Getting the feedback you need, Part VII: setting the ground rules

Yesterday, I horrified the masses by taking an in-depth gander at that most perplexing of social situations in which a writer may find herself, the friend who asks to read a manuscript – then keeps it forever and a day. I may be harping on it a little, but I have my reasons: although one occasionally encounters advice in writing manuals about whom to avoid as a feedback giver (it varies, but the universal no-no: spouses, significant others, POSSLQs, and anyone else who has ever spent any time in the writer’s bedroom other than to make the bed), I’ve never seen this problem discussed elsewhere, or heard it solved by a writing guru at a conference.

And this is a shame, I think, because it’s a genuinely difficult situation for the writer, the kind of experience that can make good writers swear off seeking reader feedback forever. But a writer needs feedback, and not all of us have the luxury of a well-read, genre-appropriate writers’ group meeting within a couple of miles of our domiciles, or the time to join it if one does exist. So think of this as a survival manual for trekking through the feedback wilderness.

Advance planning can go a long way toward avoiding a Gladys outcome. (For those of you who missed yesterday’s post, Gladys is the aforementioned remiss friend who turns your manuscript into a doorstop). Observing Tip #8 — making sure up front that the reader has time soon to read your work — and Tip #10 — ascertaining that your first readers fully understand what you expect them to do, and that it involves significantly more effort than merely reading a book – may cost you a few potential readers, but being scrupulous on these points will both reduce the probability of your being left without usable feedback and help you hold the moral high ground if your Gladys starts to dither as the weeks pass.

How does one set these ground rules in conversation, you ask, without sounding like a taskmaster? First off, take her out to coffee or lunch to discuss it (remember, she’s under no obligation to help you out here), and second, don’t save the discussion until you are about to hand the manuscript to her. Schedule it as soon as possible after Gladys has agreed to read your work – but not so soon that you haven’t had a chance to come up with a short, preferably written, description of what you would like your first reader to do to your manuscript.

Include in this list HOW you would like to receive feedback. Verbally? Writing in the margins? A separate sheet of paper? A Post-It™ note on every page where the story flags? Also, what level of read are you seeking? Should Gladys go over the manuscript with a fine-toothed comb (a real bore, for most readers), or just ignore spelling errors?

This level of specificity may seem a tad schoolmarmish, but having the list on hand will make the discussion easier on both you and Gladys, I promise. The catch: once you have made this list, you have an ethical obligation to stand by it; no fair calling Gladys up in the middle of the night after you get the manuscript back, howling, “How could you not have caught that the pages were out of order?”

While you are explaining what it is you would like your first reader to do, mention that in order for the feedback to be useful to you, you will need it within a month. Or six weeks – you choose, but try not to make it much less or much more. That’s long enough for a spare-time reader to get through pretty much any manuscript without sleepless nights, so you need not feel as though you are proposing a pop quiz, but not so long that Gladys will simply set it aside and forget it. The point here is to select a mutually-comfortable date that is NOT on top of one of your own deadlines for getting work out the door.

I cannot emphasize this last point enough. If you are working on a tight deadline – say, to pick one out of a hat, having to revise an entire novel within the next three weeks – it’s just not fair to expect a non-professional to speed-read your manuscript quickly enough for you to be able to use the feedback. (Actually, most freelance editors would charge extra for a turn-around time this short.) If you can cajole your writing friends into doing it, regard it as a great favor.

But if you thrust Gladys into that position, don’t be surprised if you never hear from her again. It’s stressful. Pick a reasonable deadline, one far enough from any imminent deadlines of your own that you will not freak out if she needs to go a week or two over.

If she gives you feedback after the agreed-upon date (you will explain kindly), while you will naturally still value Gladys’ opinion, you will not have time to incorporate it into the book before your next submission. Being able to turn the book around that quickly (you will tell her) is the difference between being the kind of helpful friend who gets thanked in acknowledgments and the kind of friend who is appreciated in private.

After you state the deadline, ASK if it will be a problem. If Gladys hesitates at all, remind her that it’s perfectly okay to say no. In fact, you would appreciate it, because you are at a point in your career where you need prompt feedback, and while she was your first choice (even if she wasn’t), you do have others lined up (even if you don’t).

Say this whether it is true or not; it will make it easier for her to decline if she feels overwhelmed. By allowing her the chance to bow out BEFORE you’ve gone to all the trouble of printing up a complete manuscript, you are underscoring that you realize that she is promising something significant, and you appreciate it.

A week before the deadline, call or e-mail, to ask how the reading is going. This will give Gladys yet another opportunity to back out, if she is feeling swamped. (If she asked to read your manuscript out of simple curiosity – a very common motivation – she will have realized it by now.) Set up a specific date and time to get the manuscript back. Promise to take her out to lunch or to bring her chocolates – after all, she’s been doing you a big favor.

If Gladys can’t make the deadline but still wants to go forward, set another deadline. It may seem draconian to insist upon specific dates, but inevitably, the writer is the person who loses if the feedback relationship is treated casually. If you are open at every step to Gladys’ backing out, you will significantly reduce the probability that she will let you down after two months.

Or four. Or a year.

If you present these requests politely and in a spirit of gratitude, it will be hard for even the most unreasonable Gladys to take umbrage. By taking the time to learn her literary tastes, ascertain that she has time to give you feedback, and not allowing your manuscript to become a source of guilt for months to come, you will be treating her with respect. If you respect Gladys’ opinion enough to want her to read your book, you should respect her ability to make an informed opinion about whether she can commit to doing so. It is your job to inform her.

Your writing deserves to be taken seriously, my friends – by others and by yourself. The more seriously you take it, by seeking feedback in a professional manner, the better it will become. In my next post, I shall discuss how to elicit specific information from your first readers, to get answers to problems you already know exist in the book. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Getting the feedback you need, Part VI: the trouble with Gladioli

Yesterday, when I was discussing the desirability of setting time limits for your first readers, I heard some chuckles of recognition out there, from those of you who have been down this road before. But are those of you who have never solicited non-professional feedback outside a writing group starting to wonder why I am advising building as many fail-safes into the exchange as one might expect in a nuclear test facility?

In a word: experience.

For a non-writer (or for a not-very experienced-writer, even), being handed a manuscript and asked for feedback can be awfully intimidating. Yet in a publishing environment where agents and editors simply do not have the time to give in-depth (or often even single-line) responses to queries, writers hit up their friends. Friends who all too often are too polite to say no or, heaven help us, think that giving feedback on a manuscript-in-progress is a jaunty, light-hearted, casual affair, as simple and easy as reading a book on a beach.

A sharp learning curve awaits them. Imagine their surprise when they start reading, and learn that you expect them not to be passive consumers of prose, but active participants in the creative process. Imagine their surprise when they are asked not just to identify what they dislike about the book, but also to come up with suggestions about what they’d like better. Imagine their surprise, in short, when they learn that it’s actual work.

Hey, there’s a reason I get paid for doing it.

Writers tend to complain about the feedback they get from kind souls decent enough to donate their time to feedback, but let’s pause for a moment and think about the position of a friend impressed into first reader duty. Chances are, this friend (I’ll call her Gladys because it looks good in print) committed herself to reading the manuscript without quite realizing the gravity of the offer — or perhaps not even that she’d made a promise at all.

A heads-up to all of you: from a non-writer’s POV, “Oh, I’d love to read your work sometime” is generally NOT an actual invitation to share a manuscript; for most people, it’s just a polite thing to say. Among ordinary mortals, a conversational “I can’t wait to read it!” may most safely be translated as “I’m trying to be supportive of you,” “I’m looking forward to your being famous, so I can say I knew you when,” and/or “I have no idea what I should say to an aspiring writer,” rather than as, “I am willing to donate hours and hours of my time to helping you succeed.”

This is why, in case you were wondering, the Gladyses of the world (Gladioli?) are so often nonplused when a writer to whom they have expressed such overtly welcoming sentiments actually shows up on their doorsteps, manuscript in hand. Poor Gladys was just trying to be nice.

For the sake of Gladys and every kind soul like her, adhere to Tip #10: Make sure IN ADVANCE that your first readers fully understand what you expect them to do — and that it involves significantly more effort than merely reading a book.

Why? Well, 99% of casual offerers have absolutely no idea what to do with a manuscript when it is handed to them. Gladys is generally dismayed when someone takes her up on her request. Like most people, dear Gladys did not have a very good time in school, and you have just handed her a major reading comprehension assignment; in a flash, you have become her hated 8th-grade English teacher, the one who used to throw his keys at kids who walked in late.

It’s not that she doesn’t WANT to help. But in her sinking heart, she is afraid of the book report she is going to have to give at the end of the process.

So what does Gladys do? Typically, she doesn’t read the book at all. Or she launches eagerly into it, reading perhaps ten or fifteen pages, then gets sidetracked by the phone ringing or piled-up laundry or the need to go to work. Remember, our Gladys isn’t a writer, so she does not have much experience in wresting precious minutes of concentration time out of a busy day. So she sets it aside, in anticipation of the day when she can devote unbroken time to it.

Unfortunately for writers everywhere, very few people lead lives so calm that a week of nothing to do suddenly opens up for their lowest-priority projects.

However good her intentions may have been at first, somehow the book does fall to her lowest priority — and, like the writer who keeps telling himself that he can only work if he has an entire day (or week or month) free, our well-meaning Gladys wakes up in six months astonished to find that she hasn’t made significant inroads on her task.

Hands up, everyone who has ever been the writer in this situation.

I once had a first reader who BEGGED for weeks on end to read a manuscript of mine. Six nail-gnawing months later, I asked for it back, even if she hadn’t read it. As it turned out, she hadn’t, but she had positively filled the margins of Ch. 1 with glowing praise, concluding with, “You couldn’t PAY me to stop reading now!”

She apparently stopped reading three pages later. “I liked it so much,” she reported, “that I wanted to wait until I had time to enjoy it.”

Gladys intends to get back to it, she really does, but my goodness, when is she going to find the time? It’s not as though a manuscript is bound, like a book, rendering it easy to tote around and read in spare moments. Over time, she tends to start to resent the task — NO MATTER HOW GOOD THE BOOK MAY ACTUALLY BE. Most often, this resentment manifests in holding on to your manuscript indefinitely.

Maddening, isn’t it? We expect our friends to devour our books, relish them, and call us in the dead of night to say that it’s the best book they’ve ever read. C’mon, admit it: in the depths of our dark little souls, we long for positive reinforcement. If we approach our work professionally, we also yearn for our first readers to make the two or three constructive suggestions that will lift our books from good to superlative.

And if we’re conscientious members of writing communities, many of us put substantial effort into providing precisely that kind of feedback. Like most freelance editors, my earliest editorial work was unpaid. The moment at which I knew I should be doing it professionally was, in fact, when I was doing a favor for a friend. A good novelist, my friend was living the writer’s nightmare: after having taken her book through a couple of solid drafts, an editor at a major house had dropped a raft of professional-level feedback — which is to say, a ruthless, take-no-prisoners critique — on her, feedback that, if followed to the letter, would necessitate axing significant proportions of the book and trashing her primary storyline.

Naturally, she called me in tears. I was an excellent choice: I had read the latest draft, and the one before it, and was able to produce practical suggestions on the spot. If she began the story at a different juncture, I pointed out, and rearranged certain other elements, her plot could still work.

There was a long minute of silence on the other end of the phone when I’d finished talking. “My God,” she whispered, “that could work.” And it did; the editor bought the book shortly thereafter.

This, if we’re honest about it, is what we want our first readers to provide. Since I had been giving feedback on novels since I was a bucktoothed kid in braids, I was able to come up with answers — but is it really fair to ask someone who has never pieced a plot together to pull off a similar feat?

No wonder poor Gladys feels put on the spot. Her writer friend’s expectations of her are pretty high. And by the time the writer has become impatient enough to ask where the heck the feedback is, she is not only dealing with her guilt over having procrastinated, but also with the additional trauma of an angry friend.

Yes, I said ANGRY. While most of us are astonishingly patient with agents and editors who do not respond to queries or hold on to manuscripts that they’ve asked to see for months at a time, we’re seldom as patient with our first readers, are we? The writer too timid to call an agent who’s had a requested three chapters for a year will often go ballistic at the friend who’s had the same pages for a third of that time. Odd, considering that the agent is being paid to read manuscripts, and the friend isn’t, but that’s the way we feel.

Once the situation has gone this far, it’s quite hard to fix it without generating resentment on both sides. The only way to get out of it gracefully is to call the remiss Gladys (or send her an e-mail, if you’re afraid that you’ll yell at her) BEFORE you have lost your temper completely and ask for the manuscript back. Politely.

Ignore her protests that she is really intending to get to it soon, honest, because she won’t. Cast your request as having nothing to do with her: “I’d love to hear what you have to say, but manuscripts are actually pretty expensive to produce, and I’ve just found the perfect person to give me feedback on it. Would you mind if I saved a little money by passing your copy on to him?”

This may sound a bit nasty, an example of patented Pacific Northwest passive-aggression, but believe me, it’s less confrontational than almost anything else you could say. Just accept that Gladys had no idea how much time it would take, and move on.

And just say no the next time she offers. (As. astonishingly, the Gladioli of our lives often do. They must be insulating their attics with their hapless friends’ unread manuscripts.) Tell her that you’ve decided to rely on professional feedback this time around.

Whatever you do, don’t sit around and seethe in silence. Say something, and don’t let it wait too long. If you do not take action, Gladys will eventually have to come up with a strategy to deal with her obligation — and what she comes up with may not be very pleasant for you.

Often, Gladioli will turn their not having realized that reading a book draft is a serious time commitment into a critique of the unread book:

“Well, I would have read it, but it was too long.”

“I was really into it, but then a plot twist I didn’t like came in, and I just couldn’t go on.”

“I liked it, but it didn’t move fast enough.”

These all might be legitimate criticisms from someone who has actually read the manuscript, but from a non-finisher, they should be disregarded. They are excuses, not serious critique. Please do not allow such statements to hurt your feelings, because they are not really about the book — they are about the reader’s resentment of the feedback process.

When you hear this type of critique used as an excuse for not reading, thank Gladys profusely, as if she has just given the Platonic piece of feedback – and get the manuscript back from her as soon as humanly possible. Tell her that you know in your heart she is right, and you don’t her to read another word until you’ve had time to revise. Then rush out and find another first reader.

“My secret, if I must reveal it,” quoth the illustrious Alexis de Tocqueville, “is to flatter their vanity while disregarding their advice.”

Is this starting to make you fear ever handing your manuscript to another human being at all? Never fear — tomorrow, I shall talk about how to deal with a Gladys situation that has already extended past the friendship-threatening point, and give you some tips about how to plan in advance to avoid its ever getting there.

In the meantime, do any of you have a Gladys story? If so, why not post a comment, so those new to the situation won’t feel so alone? And, of course, keep up the good work!

P.S.: Hey, those of you looking for a crash course in publishing: journalist, novelist, and old college buddy of mine Sophfronia Scott has just come out with THE BOOK SISTAH’S 21-STEP GUIDE TO WRITING, PUBLISHING & MARKETING YOUR BOOK, available on her website, The Book Sistah. If you’d like a foretaste of her advice style, check out her blog on the writing life.

Getting the feedback you need, Part V: it was a dark and stormy…day

My, it is dark and rainy in Seattle these days. I know, this sounds redundant to those of you who don’t live in the Pacific Northwest, but think about it: we’re farther north than Maine, so our winter days are awfully short to begin with, and now we’re in the midst of the rainiest winter in, well, ever.

Seriously, the Weather Service says so. That’s a whole lot of soggy, misty, shaded days in a row. We’re well past the ark-building stage at this point; I think I just saw the ghost of Jacques Cousteau swim by my second-story office window.

Down with the wet, and back to business. For the last few posts, I’ve been writing about how to improve the feedback you’re getting from non-professional readers — i.e., first readers of your work who are neither freelance editors, agents, editors at publishing houses, or paid writing teachers — as well as how to skirt that most common of first reading pitfalls, the enthusiastic friend who begs to read your manuscript — and then never mentions it again.

Or the second most common, the person who takes 6 months to read it, then just says, “Oh, I liked it.” Or the third, the reader who concentrates so hard on the minutiae (rending his garments and exclaiming, “The way you use commas is INFURIATING!” for instance) that he has nothing to report on the big picture. (“Forest?” he says, looking at you as though you were insane. “All I saw was a single tree.”)

You don’t need the chagrin of any of these outcomes, frankly — even when such first readers do produce useable feedback, the manner of delivery often renders it either too soft-pedaled, too vague, or too harsh, or simply too late to be of any practical value to the writer. But really, this isn’t precisely the first-time critiquer’s fault: much of the time, these outcomes are the result of the writer’s not having selected readers carefully and/or not having set firm desiderata for feedback.

You owe it to yourself to invest the time in doing both, because anytime you hand an unpublished manuscript to another being, you’re taking an emotional risk. Heck, even gearing up to submit your work to another human being is stressful for most writers. It’s nigh-impossible to explain to non-writers, but the period gearing up to send your work out to agents and editors (or revise and resend it) can leave a writer as raw and sensitive as the time while she is waiting for a reply on a submission.

Which is another good reason to select your first readers with care, rather than just handing your baby to the first person that asks. Even when a spate of rejections may well have left you simply dying for someone, anyone, to show an interest in reading your work, it’s usually not a good idea to give in to that impulse without first giving the matter some extended thought. My next tip is even more practical than background consideration, yet even less commonly done:

Tip #8: Make sure your potential reader has time already available in his schedule to read your manuscript. If the reader cannot estimate a reasonable return date, move on to another choice.

This is not a rude question; actually, it’s rather considerate to ask. I know, I know, every writer on earth wants to believe that every human being is going to be overjoyed to read her work, but the fact is, a critique-providing first read is not the same experience as reading a book for pleasure. It’s considerably more time-consuming, not to mention more stressful for the reader — and that will be the case even if the reader does not also have to worry about couching his feedback in ways that will preserve the intimate relationship between you.

Remember, your first readers are doing you a favor, donating their time to the good cause of furthering your writing career. Treat their time with respect.

Obtain timing information even if — and perhaps even especially if — someone has expressed an interest in reading your manuscript simply out of friendship or family feeling. In my experience, such people, while kind and encouraging, frequently do not realize just how much time it takes to read a manuscript carefully — or even that the task is going to be any different from reading any book at the library. Often, these folks end up not finishing it at all or giving inadequate feedback, just because they did not budget sufficient time to read well.

Also, if you ask for this information courteously up front, you will have given yourself permission for a polite e-mail or comment a week or so before the stated return date. Why before? Because creative civilians (or, to put it less colorfully, people who don’t write) almost never understand that writers are serious about deadlines. How could we be, they think, when we spend years at a time on a single book?

Forgive them, readers, they know not what they think.

Given the pervasive belief that writers don’t own calendars, a pre-deadline reminder is often a good idea, to make sure the reading gets done. Just a quick heads-up, perhaps inviting the reader to coffee or lunch just after the deadline to discuss it, will help keep you from seething three weeks after the stated deadline passed, wondering if you should call to hurry the reader up.

Since you will be asking for a time commitment before you hand over the manuscript, it’s a good idea to tell your first reader WHY you want her, of all people, to give you feedback. Butter ’em up:

Tip #9: couch your request in a compliment. Ideally, you would like these potential first readers to be flattered that you asked, and thus hyper-motivated to sit down and read.

There’s no need to make up extravagant praise — just be very clear about why you are asking that particular person for feedback. Honesty really is the best policy here: why is this person THE person to read your book? And, based upon these reasons, what type of feedback would you like from this person? Try phrasing it like this:

“I trust your eye implicitly, so I am relying upon you primarily for proofreading.”

“Your comic timing is so good — would you mind flagging the jokes that you think don’t work?”

“You always know what’s about to happen in a slasher flick — may I ask you to take a quick run through my manuscript, flagging anytime you feel the suspense starts to droop?”

This strategy kills the proverbial two birds with one stone: you will be preemptively thanking your first reader for the effort, and you will be setting some limits on the kind of feedback you would like. By setting these goals in advance, you will be better able to avoid the super-common pitfalls of either your first reader or you mistakenly believing that the manuscript-sharing process is about making you feel good. Or bringing you and the reader closer together as friends or lovers. Or even to reveal yourself more fully to another human being you happen to love.

No, that’s what your kith and kin’s buying your published books are for: that’s support.

If you’re going to be professional about your writing, the sole purpose of ANY pre-publication manuscript-sharing should be to help prepare the book for submission and eventual publication. As the author, you are the book’s best friend, and thus have an obligation to do what is best for it, but writers new to the game often forget that. (Heck, even writers who have been published for years forget that.)

Keep that foremost in your mind, and I promise you, you are far less likely to hand your beloved baby over to the first careless coworker who says, “Gee, I’d love to read some of your work sometime.” The writer may be flattered by such attention, but the manuscript deserves not to be sent on blind dates.

More on these crucial issues tomorrow. In the meantime, try to stay dry and undepressed, Pacific Northwesterners, and keep up the good work!

Getting the feedback you need, Part IV: sometimes, you just need an accountant

‘Twas the week after Christmas, and all through the publishing houses, not a creature was stirring, not even that junior editor who swore to you at a conference last summer that she’d get to your submission within a month. So let’s let the literary world enjoy its long winter nap and move on to matters that we writers can control, eh?

For those of you joining this series late — because you have, say, lives or family and friends who might conceivably like to see you during the holidays — since neither now or immediately after the New Year are particularly good times to query or submit (half the writers in North America’s New Year’s resolutions include some flavor of, “Send queries immediately!” This leads to very, very grumpy screeners between Jan. 2 and Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.), this is an excellent time to get feedback, so you can revise between now and February’s submissions and contest entries. (Don’t worry, those of you who are eyeing the PNWA’s contest deadline nervously: my next series will be on contest entries.)

On Christmas Eve (hey, professional writers seldom get holidays; I wrote for hours yesterday, because I’m currently on a tight deadline), I brought up the notion of approaching readers in your book’s target demographic who might not currently be die-hard book-buyers. Tip #5 is essentially different than Tip #3, which advised getting feedback from inveterate readers of your chosen genre or field, who would already be familiar with the conventions, limitations, and joys possible in books like yours. Potential readers in your target audience may not yet have read a book like yours, however, may — for reasons that you are VERY eager to explain to your dream agent — need desperately to get their paws on your work.

Getting feedback from those who do not read voraciously, then, can sometimes give a writer great insight unavailable from any other source. If you can make a case that your book is ideally suited to address the under-served needs of your target demographic, that’s a great selling point (and a more or less necessary point in any NF book proposal). Feedback from these types of people will, obviously, provide you with tips on how to achieve that admirable goal.

Let’s say you’ve written a lifestyle book for former high school athletes who no longer exercise — a rather large slice of the population, I would imagine. Three of your five chapters are filled with recipes for fiber-filled bran muffins, salads, and trail mix. Naturally, because you paid attention to Tip #3, you would want to include among your first readers someone familiar with cookbooks, as well as someone who reads a lot of exercise books.

However, it would also be well worth your while to seek out jocks from your old high school who have never opened either a cookbook or exercise book before, because they are the underserved part of your target market. If you can tailor your book’s advice so it makes abundant sense for your old volleyball buddy, you’ll know you have a good shot at writing for people like her.

Hey, you might as well get SOME use from all of those nagging messages keeps sending you about getting back in touch with old playmates, right?

Word to the wise: if you are a member of a writers’ group, and you have not been getting overly useful feedback on your work, you might want to consider whether its members actually are in your target demographic. Just because a writer is intelligent and knows a lot about craft doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s the best last reader for your work before you submit it to an agent.

As an editor, I constantly get queries from potential clients whose creative NF is being ripped apart by the novelists in their critique groups, whose mysteries are being dismissed by literary fiction writers, whose romances aimed at the under-20 set are garnering frowns from the over-60s. In the early stages of the writing process, when you are concentrating on story and structure, intra-group differences may be minimal, but if I had a dime for every memoirist who was told by advocates of tight first-person fiction to scrap any effort at objectivity and add more sex and violence to the book, I would own my own publishing house.

Where I would publish all of you, naturally. Perhaps I should start soliciting those dimes.

As when you are considering any potential first reader, set aside for the moment whether you like the people in your group, or whether you respect them, or whether they have already published books outside your field. Look very carefully at their respective backgrounds and ask yourself: are these the kind of people I expect to buy my book? If they did not know me, would they buy it at all?

If the answer to either is no, go out and find some people who are and will, pronto.

Which leads me to Tip #6: solicit MULTIPLE first readers, not just one – and let your first readers know that each is one of several.

Unless you are dealing with a seasoned professional (such as yours truly), asking a single person, however well-qualified, to give you feedback loads too much weight onto every critical grunt and positive eye gleam. It’s intimidating to the reader, and thus usually harmful to the quality of the feedback. Overwhelmed by the responsibility, many otherwise conscientious folks placed in this position panic: one will drop the book like a live coal the instant they spot a grammatical problem, another will spend a week straight filling your margins with soul-searing arguments against the way you’ve chosen to tell the story.

Besides, your work is complex, right? It may be very difficult to find the single ideal best reader for it. So why not mix and match your friends to create an ideal composite reader? Which brings me to:

Tip #7: Find different readers to meet your book’s different needs.

Most of us would like to think that anything we write will invariably touch any given reader, but in actuality, that’s seldom the case. I, for instance, am no fan of golf (I dislike plaid in virtually all of its manifestations), and thus would be a terrible first reader for a book about any of its multifarious aspects — but my buddy Mary, who has written a terrific musical called FAIRWAYS currently gracing your better country clubs across the nation, would probably eat it up. Yet we’re both inveterate readers and writers with long histories of giving excellent feedback. (This should NOT be construed as my urging you to send her your golfing manuscripts, incidentally.)

Nor is it often the case that we happen to have an array of first readers easily at our disposal — although, again, if you join a good writers’ group, you will in fact have gained precisely that. In the absence of such a preassembled group, though, you can still cobble together the equivalent, if you think long and hard about what individual aspects of your book could use examination. Once you’ve identified these needs, you can ask each of your chosen readers to read very explicitly with an eye to her own area of expertise, so to speak.

In the lifestyle book example above, it was easy to see how readers from different backgrounds could each serve the book. With fiction, however, the book’s various needs may be harder to define. In a pinch, you can always fall back on finding a reader in the same demographic as your protagonist, or even a particular character — I know a lot of teenagers who get a HUGE kick out of critiquing adult writers’ impressions of what teenage characters are like. If a major character is an accountant, try asking an accountant to read the book for professional accuracy. Even if you are writing about vampires or fantasy creatures, chances are that some regular Joes turn up in your stories from time to time. If only as soon-to-be-sucked-dry victims.

And so forth. Specialized readers can be a positive boon to a writer seeking verisimilitude.

More tips follow tomorrow, of course. A heads-up to folks with questions on these and other matters: I may be a bit slower than usual getting back to you over the next couple of weeks. As some of you already know (especially those of you who were within complaining distance of me at any of last week’s many seasonal festivities), an editor at a major publishing house has asked me to revise a novel of mine fairly extensively between now and a mid-January editorial meeting. (For those of you who have been keeping track, this is the second such requested revision within the last three months.) Obviously, this task is sucking up most of my time and attention at the moment. But don’t despair: I shall get to your questions and comments as soon as I can.

Happy Boxing Day, everybody, and as always, keep up the good work!

Getting the feedback you need, Part III: getting your snails from the right chef

As part of my ongoing holiday gift to you this year, dear readers, I devoted yesterday’s post to a few helpful hints on how to get good feedback from non-professional readers. Ideally, of course, you would solicit critique from professional readers, such as agents, editors — freelance and otherwise — and teachers. But agents and editors seldom have time to give significant feedback to people to whose books they haven’t already committed, and both classes and freelance editing can cost serious money.

Yesterday’s hints, as you may have noticed, concentrated on asking the right people to read your manuscript, and for good reason: the wrong first readers can bring tremendous chagrin into a writer’s life, in the form of everything from hyper-harping on insignificant punctuation issues to keeping it for a year without reading it to handing it back to you with no feedback at all. All of these standard first reader problems can be avoided by simply not asking people who are not qualified to critique your book to read your manuscript.

There is, after all, a good deal more to providing useful feedback on a manuscript than simply saying what one did and did not like. That comes as a surprise to many people — including many writers, many of whom automatically assume that being able to write well means being able to edit well. Far from it. The best feedback is both practical, suggesting how and why to make necessary changes, and market-savvy, taking into account both the reader’s personal opinion and the tastes of the target audience.

Do I hear some of you out there harumphing? “Yeah, right,” go the almost-audible grumbles, “she’s a professional writer and editor with a Ph.D. and masses of writer friends. She probably doesn’t think ANYONE is qualified to read a book.”

Actually, depending on your genre or field, a highly-educated person can be the WORST first reader imaginable: attorneys, for instance, are trained specifically to regard anything but brevity as undesirable, and academics to insist that every assertion be backed up with footnotes full of evidence, neither of which would be particularly desirable for, say, a mystery. Nor would a scientist necessarily be the best first reader for a science fiction piece; she might raise all kinds of practical objections to how things work on your imaginary world. You know, the one where both time and gravity run backwards.

And, after all, the best qualification for knowing whether a book will appeal to an audience is being either a member of that particular audience or very familiar with what that audience likes to read. If you were writing for fifth graders, your ideal first readers would be a classroom full of kids, not a symposium full of philosophy professors. Or even, necessarily, a conference room full of child psychologists.

However, astoundingly few aspiring writers actively seek members of their target audiences as first readers for their manuscripts. I throw this question open to you, my friends: if you’re not, why not?

In my informal polling on the subject, the most common answer has been that it’s just easier to ask people the writer already knows — and it turns out that writers aren’t necessarily very aware of what their friends do or do not read. The second most frequent answer — brace yourselves, as it’s a lulu — has been the sheepish (and often astonished, because the responder hadn’t realized it before himself) admission that the writer has simply been handing the book to anyone who said, “Gee, I’d love to read it.”

In other words, most of the writers I ask seem not to be using any selection criteria at all. You’ll pardon me if I collapse briefly on the nearest chaise longue: the very idea makes me a bit faint.

No wonder so many writers have negative experiences with feedback: they’re essentially leaving selection of those vital first readers as much up to chance as if they cut up their local telephone directories, tossed the shards into a hat (a big one, like Abraham Lincoln wore), pulled out a slip of paper randomly, and shouted: “You! You’re my first reader!”

But if most of these same people wanted to find the best escargot in town as an anniversary surprise for their spouses, they wouldn’t simply open the Yellow Pages randomly at the Restaurants section and allow the fickle finger of fate to decide, hoping that the restaurant blindly chosen won’t turn out to serve Icelandic or Korean food instead of French. Sacre bleu, non! They would ask someone they are sure knows a thing or two about garlicky snails before investing in a potentially expensive evening at a restaurant.

There’s no reason to treat your manuscript with less respect. So how do you find a qualified reader? Continuing from yesterday:

Tip #4: ascertain a potential first reader’s reading habits BEFORE you ask her to read your manuscript.

You may feel as though you are conducting a job interview, but honestly, you will be trusting your first readers to hold a significant part of your ego in their hands. You wouldn’t trust your teeth to a dentist without credentials or previous mouth-related experience, would you? Are the nerve endings in your mouth really more sensitive than your feelings about your work?

You need not give potential readers the third degree; take ’em out for coffee and spend half an hour chatting about books. This is also a pretty good strategy to adopt with members of any writing group you are thinking about joining. How a person speaks about her literary likes and dislikes will tell you a lot about whether she is a good reader for your work.

Having this little chat will make it significantly easier for you to implement Tip #5: Get feedback from people in your book’s target audience.

For example, I know an excellent children’s book illustrator who, every time she finishes a rough draft, routinely hangs out with her sketchpad in the picture book sections of bookstores, stopping every kid she sees to ask if the pictures she has just completed match the captions well enough. She gets TERRIFIC feedback, from precisely the right people, not one of whom has any formal affiliation with the publishing industry — and she gets it for free.

Yes, yes, I know: you’re a writer, not a marketer; it’s the publishing house’s job to figure out how to reach your target audience. However, if you are writing for ultimate publication, rather than for your own pleasure, it can only help your chances of success to learn to look critically at your own work, see it as a reader would, and implement that view. Learning who your target reader is — and what your target reader would say about your story — is a necessary but often overlooked part of that process.

On a practical level, too, your chances of pitching and querying your work well will rise astronomically if you give some thought to who your ideal reader might be BEFORE you start submitting your work. And it will definitely win Brownie points with anyone in the industry to be able to say, “I’ve solicited extensive feedback from women aged 35 to 50 (or whatever demographic fits your ideal reader), and they find my protagonist’s dilemma both unique and true-to-life.”

A word to the wise, though: be as specific as possible in describing your demographic; “women everywhere,” “every American citizen,” and “everybody” do not come across to agents and editors as reasonable target audiences. No book appeals to everybody, as they well know, so hyperbole will not serve you well here.

Next time, I shall go through a few more tips on selecting productive first readers, and begin to discuss how to frame your request for feedback in ways that will encourage useful commentary. In the meantime, ponder this: note how I have turned the issue of who makes a good first reader from a question of who your friends are to a question of what does the BOOK need. The single biggest mistake I see good aspiring writers make in seeking feedback is to forget that the feedback process is not about helping the writer, but about helping the manuscript.

To be blunt about it, if you intend to become a professional in this field, your primary goal in soliciting feedback should not be bolstering your ego. That’s what your support system is for, and there is absolutely no shame in saying to those who love you best, or even your best writing friends, “Look, I can get critique from other people, but you are uniquely qualified to give me support. May I give you the job of cheerleader, rather than gym coach?”

Have a lovely holiday weekend, everybody. And keep up the good work!

Getting the feedback you need, Part II: not over the eggnog

I wrote last time (as, indeed, I have written frequently over the last year plus that I have been posting a blog) about the advisability of getting some trustworthy soul to read your work IN ITS ENTIRETY before you send it out to an agent or editor at a small press.

Trustworthy, in this case, means objective, and far too few aspiring writers get honestly objective feedback on their work before they send it out. Instead, they give it to relatives or friends, almost none of whom have any experience giving the kind of feedback good writers need. Nothing against them — I’m sure they’re all lovely people to a man — but what you need is well-informed, practical advice based upon a thorough understanding of your target market.

Translation: it shouldn’t come from people who already love you. Or hate you, for that matter. No matter how supportive, kind, literate, critical, eagle-eyed, or brutally honest your parents may be — and I’m sure that they’re sterling souls — their history with you renders them not the best sources of feedback. One of the miracles of love is that it can blind the eye of the beholder. So the same principle applies to your siblings, your children, your best friend since you were three, and anyone who has ever shared your bed.

ESPECIALLY anyone who has ever shared your bed. Even on a very casual basis. Being horizontal can have the same effect on truthfulness as tears on mascara: things get murky.

Far be it from me to suggest that anyone who cares about you might be sweet and generous enough to lie to spare your feelings, but frankly, it happens. Be grateful that you have such supportive folks in your life. Cherish them; appreciate them; cling to them with the tenacity of an unusually insecure leech. But get other first readers for your manuscripts, because a first reader who will not tell you the truth reliably is simply not useful for a writer.

I’m bringing this up now, since many of us have been known to spend holidays with relatives or friends who say things like, “I’d love to read your novel sometime.” Trust me, it will be better for both your book and your relationships with your loved ones if you thank them profusely — and say no.

I can feel that some of you still aren’t convinced. Perhaps you have kith and kin who just adore giving their unvarnished opinions to you, ostensibly for your own good. “Is it really worth worrying,” I hear voices out there saying, “that the cousin who told me I looked stupid in my prom dress will be afraid to tell me that Chapter Three doesn’t work? Since Grams has no problem telling me that she hates my husband, why should she hesitate to rip my novel to shredsm, if it needs it?”

This is the other primary reason not to ask your loved ones for feedback, even if they are noted for their blithe indifference to any pain their truth-telling might cause to others: if you care about the advice-giver, it’s hard not to be emotionally involved in the response. If your favorite brother critiques your book, rightly or wrongly, it’s probably going to hurt more than if a member of your writing group gives precisely the same advice. And by the same token, the emotional baggage of the relationship, even if it is neatly packed and generally non-obtrusive, may make it harder to hear the advice qua advice.

Also — and I hesitate to bring this up, because, again, I’m sure your kith and kin are marvelous human beings — but critique by loved ones often runs in the other direction, particularly if you happen to be loved by the type the psychologists used to call passive-aggressive. I have had many, many editing clients come to me in tears because their significant others have pounced on the first typo of the manuscript as evidence that the writer should never have put pen to paper at all. Long-repressed sibling rivalries often jump for joy when they see a nice, juicy manuscript to sink their teeth into, and are you quite sure that your best friend ever forgave you for the time that your 4th-grade soccer team beat hers? What you need is feedback on your BOOK, not on your relationships.

Or, at least, that’s what you need in order to improve your book. (The state of your relationships is, of course, up to you.)

Often, too, when you’re dealing with people unused to giving feedback, being overly-judgmental is not even a reflection of their opinions of your book: in many cases, being vicious is what people think giving feedback means. (And if you doubt this, take a gander at the first efforts of most movie reviewers — or, heck, if you happen to live in the Seattle metro region, at the majority of film reviews in the local free paper THE STRANGER, where most of the contributing writers evidently believe that the title “critic” means that they should never, under any circumstances, say anything positive about a movie that might, say, induce a reader to go and see it. Given their editorial philosophy, I’m surprised to see any starred reviews at all in that paper.)

I’m not saying not to show your work to your kith and kin — if it makes you happy, do. But even if your Aunt Mary won a Pulitzer in criticism last year, you probably should not rely solely upon her critique of your manuscript. I speak not just from professional experience, but from familial as well: my mother is one of the best line editors I’ve ever seen. She’s been doing it since the late 1940s, for some pretty top-notch writers. I do show my work to her — as my mother. But for the brutal truth, I rely on my trusty band of tried-and-true first readers.

Yes, I know: finding good first readers is a whole lot of work, especially if you live in a small town. But, at the risk of wearing out the record, if you are going to be called on a mistake, it is FAR better to be a little embarrassed by a good first reader than rejected by a hyper-critical agent, editor, or contest judge. That way, you can fix the mistakes when the stakes are low — and, frankly, you’re far more likely to get usable feedback. If you are one of the many too shy or too busy to show your work to others, yet are willing to send it out to be evaluated by grumpy literary assistants hyped up on seven lattes before lunch, consider carefully whether you really want your first reader to be someone who does not have either the time or the inclination to give you tangible feedback.

Because, really, will “We’re sorry, but your manuscript does not meet our needs at this time?” tell you whether that orgy scene in Chapter 8 is the problem, or if it’s your constant use of the phrase, “Wha–?” You need readers who will tell you just that.

If you belong to a writers’ group, you already have a built-in problem-catching system in place — or you do if you belong to a GOOD writers’ group. If you have been hanging with other writers too kind to tell you about logical holes in your text, grammatical problems, or the fact that your protagonist’s sister was names Myrna for the first hundred pages and Myra thereafter, it really would behoove you to have a few more critical eyes look over your work before you send it out.

Do I hear some of you out there gnashing your teeth? “I HAVE been giving my work to first readers,” I hear you grumbling, “and they never give me feedback. Or they hold onto the manuscript for so long that I’ve already made revisions, so I can’t really use their critique. I’ve gotten SAT scores back faster. Or they so flood me with minute nit-picking that I have no idea whether they even LIKED the manuscript or not. I really feel burned.”

If you do, you are not alone: trust me, every freelance editor has heard these complaints hundreds of times from new clients. In fact, freelance editors ought to be downright grateful for those poor feedback-givers, as they tend to drive writers either to despair or into the office of a professional. At the risk of thinning the ranks of potential editing clients, I have a few suggestions about how to minimize frustrations in the first reader process.

First, never, but NEVER, simply hand a manuscript to a non-professional reader (i.e., someone who is not a professional writer, editor, agent, or teacher) without specifying what KIND of feedback you want.

Why not? Well, all too often, the amateur reader gets so intimidated at the prospect of providing first-class advice that she simply gives no feedback at all — or just keeps putting off reading the manuscript. (Sound familiar?) Alternatively, other readers will run in the other direction, treating every typo as though it were evidence that you should never write another word as long as you live. All of these outcomes will make you unhappy, and might not produce the type of feedback you need.

Second, as I have indicated above, avoid asking relatives and close friends for feedback. If you do have them read it, make a positive statement when you give them the manuscript, limiting what you expect in response:  “I have other readers who will deal with issues of grammar and style,” you can tell your kin, for example. “I want to know if the story moved you.” By telling them up front that you do not expect them to do the work of a professional editor (which at heart, many first-time manuscript readers fear), you will make the process more pleasant for them and heighten the probability that you will get some useful feedback.

Ideally, your best first reader choice (other than a professional reader, such as an editor, agent, or teacher) is a fellow writer in your own genre, preferably a published one. Second best is a good writer in another genre. Third is an excellent reader, one who has read widely and deeply and is familiar with the conventions of your genre.

Which brings me to my third suggestion: stick to readers familiar with your genre. Someone who primarily reads nonfiction is not the best first reader for a novel; an inveterate reader of mysteries is not the best first reader of literary fiction or a how-to book. Readers tend to impose the standards of the books they like best onto anything they read, with results that can sometimes puzzle writers and readers of other genres.

For instance, my fiancé, an SF/fantasy reader since his elementary school days, shocked me on one of our first dates by confessing, in the middle of my rhapsody in praise of John Irving, that he had not been able to make it all the way through THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP. “I found it boring,” he admitted. “Not much happened.”

“A character gets castrated in mid-car crash,” I pointed out, stunned. “How much more action do you want?”

From his reading background, though, he was right: it’s rare that more than a page goes by in a good SF novel without overt action, and mainstream novels tend to be devoid of, say, time travel. John Irving would be wise, then, to avoid him as a first reader.

As would I — and here’s where I see if you’ve been paying attention: why SHOULDN’T I use my SF-loving boyfriend as a first reader?

If your first impulse was to cry out, “He’s double-disqualified! He’s more or less kith and kin, AND he doesn’t read memoirs on a regular basis!” you get an A.

Tomorrow, holiday and revision conditions permitting, I shall share a few more hints on how to minimize first reader disappointments. In the meantime, enjoy the holidays, and keep up the good work!

Getting the feedback you need — and deserve

Given that from now until after the last New Year’s hangover has receded into memory is a publishing world dead zone, a time of internal reassessment when query letters are seldom read, to be followed by the annual avalanche of New Year’s resolution query letters in January, now is a lovely time to take a break from querying. It’s a great time to be revising your own work with an eye to sending it out afresh to agents, editors, and conferences, to clear it of those little gaffes that make you smack yourself in the head when you catch them AFTER the submission’s in the mail.

It’s revision time, boys and girls.

This, I know, will make some of my long-term readers giggle. When, you may well be wondering, does Anne think it ISN’T a good time to revise a manuscript? Or, at the very least, to scan it for common mistakes and deviations from standard format?

Yes, yes, I am the high priestess of manuscript perfection, but as I find it a trifle difficult to believe that anyone who has been reading this blog for a while isn’t aware by now WHY I preach that particular gospel, I shan’t explain again. But I shall reiterate: it is absolutely vital to clear your manuscript (and query letter, and synopsis) of spelling and grammatical errors, pronto.

In this effort, DO NOT rely upon your word processing program’s spelling and grammar checker. As any professional editor will tell you, they tend to be rife with technical errors — mine, for instance, regularly tells me to use the wrong form of there, their, and they’re — and it’s far too easy for a slip of the mouse to convince your dictionary to accept “caseless” when you mean “ceaseless.”

Spell check, by all means, but I implore you, do not let that be your only means of proofreading. There is no substitute for the good ol’ human eye running down a printed page of text for catching errors.

Why not proof on your computer monitor? Because, as any editor will happily tell you, the screen is not the best place to proofread, even if you read every syllable aloud (which I recommend, particularly for novels that contain quite a bit of dialogue). It’s just too easy for the eyes and the brain to blur momentarily in the editing process, making you skip an error.

Yes, even if you have a simply massive computer screen — this is an instance where size truly doesn’t matter. Since I edit professionally, I have a monitor that could easily balance a small litter of puppies on it. But I ALWAYS use hard copy for a final edit, both for my work and for my clients’. As my downstairs neighbor would, I’m sure, be overjoyed to tell you, if a deadline is close, I’m going to be sitting in my library, reading the relevant manuscript in its entirety, in hard copy, out loud.

I’m funny that way.

After you have proofed and poked the slower movements of your text, I STRONGLY urge you to have at least one third party reader take a gander at the text. It is NOT the best idea in the world to be the only eyes who see your work before it lands on an agent’s or editor’s desk. Gaining some outside perspective, via a trustworthy first reader, has many benefits — most notably, good pre-submission feedback can enable you to weed out the rookie mistakes that tend to result in automatic turndowns from professionals. Like misspelling your own name or address on the title page — which happens more than you might think.

Hey, people are in a hurry.

Other than the simple fact that other eyes are more likely to catch mistakes than you are the 147th time you read a text, there is another reason that you should run your work by another human being before you submit them. I tremble to report this, but it is very, very common for writers to send off the first chapter or three of their novels WITHOUT EVER HAVING ANYONE ELSE READ THEM. The result: for many writers, the agent’s feedback is the first time many writers EVER get an outside opinion of their work.

And, as those of you who followed me through the November list of rejection reasons know, that feedback is usually either minimal or non-existent. Not, in any case, feedback that’s likely to help a writer improve his work before the next round of submissions.

Select wisely your first reader wisely, preferably another writer, rather than a friend, lover, or — sacre bleu! — a family member. Long-term readers, chant it along with me now: the input of your best friend, your mother, your siblings, and/or your lover (s), however charming it may be, is unlikely to yield the kind of concrete, tangible feedback every writer needs.

No offense to your kith and kin, but it’s true. Ties of affection do not necessarily good readers make.

Since holiday time is notorious for prompting one’s relatives to ask, “So, dear, how’s your writing coming? Published anything yet?” I thought this might be a good moment to remind you of this unfortunate fact. The closer the tie, the lower the objectivity — and no, smart people are not exempt from this rule. Even if your mother runs a major publishing house for a living, your brother is a high-flying agent, and your lover reviews major novelists regularly for THE WASHINGTON POST, they are unlikely to have the perspective necessary to give you objective feedback.

Nor should they have to, really. It’s their job to make you feel better about yourself — or to make you feel worse about yourself, depending upon your taste in relationships and familial patterns.

So when your Aunt Gladys says she’d just LOVE your manuscript (and trust me, at some point, she will; everyone likes the idea of getting a free advance peek at the next big bestseller), I give you my full permission to use me as your excuse for saying no. Do it politely, of course: “I’m sorry, but I’ve been advised by a professional editor that until I find an agent, I need to limit myself to objective readers,” or “I’d love to, Aunt Gladys, but I have a writing group for feedback — what I need you for is support!” tends to go over MUCH better than, “What, are you just trying to get out of buying a copy of the book?”

And for those of you who already have agents: break yourself of the habit NOW of promising free copies of your future books to your kith and kin. Since authors now receive so few copies — and are often expected to use those for promotion — it’s really, really common for the writer to end up having to BUY those promised freebies to distribute.

Get Aunt Gladys used to the idea that supporting you means being willing to shell out hard cash for your book. Promise to sign it for her instead.

But I digress. If you haven’t shown your writing to another trustworthy soul — be it through sharing it with a writers’ group, workshopping it, having it edited professionally, or asking a great reader whom you know will tell you the absolute truth — you haven’t gotten an adequate level of objective feedback. I know it seems as though I’m harping on this point, but I regularly meet aspiring writers who have sent out what they thought was beautifully-polished work to an agent without having run it by anyone else — only to be devastated to realize that the manuscript contained some very basic mistake that objective eyes would have caught easily.

Trust me, wailing, “But my husband/wife/second cousin just loved it!” will not help you at that juncture.

And emotionally, what are you doing when you send out virgin material to a stranger who, after all, has the institutional ability to change your life by bringing your book to publication? It’s the equivalent of bypassing everyone you know in getting an opinion on your fancy new hairdo and going straight to the head of a modeling agency. Professionals have no reason to pull their punches; if a publishing professional does take the time to critique your work, the criticism comes absolutely unvarnished. Even when rejection is tactful, naturally, with the stakes so high for the author, any negative criticism feels like being whacked on the head with a great big rock.

I’m trying to save you some headaches here.

But even as I write this, I know there are some ultra-shy or ultra-independent Emily Dickinson types out there who prefer to write in absolute solitude — then cast their work upon the world, to make its way as best it can on its own merits. No matter what I say, I know you hardy souls would rather be drawn and quartered than to join a writers’ group, wouldn’t you? You are going to persist in deciding that you, and only you, are the best judge of when your work is finished.

And maybe you are right.

I am not saying that a writer can’t be a good judge of her own work — she can, if she has a good eye, and sufficient time to gain perspective on it. I would be the last person to trot out that tired old axiom about killing your darlings; hands up, everyone who has attended a writers’ workshop and seen a promising piece that needed work darling-chopped into a piece of consistent mediocrity. CONSIDERING killing your pet phrases is often good advice, but for a writer with talent, the writer’s pet phrases are often genuinely the best part of the work.

However, until you get an objective opinion, you cannot know for sure how good your own eye is — and isn’t it just a trifle masochistic to use your big shot at catching an agent’s attention as your litmus test for whether you are right about your own editing skills? Even if you find only one person whom you can trust to tell you the absolute truth, your writing will benefit from your bravery if you ask for honestly locally first.

Ideally, you would run your submission materials past your writing group, or a freelance editor familiar with your genre, or a published writer IN YOUR GENRE. (No matter how good a poet is, her advice on your nonfiction tome on house-building is unlikely to be very market-savvy, unless she happens to read a lot of house-building books.) However, not all of us have those kinds of connections or resources. Professional editing, after all, isn’t particularly cheap, nor are the writing conferences where you are likely to meet writers in your field. (And even then, it’s considered pretty darned rude for an aspiring writer to walk up to a total stranger, however famous, and hand him a manuscript for critique. As in any relationship, there are social niceties to be observed first.)

In a pinch, you can always pick the most voracious reader you know or the person so proud of her English skills that she regularly corrects people in conversation. My litmus test is whether the potential reader knows the difference between “farther” and “further” — yes, they actually mean different things, technically — and uses “momentarily” in its proper form, which is almost never heard in spoken English anymore. (Poor momentarily has been so abused that some benighted dictionary editors now define it both as “for a moment” — its time-honored meaning — AND “in a moment,” as we so often hear on airplanes: “We will be airborne momentarily…” Trust me, you wouldn’t want to be in a plane that was only momentarily airborne… unless you have a serious death wish.)

In tomorrow’s post, I shall talk about strategies for getting the kind of good, solid feedback you need without treating your first readers like mere service-providers. (If you want to do this without engendering social obligations, you really should be working with a paid professional freelancer, rather than your friends.) Until then, keep up the good work!

Eye on the prize: living with feedback

I missed posting yesterday, because I was so busy getting my computer up and running again. Lots of programs to be reinstalled, iTunes to download (again! They change the program fundamentally every 20 minutes or so, apparently), and of course, backed-up documents to re-install. Because I am positively religious about making back-ups, I lost only about 4 days’ worth of work; phew!

And because I haven’t nagged you about it in a week or so: when’s the last time YOU backed up your writing projects?

I have also been letting some editorial feedback sink in: an editor at a publishing house has asked for a second round of revisions, some of which, at least at first glance, appear to contradict the last set of revision requests. Naturally, I’ll make the revisions, but I’ve learned from long experience to let them float around in my consciousness for a while before I head back to the manuscript. Much better to get the inevitable period of post-feedback grumpiness out of one’s system before rolling up the sleeves, I find.

Why is this a good idea? Well, a writer’s first response to critique tends to be emotional, rather than practical. Understandable, certainly, the need to trouble the air with bootless cries of, “Why does no one understand me?” for a day or two, but while in that neighbor-disturbing state, it’s hard to see the manuscript in question as a product to be marketed, rather than one’s baby who has just been attacked on the playground by a great, big, blue-pencil-wielding bully. And one does definitely need to think clearly and strategically in order to turn a manuscript around quickly.

Say, by Epiphany.

Naturally, that’s a bit of an exaggeration: I could probably get away with taking 3 weeks to rearrange the book completely, rather than 2.

Shocked? Don’t be: I really haven’t been kidding all this time about the wait-wait-wait-wait-read-I NEED IT NOW-wait-wait-REVISE THIS AND OVERNIGHT IT! rhythm of the publishing industry. Writers often panic at the wrong points — thinking, for instance, that they have to get requested materials out the door within a week of receiving the request, because that agent or editor is holding his breath, waiting for it.

Just so you know, there is no case on record of an agent being carted off to a hospital due to having turned blue in such a case.

The British comedy team of French & Saunders does a wonderful sketch, a scene between an author and her editor. They’re negotiating when the author needs to produce particular parts of the manuscript (“I could give you the first letter by the end of the year.” “Only a letter?” “Well, it would be a capital letter…”), and the editor is becoming increasingly agitated. At the end of the scene, she confesses that the book in question is their only book on contract, and the staff at her publishing house have absolutely nothing to do until the author turns in the manuscript.

You may laugh, but actually, this isn’t all that far from how many submitting authors think about agencies — or how many agented writers think of publishing houses, for that matter. It’s hard for even very experienced writers not to expect a more or less instantaneous response to their submissions, as if the agent or editor did not have any other projects. But realistically, they do.

This is not to say that it isn’t important that you meet your deadlines, of course, and naturally, you will want to get your requested materials in before you fade completely from living memory. But over the course of my writing and freelance editing careers, I have spoken with thousands of writers in I-must-get-this-out-the-door-now frenzies, and in the vast majority of cases, it’s the writer who has set the stress-inducing deadline — not the agent, not the editor. You may think that you have to revise your entire book in two weeks, because you received a letter asking to see the rest of your manuscript, but the fact is, if you send it in three or six, that’s within the same ballpark, as far as the industry is concerned.

And that’s why, in case you’re wondering, folks in the industry consider a 3+ month response time on a submitted manuscript acceptable. Particularly on novels. Their rationale is that, no matter how talented a writer is, or how marketable a story may be, the average reader is not on tenterhooks, refusing to buy any other novels until that writer’s comes out.

Go ahead, be appalled by this attitude. But you must admit, it does explain a lot about how agents and editors treat aspiring writers.

Although we writers seldom admit it in public, deep down, most of us do like to believe that there are people out there, bless them, who will rush out to buy our books simply because WE have written them, not because they contain information that the reader wants or a style the reader finds appealing. “My God!” our ideal readers cry. “I hadn’t known it, but I have been searching for this authorial voice all of my life!”

One of the cruelest awakenings most good writers have when they first start sending their work out to agents is the cold realization that in fact, the agency is not being overrun by editors clamoring specifically for their books’ particular prose stylings or wryly unusual worldviews. Nor are there necessarily already-established market niches for every well-written book.

How a writer deals with this first significant disappointment — whether she takes it as a challenge to refine her work, her pitch, and her bag of writer’s tools instantly, curls up in a ball and never sends anything out again, or chooses a path somewhere in between — is, although hidden from the world, one of the best indicators of future writing success. Because the ones who are willing to acknowledge that writing isn’t just self-expression, but also a business, stand a better chance of ultimately being able to tailor their work to an agent or editor’s liking.

I don’t mean to say that you will be best served by pretending that rejection does not hurt — it does. But hurt can lead to reevaluation, and reevaluation can lead to the breaking of bad habits. Not to mention toughening you up for the sterling moment when your agent tells you that five of the first ten editors who read your book ALMOST bought it, and the rest hated it.

The farther along you get in your writing career, the bigger the slap-in-your-face realizations become. (Imagine being the first runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize!) The earlier in your journey that you learn to accept rejection as a learning experience, the better off you will be later on.

Or, to put it in terms of me, me, me, if I hadn’t spent years developing revision, editing, and speed-writing skills, I would just have to throw up my hands right now in despair at meeting me very un-imaginary deadline. I hadn’t trained my kith and kin to respect the value of my work to me enough to expect that I would disappear into a revision frenzy at times like this, even with Christmas so few days away, everyone concerned would be far unhappier at the moment. And if I hadn’t schooled myself in recovering from the shock of critique rapidly, so I could get to work rationally and well, my book would be toast right now.

I did not acquire these skills overnight. In fact, if I’m honest, I have to report that I am still abjectly furious about the first high-handed editorial change anyone ever made to my work.

I was ten years old, and as crossing guard of the year, I had been selected to write and give a thank-you speech at the annual luncheon honoring parent volunteers at my elementary school. (Actually, they’ve never asked the crossing guard of the year to give the speech before or since, so my appointment to this coveted post may well have had more to do with my already fairly well-established writing abilities than with my whistle-blowing acumen.) I wrote the speech, a rather florid little number jam-packed with superlatives, and submitted it to my teacher and the principal for approval.

On the day before I was to give it, the manuscript was returned to me, unwisely marked with red pen at the end. If I close my eyes, I can still picture it: my teacher and principal had conspired to change, “We send you much love and many kisses” to “We send you mucho love and kisses.”

Instantly, I set up the time-honored writer’s howl of protest. “It’s stupid!” I cried. “And it isn’t grammatically correct in either English or Spanish!”
For the record, the average fifth-grade teacher does not like to be told that her students have a better grasp of grammar than she does. Even when it’s true. Perhaps even especially when it’s true. “It’s cuter that way, dear,” she assured me. “Everyone will love it.”

This was my first experience with editorial obtuseness toward authorial feelings, so I actually said what all of us think when we’re edited badly: “I don’t care if they love it. I’m afraid that they’re going to think that I wrote it wrong!”

I was loudly and harshly overruled, and the bad edit stayed. My teacher watched me like a lynx in the hours leading up to the speech, muttering threats under her breath as she led me up to the microphone, lest I revert to the pre-edited, grammatically-correct version.

Much to my astonishment, the adults in the room did burst into loud guffaws when I said the dreaded line in her version. It brought down the house. My teacher, mirabile dictu, had been right about what my target market wanted: a little girl in braids, spouting grammatical incorrectness. Who knew?

If you’re reading this, Mrs. Strong, I still think you were wrong. I was more than cute enough to have pulled off correct grammar.

I did, however, learn two valuable lessons that have served me well throughout my subsequent writing career. First, when people who are bigger and more powerful than you are decide to be wrong, they can generally get away with it. From schoolhouse to publishing house, I have found this to be consistently true.

Second, most of the time, when you make a small mistake, readers do not generally howl down the house or toss the publication straight into the fireplace. As my long-ago ballet teacher was fond of saying, the audience doesn’t know the steps; it’s your style that they notice, not your technical perfection.

The latter may seem like an odd observation to those of you who have spent months reading my repeated exhortations to make your submissions to editors and agents letter-perfect, but it is nonetheless true. The readers who are out there waiting to buy your books are not going to hold a few stray editor-induced lapses against you; everybody knows that the writer doesn’t do the final proofreading on a piece.

While it’s always annoying and hurtful to have your words changed before your eyes, chances are, the changes you are being asked to make will not brand the whole work as illiterate, or destroy your hard-won style. Relax a little, and realize that your agent and/or editor are, in schoolyard terms, far bigger than you are.

How I responded to that first editorial jab — with an initial fight, a begrudging acceptance of the inevitable, a workmanlike willingness to make the best of bad advice, and apparently, decades of residual resentment — has been, I must confess, absolutely indicative of how I respond today. I have been able to professionalize my behavior, but in my heart, I am still that irritated ten-year-old whenever I see the swipe of an editorial pen.

Ask me in thirty years what I was asked to change in my novel today; I’ll probably be able to tell you. But I will make the changes.

Mucho love and kisses, everyone, and keep up the good work!

The passive protagonist, part II

Yesterday, I went on a rampage about one of the most common of manuscript megaproblems (after show, don’t tell, the top pick on almost any professional reader’s hit parade), the passive protagonist, the main character who is primarily an observer of the plot, rather than an active participant in it. Things happen to the passive protagonist, rather than his internal drives moving the plot along.

The passive protagonist is easily recognizable by the characteristic stripes of the species. He’s a courteous fellow, typically, always eager to step aside and let somebody else take the lead. Almost all of his turmoil is in his head; he tends to be rather polite verbally, reserving his most pointed barbs for internal monologue. Why, his boss/friend/wife/arch enemy can taunt him for half the book before he makes a peep — and then, it’s often indirect: he’ll vent at somebody else.

The passive protagonist is a fellow who has taken to heart Ben Franklin’s much-beloved maxim, “He in quarrels interpose/must often wipe a bloody nose.” He just doesn’t want to get INVOLVED, you know?

Oh, he SAYS he does, and certainly THINKS he does, but deep down, he’s a voyeur. All he really wants is for the bad things happening to him to be happening to somebody else four feet away.

As a result, he watches conflict between other characters without intervening, as if they were on TV. Frequently, he takes his gentlemanly reticence even farther, solving mysteries by showing up, being recognized (often as “that troublemaker,” amusingly enough), and having people he has never met before blurt out their entire life stories, or at any rate the key to the plot.

But that’s not all the passive protagonist doesn’t do — often, he’s a charming, well-rounded lump of inactivity. He sits around and worries about a situation for pages at a time before doing anything about it (if, indeed, he does do anything about it at all). He talks it all over with his best friend for a chapter before taking action (see parenthetical disclaimer at the end of the previous sentence). Even in the wake of discovering ostensibly life-changing (or -threatening) revelations, he takes the time to pay attention to the niceties of life; he is not the type to leave the family dinnertable just because he’s doomed to die in 24 hours.

Romantically, he’s a very slow mover, too; he’s the grown-up version of that boy in your fifth-grade class who had a crush upon you that he had no language to express, so he yanked on your pigtails. (It’s amazing, isn’t it, how many adults never seem to outgrow that phase?) He’s been known to yearn at the love of his life for two-thirds of a book without saying word one to her. Perhaps, his subconscious figures, she will spontaneously decide she likes me with no effort on my part — and astonishingly, half the time, his subconscious ends up being right about this!

Or, even better, perhaps a personal or life-threatening disaster epidemic will sweep through Metropolis, and that woman I am afraid of because

(a) she is smart
(b) she is beautiful
(c) she is rich
(d) she is from the other side of the tracks
(e) she is afflicted with that movie script iciness that always seems to accompany post-graduate degrees on film, and/or
(f) the plot requires it

will suddenly either come to me for help (“Got a match, Mr. Hardboiled Detective?”) or we will have to save the world together. In the midst of conflict that is bigger than the both of us, we will inevitably fall in love — because, really, we won’t have the time to fall in love with anybody else, what with saving the world and all.

You’ve seen that movie a million times, right? So have agents, editors, and contest judges. And they, like most of us, probably have their moments of adolescent yearning when they long to have the entire universe rearrange itself around them, in order to get them what they want.

But the fact is, as appealing as that fantasy is, it is very hard to turn into an exciting plot. So hard, in fact, that it’s not uncommon for agency screeners to be told to use the protagonist’s passivity for more than a page as a reason to reject a submission.

Yes, you read that correctly: more than a PAGE.

Given the dislike the industry exhibits toward this manuscript megaproblem, you’d think agents and editors would tell writers about it more — but once again, this is a phenomenon about which folks in the industry complain early and often, but seldom to writers.

As is the case with so many basic facts of publishing, they DO talk about it at conferences — but usually in terms that you’d have to read 50 manuscripts a week to understand. “I didn’t identify with the character” is a fairly common euphemism for Passive Protagonist Syndrome, as well as, “I didn’t like the main character enough to follow him through an entire book.” That, and, “There isn’t enough conflict here.”

“Wait just a minute!” I hear some of you out there protesting. “There’s an entire universe of reasons that a reader could feel alienated from a protagonist, and most of them have nothing to do with passivity. Why would these phrases necessarily signal that the underlying problem was that the protagonist was not involved enough in the action?”

Good question, imaginary readers, and one with a pretty straightforward answer: you’re right; sometimes these excuses do refer to other problems in a submission. However, since protagonist passivity is SUCH a common manuscript megaproblem, these phrases have come to be identified with it.

Because there are other possibilities, though, it’s a good idea to ask yourself an array of questions about a scene where you suspect your protagonist is not taking an active enough role in, well, his own life. If you can honestly answer yes to all of them, chances are good that you don’t have a passivity problem on your hands.

Fair warning: they’re not the questions most novelists would most like to hear asked of their books, but trust me, it’s better to ask them yourself (or have a reader you trust ask them) than to have an agent, editor, or contest judge snarl them at your submission when you’re not in the room. No, as I can tell you from long experience, they’re the kind of questions good writers get huffy about when a freelance editor or writing group member asks them — and then go home and ponder for a month. I’m just trying to speed up your pondering process.

(1) Is it clear why these events happening to my protagonist, rather than to someone else?  (Hint:  “Because the book’s ABOUT my protagonist!” is not an insufficient answer, professionally speaking.)

(2) Does the scene reveal significant aspects of my protagonist’s character that have not yet been seen in the book? Does it change the protagonist’s situation with respect to the plot? If not, is this scene absolutely necessary?

(3) Is there conflict on every page of this scene? Is my protagonist causing some of the conflict?

(4) Does the conflict arise organically? In other words, does it seem to be a natural outcropping of a person with my protagonist’s passions, skills, and background walking into this particular situation?

(5) Is my protagonist doing or saying something to try to affect the outcome or change the relationships here?

To put it another way, assuming that either the plot or the interrelationships between the characters is somehow different after the scene than before it (and if it isn’t, you might want to look into tightening up the plot), was the protagonist integrally involved in that change, or merely an observer of it?

(6) If my protagonist is not saying much (or anything), does he care about what’s going on? If he doesn’t feel that the situation warrants intervention yet, are the stakes high enough for the reader to worry about the outcome of this conflict? If not, is this scene necessary to keep?

This last may seem like a harsh assessment, but make no mistake about it, to someone who reads hundreds of submissions, a protagonist who observes conflict, rather than getting actively involved in it, seems as though he doesn’t care very much about what’s going on. Or, to translate this into the language agents and editors use: if the protagonist isn’t passionate about what’s going on here, why should the reader be?

To be fair, this assumption may not have as much to do with your manuscript as with the last fifty manuscripts the screener read, half of which opened with slice-of-life vignettes that demonstrated conclusively that the protagonist was a really nice person who did everything she could to avoid conflict. After a couple of dozen of these, rude and pushy starts to seem rather refreshing.

Agents and editors like to see themselves as people of action, dashing swashbucklers who wade through oceans of the ordinary to snatch up the golden treasure of the next bestseller, preferably mere seconds before the other pirates spot it. Protagonists who go for what they want tend to appeal to them.

More, at any rate, then they seem to appeal to most writers. After many years of reading manuscripts, I have come to suspect that writers identify with passive protagonists much, much more than other people do. There’s good reason for it, of course: we writers spend a lot of time and energy watching the world around us, capturing trenchant observations and seeing relationships in ways nobody ever has before.

So we tend to think of people who do this as likeable. Not, as folks in the industry tend to think of hyper-observational characters, as boring.

And, come on, admit it: one of the great fringe benefits of the craft is the delightful ability to make one’s after-the-fact observations on a situation appear to be the protagonist’s first reactions. That, and recasting people who are mean to us as villains in our books. (Not that any of the people who’ve been threatening my publisher over my memoir are turning up in my next novel or anything.)

And while both are probably pretty healthy responses, emotionally speaking, it’s also the kind of passive-aggressive way of dealing with the world that doesn’t work so well when a protagonist does it. We all tend to have some residual affection for our own foibles, don’t we?

The cumulative effect of writerly affection for characters who are acted upon has been, alas, a veritable ever-flowing Niagra Falls of submissions containing passive protagonists. And that is why, boys and girls, agents, editors, and contest judges have gotten pretty tired of them.

If only they could motivate themselves to DO something about it. Oh, well, if they wait around and resent it for long enough, the phenomenon’s sure to change by itself, right?

Keep up the good work!

Get your characters into the game!

My, how conducive having one’s computer out of the house is to intensive reading:  even during the last few days’ power outages, I have been spending much of my time huddled by a window or endangering my eyebrows by bending over a sputtering candle, in an effort to throw enough light upon my book.  I’ve been feeling like Abraham Lincoln, studying in his log cabin.

Windstorms, the source of the recent, lengthy power outages in my neck of the woods, were very common in the small vineyard town where I grew up.  (A child’s living a mile and a half from the nearest potential non-sibling playmate is also very conducive to intensive reading, as it turns out.)  Wind-toppled live oaks took out fences, garages, etc, all the time.  Consequently, I always know where my candles are, and how to find the matches in the dark.

When I was a senior in high school, one especially salutary windstorm brought a tree branch down upon the object I hated most in the world:  the 20-foot-high sign that I, as the luckless Commisioner of Publicity and Assemblies (the things we’ll do for college application candy, eh?) was doomed to mount with a ladder every week to post notices of upcoming football games, musicals, spelling bees, and other events not likely to be of interest to the tourists driving along Highway 29, searching for wineries with offering free tastings.  The morning after the storm, the sign was such a mangled mess that I could not even wrest most of the hand-high metal letters off it.

Gravity is sometimes a very lovely thing.  It took weeks for the school to erect a replacement sign.

That was not the only miracle that occured during that particular windstorm.  Another occured at the religious retreat center just outside of town. (Or, to be accurate, at ONE of the religious retreat centers, the establishment owned by the same church that until fairly recently owned a monk-administered winery in town, not the Moonie encampment or the former commune inhabited by a guru who, a few short years later, would abscond to Tahiti with most of the ashram’s money and one of his youngest devotees.) A charming clearing in the midst of a thicket of oak and eucalyptus trees housed a marble statue of — well, let’s just say Somebody’s Mother.  The morning after the sign-destroying windstorm, the tidying groundsman walked into the clearing to discover that four trees had fallen into it.

Somebody up there must be awfully fond of statuary, or at least like it a whole lot better than garages, for all four missed Good Ol’ Mom by a matter of inches.

I’ve thinking of that pale little statue over the last couple of days, just standing there, pensively witnessing the carnage around her, helpless to do anything to save herself from falling timber — and not just because of the windstorms.  No, she popped to mind as an exemplar of a common companion issue submissions with my last post’s Manuscript Megaproblem (show, don’t tell) often have as well:  the protagonist who remains passive in the midst of plot-moving action and/or character-revealing conflict, merely observing it.

Or, to put it in the language of the Idol rejection reasons (see October 31rst’s post, if that reference means nothing to you), that little statue was afraid to speak; she opened his mouth, but nothing came out; she didn’t trust herself enough to reply; she sat there, waiting for the information to sink in. All of these phrases are common enough signposts of a passive protagonist that, as we saw on the Idol rejection, they are now regarded as cliches in their own right.

This is not to say that passivity does not frequently occur in real life — it undoubtedly does.  TV, sports, and movies have certainly encouraged us all to be mere observers of life around us. But that doesn’t mean that it will work on the printed page.

In fact, it usually doesn’t.  A protagonist who is more of an observer than a doer can slow a novel’s pace down to a crawl — and in the early pages of a submission, a plot’s not maintaining at least a walking pace can be fatal.

And the sad thing is, writers seldom make their protagonists passive on purpose, any more than they tend to wake up in the morning, stretch, and say, “You know, I think that I should be telling rather than showing in my writing today!”

Here’s how it usually happens in otherwise solid, well-writen submissions.  The writer has established the protagonist as an interesting character in an interesting situation — well done.  The protagonist encounters a thorny problem that requires thought or discussion to solve.  (Writers LOVE working through logical possibilities in their heads, so their protagonists seldom lack for mulling material.) So the protagonist dons her proverbial thinking cap…

…and two pages later, she’s still running through the possibilities, which are often very interesting.  Interesting enough, in fact, that they would have made perfectly dandy scenes, had the author chosen to present them as live-action scenes that actually occurred.  Instead, they are summarized in a few lines, told, rather than shown.


Or the protagonist encounters another character, one with whom there is genuine, organic conflict — again, well done.  But instead of speaking up, the protagonist just THINKS about how annoying/wrong/murderous the other character is, effectively deferring the conflict to another scene.  So instead of the protagonist’s anger/rightness/suspicions fueling the scene in a way that moves the plot along, the protagonist watches as the plot moves past him.

Um, shouldn’t the protagonist have caught that bus?

In both cases, action happens TO these characters, rather than the characters’ passions influencing the action, driving the plot along.

Agents, editors, contest judges, and even members of book groups complain frequently and vociferously about passive protagonists —  and as an editor, it’s a pet peeve of mine, too, I must admit.  I suspect this feeling is shared is shared by many bloggers:  for every thousand readers of a post, perhaps 4 or 5 post comments — and of those, at least two are commercial links to other websites. As a result (and if you visit many writers’ sites on the web, you’ve probably already noticed this), bloggers tend over time to gear their content to the responders more than to the more passive members of their readerships.

If a blogger posts in the middle of the woods, and nobody responds, did the post make any noise?

But I digress. Protagonists who feel sorry for themselves are particularly prone to being mere observers: life happens to them, and they react to it.  Oh, how lucidly they resent the forces that act upon them, while they wait around for those forces to strike back at them again!  How redolent of feeling do the juices in which they are stewing become!

This is fine for a scene or two, but remember, agents, editors, and contest screeners are not noted for being fond of reading for pages and pages to find out where the plot is taking them.  Try to avoid toying with their impatience for too long.  Remember, professional readers measure their waiting time in lines of text, not pages.

To say that they bore easily is like saying that you might get a touch chilly if you visited the North Pole without a coat:  true, yes, but something of an understatement, and one that might get you hurt if you relied upon it too literally.

When in doubt about how long is too long, ask yourself this:  is there something my protagonist could DO here, however small or misguided, that would affect the status quo?  If I had him do it, would the part where he thinks/talks/worries about the situation for X lines/pages/paragraphs be necessary, or could I cut it?

I hear some grumbling out there (we bloggers have to develop superhuman hearing in order to hear those of you who don’t post comments, you know):  yes, there are plenty of good books where the protagonists sit around and think about things for chapters at a time.

But before you start quoting 19th-century novelists who habitually had their leads agonize for a hundred pages or so before doing anything whatsoever, ask yourself this:  how many novels of this ilk can you name that were published within the last five years?  Written by first-time novelists?  Okay, how about ones NOT first published in the British Isles?

Come up with many?  If you did, could you pass their agents’ names along to the rest of us with all possible speed?

Because, honestly, in the current very tight fiction market, there aren’t many North American agents who express this preference — and still fewer who act upon it in establishing their client lists.  They see beautiful writing where not much happens more than you might think.

That’s not to say that there isn’t an agent out there who would be fascinated by a well-written, first-person narrative from the point of view of that little marble statue in the middle of that wooded retreat.  Her thoughts as she stood there, motionless, as hundred-year-old oaks crashed down around her might well be priceless.  However, at some point, even the most patient agent — or editor, or contest judge, or screener — is going to want her to get the heck off her static pedestal and DO something.

Tomorrow (or whenever the local windstorms allow me the necessary electricity to post again), I shall talk about how to tell if your protagonist needs to get a more on.  In the meantime, watch out for falling trees, everybody, and keep up the good work!

Show, don’t tell, or, what The Da Vinci Code movie can teach writers about constructing a narrative

When a writer’s computer is in the shop, she is forced, alas, to try to figure out the mysterious phenomenon known as leisure time. What is it for, and how does one fill it?

For a serious writer under normal circumstances, the equation is very simple: time not absolutely dedicated to positively unavoidable pursuits — such as eating, sleeping, resenting one’s coworkers, etc. — is automatically writing time. But were you aware that there are people out there who DON’T use every second of their spare time to create things?

I know. Incomprehensible, isn’t it?

Apparently, people who don’t write fill their time in other ways — and not always with reading, as much as we might like them to do so in order to create demand for our books. No, they do things like having conversations with their significant others, watching television, playing sports, and climbing Mt. Kilamanjaro. The array is honestly dazzling.

At least, if my significant other is to be believed while he’s still in shock at seeing me outside my studio more than twice per day. Witnessing a minor miracle can play havoc with one’s reasoning skills.

In order to introduce me to this sort of “normalcy,” he rented the movie THE DA VINCI CODE — since I essentially spent the entire summer either locked in my studio or away at writers’ conferences, or writing this blog, I had missed the hype about it, which apparently was considerable. Now, I haven’t read the book, so I did not walk in with preconceptions about the story (other than the complaints one always hears about mega-sellers on the writers’ grapevine), but I must admit, I have never forgiven Ron Howard for A BEAUTIFUL MIND. It seems to me that if you’re going to tell the story of a Nobel Prize-winning mathematician, and you profess to present his most famous theory on screen, you have at least a minor ethical obligation to present that theory correctly. Oh, and not to change a real-life story to encourage women to place their children in life-threatening situations on a daily basis. Little things like that.

But I digress — you see what mixing in the real world does to you? In any case, I wasn’t expecting much, other than perhaps some nice ranting opportunities for Sir Ian McKellen, who doesn’t seem to be hurting for them these days.

Little did I anticipate, therefore, what a gold mine of writing advice the movie would be! I didn’t start keeping track until about 20 minutes in, of course, but according to my informal hash marks, a good 90% of the relevant plot elements were given verbally by one of the characters, rather than shown by action. The plot was so reliant on spoken details that the screenplay could, with practically no modifications, have been used as a radio play.

Seldom, if ever, have I seen on screen a better illustration of the oft-given writing advice SHOW, DON’T TELL. This movie was positively aversion therapy for writers who favor telling their stories indirectly. As a writer on writing, if not as a viewer, I was in ecstacy.

Why is shoving most of the relevant plot elements into the characters’ mouths problematic? Leaving aside for the moment that film is, after all, a visual medium, and thus film buffs might reasonably be expected to be given information via, say, images or action, it’s just boring for the audience to receive so much of the important details through their ears.

In writing, as in film, it’s more entertaining if the author mixes up the means of conveying information. If interesting things are happening offstage, for instance, why not show the viewers that offstage scene, instead of making us listen to a summary of it? If an element important to the plot happened in the dim past, why not show a scene set in that dim past, featuring actual characters, rather than forcing the audience to sit through a silent version narrated by a voice-over?

The problem of telling a story indirectly arises very, very frequently in fiction manuscripts: all too often, essential plot points are conveyed either in narrative summary bursts or, even more frequently, by the protagonist’s going and finding someone to tell him or her a long-winded story that provides the relevant background.

The long, Spielberg-like explanatory exposition from a character who isn’t in fact central to the plot is particularly popular in novels. Call me sheltered, but in my experience, strangers seldom blurt out their most closely-held secrets to the first person who asks them, whatever happens in detective movies. To a professional reader’s eye, if a character appears in a manuscript a grand total of once, spills the beans, and disappears, it’s generally a sign of a plot that’s light on action and high on static verbiage.

The problem with conveying too much information this way, as THE DA VINCI CODE illustrates so beautifully, is that lengthy speeches are easy for a reader or viewer to tune out. People standing there talking can get old very fast. If you have a scene or two like this in your manuscript, it’s worth asking yourself: could any of this all-spoken explanation be replaced by an active scene?

To add insult to the injury to the reader’s intelligence, often, in spoken exposition scenes, the protagonist doesn’t even ask good questions to elicit the information necessary to move the plot along. Non-specific queries like “I need to know the truth” and “What do you mean?” are not, after all, staples of the hard-core interview. Nor does it make for very interesting — or particularly life-like — dialogue.

What it does make for is novel dialogue that reads as though it came out of a movie, and conflict that feels as though it’s second-hand.

Summarizing essential plot twists in narrative form, rather than showing the plot actually twisting by including the relevant conflicts in a scene, carries many of the same liabilities. Obviously, you will need to summarize from time to time, to avoid the problem of needing to describe every step a character took to cross a room, but in most cases, an active scene will be more engaging — and more memorable — than a mere explanation of the same activity.

Think about it: which are you more likely to remember tomorrow, someone at your work telling you about her brother-in-law’s narrow escape from a car crash, or seeing the near-miss between the cars yourself?

There is, as there so often is in dealing with the publishing industry, also a strategic reason to avoid telling important parts of your story indirectly: SHOW, DON’T TELL is widely regarded amongst agents, editors, and contest judges as one of the most damning critiques possible for a submission — and one of the most common. In the industry, writing that tells instead of shows is more or less synonymous with writing that needs serious revision.

And I think most of you are already aware of how agents tend to feel about manuscripts like that. If it were a movie, they would walk out of it.

But you’re all better writers than that, aren’t you? You know to read through your manuscripts carefully before you submit them, to catch this kind of static scene, right?

If you didn’t, you do now. Keep up the good work!

Details, details, Part II: avoiding a fulsome fate

“God is in the details,” architect Mies van der Rohe allegedly wrote.

I’m not a big fan of his buildings, to tell you the truth, but I do think that this aphorism applies to writing in spades. It’s quite clear to us as readers, usually — walk into any crowd of writers, and you’re sure to find at least one on-going discussion of So-and-So’s stylistic choices. There are writers whose use of semicolons makes me swoon, thank you very much, and as brilliant Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa has pointed out, for most of us writers, there are fictional characters who have affected us more than most flesh-and-blood human beings.

But for the vast majority of aspiring writers who write in isolation, without significant contact with other people who speak the creative language, keeping sight of the huge weight small touches carry in their own work is harder. And this is a pity, because the little, unique details are often what catches an agent’s eye — and the misbegotten details definitely catch agency screeners’.

It pays to pay attention to the little things, therefore. Yet time and again, I hear submitting writers speak of the submission process as though the little things — spelling all of the words correctly, for instance, or formatting pages in accordance with standard format — don’t matter. It’s the overall writing, these fine folks argue, that will make or break one’s chances with an agent or editor.

Well, yes and no. If the writing is absolutely beautiful, but the formatting is all akimbo and the spelling is lousy, there’s an outside chance that someone at an agency might be in a saintly enough mood to overlook the problems and take a chance on the writer. However, virtually all of the time, an agent, editor, contest judge, or screener’s first reaction to such a manuscript is the same as to one that is dull but technically perfect: rejection. And with few exceptions, the rejectors will not even take the time to scrawl, “Take a formatting class!” or “Next time, spell-check!” on the returned manuscript.

Why can they afford to be so caviler? Long-time readers, chant along with me now: because they receive enough technically perfect AND well-written manuscripts that they don’t need to worry about the rest. If a writer is truly talented, they figure, she’ll mend her ways and try again.

All that being said, let’s return to yesterday’s list of standard formatting restrictions, shall we?

(9) The first page of a chapter should begin a third of the way down the page.
That’s twelve single-spaced lines, incidentally. The chapter name (or merely “Chapter One”) may appear on the first line of the first page, but then nothing else should appear until a third of the way down.

This means that the title of the book, “by Author’s Name,” and/or your contact information do NOT belong on this page — all variations of a classic rookie mistake. Including any of this information on this page (other than in the slug line) will simply make the submission appear unprofessional.

But of that, see the next entry.

(10) Contact information for the author belongs on the title page, NOT on page 1.
Yes, you should ALWAYS include a title page with ANY submission of ANY length, including contest entries and the chapters you send after the agent has fallen in love with your first 50 pages. Even when a contest does not specify that you should (and no, it doesn’t count toward page count; the first page of the first chapter is page 1).

Literally every manuscript that any agent in North America sends to any editor will include a title page, yet around 92%) seem to be unaware that including it is industry standard. On the bright side, this means that if you are industry-savvy enough to include a professionally-formatted title page with your work, your submission automatically looks like a top percentile ranker to professional eyes from the moment it’s pulled out of the envelope.

It’s never too early to make a good first impression.

If you do not know how to format a proper title page (and yes, Virginia, there IS a special format for manuscripts), please see the Your Title Page category at right.

(11) The beginning of each paragraph should be indented five spaces — no exceptions — and nothing you send to anyone in the industry should EVER be in block-style business format.

To publishing types, any document with no indentations, skipping a line between paragraphs, and the whole shebang left-justified carries the stigma of (ugh) business correspondence, which is to say that they regard it as a symptom of creeping illiteracy.

Just don’t do it.

Yes, yes, I know: published books — particularly mysteries, I notice — often begin chapters and sections without indentation. Trust me, that lack of indentation was the editor’s choice, not the author’s, and copying the style here might get your work knocked out of consideration. At minimum, you won’t get any points for style.

Pop quiz: which do you think is going to strike format-minded industry professionals as more literate, a query letter in business format or one in correspondence format (indented paragraphs, date and signature halfway across the page)?

Uh-huh. Don’t you wish that someone had told you THAT before you sent out your first query letter?

(12) Don’t skip an extra line between paragraphs, except to indicate a section break.
This one is for all of you bloggers and business letter-writers out there. The whole darned manuscript should be double-spaced, and paragraphs are all indented, so there is no need to skip a line to indicate a paragraph break.

The ONLY exception is that you may skip an extra line to indicate a section break in the text.

(13) Words in foreign languages should be italicized.
The logic here is very straightforward: don’t want the agent of your dreams to think you’ve made a typo, do you?

You may also use italics for emphasis, book titles, song titles, etc. — and just so you know, anyone who follows AP style will tell you to underline these. DO NOT LISTEN TO THESE TEMPTERS: AP style is for journalism, not book publishing. They are different fields, and have different standards.

In a submission for the book publishing industry, NOTHING should be underlined. Why? The reason is actually very practical: underlining uses more ink than italics in the book production process. Thus, italics are cheaper.

(14) All numbers (except for dates) under 100 should be written out in full: twenty-five, not 25.

I’m surprised how often otherwise industry-savvy writers are unaware of this one, but the instinct to correct it in a submission is universal in the industry.

Here is how charmingly archaic the industry is: this formatting rule was originally for the benefit of the manual typesetters. When numbers are entered as numbers, a single slip of a finger can result in an error, whereas when numbers are written out, the error has to be in the inputer’s mind.

Again, be warned, those of you who have been taught by teachers schooled in the AP style: they will tell you to write out only numbers under 10. Yes, this is true for newspaper articles, where space is at a premium, but it is WRONG, WRONG, WRONG in a manuscript.

Did I mention it was wrong? And that my aged eyes have actually seen contest entries knocked out of finalist consideration over this particular issue?

(15) Dashes should be doubled — rather than using an emdash, with a space at either end. Hyphens are single and are not given extra spaces, as in self-congratulatory.
Yes, I know: my blogging software will not allow me to insert a doubled dash here, and any Microsoft product will automatically change a doubled dash to the longer emdash.

Change it back. Seriously, any agent would make you do this before agreeing to submit your manuscript to an editor, so you might as well get into this salutary habit as soon as possible.

Microsoft may actually have a point here: I fully admit that doubling the dashes is a monumental pain, and the practice is archaic. Books no longer preserve these spaces, for reasons of printing economy; many writing teachers tell their students just to go ahead and eliminate them. An AP-trained teacher will tell you to use the longer emdash, as will the Chicago Manual of Style.

In this, however, they are wrong. Standard format for manuscripts is invariable upon this point.

And heck, MS Word’s grammar checker has more than once told me to replace the correct form of there, their, or they’re with an incorrect one. Who are you gonna believe, me or Bill Gates?

(16) The use of ANY brand name should be accompanied by the trademark symbol, as in Kleenex™.
If you catch an agent under the age of 30, or one who doesn’t have a graduate degree, you may get away without including the trademark symbol, but legally, you are not allowed to use a trademarked name without it. Writers — yes, and publishing houses, too — have actually been sued over this within the last few years, so be careful about it.

There you have it: the rules. Literally every page of text you submit to an agent, editor, or literary contest (yes, including the synopsis) should be in standard format. Oh, and it’s a good idea to make sure everything is spelled correctly, too.

Yes, these are all small details, but this is an industry that thrives on details. There’s a reason, after all, that the term “nit-picker” is more or less synonymous with “editor.” Not only should you read your ENTIRE submission IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD before you even think of popping it in the mail — you should give serious thought to allowing some trusty soul to proofread it for you.

Why is another pair of eyes a good idea? Because not all manuscript errors are typos. Here’s an illustrative anecdote, to show you why.

When I was in grad school, I was a teaching assistant for a professor who longed beyond all things to be an inspiration to her students. You know, the kind who spur their students to the kind of DEAD POETS SOCIETY minor free thinking that’s not particularly dangerous to the status quo/

And how did she choose to inform her students of this fact? Frequently, during undergraduate lectures, she would soften her habitual chiding of a narrow-minded student by throwing her arms wide and exclaiming, “Be as intellectually wide-ranging as possible! I want all of you to lead fulsome lives!”

Every time she did it, we teaching assistants arrayed at the back of the room would have a terrible time keeping straight faces. Because, you see, the professor had made a very common mistake: she believed fulsome was a synonym for full. She had, she said, heard many people use it this way. But just because a usage is common doesn’t mean it is correct.

Fulsome means noxious, noisome, loathsome. So, inadvertently, she was urging all of her students to have perfectly hideous lives.

God is in the details; sometimes all of us need an extra pair of eyes to remind us of that.  Keep up the good work.

Details, details…

There’s nothing like trying to write on somebody else’s computer set-up to make you understand the value of ergonomics, is there?  While my beloved laptop is in the shop, I’m working on the system of a kind soul who is 6’2″, and boy, does his workstation reflect it.  I’m not tiny, certainly, but women whose genes hail from small Mediterranean islands inhabited primarily by goats and basil are not infinitely stretchable, after all.

No matter what your cheapskate boss has been telling you:  it’s bad for the human body to type in a workstation designed for a much larger body.  Or a much smaller one.  If you have to look down to see your computer screen, for instance, rather than straight ahead, it is absolutely predictable that your neck is going to start taking exception to it after a while.

Fortunately, I know a good chiropractor, one who deals often with writers and other computer-users stuck in ergonomically trying situations.  (Yet another potentially tax-deductable business expense for those who file Schedule Cs as writers; ask your tax advisor about it.  You see, I’m already thinking ahead to April for you.)  It would, however, probably be a better investment (and equally tax-deductable) for a serious writer to hire an ergonomics expert for an hour or two to personalize the workstation, to eliminate problems before they start.

Maybe, if you ask nicely, Santa will stick an ergonomist in your stocking this year.  I’ve certainly asked Santa for stranger things.

I seldom plug products here (in fact, I think this may be the first time I’ve done it), but if you use a laptop, or even a computer with a detachable keyboard, and you think Santa might be, well, persuadable, Levenger carries a floating keyboard/laptop desk that’s adjustable to absolutely the perfect height for anyone.  This desk positively saved my wrists when I had repetitive strain injuries — I rely upon it so heavily that I once had it shipped to an artists’ colony where I was shortly to be in residence, because I couldn’t imagine writing for a whole month without it.  (For those with less blandishable Santas, Levenger also carries good, not-very-expensive lapdesks, for those who prefer to work on their laptops in easy chairs.)

Enough about furniture.  On to gloating:  one of my dissertation editing clients just passed her doctoral exams today.  Congratulations, Pam!

Writing a dissertation is a tremendous exercise in rule-following:  every margin, every footnote has to conform with an absolutely inflexible set of formatting rules.  (Sound familiar?)  And, to make the process more exciting, dissertators are frequently not TOLD what these rules ARE until after they’ve already taken their books through several professor-reviewed drafts — and sometimes not until after the final draft has been approved.  It is not unheard-of, for instance, for a dissertation to be rejected at the last minute because its maps were on the wrong kind of paper, or its bibliography was in the wrong format.

Admit it:  doesn’t it make you feel just the teensiest bit better to hear that there are luckless souls out there whose pages are given even tighter scrutiny than agency screeners give yours?

If it does, then the final stage of the disseration process should make you feel downright lucky.  Picture this:  after jumping through every other hurdle to earn a doctorate (and there are plenty, believe me), the dissertation-writer is forced to sit in a room with a fiend incarnate who flips through the dissertation in front of the writer, searching for minute formatting flaws.  If even a single one is found, BOOM, back it goes to the writer for revisions.  Diplomas have been known to mold, or even crumble into dust, during such revisions.

You, however, do not have to be in the room when minions of nit-picky powers pore over your manuscripts, looking to find reasons to reject them: you merely have to live with the results.  And because you do, and because PLENTY of good manuscripts, like well-argued dissertations, get rejected on technicalities, I am going to walk you once again through the rigors of standard manuscript format.

Stop groaning, long-term readers; I know I did it only a couple of months ago.  But contest-entry season will shortly be upon us, and since the publishing industry is more or less shut down until after New Year’s, anyway, what better time to make sure YOUR work does not suffer from these common maladies?

So, for those of you who do not already know: standard manuscript for manuscripts is NOT the same as standard format for books, and agency screeners, agents, editors, and contest judges tend to regard submissions formatted in any other way as either unpolished (if they’re feeling generous) or unprofessional (if they’re not). In either case, an improperly-formatted manuscript seldom gets a fair reading by the aforementioned cabal of literary power.  In fact, improperly-formatted manuscripts are often not read at all.

Why? Long-time readers, pull out your hymnals and sing along: because agencies and publishing houses get so many submissions that their PRIMARY goal is to weed out the one they are reading at the moment. The faster they can do that, the better for them.

Don’t give ‘em half a chance. The more professional your manuscript looks, the more likely it is to be taken seriously by people within the industry. Period.

Don’t be surprised if not all of these rules are familiar to you:  my extended family has been writing professionally since the 1930s, and there were a couple of them that were news to me when I first started submitting.  I, for one, don’t think it’s fair to judge writers by standards that are not widely known, any more than it’s fair to judge a dissertation’s success by the width of its margins.  But I, as I believe I have mentioned once or twice before, do not run the universe, and thus do not make the rules.

Those of you who have lived through my harping on them before, please do not skip over the rest of this post.  I promise, you will learn something new this time around.  These restrictions honestly do need to sink into your blood, so you won’t make a mistake someday when you’re in a hurry.

A word to the wise:  the more successful you are as a writer, the more often you will be in a hurry, generally speaking.  No one has more last-minute deadlines than a writer with a book contract.

Here are the rules of standard format — and no, NONE of them are negotiable.  Santa Claus himself would have extreme difficulty sneaking a non-standard manuscript past an agency screener, even though he undoubtedly has the world’s best platform to write a book on flying reindeer.  (If that last quip didn’t make you groan, if not chuckle, it’s time to brush up on your agent-speak.)

(1) All manuscripts must be typed in black ink and double-spaced, with at least one-inch margins around all edges of the page, on 20-lb or better white paper.

No exceptions, unless someone in the industry (or a contest’s rules) SPECIFICALLY ask you to do otherwise. No ecru paper, no off-white.  Yes, it can look very nice, but there’s a strategic reason that bright white paper tends to be taken more seriously:  very sharp black-white contrast is strongly preferred by virtually every professional reader, probably as a legacy of having read so many dim photocopies over the course of their lifetimes.  You’d be amazed at how poor the printing quality is on some submissions.

So make sure your printer cartridge is relatively full, okay?

Why the heavier paper? Well, they won’t reject you outright for this, but it’s prudent.  A submission often passes through three or four hands in the course of its road to acceptance — often more, at a large agency or publishing house. Lower-quality paper will wilt after a reading or two; 20-lb or better will not.

(2) All manuscripts are printed on ONE side of the page (unless you are specifically asked to do otherwise).
Yes, this IS criminally wasteful of paper, especially when you consider the millions of pages of submissions that run through the agencies and publishing houses every month. Most agencies do not even recycle; the only reason agencies started accepting e-mailed queries at all was because of the anthrax-in-envelopes scare. (I swear I’m not making that up.)

I assure you, if I ran the universe, paper conservation would be the norm, and recycling mandatory. Also, writers would all be given seven hours each week more than other mortals, free domestic help, and a freshly-baked pie on Truman Capote’s birthday every year. But since the unhappy reality is that I do NOT run the universe, we all just have to live with the status quo.

The entire publishing industry is one vast paper-wasting enterprise. Sorry.

(3) The text should be left-justified ONLY.
A lot of writers squirm about this one. They want to believe that a professional manuscript looks exactly like a printed book, but the fact is, it shouldn’t. Yes, books feature text that runs in straight vertical lines along both side margins, and yes, your word processing program will replicate that, if you ask it nicely. But don’t: the straight margin should be the left one.

(4) The preferred typefaces are 12-point Times, Times New Roman, Courier, or Courier New.  These are not mandatory, but experience has shown that manuscripts in these fonts tend to be taken far more seriously.
Translation:  a manuscript in one of these typefaces looks more professional to agents and editors than the same manuscript in other typefaces.

The industry’s affection for these plain, not-too-pretty fonts, as those of you who have been reading this blog for a while already know, is a throwback to the reign of the typewriter, which came in only two typefaces, pica (a Courier equivalent, 10 letters per inch) and elite (Times; 12 letters per inch).

If you write screenplays, you may ONLY use Courier. Most screenplay agents will not read even the first page of a script in another typeface — which means that most contest judges will follow suit.

If you are a writer who likes to have different voices presented in different typefaces, or who chooses boldface for emphasis, a submission is not a forum where you can express those preferences freely. Sorry. (See my earlier disclaimer about proprietorship of the universe.)

If you want a specific font for your finished book, you should NOT use it in your manuscript, even if you found a very cool way to make your Elvin characters’ dialogue show up in Runic. The typeface ultimately used in the published book is a matter of discussion between you and your future editor — or, even more frequently, a decision made by the publishing house without the author’s input at all. If you try to illustrate the fabulousness of your desired typeface now, you run the risk of your manuscript being dismissed as unprofessional.

Don’t run that risk.

(5) No matter how cool your desired typeface looks, or how great the title page looks with 14-point type, keep the ENTIRE manuscript in the same font and size.

Industry standard is 12-point. Again, no exceptions, INCLUDING YOUR TITLE PAGE.  I hate to be the one to break it to you, but there’s a term in the industry for title pages with 24-point fonts and fancy typefaces.

It’s “high school book report.”

(6) Do not use boldface anywhere but on the title page.
You may place your title in boldface, if you like, but that’s it. Nothing else in the manuscript should be in bold.

(7) EVERY page in the manuscript should be numbered EXCEPT the title page.  The first page of the first chapter is page 1.
Few non-felonious offenses irk the professional manuscript reader (including yours truly, if I’m honest about it) more than an unnumbered submission — it ranks right up there on their rudeness scale with assault, arson, and beginning a query letter with, “Dear Agent.” It is generally an automatic rejection offense, in fact.

Why do they hate it so much? Gravity, my friends, gravity. Because manuscripts are not bound, and they have been known to get dropped from time to time.  Trust me, no one currently working within any aspect of the publishing industry is going to be willing to waste twenty minutes figuring out from context which unnumbered page you wanted to follow which.

The standard way to paginate is in the slug line, not anywhere else on the page…about which, see point 8.

(8) Each page of the manuscript (other than the title page) should a standard slug line in the header, listing AUTHOR’S LAST NAME/ABBREVIATED TITLE/page #.

Colorful term, isn’t it?  But it doesn’t have anything to do with the beasties wiggling around in your flower beds: in typesetter jargon, a slug is a 30-character collection of type, bound together for multiple uses. (See?  I told those of you who had gone through this list before that you’d learn something new.)

If you have a very long title, feel free to abbreviate, to keep it to that 30-character limit (yes, I know, printing isn’t done this way anymore, but we’re talking about a very tradition-bound industry here).  For example, my latest novel is entitled THE BUDDHA IN THE HOT TUB — 26 characters, counting spaces.  Since my last name is short, I could get away with putting it all in the slug line, to look like this:


If, however, my last name were something more complicated, such as Montenegro-Copperfield — 22 characters, including dash, I might well feel compelled to abbreviate:

Most professional slug lines are left-justified (i.e., in the upper-left margin), but you can get away with right-justifying it as well. Just make sure that it is not much longer than 30 characters in length, and the header, for those of you who don’t know (hey, I’m trying to cram as much information into this as possible), is the 1-inch margin at the top of the page.

Whoa, I got so carried away trying to cram new and interesting information into this list that this post is becoming positively Dickensian in length.  More rules of standard format follow tomorrow.

Keep up the good work!

As I lay dying…or at least as my hard drive did…

A requiem, please, for my computer’s (well backed-up, thank goodness) hard drive: after days of clinging valiantly to life (and occasionally allowing me access to e-mail), it succumbed this morning to the fate that awaits us all. A well-deserved rest, certainly: many, many manuscripts — my own, members of my writing groups’, and editing clients’ — have passed over its faithful screen. It had a lot of miles on it, both literally and figuratively.

Farewell, old friend. You had a better memory than I did, Gunga Din.

Which means, among other things, that I won’t be able to get back into the files containing the blogs I had stored up for you for another week or two, when the necessary parts arrive (perhaps from the North Pole Apple store, where Santa presumably shops for iPods) to install. Thus, I need to put those potential posts out of my mind for the time being, because trying to recreate them from scratch will only end in tears, and just move on to other topics.

Actually, it’s been fascinating to watch myself NOT being on a computer full-time for the last few days — over the past couple of years, it’s truly an anomoly. Not only do I have work in my head that I want to see on a screen, but my body keeps gravitating toward my studio, and not, I think, merely because it’s the room with the full-spectrum lights. Every part of me wants to be writing again.

(I had told you about that trick, hadn’t I? If you’re having trouble getting yourself to write in the winter months — a VERY common phenomenon in the Pacific Northwest – stock your writing space with full-spectrum lights, and your body will be happier there on a gray day than anywhere else in the house. Don’t be surprised to find your pets drawn to the room, too.)

Writing honestly does become a body habit, if you do it consistently, just like drinking 8 glasses of water per day or exercising regularly. Once your brain accepts that you will be sitting down to do creative work at predictable intervals, it can get pretty nonplused if it misses a session or two. Think about it: who is more depressed than a writer who has no time to finish a novel that’s already complete in her head?

Of course, I’ve known writers who can binge-write successfully — that is, walk away from their projects for large periods of time, then lock themselves up in a cave for a month and crank out chapter after chapter before the next long hiatus — but in my experience, predictable, regular bouts of writing tend to lead to less writer’s block, as well as more consistently-met deadlines.

Why? Well, if you save up all of your writing energies, as many aspiring writers do, for when you have big chunks of time to devote to it, you raise your expectations pretty high, and that can lead to performance-anxiety-induced writer’s block. “Oh, no!” your beleagured psyche thinks, “this is my only writing day in three months! I just have to make up for all that lost time!”

Pretty good prescription for panic, isn’t it?

If, on the other hand, you have proven to your psyche over time that (a) you do not need to write an entire chapter in a single writing session, and (b) that you will sit down to write again tomorrow, or the next day, or at the same time next week, your brain is a lot less likely to go into stress overload. If tomorrow honestly is another writing day, when you’re blocked, you can afford to spend today’s writing time brainstorming.

But writer’s block is not what I wanted to discuss today. My psyche — nay, every fiber of my being — longed to sit down today and talk to you about the common writing mistake that gives the impression of too many things happening simultaneously.

I refer, of course, to the extremely popular construction, “As Protagonist was doing X, action Y occurred.”

Naturally, there are many situations where this construction is perfectly valid: during the Civil War, President Lincoln was assassinated, for instance. As one is opening a car door, one could conceivably also be humming a jaunty tune. And so forth. Singly, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this type of sentence.

The problem, to the eyes of those of us who read many, many manuscripts in any given week, is not so much the fact that so many writers are extremely fond of this construction as the FREQUENCY with which any given author tends to use it in any given manuscript. Or in any given chapter. Or, in many cases, in any given paragraph.

Seriously, I’ve seen paragraphs that have consisted of NOTHING but “As X was happening, Y occurred” sentences. Why is this problematic? As with any over-repeated sentence structure, it can become pretty tiring for the reader. Take a gander at this sterling example of the breed:

Jenny was plowing the back forty when Gertrude came running out of the house, screaming. As Jenny descended from the still-purring tractor, she wondered what her sister wanted. Before she had reached the end of the furrow, Gertrude was already shouting orders. Jenny threw her arms around her to stop the flow of words, saying, “Gertie, what’s happened?”

Now, a non-professional reader might not find this construction repetitious: after all, it’s not as though every sentence begins with the same phrase. However, agents, editors, and contest judges, who see masses and masses of prose, tend to regard the over-use of this type of construction as a sort of back-handed writing trick to increase the tension of a scene.

Long-time readers of this blog, chant with me now: how much do agents and editors like to be tricked? Not much at all.

So, those of you who survived the entire Idol rejection reason series (see post of October 31): how wise do you think it would be to use more than one of these constructions on the first page of your submission?

It is very, very common for books to begin with such a sentence. Haven’t we all seen some flavor of, “As the fire roared behind her, reducing her childhood home to charred bits of rubble, Tatiana stood dry-eyed” open books, both published and unpublished? Presented singularly, followed by a differently-structured sentence, there is nothing wrong with this sort of opening, of course.

But remember that agency screener I asked you to conjure for the Idol series, the one scanning 300 submissions per week on an intern’s salary? Okay, now picture her reaction to reading her 23rd first page of the day that begins, “As X was happening, Protagonist did Y.”

Not pretty to imagine her impatience, is it? Now channel her again, and sit in her uncomfortable desk chair, the one located under the bad fluorescent lighting, and experience her reaction to the 8th submission that day that opens with three or four similar sentences in a row.

To place her probable reaction within this construction: as Tanya’s bloodshot eyes fell upon the dreaded sentence yet again, her too-hot latte seemed to curdle in her stomach. Before she had reached the end of the first paragraph, she was already reaching for the SASE to return it to its author. “Why me?” she demanded of an apparently deaf universe, as she sealed the envelope and the author’s doom in one swift swipe of her tongue.

Okay, okay, I concede that it would be a pretty good trick to say anything out loud whilst licking an envelope. But I do not admit for a second that this particular rejection wasn’t avoidable. While you are revising, keep an eye on how frequently you have used this type of sentence: in the long run, you will be happy you did.

Yet another rejection reason it would be nice if agents and editors happened to mention a little more often. As my computer lay dying, I thought it might be a good time to bring it up.

Keep up the good work!

There’s no harm in asking

Well, rather than miss another day of posting, here I am again, writing from another person’s computer. No, my computer isn’t still down, precisely: my mail program got damaged, and my little Mac is busily reindexing all of the — are you sitting down for this? — 6,445 e-mail messages I have received this year. (That’s not counting junk mail, incidentally.)

See why I keep expressing a VAST preference for your asking me questions via the comments function of the blog, rather than e-mailing them to me?

The primary drawback to posting from someone else’s computer — other than the obvious fact that I have masses of writing and editing work that I’d really like to resume after my two-day hiatus – is that if I respond to comments from here, I get billed as someone else, a random person of whom you have never heard. So all of you who have been posting comments this week: I haven’t forgotten you; I would just prefer to respond as myself.

I spent much of last evening chatting with my computer guru friend (who shall remain nameless, as he works for a large, fruit-associated computer company) while he was running diagnostic programs on my poor, injured baby, and he told me the type of horror story that would make any writer’s blood run cold:  recently, a lovely young woman had brought her computer to him, its hard drive utterly fried. All she cared about retrieving, she told him, was her novel.

My friend’s heart went out to her: it was fairly obvious that her computer was burnt as bacon. “Do you have any back-ups?” he asked.

She didn’t.

“Everyone thinks,” my friend opined, sighing, “‘It can’t happen to me. I see it every day.”

After I had stopped hyperventillating in the face of this lurid tale of woe and trauma, I inquired tenderly after the fate of the writer. Was she in a mental health facility someplace, receiving the best in bereavement care? Or at least in a nice, white-sheeted convalescent hospital on 24-hour suicide watch? Or had she returned to her studio space to try to reconstruct her novel, painfully, from her most recent hard copy?

I don’t want to depress you, but put yourself in that writer’s shoes for a moment: if your hard drive suddenly gave up the ghost right now, how recent a version of your book-in-progress would you have with which to replace your current version? A week old? A month old? That hard copy of the first three chapters that agent sent back in your SASE?

Hands up, everyone who felt the chill realization that you would not have ANY version of your novel or NF book. Don’t be ashamed; there are apparently millions of you out there.

Not to induce raging paranoia in anyone, but computer malfuctions CAN happen to you. It can happen to anyone. (Yes, even those of us who work on Macs, who are inclined to get a trifle smug because our computers don’t get viruses.) Computer files are not among the permanent things of this earth, and yet most of us treat the contents of our computers as if we were dealing with something as solid as the Pyramids.

It’s just not a good idea.

I asked my computer-fixing friend why so few people make back-ups, and he told me something jaw-dropping: most computer users, he said, don’t understand how easy it is to make a copy of a file on a computer. They don’t understand the difference between saving a document (which makes the newest version REPLACE the one before it) and copying it (which makes a DUPLICATE of the already-existing file. Many people have never been told that making a copy for back-up actually doesn’t change the original file at all.

Let me repeat that, because it’s important: making a copy of the computer files that contain your book does NOT change the original files, any more than making a photocopy of a page of manuscript changes the original page.  Duplicating a file means just that: making a clone, and just as one twin does not start hopping down in anguish when the other twin stubs his toe, NOTHING you subsequently do to the copy will affect the original.

It’s true. You can copy it onto a disk, take that disk to the zoo, and feed it to a crocodile, and all that would happen is that the poor croc might get indigestion. Your original file will be at home on your computer, safe and sound.

So if you are nervous about making back-ups directly from your documents, why not make a duplicate of your book’s file (from the desktop, just highlight the file and then select COPY or DUPLICATE, depending upon your operating system), and then move the copy onto a back-up disk? That way, the original never goes near anything that might conceivably eat it.

The other way to make a duplicate copy in Word is to go to the FILE menu, select SAVE AS…, and follow the directions to make a new file. (Hint: it’s a good idea to give it a different name, so the two don’t get mixed up.) If you save it to the Desktop, it will be apparent where you can find it later. Then quit Word, so you don’t inadvertently start working on the wrong one (a rather common mistake). Then, you can copy the new file onto a disk or e-mail it to yourself as an attachment without fear of losing your original.

Once your back-up file is on a disk or in storage (see Wednesday’s post), all you have to do in case of disaster is go back to it, open it up, and copy it onto your newly-wiped computer.

See? Easy as the proverbial pie.

Brace yourself, however: not having a back-up is not the only way writers have been known to lose days, weeks, or months of work on their computers. A very common cause of loss is transferring files by overwriting. This, for those you who have never done it (and be grateful if you haven’t) is when you have worked on a document on one computer, and then move it to another, either on a disk or by electronic transfer. Once it is on the second computer, many writers then replace the older version on computer #2 with the transferred one from computer #1. When this is done correctly, the older version vanishes, never to be seen again, only to be replaced by the newer one.

The problems come, typically, when writers try to REPLACE the older version with the newer one: sometimes, they get mixed up and delete the wrong one. The result is that all of the changes the writer made on the older version in order to create the newer one. (In other words, the file on computer #1 was an updated version of the one on computer #2, but the writer accidentally deleted the transferred one from #2, thus losing all the updates.)

There is a rather simple way to prevent this hair-raising problem: when you import the updated file, DON’T replace the older one with it; just save the newer version onto your hard disk under a different name, something easy to identify, such as “New Chapter 2.” Then re-name the older file “Old Chapter 2,” or something similarly descriptive. Move New Chapter 2 into your book’s folder, and move Old Chapter 2 elsewhere — say, into a folder entitled, “Former versions.”

The last step is the crucial one: don’t delete ANYTHING until you are POSITIVE that the version in your work-in-progress file is the one you DEFINITELY want to keep. Or, heck, don’t delete either version; save each subsequent one to gladden the hearts of your biographers and graduate students who will be writing their master’s theses on your writing.

Because, you see, there really isn’t any reason you need to have only one copy of any Word file on your computer. If you name your files descriptively (and as a writer, you have no excuse for doing otherwise), you’re not going to mix them up, and you radically reduce the probability of deleting a week’s worth of revisions by mistake.

Why? Because computer memories are really, really big now. It’s the programs that take up loads of space, usually, not the documents, so most of us can afford to have a dozen different versions of our chapters lingering on our hard disks.

Heck, if you really got desperate for document storage space, you could copy versions of your novel to your teenage daughter’s iPod. (It’s true: nifty, eh? If you’re interested in doing this, go ask the fine folks at an Apple store how.)

My point is, a very, very small investment of your time can make a world of difference in the event of a computer meltdown. Don’t make me visit you in that nice, soothing convalescent hospital where writers who have lost entire manuscripts softly moan into their pillowcases.

You can do this. Just don’t be afraid to ask for help.

If all that I’ve just said sounded to you like the, “Wah-wah wah-wah” speech of the adults in the Charlie Brown cartoons — as I know discussions of computers does to some people — I implore you, find someone computer-savvy to walk you through how to do it ON YOUR OWN COMPUTER.  (Learning on a different system can be very confusing.) Have someone else show you, and then observe you while you make copies and back-ups by yourself. Repeat until you feel comfortable.

Trust me, your skateboarding nephew will probably be THRILLED to be giving advice for a change, rather than taking it. (Especially if you ask for a couple of hours of his time as a holiday present.) And if you feel a little dopey for making him watch you make back-ups 42 times in a row, just to make sure that you’ve got it down cold — well, he probably won’t come away with any dimmer a view of adults than he already has, and you will have given him an ego boost.

If you don’t have anyone answering this description in your immediate circle, consider giving your local junior college a call and asking if you can pay a senior 20 bucks to spend an hour walking you through how to do back-ups. (Hey, if you file a Schedule C as a writer — and you don’t need to get paid for your writing in any given year in order to do so, usually — it would even be tax-deductable, as a professional service.)

Or call up your local computer store and ask if they would be willing to give you a crash (no pun intended) course in how to make sure you don’t lose your files. The Apple stores, for instance, have people on staff whose job it is to help people like you (at least the ones who own Macs and/or iPods) use their computers better. Believe me, they would much rather help you BEFORE there’s a crisis than after.

Even if you feel a trifle silly asking for help at your age (and people do feel like that, regardless of what their ages actually are), remember: the momentary twinge will be nothing compared to the AAARGH of losing a chapter of your book permanently. In the long run, this will decrease the stress in your life, not add to it.

There’s no harm in asking. Think of it as a way your community can help support your writing career. And keep up the good work!

And this above all things: label your book correctly

Last week, I talked a good deal about the risks that writers of literary fiction and others who play with the standard structures and usages of the language take in submitting their unusual work to agencies and editors. While I’m on the subject, this is probably a good time to revisit a very common writerly prejudice about literary fiction. To whit:

It is commonly believed that all good writing is literary, and that referring to one’s own work as literary is synonymous with saying that it is well written. Neither of these propositions is true.

Literary fiction is a marketing category, just as fantasy or historical romance are marketing categories. It refers to the 3-4% of the fiction market designed to be read by readers with college educations (or at any rate, large vocabularies), a high tolerance for introspection, and no inherent distrust of high falutin’ punctuation frills like the semicolon. The beauty of the writing is a major part of the point of the book, and character development trumps plot, generally speaking.

So when a writer walks up to an agent or editor at a conference and says something like, “It’s a thriller, but it’s written like literary fiction,” it does not translate as, “Gee, this is a really well-written thriller,” but as, “This writer doesn’t know the market.” It’s almost as great a faux pas as when an author speaks of his own work as a “fiction novel” (all novels are fictional) or “a nonfiction memoir” (all memoirs are nonfiction). It’s an admission that the writer isn’t very familiar with the lingo of the trade.

And we all know how fond agents and editors are of explaining the nuances of the industry to up-and-coming writers.

But sounding like a neophyte is not the only reason to avoid muddying your category distinction by adding the literary label as if it were the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. Why, the average agent will think upon being told that a genre work is literary, doesn’t this writer write in the language of his chosen genre? Every genre has its handful of conventions; is this writer saying that he’s simply decided to ignore them? Why write in a genre, if you’re not going to write in the genre’s style? And why am I asking myself this string of rhetorical questions, instead of listening to the pitch this writer is giving or paying attention to the query in front of me?

See the problem? Calling non-literary work literary sounds a bit sheepish, as if you were saying that given your druthers, you would be writing literary fiction instead of what you have in fact written. If you want to write literary fiction, fine: I hope you win a Nobel Prize. However, if you write in a genre, you should be proud of the fact, not apologetic — if not for your own sake, then for the sake of the impression you will make when you pitch it. Think about it: is someone who has devoted her life to the promotion of science fiction and fantasy going to THANK you for indirectly casting aspersions on the writing typical of that genre? There’s a lot of beautifully-written SF and fantasy out there — it’s just written within the confines of the genre.

So the quicker you can shake the unfortunately pervasive rumor that a genre label automatically translates in professional minds into writing less polished than other fiction, the better. No, no, no: genre distinctions, like book categories, are indicators of where a book will sit in a bookstore; they’re not value judgments. Simple logic would dictate that an agent who is looking for psychological thrillers is far more likely to ask to see your manuscript if you label it PSYCHOLOGICAL THRILLER than just as FICTION. And an agent interested in psychological thrillers will not even sniff at a book labeled LITERARY FICTION.

This is not to say that agents do not sometimes tag their clients’ work with, “but it reads like literary fiction” or “it’s on the mainstream-literary cusp,” if they feel this is a selling point for a particular book. But remember those signs on roller coasters that say, “You must be this tall to ride the Ultra-Mega Flume of Doom,” that made you so angry as a kid? In the industry, there are invisible signs reading, “You must be with this important an agency to blur publishing categories.”

Really. Just as editors are conditioned to regard an author who calls twice per week to talk about promotional opportunities a pest, but an author whose agent calls just as often with exactly the same information a joy, they respond better to certain phrases when agents say them.

During the big-break-seeking period of a writer’s career, the more accurately a book is labeled, the more likely it is to catch the eye of an agent or editor who honestly wants to snap up that kind of book. Think of it as a professional courtesy: hyper-specific category labels are a shortcut that enables them to weed out pitches outside their areas almost instantly; that, in case you were wondering, is why agents like to be told the category in the first paragraph of the query letter. It saves them scads of time if you tell them instantly whether your book is a hardboiled mystery or a caper mystery: if it isn’t the variety they are looking for today, they can reject it almost immediately.

Think of it as your little Christmas present to them. And to yourself: why waste your already-overburdened time catering to someone who doesn’t handle what you write?

I learned the hard way just how category-minded folks in the industry can be. I write mainstream fiction and memoir, but I once had the misfortune to be assigned for a conference critique to an editor who did not handle either. I was disappointed, of course, but I am a great believer in trying to turn these conference matching accidents into learning opportunities. So, gritting my teeth like a nice girl, I listened patiently to what he had to say about the first chapter of my novel.

What he had to say, unsurprisingly, was that while he found the writing excellent, he would advise that I change the protagonist from a woman to a man, strip away most of the supporting characters, and begin the novel with a conflict that occurred two-thirds of the way through the book, the fall of the Soviet Union. “Then,” he said, beaming at me with what I’m sure he thought was avuncular encouragement, “you’ll have a thriller we can market, dear. I’d been happy to take another look at it then.”

Perhaps I had overdone the politeness bit; I hate it when total strangers call me dear. I’m not THAT cute, I tell you. “But it’s not a thriller.”

He could not have looked more appalled if I had suddenly pulled a switchblade on him. “Then why are you talking to me?” he huffed, and hied himself to the bar for what I believe was yet another double Scotch.

In retrospect, I can certainly understand his annoyance: if I had been even vaguely interested in writing thrillers, his advice would have been manna from heaven, and I should have been droolingly grateful for it. I would have fallen all over myself to thank him for his 20-minute discourse about how people who read thrillers (mostly men) dislike female protagonists, particularly ones who (like my protagonist) are well educated. The lady with the Ph.D. usually does not live beyond the first act of a thriller, he told me, so yours truly is going to keep her pretty little head sporting its doctoral tam in another genre. Dear.

I learned something very important from this exchange: specialists in the publishing biz are extremely book-category myopic; the thriller editor and I could not have had less to say to each other if he had been speaking Urdu and I Swedish. To his mind, every way in which my work deviated from what he wanted to publish was a black mark against my novel. Books outside a publishing professional’s area of expertise might as well be poorly written; in his mind, no other kinds of books are marketable.

Just in case you think that I’ve just been being governessy in urging you again and again to be as polite as possible to EVERYONE you meet at ANY writers’ conference: that near-sighted editor is now a high mucky-muck at the publishing house that later bought my memoir — which, I can’t resist telling you, covers in part my years teaching in a university. Chalk one up for the educated girls. But isn’t it lucky that I didn’t smack him in his condescending mouth all those years ago?

So label your work with absolute clarity, and revel in your category affiliation. Think about it: would Luke Skywalker have been able to use the Force effectively in a mainstream romantic comedy? No: the light sabers shine brightest in the science fiction realm.

In other words, to thine own genre be true; if you’re good at what you do, there’s no need it tart your work up with extravagant claims. Let your excellent writing speak for itself. And keep up the good work!

Make back-ups now!

Grr and grr again, campers: there I was, minding my own business (and my clients’), when a not-very-computer-savvy friend of mine asks if he can use my computer to transfer the contents of his holiday music collection (immense) to his brand-new iPod. Well, the next thing I know, my computer is in the shop, my friend is begging my forgiveness — and I don’t have access to the blog post I had already written for today!

So I am writing this from elsewhere, on an unfamiliar keyboard, one of those so-called ergonomic jobs that actually encourage nerve problems by providing a wrist rest that more or less requires a bent wrist to use. (Yes, yes, I know: you’re not supposed to rest your wrists on a wrist rest while you’re typing, only in between bursts of literacy. But since I would need to have the chest and arm muscles of Conan the Barbarian to make using this angled keyboard comfortable, I foresee wrist-resting in my future.)

I am writing while I am in a superlately annoyed mood, absolutely the wrong time to give any advice whatsoever to anyone. Except this: make back-ups of your work as frequently as possible.

As in more than once in a blue moon. Since I have a technology-suspicious disposition, I back up my hard drive every other day. My geek friends laugh at me about that, but at times like this, it pays off. (Unfortunately, I hadn’t done a back-up since writing what was supposed to be today’s blog, so it may be gone forever.)

I learned the value of compulsive back-up generation young. When I was in college, my undergraduate thesis advisor was working on his dissertation. Fearful not only of computer malfunction but of fire, earthquake, and civil disaster, he used to present me with a disk containing his latest draft once per week, every time we met.

To be on the ultra-safe side, he asked me to keep each week’s version in my dorm refrigerator, just in case my dorm AND his entire suburb were somehow simultaneously engulfed in flames that miraculously spared both of our lives.  “The insides of refrigerators seldom burn,” he explained, “unless someone opens them during the conflagration.”

So remember that: if you want to keep your milk and Chinese takeout leftovers safe from fire, don’t snack until after the firefighters have finished dousing things.

Even though I did, in fact, keep his work in my tiny fridge, I used to smile secretly at the intensity of his fear that his work would disappear. Until I was in graduate school myself, and I was approached by a knife-weilding mugger on my way home from the library. “Give me your backpack,” he advised, none too gently.

“No,” I said, astonishing myself. I then explained at great length that I had a draft of my master’s thesis in my bag, and that it was positively covered with hand-written notes and footnotes-to-be that I had not yet entered into my soft copy. It would take me weeks to recreate all of that material. Would he accept the contents of my wallet instead? What if I made the cash my gift to him, a little token of my thanks for leaving my thesis intact, and didn’t file a police report?

The mugger, who apparently had never attempted a major writing project, was quite astonished by my vehemence; I gather he thought I simply did not understand the situation. He reminded me several times throughout that he could, in fact, kill me with the knife clutched in his hand, and that only a crazy person would risk her life for a bunch of paper.

But tell me: if you were holding the only extant copy of your book, would you have been similarly crazed?

The story ended happily: I ended up with both a whole skin and my draft. And to tell you the truth, I no longer remember if he got my money or not. (I do, however, remember him asking me to stop telling him about the argument in my thesis — I had become embroiled in an especially juicy part of Chapter Two — and admitting that he would, in fact, just be dumping the manuscript into the nearest trash can rather than turning it in for credit.)

I back up onto CDs these days, having become disillusioned with the stability of Zip disks, but many writers prefer an off-site back-up method, such as saving to storage space online (check with your internet provider). My brilliant friend Phoebe has an even more convenient method: she e-mails copies of her works-in-progress to herself as attachments, effectively making her ISP her offsite storage space.

Whatever method you choose, it’s a good idea to save both before and after copies of revised manuscripts. Yes, it takes up space, but as most of us who have lived through serious revisions, it’s not all that uncommon to decide a week, month, or year down the line that a cut scene is necessary to the work.

Off to count the hours until my beloved computer returns to me, hale and hearty again. Make some back-ups, and keep up the good work!

Contests, Part XIII: Proofing your entry

Okay, let’s assume that you’ve finished the basic writing and paperwork for your contest entry. You’ve read and reread your chapter, and it is both grammatically impeccable and one hell of a good story; Will Rogers, Mark Twain, and Dorothy Parker would all gnash their venerable teeth, if they still had them, in envy over your storytelling skills. Now it’s time to start asking yourself a few questions, to weed out the more subtle problems that can make the difference between making the finalist list and being an also-ran:

(1) Is my entry AND the length specified by the contest rules? Is it double-spaced, in 12-point type, with standard margins?

Yes, I know — I’ve mentioned all this already. I’ve also seen a whole lot of contest entries in odd formats, or with standard format in the chapters and single-spaced synopses. Unless the rules specifically state otherwise, keep EVERYTHING you submit in standard format.

(2) Is every page numbered? Does every page (except the title page, or as specified by the rules) contain the slug line TITLE/#?

Oh, how I wish I had a dime for every unnumbered manuscript page I have ever read… An astonishingly high percentage of writers leave this vital step until the last minute — and apparently forget in the rush of getting the entry into the mail by the deadline.

(3) Does the first page of the synopsis SAY that it’s a synopsis? Does it also list the title of the book? And does every page of the synopsis contain the slug line TITLE/SYNOPSIS/#?

Again, this is nit-picky stuff — but people who volunteer as contest judges tend to be nit-picky people. Better to over-identify your work than to under-identify it.

(4) Have I included all of the requested elements on the title page? If the contest asked for two title pages (one with my name on it, and one without), have I made sure that they are as different as requested?
This is not the time to experiment with funky typefaces or odd title page formats. Unless the contest rules specify otherwise, put the whole thing in the same typeface AND TYPE SIZE as the rest of the entry. List only the information you are asked to list there. (Although if you want to add something along the lines of “An entry in the X Category of the 2006 Y Contest,” that’s generally considered a nice touch.)

(5) If I mention the names of places, famous people, or well-known consumer products, are they spelled correctly?
Okay, if no one else is willing to call foul on this, I will: writers very often misspell proper nouns, possibly because they tend not to be words listed in standard spell-checkers’ dictionaries. In a contest, that’s no excuse. Check.

To revisit every editor in the world’s pet peeve, most word processing programs are RIFE with misspellings and grammatical mistakes. I use the latest version of MS Word for the Mac, and it insists that Berkeley, California (where I happen to have been born) should be spelled Berkley, like the press.

It is mistaken. Yet if I followed its advice and entered the result in a contest, I would be the one to pay for it, not the fine folks at Microsoft.


(6) Have I spell-checked AND proofread?
Another hard truth: most spelling and grammar-checkers contain inaccuracies. They can lead you astray. If you are tired (and who isn’t, by the time he finishes churning out a contest entry?), the path of least resistance is just to accept what the spell checker thinks your word should be. This is why you need to recheck by dint of good old proofreading.

Yes, it is wildly unfair that we writers should be penalized for the mistakes of the multi-million dollar corporations that produce these spelling and grammar checkers. But that’s one of the hard lessons we all have to learn eventually: the world is not in fact organized on a fair basis. People whose job it is to make sure the dictionaries and grammar-checkers are correct are collecting their hefty salaries and cashing in their stock options without being able to spell Berkeley or hors d’oeuvre. Sorry.

Before you boil over about the inequity of it all, think about misspellings and grammatical errors from the contest judge’s perspective. The judge cannot tell whether the problem with the entry is that the author can’t spell to save his life, or he hasn’t bothered to proofread — or if some Microsoftie just couldn’t be bothered to check Strunk and White to see when THERE should be used instead of THEIR. (My grammar checker routinely tells me to use the former instead of the latter in cases of collective possession, alas.) From the judge’s point of view, the author is invariably the one who looks unprofessional.

This doesn’t mean not to spell-check: you should. But you should never rely solely upon a spell-checker or grammar-checker’s wit and wisdom. They’re just not literate enough.

(7) If I use clichés for comic effect, have I reproduced them correctly?

As a general, I frown upon the use of clichés in print. (You can’t see me doing it, but I am frowning right now.) Part of the point of being a writer is to display your thought, not the thought of others. Occasionally, however, there are reasons to utilize clichés in your work, particularly in dialogue.

You would not BELIEVE how common it is for writers to reproduce clichés incorrectly. (I would not believe it myself, if I had not been a judge in a number of literary contests.) And an incorrectly-quoted cliché will, I assure you, kill any humorous intention deader than the proverbial doornail. So make sure that your needles remain in your haystacks, and that the poles you wouldn’t touch things with are ten-foot, not 100-foot. (How would you pick up a 100-foot pole, anyway?)

When in doubt, ask someone outside your immediate circle of friends — your own friends may well be making the same mistake you are.

(8) Does my synopsis present actual scenes from the book in glowing detail, or does it merely summarize the plot?

As I have been arguing all week, the synopsis is, in fact, a writing sample, every bit as much as the chapter does. Make sure it lets the judges know that you can write — and that you are professional enough to approach the synopsis as a professional necessity, not a tiresome whim instituted by the contest organizers to satisfy some sick, sadistic whim of their own. Believe me, writerly resentment shows up BEAUTIFULLY against the backdrop of a synopsis.

And again, don’t worry about depicting every twist and turn of the plot — just strive to give a solid feel of the mood of the book and a basic plot summary. Show where the major conflicts lie, introduce the main characters, interspersed with a few scenes described with a wealth of sensual detail, to make it more readable.

(9) Does this entry fit the category in which I am entering it?

This is not a situation where close-enough is good enough: as the rather distasteful old adage goes, close-enough only applies to horseshoes and Napalm.

If you have the SLIGHTEST doubt about whether you are entering the correct category, have someone you trust (preferably another writer, or at least a good reader with a sharp eye for detail) read over both the contest categories and your entire entry.

(10) Reading this over again, is this a book to which I would award a prize? Does it read like finished work, or like a book that might be great with further polishing?

It’s a very, very common writer’s prejudice that everything that springs from a truly talented writer’s keyboard will be pure poetry. Even first drafts. However, there are in fact quantities of practical storytelling skills that most of us poor mortals learn by trial and error.

Although contests tend to concentrate on as-yet unrecognized writing talent, they are simply not set up, in most cases, to reward the writer who is clearly gifted, but has not yet mastered the rudiments of professional presentation. And this is very sad, I think, because one of the things that becomes most apparent about writing after a judge has read a couple of hundred entries is that the difference between the entries submitted by writers with innate talent and writers without is vast. An experienced eye — of the kind belonging to a veteran contest judge, agent, or editor — can rather easily discern the work of what used to be called “a writer of promise.”

In the past, writers of promise were treated quite a bit more gently than they are today. They were taken under editorial wings and cherished through their early efforts. Even when they were rejected, they were often sent notes encouraging them to submit future works. (Occasionally, a promising writer will still get this type of response to a query, but the sheer volume of mail at agencies has rendered it rare.)

Now, unfortunately, writers of promise, like everybody else, tend to have their work rejected without explanation, so it’s extremely difficult to tell where one’s own work falls on the talent spectrum. Did that high-powered agent turn you down because your query was in the wrong format, or because she hated your premise, or because she thought you could not write? Did your entry falter before the finalist round because you fiddled with the margins, or because you formatted it incorrectly, or because there were simply ten entries this year that were better-written?

To put it as kindly as possible, until you have weeded out all of the non-stylistic red lights from your contest entries, you truly cannot gain a realistic feel for whether you need to work more on your writing or not. If you are indeed a writer of promise — and I sincerely hope you are — the best thing you can possibly do for your career is to learn to conform your work to professional standards of presentation. This is one of the best reasons to enter contests that give entrants feedback on a regular basis, just as is one of the best reasons to take writing classes and join a writing group: it gives you outside perspective on whether you are hitting the professional bar or not.

Oh, and it helps to be lucky, too.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Is that dialogue I see before me?

I was called in as a last-minute replacement contest judge — yes, it happens; regularly-scheduled judges drop out all the time – at a time I shall simply designate as recently, so it will not be apparent which contest it is. (But it was really, really recent.) I highly recommend stepping up to judge a contest from time to time; there’s nothing like spending a long weekend with a small mountain of entries to get a very tangible sense of what agency screeners face each and every day.

I refer, of course, to the constant joy of revelation. Oh, and so much repetition that spontaneous combustion starts to seem marginally attractive, just to have some diversion.

I was in a fiction category this time, not my usual donnybrook. Most of the time, I step up for NF categories, because, generally speaking, it’s far harder to find experienced judges for NF. But this time, it was a couple of dozen 15-page (max) novel excerpts. After such a lengthy short chapter orgy, I felt I could not exist another instant on this terrestrial sphere without passing along the following piece of gleaned wisdom:

It is a whole lot easier than one might suspect to bore someone who has just read twenty manuscripts. All your really have to do, should you aspire to it, is to write like everyone else. The easiest way to do this, apparently, is to construct dialogue.

Remember a month or two ago, when I went on a rampage about the drawbacks of the ever-popular dialogue-only scene? (Okay, I could be referring to several different posts here: this is a pet peeve of mine as an editor and as a blogger.) I suggested gently, if memory serves, that such scenes tend to be frowned upon by many professional readers: if you want to make your points entirely through dialogue, the industry wisdom runs, write a play.

Novels, on the other hand, have been known to include such decorative details as character development and environment description. Little things like that. Yet most of us were taught at some point in our writing development that GOOD dialogue should reveal so much about the characters from whose mouths it is ostensibly falling that description is, well, kinda superfluous.

As someone who spent quite a few years teaching, let me let you in on a wee teaching secret: exaggeration is often a very effective way to make a point. You might want to take tutorial truisms with a grain of salt, therefore. As in one that you might purchase at Costco, and a forklift would deliver it to your car.

To put it another way, if you had just finished reading your 1500th 10th-grade story where every character says things angrily, sadly, or scornfully, you might well feel that some extreme measures were called for to reduce the sheer number of adverbs your eyeballs might be forced to scan in future. You might conceivably say tell your students to avoid them like the proverbial plague.

Yes, I am saying what you think I’m saying here: many, many dialogue-only pushers are not motivated merely by a love of spareness, or even a hatred of intra-text description. Much of the time, they are trying to cut down on all of those adverbs – and the tag lines they grace. (You remember tag lines, right? They’re the he said and she exclaimed part of the dialogue. A surprisingly high percentage of the time, most professional readers will tell you, they’re not necessary.)

In running full-tilt from the Scylla of over-reliance upon adverb-laden tag lines, however, many writers run smack into the Charybdis of over-terseness in their dialogue. As in pages at a time where there is nothing but dialogue as far as the eye can see. No softening indications of tone or body language; no indications of the room where the dialogue might conceivably be taking place, or indeed that the conversation is taking place in a tangible location at all; not even a hint that every speaker might not be telling the truth 100% of the time.

Because, of course, in real life, everyone speaks in a monotone while holding perfectly still, standing in a featureless, all-white room while doing it, and says everything that crosses his mind with perfect candor. Can’t throw a cupcake at a single party in North America without hitting someone engaged in THAT type of conversation.

And heavens, does this make contest entries (and submissions) similar! I hate to break anyone’s bubble here, but I have it on pretty good authority that after the fifth or sixth such dialogue scene in a row, the underdeveloped characters in one might conceivably start to seem a heck of a lot like the underdeveloped characters in the next. In fact, it is not at all hard to imagine a situation where such characters might begin to blur together after a while.

I’m not saying that every judge or screener would read so quickly that this would happen, of course. Just the ones with, you know, lives. Think about it: what professional reader has time to take a 15-minute break between reading projects to clear her head?

Actually, I think play-like dialogue in novels has quite a few significant drawbacks, over and above how common it is. First, it encourages the kind of real-life exchanges that, while undoubtedly a reflection of how people speak in authentic situations, is deadly dull on the page. Unless you’re Samuel Beckett (who wrote PLAYS, people!), you’re going to have an uphill battle trying to get the average reader (let alone a professional one) to sit through sterling exchanges on the order of:

Sonia: Is the tea ready?
Simon: Yeah.
Sonia: I had to buy the tea myself today, you know. Didn’t you see the note on the refrigerator?
Simon: No. Isn’t there any sugar?
Sonia: No, there isn’t, because time, in case you haven’t noticed, is not infinitely flexible. I do not have the eight extra hours in the day you seem to think I have, nor do I have jet packs installed in my feet. You, on the other hand, work in a grocery store. Is it too much to ask for you to reach into Aisle 2 from time to time to grab a tin of tea?
Simon: Ah. Good tea.

Second, as I mentioned above, it pushes narrative character development out of dialogue-based scenes, which strikes me as something of a waste of a good scene. Third, such dialogue rests upon the logical fallacy that human beings just blurt out everything relevant about a situation in ordinary dialogue. (I would explain the problem with this, but in the interests of space conservation, I shall instead refer my readers to anyone who has ever had a conversation with an unpleasant boss, a coworker with B.O., a relative with political views different from oneself, or who has ever heard a eulogy or a toast at a wedding. Absolute truthfulness is simply not the norm for human interaction.)

The fourth reason is really a corollary of the third: as a matter of craft, dialogue-only scenes render depicting undercurrents between people, if not impossible, then at least far more difficult than it needs to be. As the Idol agents pointed out, scenes that have more than one thing going on in them are far more eye-catching (and interesting) than those that deal only in the obvious.

Dialogue-only scenes convey the impression that there is precisely nothing going on between the discussants but the subject of the conversation. The reader may well know different from earlier, non-dialogue parts of the book, but within the context of the discussion shown, the speakers have no bodies to speak of, apparently, no emotions worth mentioning, evidently, and no motivations, ulterior or otherwise, that they would not be more than happy to bellow at the nearest bystander.

Personally, I have never been in on such a conversation, but hey, they must exist: recently, I read fifteen of them in a row. I can’t imagine where. Or how recently.

Regardless of whether such conversations do actually occur in real life, or whether you (or your revered writing teachers) are fond of seeing them in print, consider this: is reproducing such an incredibly common writing technique really the best way to make your contest or submission stand out in the crowd?

I leave it up to you to decide. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

The limitations of style, or, is there a way I can make my submission screener-proof?

Is everybody thawed out yet? Nothing like a good cold snap to inhibit driving and drive us all back to our writing studios, I always say. During the recent shivery period, I’ve been going back to questions readers have posted as comments that really deserve entire posts of their own. Today, I have a question that I know will interest all of you writers of literary fiction out there: how to prevent the pretty language experiments you like to unleash upon the world from being misinterpreted by the average agency screener. Take, for example, intelligent and insightful reader Mary’s dilemma:

“I am frantically working on a proposal to be submitted within the next week or two. As I am working on my sample chapters, I’ve realized that part of my writing style consists of sentences that are fragments.

“I have an excellent grasp of grammar and have no trouble writing in complete sentences. But the style I have developed over the years owes part of its rhythm to fragments. I like the emphasis they provide, and the way they “pace” the writing.

“I’m concerned, however, about putting fragments in my sample chapters. What if agents think I don’t know how to write in complete sentences? But without the fragments, my writing feels formal and a little bland.

What’s the scoop? Are fragments allowed in otherwise grammatically correct writing, or are they to be avoided like the mange in those critical sample chapters?”

Hoo boy, Mary, is this ever a complex question, and one that I have heard debated long into the night by many, many well-established writers of literary fiction, who have precisely this fear about boneheaded critics not understanding the interesting things they like to do with language from time to time. Basically, the underlying concern is that someone in some dark corner of the industry will not be able to tell the difference between the CHOICE to bend the rules of grammar a trifle and a simple ignorance of those rules.

As someone who reads a LOT of manuscripts, let me set your mind at least partially at ease: said difference is usually ABUNDANTLY clear to a professional reader. A writer unaware of the basic rules of grammar will make mistakes consistently, but an experienced writer will make them selectively. Also, if a good writer decides to use a stylistic quirk, such as sentence fragments, those quirks will affect only as small fraction of the sentences in the manuscript. In a submission by writer who does not understand the rules of sentence construction, on the other hand, this ignorance will show up in most of the sentences, and probably in all of the paragraphs.

And yes, Virginia, the difference is generally apparent on the first page. If someone has genuine writing talent, a professional reader will often already be excited by the end of the first paragraph.

So the short answer, Mary, is that if the sentence fragments are integral to your style — which certainly seems to be the case, from what you describe — keep ‘em. Usually, if fragments are part of a well-developed rhythm, it will be pretty apparent to a good reader’s eye that their use is a well-thought-out choice.

That being said, there are agents and editors out there who hate fragments like the mange you mention. (Great analogy, by the way, for the way grammar-hounds tend to think of it.) They are certainly in the minority these days — I mean, come on, most published writers will use a sentence fragment from time to time for emphasis, and let’s not even talk about how Joan Didion has raised the acceptance of the once-verboten one-sentence paragraph — but there are indeed industry folks whose English teachers beat into them that only complete sentences will do.

These people, I imagine, lunch with the Point-of-View Nazis, bemoaning the decline of American letters and plotting how to subvert anyone who is even thinking about doing something interesting and original with language. And after they finish sipping their post-prandial cognac, they stiff the waiter and go out kicking those Santa Clauses who ring bells on city street corners for charity. Or so I surmise. Then they go back to work, screening manuscripts.

Seriously, they’re not too common, and for good reason: this taste would basically render it impossible for these people to work much with literary fiction or NF written by journalists (who are trained to use fragments for effect). So you can usually avoid them by sticking to agencies that, well, deal with writers who break the occasional grammatical rule. But again, if the rest of your writing is solid, it’s unlikely that a seasoned professional would mistake a legitimate stylistic choice for lack of grammatical acumen.

However, the folks in power are not the only ones you need to worry about. As I believe I have mentioned before, at an agency or publishing house of any size, the first reader of a requested manuscript will almost certainly not be the agent or the editor herself, but at least one level of screener or assistant. Even a medium-sized agency will often employ a screener or two.

This is why, in case you were wondering, that requests for the rest of the book are often so vague. Few agents are brave enough to say outright, “Well, Thing One and Thing Two, my faithful screeners, really liked your first 50 pages. I haven’t read it yet, but if they read the rest of your manuscript and tell me it is worthwhile, I’m definitely interested.”

Why should the employment of screeners worry the occasional bender of grammatical rules? Well, while most agencies will school their screeners in what they should use as rejection criteria, the usual assumption is that the screeners will already be familiar with the basic standards of good writing. Most of the time, screeners are simply told to weed out the submissions with grammatical problems, but not necessarily given a crash course in the difference between stylistic choice and error first.


As those of you who kept up with the recent Idol series are already aware, plenty of screeners have freshly tumbled out of English departments of varying degrees of credibility. If it’s very freshly, they tend to perpetuate their professors’ pet peeves until they have read enough submissions to develop pet peeves of their own. And this can sometimes be problematic for submitters, because while screeners do not have much power within their agencies, they definitely do have veto power over submissions. If some over-eager intern screener fresh from his first serious English class takes umbrage at your use of fragments, there’s not much you can do about it.

Whether your submission ends up screened by such a sterling character is, alas, largely a matter of chance. So yes, you are taking a bit of a risk in including them; with such people, you would in fact be better off without the fragments. However, if the fragments add considerably to your writing, in your opinion, I am inclined to think that you would be better off not associating with agents and editors — or screeners, or editorial assistants — who don’t understand what you’re trying to do.

After all, almost anyone in the industry will tell you that it’s a mistake to mess with a style that works. Fragments are not all that rare anymore — heck, Annie Proulx even won the Pulitzer for a work chock full of ‘em. If you love them, they should probably stay.

Especially if your book’s category is one where fragments have a track record for being used with success. In literary fiction, for example, their use is very much accepted — but before I say more about that, I am going to need to talk about what is and isn’t literary fiction, and that, my friends, is the topic of another day.

Keep up the good work!