen out all but the most polished books before the editorial submission stage, the agents don’t have the luxury of falling in love (the way they usually put it, incidentally) with books as often as they used to be able to do. At least, not the ones who want to stay in business.

Now, the first book is starting on a higher diving board — and instead of the agent’s signing a writer just after she has started to climb, the author is practically at the top before the agent commits to walking the plank with her. Yet, as we’ve discussed here before, most of the rhetoric of the industry still implies that all a writer needs to be is talented to succeed.

That’s just not true. A writer needs to be brave, too, and willing to revise her work again and again until it’s so good that it’s quality is self-evident, even on the first page. It’s a tall order.

Before you start getting angry with agents for this situation, take a moment to consider submission from the editor’s perspective, because they have had a lot to do with creating the agents’ reject-all-we-can mindset. Even with the agencies screening out 98% of submissions, the average editor at a major house will still receive 4-6 new manuscripts per day. To put these numbers in perspective, at most of the major houses, thi is as many projects as any given editor takes on in a YEAR.

So they, too, are looking to cull radically. For this reason, generally, even after they’ve listened to an agent’s pitch for a book and decided whether they are interested in the premise or not, they do not read the manuscript until after it has passed through at least one level of editorial assistant screenings.

What does this mean, in practical terms? Basically, before the editor will read it, your book will be handed to someone who has, just like an agency screener, been handed a list of criteria. This person has two jobs: to write a summary review of the book, for the editor’s perusal, and to weed out as many submissions as humanly possible.

The quickest way to do that, of course, is to stop reading as soon as a red flag pops up.

See why those first few pages are important?

So at this point, your book’s fate relies not so much upon YOUR writing as upon the editorial assistant’s. Scary, no? If that review is positive, AND if the book fits into the publishing house’s notions of what it wants to be offering a year from now, the editor will read it. Before he lugs it home on the subway, however, the editor usually glances through the first few pages in order to try to weed it out of consideration.

Again, see why an agent might want those first few pages to be perfect?

“Wait a minute,” I hear some of you out there saying. “Why home? Isn’t reading my submission the editor’s job?”

Well, yes, technically, but as editors are fond of telling anyone who will listen, their days are a lot fuller than they used to be. A whole lot of meetings, for instance. So for manuscripts they have not yet accepted, or writers not yet signed, their reading time tends to be limited to a few stray moments throughout the day — and whatever time they can snatch during evenings and weekends. And since he can take on only a few projects per year — and those he will need to fight for in editorial meetings — he, too, will be reading in the hope of finding an excuse to say no.

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

Just between ourselves, I don’t think any of us should be surprised that when our manuscripts have been sitting in editorial limbo for a month; we should be surprised that it gets read in under a year.

Which is, again a good reason to make decisions very quickly. In the long run, a snap decision saves time. However, it may take them a long while to find a moment in which to make that snap decision.

So when an agent is seeing your submission for the first time, she is not merely thinking about whether your book is well-written; she is thinking about whether it is nay-saying-proof, whether it is interesting enough to compete with the ideal editor’s children, etc. She will only take on a project if she is confident will survive all the way through an honestly brutal submission process.

And that, my friends, is what the over-used rejection letter phrase “I just didn’t fall in love with this book” actually means. It is an admission that the agent does not think a particular book will run the nay-saying gauntlet successfully. Whereas statements like Nos. 72-74 from yesterday’s list (“It just didn’t work for me,” “It didn’t do anything for me,” and “I like this, but I don’t know what to do with it.”) translate into an admission that the agent isn’t so enthusiastic about the project that she is willing to help you make it strong enough to survive.

It does require a significant commitment of time and energy from the agent, because she is often doing part of what the editor used to do: telling the author what needs to be done to the book to make it marketable. Most of the time, the editors do not give specific line feedback to writers, even after they acquire a book. Instead, they write brief, general editorial memos, usually about 4 pages to cover an entire book.

Not precisely the writer’s fantasy of a close working relationship with a sympathetic editor, is it?

As anyone who has ever heard an editor speak at a conference can tell you, editors are more than a little defensive about how the industry has changed. They DO still edit, they insist — but what they are talking about, usually, is that brief editorial memo, not wrestling over problematic paragraphs with the author until they sing. It really miffs them to be told that the former is not the common conception of what editing is, though, so I wouldn’t advise bringing it up.

If you will pardon my jumping around from conference class to conference class a little, I think the “How to Make Your Editor Happy” list Kristen Weber of the New American Library (NAL) gave at the recent Flathead conference only goes to underscore this point. Here are the six dos and don’ts she identified for being the author the editors like:

1. Don’t make excuses about missing a deadline; just say when it will be there. Really, the editor has enough to do not to be waiting with bated breath for your revision. (This is her justification, mind you, not mine.)

2. Send all of your questions in a single e-mail, rather than sending them in a flurry was they occur to you. Better yet, ask your agent to answer them first.

3. Don’t panic if you don’t hear back from an editor within a reasonable length of time. They have a lot to do.

4. Don’t try to talk with your editor about how your book is doing on Amazon. (According to her, those numbers don’t really matter — which is a trifle odd, since online sales make up about 20% of the market now.)

5. Don’t ask why your book is not getting the same promotion, advance, etc. as another similar book.

6. Read Publishers Weekly or Publishers Marketplace, so you understand how the industry works and how often the decision-makers change jobs.

She did mention a seventh point, but it was not on her list per se: go ahead and make all the changes the editor asks you to make, because they know the market better than you do.

That’s it.

I think this list is admirable as an indicator of how the industry has changed, because of what it does not contain: any injunction that the writer would, say, take criticism well, or be able to incorporate it promptly. Or that the writer be committed to promoting the book. Or even that the writer would be good about adhering to deadlines. All of these requests are, essentially, pleas that the writer would not take up any more of the editor’s time than is absolutely unavoidable.

Because, you see, the editor is really, really busy. Blame his ever-expanding job description.

With such expectations, it might occur to you: so who does the author ask when, say, it’s been four months since the editor got her manuscript? Her agent, that’s who.

Blame HER ever-expanding job description.

Tomorrow, I shall dive a bit more into the nitty-gritty of the rejection reasons from the Idol session. In the meantime, pat yourself on the back for being brave enough to want to submit your work under these conditions, and keep up the good work!