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!

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