Increasing your chances, part III: keep your wig on, Rapunzel!

I have been thinking all day about the story of Rapunzel, and how it relates to the writer’s life. The past couple of years has been rather fairy tale-ish for me and my work — not in the Disneyfied sense of some man one has never seen before showing up and improving current conditions by taking one away from them, but in the older, darker fairy tale sense. Wicked Stepsisters trying to prevent my memoir from going to the ball where it might be recognized; a frightened monarch locking my book up in a dungeon, far from the sight of day, in the superstitious belief that it might start a war; incorporating an editor’s feedback is very much a case of spinning straw into gold, and as a freelance editor, I’m often called in like Rumplestiltskin to ease the process heck, I’ve even been working on a proposal of a NF book about a lone woman fighting to save a bunch of miners from the machinations of a foreign power into which Snow White could step with only a slight change of make-up.

But in thinking about contests and querying, Rapunzel is our girl. See if this sounds familiar to any of you: a well-meaning person, due to conditions that prevailed before she was born, finds herself locked in a tower. (History does not record whether she was locked in there with a computer or not, but let’s assume for the moment that she was.) Her only hope of getting out is for someone to notice her, so she grows her hair as long and as shiny as possible, to be seen as far away as, to take a random example, an NYC-based agency or publishing house. When the prince is intrigued by her querying locks, she is overjoyed, more hopeful than she has been in a long time.

And then what happens? A nasty old witch tosses the prince out of the tower window and shears off all of Rapunzel’s beautiful hair. Cast into despair again, all poor Rapunzel can think to do is grow another few stories’ worth of hair.

So it is all too often with the hopeful contest entrant and the contest judge. The entrant toils in solitude, trying to produce something prince-attracting, and sends it off to the contest that promises fame and glory. (Well, actually, all it technically promises is a nice ribbon, boasting rights on future query letters, and perhaps a small check, but work with me here.) The judge grasps the entry — but if there is anything in it that disturbs his sensibilities about what is and isn’t professional-level writing, out the tower window it goes. And the poor writer’s ego shares the fate of Rapunzel’s hair, lopped off until such time as the writer can regrow it.

Well, so much for my pep talk du jour. On to other matters…

No, but seriously, folks, I talk to many, many writers in the course of an average month, and the most common complaint is that the publishing world is hostile to their respective books, as evidenced by not making it to the finalist round in contests and query rejections. And literally every individual writer believes that this is a personal problem, that there is either something so good or so bad about his book that the judges, agents, and editors of the world are in unprecedented agreement that it should be given a chance.

In the first place, poppycock: judges, agents, and editors tend to conform to certain basic expectations of format and presentation, but taste is and has always been individual. Long-time readers of this blog, chant it with me now: a rejection by ANY single person, be it agent, editor, or contest judge, is just that, a rejection from a single person. No matter how universally folks in the industry describe their opinions (“No one is buying books on horse raising anymore.”), it just doesn’t make sense to regard their opinions about your work as identical to those of the industry until you have a whole lot of evidence that it’s accurate.

As in, for instance, 100 letters of rejection.

However — and this is a BIG however — there are plenty of non-writing problems that can get work rejected in agency and contest alike. I cannot stress enough the importance of maintaining in your mind a clear distinction between the TECHNICAL problems that might get a contest entry disqualified — improper margins, odd spacing, not using the kind of binding specified in contest rules, etc. — CONTENT problems that might keep it out of the finalist’s round, and STYLE issues. Until you have ruled out the first two levels of problem, you cannot legitimately conclude that your work isn’t winning contests or attracting agents because of a lack of talent.

Obviously, all three factors need to be in fighting trim for an entry to make it to the finalist round. But the VAST majority of the time, writing style — what almost every writer sees as the ONLY thing being judged in a literary contest — is not what knocks an entry out of the running.

So really, Rapunzel, do you need to grow a new batch of hair between contest entries, or do you just need to wash and style it differently?

How can you find out which is applicable to your work? As I mentioned earlier, contests that give entrants written feedback, regardless of where their entries place, can be a real boon for the aspiring writer. Sometimes, they give great advice — and actually, the cost of the average entry fee is often less than what a professional editor would charge to give feedback on the average-length entry. So if you get a conscientious judge, you can glean a great deal of practical advice.

If you get a grumpy judge, however, or one who disqualifies your entry on technical grounds, getting feedback can be a real ego-saver. If the judge missed the point of your piece (it’s been known to happen, alas; remember, until the final round of judging, the vast majority of readers are volunteers, and as such, their reading skills vary), it will be very, very apparent from his feedback. And if you got a judge who simply did not like the typeface you used (again, it has been known to happen), it is far more useful to you to learn for certain that the typeface — and not, say, the quality of your writing — scuttled your chances.

Yes, I did just say that I have seen good writing disqualified for reasons as minor as typeface selection — and in contests where the entry requirements did not specify the use of a particular font. I have seen good writing tossed aside for reasons as arbitrary as the first-round judge not liking semicolons much. And in a contest where the entrant doesn’t receive feedback, the writer would never know it.

You see now why I’m so adamant that Rapunzel should keep her hair on until she’s sure what’s going on?

To be successful, your entry needs to speak to readers with the broadest possible array of prejudices about what is and is not good writing. Effectively, your work is not just being read by the judges, but by the spectre of every writing teacher they have ever had — and their own interactions with the publishing world.

So when you submit your work to be judged in a contest, you are expected to adhere to not only the contest requirements (see yesterday’s blog for guidance on that all-important insight) but also to the contest judges’ conception of how a professional manuscript should be presented. As a result, it is VERY much in your interest to make your entry look as close to a submission to a top-flight agent as the contest rules permit.

You should make sure, in short, that your work is in standard format.

I can hear my long-time readers groan: yes, I am harping on standard format AGAIN, and with good reason. It adds significantly to the prestige of a contest if its winners go on to have their work published; to obtain this wholly delightful result, contest judges tend to screen entries not just for quality, but for marketability as well.

So if your entry contains the type of non-standard formatting that the judge believes would cause the average agent or small-press editor to cast it aside, it’s not going to make it to the next round. (Particularly in those contests where final-round judging is performed by agents, editors, and/or celebrity writers; the screeners want a very clean set of manuscripts to send to them.)

Trust me on this one: the exact same entry, if you entered it once in standard formatting and once in more eccentric format, would almost invariably place at different levels in any writing competition held in North America. I have judged contests where formatting counted for as much as a quarter of the final score. If you are serious about making it to the finalist round, use standard format.

You can save yourself SIGNIFICANT bundles of time during contest entry season if you just go ahead and adhere to standard format from the FIRST day you start working on a project, of course. Sending out queries will be swifter, and you will definitely be in better shape on that great day when an agent or editor asks to read your first 50 pages. Think of it as having your interview suit all pressed and ready, so you can leap into it the second you get the call from your dream job.

Since I went over the strictures of standard format as recently as early December, I shall not go over them again. (Pleasantly surprised, long-term readers?) If you missed my last diatribe about it, feel free to peruse the FORMATTING MANUSCRIPTS category at right.

However, for the benefit of those of you planning to enter the upcoming PNWA contest, I wanted to give you a heads-up about one of its rule peculiarities that deviates from standard format. The rules specify that the first page of the entry should not contain a page number in its slug line, which has never been a provision of standard format.

So what does this mean, in actual practice? Not numbering the title page? If you begin with a synopsis, should you not number that?

I’m anticipating myself a little here, but I ALWAYS advise including a professional title page in a contest entry: it looks more polished, and it renders it a snap to include the information pretty much every contest asks entrants to include somewhere in the entry. However, title pages are never numbered, under any circumstances, nor they are never included in the page count. (0r word count, for that matter, for submissions to agents and editors.)

Perhaps more importantly, nor do title pages count toward the contest’s page limit.

What the PNWA is asking to see is no page number on the first page of TEXT in the entry — because, although they do not say so, they are assuming that page 1 of your entry will be the first page of text proper, rather than the synopsis. If you choose to place your synopsis first in the packet, go ahead and leave the page number off that page.

Do be aware, though, that old school judges tend to prefer a synopsis to come at the end of an entry, for much the same reason that it should come at the end of a submission to an agent: that way, the reader is encouraged to judge the writing first and book’s premise second. Not a bad idea. If you decide to do it in this order, DO number the synopsis’ first page, just like the rest of the entry, rather than providing the synopsis with its own title page.

Phew! That was a long one, wasn’t it? Keep an eye on those technicalities, everybody, and remember, your ego should be tied up with the beauties of your writing style, not whether you remembered to double dashes in your manuscript. By removing any technical reasons that even the grumpiest judge could dun your entry, you increase your chances of your gorgeous prose being appreciated a thousandfold.

Keep up the good work!

Increasing your chances, part II: the triumph of the nit-picker

Yesterday, I was talking about the predictable frequency with which contest entries are knocked out of finalist consideration purely for reasons of format: specifically, for reasons of standard format. Because, when it comes right down to it, a contest entry, like a manuscript submitted to an agent or editor, should NOT slavishly resemble a published book. Manuscripts have rules, and you will be better off if you follow them.

I know my long-time readers have seen these words so often here that the syllables have probably burned themselves into their retinas, but ignorance of standard format is, due to its instant recognizability to industry insiders, invariably one of the top reasons any agent will cite for why manuscripts are rejected, and THE top reason contest judges give. The reason for this, most of the time, is simple unfamiliarity with the norms of the industry. So until every single aspiring writer within visual range of my blog is aware of it, I am going to keep harping on the matter, thank you very much.

I implore you, for your own sake: unless a contest’s rules or an agent’s requests specifically tell you otherwise, NEVER submit ANY pages ANYWHERE that are not in standard manuscript format. Simply put, it is the difference between your work’s looking professional and not.

Note that “unless” clause, however. If a contest’s rules tell you to print everything in purple ink, with 2-inch margins, and in a typeface legible only to readers on the Planet Targ, do it. And do it without fudging, because, as I said yesterday, entries that ignore such directives stand no chance of winning.

Rather clearer when it’s put that way, isn’t it, than the often bizarrely prolix wording of contest entry forms? What do these organizations do, have them written by the same good folks who write the instruction manuals for DVD players?

Here is another little piece of advice that will increase your chances of reaching finalist status exponentially: before you start preparing your contest entry, sit down and read the rules through twice. Admittedly, these rules are frequently buried at the end of the entry materials, but by all means, dig them out. After you’ve had a good chuckle at their esotericism, take a nice, clean sheet of paper and make a checklist of every requirement, no matter how small or self-evident.

Actually, ESPECIALLY these. The small and self-evident ones are actually the most often missed.

Then read the rules again, to make sure you didn’t miss anything. This list is your lifeline in climbing the contest mountain: you need to be absolutely sure that it will not fail. Have some trustworthy soul – a clergyman, your best friend, a city council member, whoever’s at hand – read the rules and your checklist side-by-side, to assure their remarkable similarity.

Once you are positive it is accurate, follow this checklist as if your life depended upon it. As you go through the process of preparing your submission, tick off each requirement. After you have finished, go back and double-check that you have indeed done each of the things on the list. Finally, give the rules one last gander just before you seal the envelope: is it possible that you missed anything?

Does this advice seem to be advising a level of self-scrutiny bordering on the obsessive-compulsive? Good; you have the right idea. Because, as any contest judge who has read even a handful of entries can tell you – or would tell you, if confidentiality agreements did not forbid it — few of the entrants in any given contest seem to have READ the requirements in their entirety.

Frankly, from the judges’ perspective, this can be downright depressing. I remember only too well reading a truly well-written entry in a contest where I was a first-round judge (no, I can’t tell you which contest). It was an interesting, beautifully-written story told from two POVs, and personally, I would have been overjoyed to see to advance to the finals. However, it had one big technical problem: the contest rules had specified the use of a single typeface throughout, and the author of this entry had chosen to use different typefaces for each of the POVs. So, unfortunately, despite well-nigh perfect scores in every other category, I had to recommend that it be disqualified.

I felt terrible for a week, but what could I do? It would have been knocked out unread at the next level, anyway, and if I had pushed for an exception, it would have damaged the chances of the other excellent entries that I was able to send to the next round.

Not all judges or screeners are so tender-hearted, of course: many report becoming positively angry after reading the fourth or fifth entry that doesn’t follow the rules. Try not to blame the judges too harshly for this — it’s not their fault that entries get ruled out on technicalities; in most contests, scorers are not given much, if any, wiggle room. And, charming people that these volunteers tend to be, each of them would honestly like to be the first person who read the winning entry and cried, “My God! This is brilliant!”

Just how common is it to ignore the rules? Well, let me put it this way: back in my graduate school days, I used to teach discussion sections in gargantuan undergraduate lecture classes. After each test, the teaching assistants (for such we were called) would get together and set out grading criteria. What did each student need to say in order to answer each question at an A level? A B level? And so forth. We’d get together again after grading to compare how our students did. Invariably, the graders’ most oft-repeated complaint: what we came to call RTFQ!

It stands for Read The Question! (The additional F was an unspoken bow to the graders’ annoyance the thirtieth time they saw the same mistake.) There is something about a timed test that apparently makes students skip the vital step of reading the exam question carefully, to figure out what precisely they are being asked. Oh, they skim it – but in the skimming, they usually miss some crucial element of the question. Their grades go down accordingly.

And so it is with contest-entry pressures, evidently: the mere necessity of meeting a contest entry deadline tends to have the same panic-inducing effect upon entrants. They skim the rules, or ignore them altogether. And it is disastrous for them.

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

And that renders entering just a waste of your time and money. But if you’re in it to win, you need to start thinking, not just like a writing professional, but like a contest judge.

This contest judge is here to tell you: if you follow the rules to the letter, yours will be in the minority of entries, and the bigger the contest, the more it will shine. So have a little mercy upon all of those nice judges out there, sit down well before the contest deadline and make a checklist of the contest’s requirements. Check it twice, just like Santa, to make absolutely certain that you have met every tiny, nit-picky technical requirement. Then you can seal the envelope and drive like a maniac it to the post office to get it postmarked by the deadline.

You can’t be first across the finish line if you are disqualified in the first lap, my friends. Be extremely careful, and your chances of contest victory will rise. Keep up the good work!

Increasing your chances of winning that contest!

In my just-completed (and oddly non-consecutive) series on picking the right literary contest for you, I suggested a number questions you should ask before you invest the time in entering a contest. Entering every contest for which your work is remotely qualified is a surprisingly common practice amongst aspiring writers, and can cost the unwary entrant hundreds of dollars per year in entry fees alone, not to mention the significant expenditure of time, postage, and anxiety.

Like the costs of querying, it adds up. So paring back to only those contests that are most likely to serve you is definitely a smart move. Once you’ve picked your contest, though, it all comes down to the writing, right? The best writing invariably wins, doesn’t it?

Well, not always. As I mentioned in my last post, many contests are structured to disqualify as many entries as quickly as possible, to streamline the judging process. To narrow the field down to potential finalists, he first screeners in almost any contest are specifically looking for reasons to disqualify any given entry. But, to be fair, the majority of entries do rush to disqualify themselves within the first couple of pages. As both a veteran contest-enterer (and winner) and an experienced contest judge, I’m going to tell you how to avoid the most common pitfalls.

If you are going to enter contests, the first premise you need to accept is that it is an inherently nit-picky business – and it’s your job to make sure you have followed every nit-picky rule set out by the contest requirements. Impeccably, and to the letter.

No matter – how shall I put this delicately? – how miniscule, unprofessional, or even downright harmful to all the principles of good writing those requirements actually are in practice. Because if you do not, no matter how excellent your reasons, you don’t really stand a chance of winning.

Naturally, this means you should proofread your entry within an inch of its life: this is not a forum where good-enough is going to fly. Ever, unless you happen to be the final judge’s nephew or favorite bridge partner. Even the best conceivable writing is not going to stand a chance if it is not technically perfect. The competition is not amongst all entries, but amongst those who have first passed the technical bar.

Within the context of a contest, technical perfection is measured by two standards: adherence to what the individual judge reading your entry believes to be standard industry format for the genre (I shall discuss tomorrow where their notions often deviate from the actual règles du jeu), up to and including an absolute absence of typos, and WHAT THE CONTEST RULES HAVE ASKED ENTRANTS TO DO.

Of the two, the latter is far and away the most important. How important, you ask? Well, do you remember how the Catholic Church felt about folks who ate meat on Friday prior to Vatican II?

Pay attention now, because I’m only going to say this once: THE SINGLE BEST THING YOU CAN DO TO IMPROVE YOUR CHANCES OF WINNING OR PLACING IN A CONTEST IS TO FOLLOW THE STATED RULES TO THE LETTER. Even the ones that seem arbitrary, or even stupid, because (as I mentioned yesterday) the more senseless the requirement, the more likely it is to be used to disqualify entries.

This is just common sense, if you’re trying to maximize disqualifications: almost every writer who has ever taken a writing class or read a writers’ publication knows work should be double-spaced, for instance, but no one spontaneously places his first chapter and a synopsis in a bright blue folder, having first made the left-hand margin 1.5 inches to accommodate the brad, and makes sure that the name of the work, page number, and name of the contest is in the upper right margin in 10-point type.

That’s a real set of contest requirements, incidentally.

Such an array of demands is brilliant, from a weeding-out point of view: the first-round judges don’t even have to open a folder that is, say, purple or navy, nor do they have to take the time to read entries with 1-inch left margins.

Is that rumbling noise I’m hearing out there the sound of everyone who has ever entered a contest with such requirements leaping to his feet and crying, “Wait – you mean they might not have READ my entry? After they cashed my $50 check?”

It is very, very possible, alas. Obviously, it would be generous-hearted of contest organizers and judges everywhere to gloss over, say, the odd typo or the entrant who feels it artistically necessary to print some portion of the entry manuscript single-spaced, if the quality of writing is high. But think about it: if you have been handed fifty entries to read in your spare time (screeners and first-round judges are almost invariably volunteers), and you could toss aside twenty-eight of them after a page or two, wouldn’t you start disqualifying entries on technical grounds?

I’ll take your murmured “yes” as given.

Again, try to clear your mind of the notion that this is just a matter of personal nastiness in the readers. Most of the time, even the most liberal-minded contest judge will be REQUIRED to reduce the rating of an entry that violates even one of the basic rules as stated in the entry requirements.

Which means, in practical terms, that whether you read the rules carefully can mean the difference between making the finals and not, even if you are the most gifted writer since Sappho first put pen to parchment. Here are the most common rule violations:

1. Neglecting to add a slug line (the title of the work and page number, located in the top left-hand corner) on EVERY page – or adding a slug line to the first page if the contest rules forbid it.

2. Shrinking the typeface so that the submission fits within the stated page limits. (Oh, come on – you didn’t think they’d notice that your submission was shrunk to 91%, when it is surrounded by 150 other submissions printed in 12-point type?)

3. Not numbering the pages (VERY common)

4. Non-standard margins.

If you have ever even considered committing any of these sins in a contest entry, you can raise your chances of making it to the finalist round exponentially through one simple act: never make any of these mistakes again.

Go forth, my child, and never sin again.

These missteps are, of course, violations against the rules of standard format, too, so their perpetrators are probably not receiving too warm a reception at agencies and publishing houses, either. (Long-time readers, chant it with me now: the proper format for manuscripts is NOT identical to what one sees in published books!) So in enforcing these strictures, contest judges actually are, in their own twisted way, conforming to the standards of the industry. And trying to urge you, if with the subtlety of an anvil dropped upon a foot, to do the same.

Kinda sweet, isn’t it?

Tomorrow, I shall talk a bit about how contest entrants inadvertently violate the more esoteric rules. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Picking the right contest, part VII: choosing to jump through only the NON-flaming hoops

Welcome back to my resumption of the absorbing topic of literary contests. Next week, I shall be going into fine detail about technical tweaking you can give your entries that will make them more likely to end up in the finalist pile, but today, I want to finish up my series of questions you should ask yourself about a contest before you invest your time, money, and hope in entering.

In my last post, I discussed the pitfalls of contests that require entrants to devote extensive time to filling out entry forms, especially those that require information that should be positively irrelevant in a blind-judged contest. (Personal references? Huh?) You can also save yourself a lot of time if you avoid contests that make entrants jump through a lot of extraneous hoops in preparing a submission.

Some of these requirements have to be seen to be believed. Specific typefaces, if they differ from the ones required by standard manuscript format. Fancy paper (three-hole punched, anyone?). Bizarre margin requirements. Expensive binding. An unprintable entry form that must be sent away for with a SASE — presumably because the contest organizers have yet to hear of the internet — and need to be filled out by typewriter, rather than by hand. (Does anyone out there still OWN a typewriter?)

Each of these will eat up your time and money, without the end result’s being truly indicative of the quality of your work. Because, really, all conforming with such oddball requirements really shows is that an entrant can follow directions.

I’m sorry to shock anyone, but my notion of a literary contest is one where the entrant proves that she can WRITE, not that she can READ. But I suppose that could be my own absurd little prejudice.

I don’t enter contests anymore, of course — most agents frown upon their clients’ entering them, and really, pros skew the scoring curve. But when my clients ask me whether a particular contest is worthwhile for them to enter, my rule of thumb is that if they can pull together a contest entry with already-written material within a day’s worth of uninterrupted writing time, I consider it reasonable. I like this standard, because the more time you have to write, the more entry-ambitious it encourages you to be.

So if a contest requires time-consuming funky formatting, or printing on special contest forms, or wacko binding, you might not want to bother. To my contest-experienced eyes, such requests are not for your benefit, but the contest organizers’.

How do I know? Because — and hold onto your hats, everybody, because I am about to reveal a deep, dark secret of the contest trade here — the primary purpose of these elaborate requests for packaging is to make it as easy as possible to disqualify entries. As a matter of simple probability, the more that they ask entrants to do to package an entry, the more ways an entrant can get it wrong. By setting up stringent and easily-visible cosmetic requirements, the organizers maximize the number of entries they can simply toss aside, unread.

Yes, you read that right: it’s so they don’t have to read all of the entries in full. Interestingly enough, many of the organizers of contests that establish these demands are quite open about its being merely an exercise in rule-following — and that they do it in order to preserve that most precious of commodities in this industry, time.

Not that you’d have to be Einstein, Mme. de Staël, and Confucius rolled into one to figure it out. Think about it: if contest organizers really only were only seeking uniformity amongst the entries, they could easily just say, “We will only accept entries in standard manuscript format.” No fuss, no bother, and besides, all of their entrants who want to get published should be using standard format, anyway, right? (If you are not already aware of the requirements of standard format, do yourself a favor and check out the FORMATTING MANUSCRIPTS category at right. Manuscripts not conforming to standard format tend to be rejected unread in both contest situations and in agents’ offices.)

Instead, the organizers in this type of contest can merely assign some luckless intern or volunteer to go through the entries before the judges see page 1 of them, plucking out any that are in the wrong type of folder, printed on the wrong type of paper, don’t have the right funky margins… well, you get the idea. Voilà! The number of entries the judges have to read has magically decreased!

I find this practice annoying, frankly, and not being crystal-clear about the costs to the entrant of deviations from these non-literary requirements despicable. Over-adherence to nit-picky presentation issues provides the organization with the illusion of selectivity on bases that have nothing to do with the quality of the writing. And that, my friends, is unfair to writers everywhere.

Which brings me to a specialized question aimed at those of you who are contest entries: how much of your writing time is being eaten up by contests these days? If you have been entering quite a few (and we’ve just finished a season of deadlines for contests and fellowship applications, and are about to enter another), would your time be better spent by passing on the next one?

Yes, a contest win or fellowship award looks great on your query letters, but it is possible to spend so much time on them that you are left with very little time to write. I once met a writer at an artists’ colony — we’d both won a competition to get in, one with a VERY involved application that I wouldn’t recommend anybody take the time to fill out — who spent literally three weeks of our month-long retreat there applying for other retreats, filling out grant applications, and entering contests. Apparently, this was her standard MO.

The result: a resume crammed to the brim with impressive contest wins and prestigious fellowships — and a grand total of two short stories and a few chapters of a novel completed in 9 years’ time. In her frantic quest to fund her writing habit, she had turned herself into a non-stop entering machine with no time or energy to write anything new.

There are so many literary contests out there that if you entered them all, you would never have a chance to get down to serious writing. Equally seriously, if you have a finished piece that you should be marketing to agents and/or small presses, it is very easy to tell yourself that entering contest after contest — at the expense of devoting that time to sending out queries — is a time- saver, in the long run. Unfortunately, that isn’t always true.

Yes, a win (or place, or finalist status) in a reputable contest can indeed speed up your agent-seeking process exponentially. I would be the last to deny that, as I met my agent as a direct result of winning the Nonfiction Book/Memoir category in the PNWA contest in 2004. It CAN lead to the fast track, and you should definitely enter a few for that very reason.

However — and this is a serious consideration — I meet a LOT of aspiring writers who turn to the contest route as a SUBSTITUTE for querying, and that can definitely slow the road to publication to a crawl. It’s understandable, of course — sending out query after query is discouraging, and in the current ultra-competitive writers’ market, it can sometimes take years to pique a good agent’s interest.

Not that it will take my readers years, of course. You’re one market-savvy bunch.

However tired of the querying grind you may be, PLEASE do not fall into the trap of using contests as a complete substitute. For one thing, the turn-around time for contest entries is significantly longer than the response time for even the least organized agencies: four to six months is common, and if you have a finished novel or NF book proposal in hand, that’s FAR too long to wait.

Also, if you hang all of your hopes on a contest win, even if you enter a plethora of contests, you are relying upon the quirky tastes of people you have never met to determine your fate.

Oh, yes, I know — that’s true when you send a query to an agent as well, but as I shall demonstrate next week, there are a great many reasons a submission might get knocked out of a contest competition that have little to do with the actual marketability — and sometimes not even the writing quality — of your work. To make it to the finalist round in a contest, you have to avoid every conceivable pet peeve that the initial screeners might have.

And, believe it or not, contest judges tend to have MORE pet peeves than agency screeners.

Mind-blowing, isn’t it? But true. With first readers at agencies (who are seldom the agents themselves, recall), you can at least rely upon certain basic rules. Standard format, for instance, is not a matter of individual whim, and you’re not going to have your submission tossed out on technical grounds if you follow it.

But in a contest, if you hit a volunteer first reader whose college English professor insisted that semicolons are ALWAYS an indicator of poor writing — yes, such curmudgeons do exist, and their erstwhile students abound — your work is likely to be knocked out of consideration the first time you use one. Ditto with the passive voice, or multiple points of view. You never can tell who is going to be a contest judge, so the outcome even for very good writing is far from predictable.

So please, keep sending out those queries while you are entering contests — and if you find that the time to prep contest entries are starting to be your excuse for not sending out more queries, stop and reevaluate whether you are making the best use of your time in your pursuit of publication.

If for no other reason that that I would really, really like to be able to gloat when your first book comes out. I ask for so little; humor me.

Happy weekend, everybody. Keep up the good work!

Picking the right contest, part VI: hanging with the disreputable

I’m shifting gears today, from the slow and steady pace appropriate to successful querying to the adrenaline-pumping deadline panics and nail-biting award-announcement waits endemic to contest entry. To ease the transition, today I am going to talk about the widely differing time commitments necessary to meet contest criteria.

It often comes as something of a shock to those new to entering contests just how time-consuming many of them are. Some allow you just to pop your work in the mail in pretty much the same form as you would use to send it to an agent; some require you to fill out extensive forms to accompany the work; some specify such stringent formatting requirements that you cannot use the work submitted to them for any other purpose.

Today, I’m going to give you some tips on navigating the waters of these requirements without eating too deeply into your hard-won writing and marketing time.

The time criterion (see earlier posts in this series for other criteria) is perhaps the most important factor to consider in evaluating a contest — other than whether your writing is ready to face competition, of course. Unlike the other criteria, which mostly focused upon the contest itself, this consideration is about you and your resources.

Parenthetically – because I am constitutionally incapable of not following an interesting line of thought when it comes up, apparently — isn’t it amazing, given how much uncompensated time we all invest into our art, just how often time has been coming up in this blog as the single most common decision-making determinant? You should sent out simultaneous queries because your time is too valuable to expend the extra years single-shot querying can take; agents don’t give rejection reasons because they don’t have the time to give substantive feedback to everyone (I like to call this the Did You Bring Enough Gum for the Whole Class? defense); your queries need to be pithy from the get-go because agency screeners only spend seconds upon each.

And now, as you’ve probably figured out, I’m about to advise you to look very carefully at the requirements of any contest you are considering entering and asking yourself – before you invest ANY time in prepping the entry – “Is this honestly going to be worth my time?”

Why do I keep harping on the importance of valuing your time, in the face of a publishing industry which, to put it very gently indeed, doesn’t?

Precisely because the industry doesn’t. While dealing with agents who take three months to respond to queries, and editors who take a year to pass judgment on a submission, if you don’t treat your time as a precious commodity, it’s all too easy to conclude that the industry is right: writers’ time is as vast as the sea, and as easily replenished as a tidal pool adjacent to a beach.

I don’t think so.

I measure time by the standards of a professional writer: every waking minute spent away from my current writing project, or from editing my clients’ writing projects, is expensive. More expensive, I think, than the equivalent minutes in the average agent’s or editor’s quotidian lives, because they are not typically creating new beauty and truth in every spare nanosecond they can steal. What writers do is important, not only to the writers themselves, but to humanity.

So there.

Since we writers control so little else along our paths to publication, I’m a great advocate of controlling what we can. Unfortunately, there are few contests out there, especially for longer works, that simply require entrants to print up an already-existing piece, slide it into an envelope, write a check for the entry fee, and slap a stamp upon it.

How few, you ask? Well, off the top of my head, thinking back over the last dozen years or so, I would estimate that the grand total would be roughly…none.

At minimum, any blind-judged contest is going to require that you prepare a special rendition of your manuscript devoid of your usual slug line – because your slug line, of course, includes your name. Translation: you can’t just photocopy or print your current MS and mail it to a contest. And anything beyond that is, alas, time-consuming.

Pretty much every contest requires the entrant to fill out an entry form – which can range from requests for ultra-simple contact information to outright demands that you answer actual essay questions. (Applications for fellowships and residencies virtually always include essay questions, FYI.) And yes, Virginia, misreading or skipping even one of these questions on the entry form generally results in disqualification.

I hate to be pedantic here, but it does need to be said: do be aware that every time you fill out one of these forms, you are giving tacit consent to being placed upon the sponsoring organization’s mailing list. As with any information you submit to people you do not know, be careful not to provide any data that is not already public knowledge. Every piece of information you share here is subject to resale to marketing firms, unless the contest sponsor states outright on the form that it will not do so.

Oh, come on — did you think those offers from Writers Digest and The Advocate just found their way into your mailbox magically?

How do you know if what is being asked of you is de trop? Well, a one- or at most two-page application form is ample for a literary contest; a three- or four-page application is fair for a fellowship or residency. Anything more than that, and you should start to wonder what they’re doing with all of this information.

A contest that gives out monetary awards will need your Social Security number eventually, for tax purposes (yes, contest winnings are taxable), for instance, but they really need this information only for the winners. I would balk about giving it up front.

I have seen contest entry forms that ask writers to list character references, especially those contests aimed at writers still in school. It’s an odd request, isn’t it, given that the history of our art form is riddled with notorious rakes, ne’er-do-wells, and other social undesirables who happened to write like angels? Some awfully good poetry and prose has been written in jail cells over the centuries, after all. I don’t believe that a contest should throw out the work of a William Makepeace Thackeray or an H.G. Wells because they kept mistresses…or to toss Oscar Wilde’s because he didn’t.

Or, for that matter, close its entry rolls to a shy kid whose high school English teacher doesn’t happen to like her.

In practice, reference requests are seldom followed up upon, and even less frequently used to disqualify entries before they are read, but they are occasionally used as tie-breakers. A good literary contest is not going to refuse to read Percy Bysshe Shelley’s entry because of that bottle of laudanum he was fond of carrying in his pocket, or disqualify Emily Dickenson’s poetry submission because her neighbors noticed that she didn’t much like to go outside.

No, they’d wait until the finalist round to do that.

I have questioned contest organizers why they ask for references, and they claim they do it solely so they can rule out people whose wins might embarrass the organization giving the award – basically, so they do not wake up one day and read in the newspaper that they gave their highest accolade to Ted Bundy. So they might well gently shove aside an entry whose return address was a state or federal prison, to minimize the possibility of handing their top honor to someone wearing manacles and accompanied by a guard.

Call me zany, but personally, I would prefer to see potential and former felons turn their entries to the gentle arts of the sonnet or the essay over other, less socially-useful pursuits like murdering people with axes, embezzlement, or arson of public buildings, but evidently, not every contest organizer agrees with me. Again, I’m not sure that they have an ethical right to limit entries this way but as I believe I have made clear in the past, I do not run the universe.

The moral: if you don’t have friends as disreputable as you are to vouch for you in a reference-requiring contest, you need to get out more – or at least graduate from high school. Join a writers’ group.

I must admit, though, that my suspicious nature rears its paranoid head whenever I see requests for references; back in my contest-entry days, I tended to avoid these contests. If an entrant lists one of the contest judges as a reference, is the entry handled differently? If I can list a famous name as a reference, are my chances of winning better?

Only the conference organizers know for sure.

Contest entry forms frequently ask you to list your writing credentials, which I find bizarre in contests where the judging is supposed to be blind. Again, perhaps I am suspicious, but I always wonder if entries from authors with previous contest wins or publication credentials go into a different pile than the rest. They shouldn’t, if the judging is genuinely blind.

But to quote the late great Fats Waller, “One never knows, do one?”

I’m not saying that you should rule out contests that make such requests – but I do think that the more personal information the organization asks for, the more careful your background check on the contest should be. When I see a request for references, for instance, I automatically look to see if the listed judges and/or their students have won previous competitions. A lot of the requesters are indeed on the up-and-up, but there is no surer waste of an honest writer’s time, talent, and resources than entering a rigged contest – or one with a demonstrable bias.

But do not despair, dear readers: there are plenty of literary contests – and fellowships, too — out there that are absolutely beyond reproach. By keeping your eye out for warning signs before you sink your valuable time into filling out extensive applications, you will be keeping your work – and your entry fees – out of the hands of the greedy.

And hey, any of you out there who may be considering committing a felony in the days to come: take my advice, and take up short story writing instead. I assure you, everyone will be happier in the long run.

There! That’s another day of crime prevented. Keep up the good work!

A final word on queries

How did everyone’s query letter do in the countdown? Well, I hope. If you find yourself in perplexity about some aspect of the missive, feel free to ask questions via the comments function, below. (But please, I implore you, do NOT just e-mail me your query letter. I’m swamped.)

Before I sign off on the topic of querying for the time being, in order to retackle contest entries with renewed enthusiasm, however, I want to speak today about the extraordinarily difficult task of keeping yourself from stressing out while your queries are wending their way through agencies thither and yon.

Keeping your spirits up is very seldom addressed in your average querying class, is it? And in most how-to publications out there, the implication is that since the advice contained therein will elevate your query letter from rejectable to irresistible in a few easy steps, there is no need to consider the possibility that a good writer might have to send quite a few of them out.

Frankly, I think this attitude – although probably meant to be chock-full o’ positive vibrations for your success – actually makes it harder for writers going through the querying process.

I wondered for a very long time where aspiring writers got the rather fantastic idea that talent is always recognized instantaneously, as if there were a special angel who did nothing all day but assure that any gifted writer’s copy of GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS would automatically fall open to the perfect fit. And then I started listening to the bigwig writers who spoke at the conferences where I was teaching. Turns out, conference speakers tend to be huge proponents of the notion that Somebody Up There sees to it that the gifted don’t have to query more than a handful of times.

While it would be easy to dismiss this attitude as self-aggrandizement – “You, the audience, may be struggling to get your work a fair reading, but I, the speaker, am so brilliant that agents appeared on my doorstep as soon as I printed out the first draft” – I don’t think that’s actually what’s behind this kind of assertion. I think that often, by the time a writer is prominent enough to be asked to speak (particularly to give a keynote speech) at a major conference, he tends to have landed his agent so long ago that the writing market has completely changed in the interim.

So, effectively, unless the speaker is unusually devoted to helping aspiring writers and is still in the trenches like yours truly, trying to assist others to get published, the story he is likely to tell will bear about as much resemblance to what a querier can expect now as your grandparents’ stories about their high school years bore to yours.

Wanna hear my father’s story about the first time he sat in a car? It was a Model A. Think that helped me learn to drive?

This was brought home very forcefully to me this fall, when I was teaching at a small conference packed to the gills with exceptionally talented writers who had made their names between 10 and 40 years ago. When asked about how to land an agent, these well-meaning souls to a man muttered the usual truisms about how good writing always finds a home, and all you really have to do is get someone to read it.

Which, to a writer new to the game who is at all savvy to the current hyper-competitive environment at agencies, could be heard very much as, “I’m all right, Jack; I’ve got mine.” Not overwhelmingly helpful, as guidance goes.

Then one of the writers I have admired for a very, very long time stepped up to the podium. She’s probably 15 years older than I am, which is to say that I estimated that she had hooked up with her agent just about the time when it started getting genuinely hard for good writers to find representation. The timing had a lot to do with the rise of the personal computer, by the way, and even more with the later rise of the internet: once writers did not have to laboriously retype or expensively photocopy every manuscript submitted, submissions to agencies went up exponentially; once writers could research agencies on the web, queries burgeoned.

In any case, I was in great hopes that this author, unlike the other speakers, would have a life story that might parallel the conference attendees’ struggles enough to be instructive. No such luck, alas: it turned out that she had been in an MFA program…

Lost you already, hasn’t she?

…and she went to a conference and made friends with an editor because she was crying over something. The editor read “the only good short story I had written so far,” introduced the writer to her best friend…


…who happened to be an excellent agent, and snapped her up immediately. Thus, the writer had never queried at all.

Well, that was helpful, wasn’t it?

Seriously, I think these types of stories depress writers who are querying now; they give new life to that old myth that real talent is always recognized instantly. In the current market – and actually, for most of the last 15 years since that lecturing writer had an agent magically fall into her lap like Newton’s apple – that just hasn’t been the case.

Trust me on this one: you will be a MUCH happier camper if you reconcile yourself NOW to the notion that you will probably need to send out dozens (and dozens, and maybe even dozens) of query letters before you land an agent – and that this most emphatically does NOT mean you are without talent, or that the publishing world is hostile to your work.

Once you accept that reality, sending out one letter at a time just seems, well, kind of silly, doesn’t it? If you’re going to need to get your work under many noses, it only makes sense to send out quite a few queries at a time. Not so many that you can’t keep track of who wants what, of course, but enough that when you hear back from one, you have others out there.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: it’s emotionally FAR easier to keep a query cycle going than to start one from scratch. Especially if you are starting from scratch immediately after the agent of your dreams has just sent you a form-letter rejection. Many queries equal many possibilities: cumulatively, they help keep hope alive.

And anything that keeps hope hoppin’ is not something at which a writer should be sneezing, in this market.

Also, one-at-a-time querying is inefficient. This is an industry where tastes change in a matter of months, sometimes even weeks. If it takes you a year to query ten agents, it’s not beyond belief that by the end of that time, what the first agent is looking to acquire will have changed completely.

Seriously. I’ve seen it happen.

Let me knock another common writers’ conference truism on its nasty little head before anyone brings it up: it’s just not true that agents become angry if you submit to more than one of them at once. That was true in older, slower times, but frankly, it hasn’t been widely true since the Reagan Administration.

The FIRST Reagan Administration.

True, one occasionally does see notations in the standard agents’ guides stating that a particular agency prefers exclusive submissions. You know why that’s there? Because the expectation of exclusivity is so rare in the industry now that unless it is stated baldly up front, the assumption is that every agent on the planet accepts simultaneous submissions.

So there. Query early, query often, and don’t you dare conclude that no one wants your book until you’ve queried a hundred agents – and even then, make sure it’s your book that’s getting rejected, and not just your query letter.

Tomorrow, we shall rejoin our series on contest entries, already in progress. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Your query letter, part VII: for the lack of a poetic moniker, the other stuff

For the last few days, I have been going through a checklist of questions a prudent querier should ask herself before popping that missive (plus SASE, of course) into the mail. As I’m sure the sharper-eyed among you have noticed already, I am being a trifle repetitious in this series overall, not my usual style. Bear with me on this one, long-time readers: this information is so very important to the success of all you queriers out there that I really want to hammer it home.

Yes, there are many, many, MANY sources out there advising how to craft a query letter, much of it contradictory; I assure you, I am not claiming to be the final authority on it. However, I do have a very successful track record handling queries, both for my own work and my editing clients’, so I have quite a solid idea of what definitely will NOT work. So even if you have read so many pieces of advice on querying that you think that if you read another, you will go stark, raving mad like that poor man in BELOVED, you might want to cast your eyes over this list.

After all, even the best writer in the world is not born knowing how to pitch her work, is she?

So, query in hand, ask yourself the following questions. Yes, some of them are pretty elementary, but better that I mention here than even a single reader out there makes what is often a fatal mistake, right?

(11) Have I mentioned the book’s genre and/or book category?

Told you some of these would be elementary, right? You’d be surprised at how few query letters even mention whether the work being pitched is fiction or nonfiction.

This is a business run on categories: pick one, and use some of your precious query letter space to state it outright. Because there’s just no getting around the fact that in order to get your book published, any agent currently residing on the planet will have to tell any editor in the business what genre your book falls into — thus, it is really helpful if you are clear about it upfront.

As I mentioned the other day, a lot of writers think they can fudge genres by listing several: comic romance, spiritual how-to, women’s thriller. Logically, these hybrids may make sense, but if a composite category isn’t already quite well established (paranormal romance, for example), it looks wishy-washy to professional eyes.

The one exception: Literary/Mainstream Fiction. This one is okay, because honestly, no one is really sure where precisely the dividing line between the two categories lies, and occasionally (very occasionally), very literary works have huge mainstream appeal.

(12) Have I avoided using clichés?
I would go so far as to list this as a general axiom: NEVER USE A CLICHÉ IN YOUR SUBMISSIONS, at any stage. Especially not in your query letter.

I used to think this one was self-evident, but after years and years of reading aspiring writers’ queries with an eye to punching them up, I have been proven wrong. A LOT of query letters (and synopses, and contest entries) feature ostensibly humorous references to clichés. I blame television for this: the sitcom (and Saturday Night Live) have led all too many to believe that sheer repetition of a phrase (“You look mabalous,” anyone?) renders it amusing.

All too many are wrong. Just because your coworkers will chuckle when you quip, “Where’s the beef?” (okay, so maybe you coworkers in the mid-1980s would have), it doesn’t mean that the phrase — or truism, or malapropism — is going to be funny in a formal request for representation. If you choose to make your query letter humorous, use your own material.

Why? Because originality shows your talent off far better than your ability to quote. And while the general population’s tolerance for second-hand and oft-repeated jokes tends to be rather high (witness the careers of Milton Berle, Bob Hope, and practically any comedian Saturday Night Live has foisted upon the rest of us, if you doubt this), in the publishing industry, the tolerance is close to nil.

I am not kidding about this. Agents and editors tend to regard the jokes floating around in the zeitgeist with roughly the same loathing as they hold for clichés: the bubonic plague may be worse, by most objective standards, but you’d hardly know it to hear them talk about these phenomena. They feel, and not without some justification, that any writer worth thirty seconds of their time should be able to make it through a page of introduction, five pages of synopsis, and fifty pages of submission without resorting to rehashed phrases.

I have faith that you can do it, too.

(13) Have I listed my credentials well? Do I sound as though I am a competent professional, regardless of my educational level or awards won?

If you have any background that aided you in writing this book, you need to make sure you mention it in your query letter. Period. Even your certificate in woodworking, if your book touches even vaguely upon circular saws.

Most of the time, though, unless you are writing a book that requires very specific expertise, most of your credentials will not actually be relevant to your book. But do say where you went to school, if you graduated from any institution after high school, and any awards you have won, if you have. If you are a member of a regularly-meeting writers’ group, mention that: anything that makes you sound like a serious professional is appropriate to include.

(14) Have I made any of the standard mistakes that send agents screaming into the night?

Again, this is recap, and all of these are trivial to the uninitiated eye, but trust me, ALL of them will get your query pitched into the reject pile before you can say Judith Regan:

*Referring to ANY book as “a fiction novel”
*Taking more than three words to describe the book category.
*Any version of the sentiment, “I know you don’t represent this kind of book, but…”
*Claiming to have been referred by a client who did not actually refer you (and yes, agents generally do ask the alleged referrer)
*A query letter longer than a single page.
*Obvious margin-fudging or ultra-small typeface usage to make a query only a page long.
*Not including a SASE.
*Addressing a female agent as “Dear Mr. Smith,” or a male one as “Dear Ms. Jones.”
*And finally (drum roll, please), the biggest pet peeve of all, addressing the agent as “Dear Agent.”

(15) Is my letter in correspondence format, not in business format?

I’ve literally never seen this advice given elsewhere, but it is a fact: to people in the publishing industry (and the magazine industry as well, I’m told), business format — be it in a letter or a manuscript — looks illiterate. And that’s the last thing you want to convey to someone you expect to take your writing seriously.

(Yes, I know: I write in business format here. Blame the blogging program, which simply eats tabs willy-nilly.)

Indent EVERY paragraph the regulation five spaces. (Yes, in your manuscript, too. If you don’t know why this is an automatic rejection offense, please see the FORMATTING MANUSCRIPTS category at right.) Single-space the letter, and have the date and the signature halfway across the page.

(16) Is my query letter in the same font as my manuscript? Is it free of boldface and underlining? And is my font choice one of those favored by the industry?

I know that it may seem a trifle silly, but long experience has shown that query letters that adhere to standard manuscript format tend to be taken more seriously from the get-go. (If you don’t know what standard format is, or that there was a special format for manuscripts that differs from how books are printed, please see the FORMATTING MANUSCRIPTS category at right.)

In practical terms, this means that your query should be in 12-point Times, Times New Roman, Courier, or Courier New. (If you have constructed false letterhead on your computer, your header may be in a different typeface.) Nothing in the letter — or indeed, in your manuscript — should be in either boldface or underlined. If you use a foreign-language word, italicize it.

“But how,” some of you may be calling right about now, “do I designate my title, if I am not to use boldface or underlining?”

Good question. Within the context of a letter, pretty much everyone in the industry will reproduce a title in all caps (ALL THE PRETTY HORSES), but you may italicize a title instead.

(17) Does my query letter read as though I have a personality?

When I teach basic query-writing technique, I find that this question surprises writers who have done their homework, the ones who have studied guides and attended workshops on how to craft the perfect query letter, more than any other. The fact is, though, those guidelines are widely enough known now that a textbook-perfect letter can come across as, well, unimaginative.

In a situation where you are pitching your imagination and perceptiveness, this is definitely not good. In fact, a letter that is too all-business may actually get shoved into the rejection pile on that basis alone.

Why? In a word: boredom. Think about that agency screener with her 800 letters to open per week. Just how many straight-out-of-a-textbook queries do you think she sees on an average day? How about in an average hour?

Get my point? And see why I have been historically reluctant to post a universal prototype for a query letter here?

Don’t make the all-too-common mistake of presenting a man without a face: your query letter needs to sound like you at your best. You need to sound professional, of course, but if you’re a funny person, the query should reflect that. If you are a person with quirky tastes, the query should reflect that, too. And, of course, if you spent your twenties and early thirties as an international spy and man of intrigue, that had better come across in your query.

There is no 100% foolproof formula, my friends, whatever the guides tell you. But if you avoid the classic mistakes, your chances of coming across as an interesting, complex person who has written a book worth reading goes up a thousandfold.

Phew! That was a lengthy one, wasn’t it? It may not feel like it, but believe it or not, I honestly am trying to hurry through this material, so I can get back to giving advice on crafting your contest entries. Something tells me THAT series may take us right up to the PNWA contest deadline…

The fun never stops here, does it? Keep up the good work!

P.S. to Damon: the address on your e-mail keeps bouncing back when I reply! Would you mind e-mailing again?

Your query letter, part VI: The body of the letter

Yesterday, I urged you to take a long, hard look at the first paragraph of the query letter you’ve been sending out, to make sure you are projecting the impression that you are an impressively qualified, impeccably professional writer destined to be discovered any minute by another agent IF the agent you are querying does not have the good sense to snap you up first. Today, I want to talk about the body of the letter, the part where you talk about the book itself.

Is everybody comfortable, query letter in hand? Read the entire letter aloud, so it is clear in your mind (and to catch any lapses in logic or grammar), then ask yourself the following questions. The numbering, of course, is a continuation of yesterday’s list:

(6) Is my brief summary of the book short and clear?

Many writers try to cram the whole synopsis into the query letter, going on for paragraphs at a time about the storyline or argument of the book. Given that the entire query letter should never be longer than a page, your summary needs to be very short and sweet. You really only have 3-5 sentences here to grab an agent’s interest, so you might well be better off emphasizing how interesting your characters are, rather than trying to outline the plot.

I hear those frown lines starting to form: here we go again, yet another arbitrary agency requirement. Actually, there is a pretty good reason for this one, something that can work to your advantage — it forces the writer to minimize distracting details. After all, if you are querying fiction, it took you an entire book to tell the story well, didn’t it? And if you are querying nonfiction, didn’t it take you a whole book (well, okay, a book proposal) to make the argument well? So how likely is it that you would be able to convey the entire complexity of your plot in a paragraph, anyway?

To get a sense of how too many details can confuse an agency screener, pretend to be our old pal, the unpaid intern who has already read 75 queries this morning, has just burnt her tongue on her latte, and is reading her last query before her lunch date. Obviously, it’s in your own best interest to read that last one as quickly as possible, right? So consider the following two summaries: which would be more likely to make you ask to see the first fifty pages of the book?

“Murgatroyd, a blind trombonist with a lingering adolescent passion for foosball, has never fallen in love — until he met Myrtle, the baton-wielding conductor with a will of steel. But what chance does he have? Myrtle’s just been dumped by the world’s greatest Sousaphinist; she has vowed never to look at the brass section again. Can Murgatroyd win the heart of his first love, without compromising his reputation as he navigates the take-no-prisoners world of the symphony orchestra?”

Snappy, isn’t it? The characters come off as quirkily interesting, and the basic conflicts are immediately apparent: request away. Contrast this with the more common type of summary:

“BATON OF MY HEART is a love story that follows Murgatroyd, the child of a smothering father and absent-minded mother who was blinded at age six by a wayward electrical wire. As a child, Murgatroyd hated and feared electricity, which causes him to avoid playing conventional sports: football fields are always brightly lit. This light metaphor continues into his adult life, where he performs in symphony halls with lights trained on him all the time. Life isn’t easy for Murgatroyd. Eventually, he gets a job with a new symphony, where he doesn’t know anybody; he’s always been shy. He makes friends in the woodwind section, but the people who play next to him remain aloof. A mysterious woman is hired to conduct the symphony. Murgatroyd is intrigued by her, because…”

Hold it a minute: We’re all the way through a lengthy paragraph, and we still don’t know what the essential conflict is!

To phrase this in the language of the industry: next!

(7) Have I made it clear what the book is actually about — and how it is different from other books?

This might seem like a flippant question, after the last, but frequently, writers get so carried away pushing the book in principle that they forget to mention the theme at all. Instead, they rely upon the kind of summary that writers use in casual conversation, chestnuts along the lines of, “My book is a political thriller about a man who tries to kidnap a third of Congress.”

“Um,” our little friend the screener thinks, “are you going to tell me anything about who this guy is? His motivation, perhaps? Who might conceivably try to stop him in his attempt?”

Burnt-lip screener has a point here: without some indication of the characters and conflict, stories start to sound very, very much alike. The result is that summaries like “LOVE SONG is the story of a romantic woman seeking the love of her life,” tend to be dismissed out of hand: this could, after all, describe the vast majority of romances, no?

Hint: if your summary in the letter does not include any mention of the central conflict of the book, you might want to rework it. And it’s always a good idea to mention your protagonist by name (by first name, at least) in the first line of the description

(8) Is my summary in the present tense?

Okay, this one is genuinely a weirdness of the industry: one-paragraph summaries, like pitches, are always in the present tense. Even if you are describing events that happened before the fall of the Roman Empire. Go figure.

(9) Does it emphasize the points that will make the book appeal to my target audience?

If you find being direct about why your book is needed by your target audience (“PIGSKIN SERANADE is designed to appeal to the romantic football-lover in all of us”) a trifle gauche — and actually, even if you don’t — it should be readily apparent to anyone who reads your summary what elements of the book are most likely to draw readers.

The easiest way to do this is to make sure that the tone of summary echoes the tone of the book. If you have written a comedy, you’d better make sure there’s at least one line in the summary that elicits a chuckle. If you have written a steamy romance, you’d better make sure there’s some sex in the summary. And so forth.

(10) Wait — have I given any indication here who my target audience is?

Most query letters include no reference whatsoever to the target audience, as though it were in poor taste to suggest to an agent that somebody somewhere might conceivably wish to purchase the book being pitched. But if an agent is going to spend only about thirty seconds on any given query letter before deciding whether to reject it out of hand, is there really time for the agent to think, “Hmm, who will buy this book?”

In pretty much every instance, no. To translate again: next!

How’s your query letter holding up? This honestly is a quiz where you want to score 100%. Tomorrow, I shall wrap up the checklist, so you can send out your queries with confidence. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Your query letter, part V: first impressions matter tremendously

I’ve been talking for the last few days about big problems to which query letters are prone, but am I preaching to the choir here? Don’t all of my bright, brilliant, talented, and undoubtedly gorgeous and civic-minded readers already know to avoid these pitfalls?

Not necessarily – even if a writer’s been at it a while, it can be pretty hard to see the flaws in one’s own query letters. For most new writers, it takes quite a bit of rejection to open their eyes to the possibility that their missives themselves might be problematic. Okay, out comes the broken record, because I honestly do think the misconceptions around rejection are harmful to good writers: unfortunately, writers all too often automatically assume that it’s the idea of the book being rejected, rather than a style-hampered querying letter or a limp synopsis.

But how is this possible, without a level of mental telepathy on the agency screener’s part that would positively stun the Amazing Kreskin? Are the rejecting agents seeing past the initial packet to the book itself, decreeing from afar that the writing is not worth reading — and thus that the writer should not be writing? Do they have some sort of direct cosmic connection to the Muses that allows them to glance at the first three lines of a query and say, “Nope, this one was last in line when the talent was handed out. Sorry,” before they toss it into the rejection pile?

No, of course not. Only editors have that kind of direct telephone connection to the demi-gods.

Yet this particular fear leaps like a lion onto many fledgling writers, dragging them off the path to future efforts: it is the first cousin that dangerous, self-hating myth that afflicts too many writers, leading to despair, the notion that if one is REALLY talented, the first draft, the first query, and the first book will automatically traject one to stardom.

It never – well, almost never — works like that: writing is work, and what gets the vast majority of queries rejected is a lack of adherence to professional standards. Which can, my friends, be learned, as we’ve seen over the last few posts.

But what if you already have a query letter that meets all the technical criteria, and it’s still not getting the responses you want? Pull up your chairs close, boys and girls: it’s time for the master class on querying. Today, we’re going to learn the fine art of diagnosis.

Before you begin to feel for your submission’s pulse, read over your query letter, synopsis, and, if you’ve been submitting it, first chapter; better still, read them over AND have someone you trust read it over as well, checking for logical holes and grammatical problems. The best choice for this is another writer, ideally one who has successfully traversed the perils of the agent-finding ravine.

Let’s slap another broken record on the turntable: as much as you may love your mother, your spouse, and your best friend, they are, generally speaking not the best judges of your writing. Look to them for support and encouragement, not for technical feedback. Find someone whose opinion you trust – such as, say, a great writer you met at a conference, or the person in your writing group who keeps being asked to send sample chapters – and blandish her into giving your query letter and synopsis a solid reading.

(Lest you think I am casting unwarranted aspersions upon your mother, your spouse, or your best friend, let me add that my own fabulous mother spent her twenties editing the work of Philip K. Dick and others; fifty years later, she is one of the best line editors I have ever seen, in my professional opinion, but as she is my mother, I would never dream of using her as my only, or indeed even my primary feedback source. That doesn’t stop her from line editing while she reads my work, as I do for hers — years of professional editing causes a particular type of myopia that prevents one from ever reading again without brandishing a vicious pen that attacks margins with the intensity a charging rhinoceros — but I respect my work enough to want first reader feedback from someone who was NOT there when I took my first toddling steps.)

Make sure that you read all of the constituent parts of your submissions in hard copy, not just on a computer screen. Proofreading is far easier – and more likely to be accurate — in hard copy.

Once you have done this, and made sure your submission pieces say what you thought they were saying (you’d be surprised how many don’t), sit down with yourself and/or that trusted first reader and ask yourself the following questions. If you have already gone over your letter with an eye to my advice from earlier in this series, you should be able to sail through most of these questions; if not, you may have a few surprises in store.

(1) Is my query letter polite?

Not just civil, mind you: genuinely courteous. Even good queriers tend to start to sound a bit exasperated by their fifteenth try. In fact, you’d be amazed at how often people use the query letter as a forum for blaming the agent addressed for conditions in the industry: my personal favorite began, “Since you agents have set yourself up as the guardians of the gates of the publishing world, I suppose I need to appeal to you first.”

A close second: “I know that challenging books seldom get published these days, but I’m hoping you’ll be smart enough to see that mine…”

Okay, these are extreme examples, but do bear in mind that agents have to interact their clients quite a bit throughout the publication process; I hear from my agent more often than I do virtually all of my old chums from college. Do make sure that you’re coming across in your query as someone with whom it will not be painful to associate on a regular basis.

(2) Does my letter sound competent and professional, or as if I have little confidence in the work? Do I sound as though I know what I’m doing, or does it read as though I’m apologizing for querying at all?

While it is a nice touch to thank the agent at the end of the query for taking the time to consider your work, doing so in the first paragraph of the query and/or repeatedly in the body of the letter comes across as obsequious. Begging tends not to be helpful in this situation. Remember, reading your query is the agent’s (or, more likely, the agent’s assistant’s) job, not a personal favor to you.

And, whatever you do, do NOT mention that the book has been rejected elsewhere, or that you’re having a hard time finding an agent, or that you think it will be challenging to sell in the current market. These are all surprisingly common elements in query letters, as they are in pitches: give some writers a few minutes, and they’ll give you eight good reasons that no one will ever pick up their work.

Trust me, that kind of modesty does not charm on the isle of Manhattan. Even if you don’t feel confident, try to sound so.

(3) Does my book come across as marketable, or does it read as though I’m boasting?

I have literally never met an agent who could not, if asked, launch into an extended medley of annoyingly pushy, self-aggrandizing query letter openings at the drop of the proverbial hat. Trust me, they’ve already seen their share of, “This is the greatest work ever written!”, “My book is the next bestseller!”, and “Don’t miss your opportunity to represent this book!”
It simply doesn’t work.

(4) Do I make it clear in the first paragraph of the letter why I am writing to this particular agent — or does it read as though I could be addressing any agent in North America?

Agents complain vociferously and often about queries that read as though the writer simply used a mail merge to address letters to every agent listed on a particular website or in a given guide, but you need not address your query to a generic “Dear Agent” to set off their repetition radar. There are hundreds and hundreds of literary agents — why did you choose this one, out of all others, to query?

And if the answer was, “This was the first agency alphabetically,” you might want to consider coming up with a reason that sounds better on paper.

Why? Human nature. Most agents are proud of their work: if you want to get on their good side, show a little appreciation for what they have done in the past. If the agent you are querying has represented something similar to your work, definitely mention that in your query letter. (As in, “Since you so ably represented X’s book, I believe you may be interested in my novel…”)

There are many ways to find out what an agent has represented; I’ve written fairly extensively on this subject in the past (if this is news to you, please see the AGENTS category at right), so I shall only list the top ways briefly here. Check the acknowledgments of books you like (authors often thank their agents), or check the agency’s website to see whom the agent represents. There are several online search engines that will permit you to enter an author’s name and find out who represents him; I use Publisher’s Marketplace, as it is so up-to-date on just-breaking sales news.

If all else fails, call the book’s publisher, ask for the publicity department, and ask who the agent of record was. I once had a charming conversation with an editor at a small Midwestern press, who confided to me that when she had acquired the book about which I was inquiring, the author did not yet have an agent. Sensing an opportunity, I promptly pitched my book to her — and she asked me to send her the first fifty pages right away.

Alternatively, if you have heard the agent speak at a conference, read an article she has written in a writer’s magazine, or even just noticed that your favorite author thanked her in the acknowledgments of a book you liked, mention that upfront. If you have no such personal reason, be polite enough to give a general one: “Since you represent literary fiction, I hope you will be interested in my novel…”

(5) Does my first paragraph mention the book category? And have I avoided the all-time fiction agent peeve of referring to the book as a “fiction novel”?

Again, when approaching people to whom industry-speak is a native tongue, it really does behoove you to describe your book in their language – and avoid describing it in terms that a publishing professional would never use. If you are unsure what a book category is, you might want to take a gander at the BOOK CATEGORIES section at right; if you are unsure why an agent would object to the term “fiction novel,” ask yourself this: what novels aren’t fiction?

You might have noticed that all of the questions so far concern the first paragraph of your query letter. I have dwelt upon the first paragraph, because – as I was discussing yesterday — countless query letters are discarded by agents every day based upon the first paragraph alone. Think about it: if you had to get through 200 queries before the end of the afternoon, would you keep reading if the first paragraph were not promising?

Oh, yes, you SAY you would. But honestly, would you?

Take a good, hard look at your first paragraph, and make sure it is one that will make the agent want keep reading. Again, it is really in your interest to adhere to the prevailing manners of the publishing world: for all intents and purposes, it is considered rather impolite to make a busy agent (or assistant) read the entire cover letter in order to find out what you want. All too often, when writers do not make their intentions clear up front, the letter simply gets tossed aside after the first paragraph.

Which is, by the way, the primary reason I advise against e-mail queries, incidentally, except in the case of agents who specifically prefer them: it’s too easy to delete an e-mail after reading only a line of it. Yes, they’re more convenient for the writer, but they’re also much, much less trouble for the agency.

Personally, I would prefer to be harder to dismiss.

Tomorrow, I shall deal with the questions you should ask about subsequent portions of your query letter — and yes, I know that it seems impossibly nit-picky to concentrate this hard upon a page of text that isn’t even in your book. I’m just trying to save you some time, and some misery — and a whole lot of rejection.

Keep up the good work!

Your query letter, part IV: don’t wait for that knock on the door

Again, pardon me for posting two blogs so very close together temporally: blame my ISP, whose desire to thwart its subscribers apparently trumps my desire to post on a daily basis.

I’ve been talking for a few days about the goals of the query letter and how to achieve them without sounding as though you’re trying to sell the agent vacation home land in Florida. In that spirit, I thought some of you might find it useful to see what a really good query letter looks like. Not so you can copy it verbatim – rote reproductions abound in rejection piles – but so you may see what the theory looks like in practice. To make the example more useful, I’ve picked a book in the public domain whose story you might know: MADAME BOVARY.

Ms. Savvy Marketer
Picky & Pickier Literary Management
0000 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 00000

Dear Ms. Marketer:
I very much enjoyed your recent article in THE WRITER magazine. Since you so ably represented First-Time Author’s debut novel, FRENCH LADIES IN LOVE, I hope you will be interested in my women’s fiction book, MADAME BOVARY.

Emma Bovary is a beautiful woman who knows what she wants out of life: great, overwhelming love, the kind of romance she has read about in novels. Yet married to the most ordinary of ordinary men, and operating on an even more ordinary income, she must create romance on her own. Yet in pursuing her dream of a love-filled, glamorous life, she must put her marriage, child, respectability, and even life in jeopardy.

Emma Bovary’s dilemma will be familiar to many novel readers, an echo of an often unspoken but nevertheless strong longing to live a fantasy life. Rather than ridiculing the heroine for her ambitions, as in Stendhal’s bestselling THE RED AND THE BLACK, or making light of the social problems of such a pursuit would entail, like Thackeray’s VANITY FAIR, MADAME BOVARY concentrates on the quotidian tradeoffs already familiar to readers’ lives: living with having married the wrong man, feeling unappreciated, the difficulty in obtaining arsenic.

I am seeking an agent sensitive to the complexities and charm of the mundane, who can help me not only market this book, but who is also interested in working with me to develop my continuing career as a novelist. I may be reached at the address and phone number below (or would be, had the telephone been invented yet), as well as via internet at

Thank you for your time in considering this. I am including a SASE for your reply.


Gustave Flaubert
1234 Hovel Lane, attic apartment
(789) 665-2298

Now, apart from being in business format (because my blogging program will not allow me to indent paragraphs), that’s an awfully good query letter, one that presents the book well without being too pushy or arrogant. But let’s assume that Mssr. Flaubert had not done his homework; what might his query letter have looked like then?

Picky & Pickier Literary Management
0000 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 00000

Dear Agent:
You’ve never read anything like my fiction novel, MADAME BOVARY. This is one opportunity you’d be a fool to miss!

MADAME BOVARY is a story of lust, greed, and unscrupulousness, set against the backdrop of provincial France. The poet Baudelaire says it’s the greatest novel of the 19th century, and I’m sure you’ll agree.

I know agents are notoriously risk-averse, but why not take a chance on an unknown writer, for a change? You’ll be glad you did.


Gustave Flaubert

Now, I respect my readers’ intelligence far too much to go through point by point, explaining what’s wrong with this second letter. Obviously, the contractions are far too casual for a professional missive.

The thing to note here comes as a great big surprise to most aspiring writers: even a great book will be rejected at the query letter if it is pitched poorly. Yes, any agent in her right might would snap up Mssr. Flaubert in a heartbeat after reading his wonderful prose – but with a query letter like the second, the probability of any agent’s asking to read it is close to zero.

Let’s not forget an important corollary to this realization: even a book as genuinely gorgeous as MADAME BOVARY would not see the inside of a Borders today unless Flaubert kept sending out query letters, rather than curling up in a ball after the first rejection.

Yes, I know: deep down, pretty much every writer believes that if she were REALLY talented, her work would get picked up without her having to market it. C’mon, admit it, you’ve had the fantasy: there’s a knock on your door, and when you open it, there’s the perfect agent standing there, contract in hand. “I heard that your work is wonderful,” the agent says. “May I come in and talk about it?’

Or perhaps in your preferred version, you go to a conference and pitch your work for the first time. The agent of your dreams, naturally, falls over backwards in his chair; after sal volitale has been administered to revive him from his faint, he cries, “That’s it! The book I’ve been looking for my whole professional life!”

Or, still more common, you send your first query letter to an agent, and you receive a phone call two days later, asking to see the entire manuscript. Three days after you overnight it to New York, the agent calls to say that she stayed up all night reading it, and is dying to represent you. Could you fly to New York immediately, so she could introduce you to the people who are going to pay a million dollars for your rights?

Fantasy is all very well in its place, but while you are trying to find an agent, please do not be swayed by it. Don’t send out only one query at a time; it’s truly a waste of your efforts. Try to keep 7 or 8 out at any given time.

This advice often comes as a shock to writers. “What do you mean, 7 or 8 at any given time? I’ve been rejected ten times, and I thought that meant I should lock myself away and revise the book completely before I sent it out again!”

In a word, no. Oh, feel free to lock yourself up and revise to your heart’s content, but if you have a completed manuscript in your desk drawer, you should try to keep a constant flow of query letters heading out your door. As they say in the biz, the only manuscript that can never be sold is the one that is never submitted. (For a great, inspiring cheerleading essay on how writers talk themselves out of believing this, check out Carolyn See’s Making a Literary Life.)

There are two reasons keeping a constant flow is a good idea, professionally speaking. First, it’s never a good idea to allow a query letter to molder on your desktop: after awhile, that form letter can start to seem very personally damning, and a single rejection from a single agent can start to feel like an entire industry’s indictment of your work.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: one of the most self-destructive of conference-circuit rumors is the notion that if a book is good, it will automatically be picked up by the first agent that sees it. Or the fifth, for that matter.

This is simply untrue. It is not uncommon for wonderful books to go through dozens of queries, and even many rounds of query-revision-query-revision before being picked up. As long-time readers of this blog are already aware, there are hundreds of reasons that agents and their screeners reject manuscripts, the most common being that they do not like to represent a particular kind of book.

So how precisely is such a rejection a reflection on the quality of the writing?

Keep on sending out those queries a hundred times, if necessary. Because until you can blandish the right agent into reading your book, you’re just not going to know for sure whether it is marketable or not.

Keep up the good work!

Your query letter, part III: Writer seeking LTR with agent

I’m much, much later in posting this than I had planned, as apparently my ISP chooses one of the busiest usage times of the week, Saturday afternoon and evening, to perform routine maintenance without informing any of its subscribers. (Bad ISP! No cookie!) So please excuse me if I post a couple of blogs at once.

I hope my last post, about the very, very short amount of time a writer has to grab an agent’s attention in a query letter, did not discourage anyone from trying. Yes, querying is a tough row to hoe, both technically and psychologically: even though we all know that an agent who reads only your query, or even your query and synopsis, cannot logically be rejecting your BOOK, or even your writing; to pass a legitimate opinion on either, she would have to read some of your work.

No, unless the agency you are querying is one of the increasingly rare ones that asks querants to include a brief writing sample, what is rejected in a query letter is either the letter itself (for unprofessionalism, lack of clarity, or simply not being a kind of book that particular agent represents), the premise of the book, or the book category. So, logically speaking, there is NO WAY that even a stack of rejection letters reaching to the moon could be a rejection of your talents as a writer, provided those rejections came entirely from cold querying.

Makes you feel just the tiniest bit better to think of rejections that way, doesn’t it?

So before you write off a particular book as unmarketable, you should take a good, hard look at your query letter. Actually, that’s not quite true: you should send your query letter to a few dozen agencies, and THEN, if none have asked to see the first 50 pages of the book, take a good, hard look at the letter. Either way, you should be sending, and you should be looking.

A successful query letter has ALL of the following traits: it is clear; it is less than 1 page (single-spaced); it describes the book’s premise (not the entire book; that’s the job of the synopsis) in an engaging manner; it is polite; it is clear about what kind of book is being pitched; it includes a SASE, and it is addressed to an agent with a successful track record in representing the type of book it is pitching.

You would not BELIEVE how few query letters that agencies receive actually have all of these traits. And agents rather like that, because, as I mentioned in my last, it makes it oh-so-easy to reject 85% of what they receive within seconds. No fuss, no muss, no reading beyond, say, line 2.

A particularly common omission: the book category. Because, you see, many writers just don’t know that the industry runs on book categories; it would be literally impossible for an agent to sell a book to a publisher without a category label. And other writers, bless their warm, fuzzy, and devious hearts, think that they are being clever by omitting it, lest their work be rejected on category grounds. “This agency doesn’t represent mysteries,” this type of strategizer thinks, “so I just won’t tell them until they’ve fallen in love with my writing.”

I have a shocking bit of news for you, Napolèon: the industry simply doesn’t work that way; if they do not know where it will eventually rest on a shelf in Barnes & Noble, they’re not going to read it at all.

Yes, for most books, particularly novels, there can be legitimate debate about which shelf would most happily house it, and agents recategorize their clients’ work all the time (it’s happened to me, and recently). However, people in the industry speak and even think of books by category – trust me, you’re not going to win any Brownie points with them by making them guess what kind of book you’re trying to get them to read.

Think of your query letter as a personal ad. (Oh, come on: everyone reads them from time to time, if only to see what the new kink du jour is.) In it, you are introducing yourself to someone with whom you are hoping to have a long-term relationship – which, ideally, it will be; I have relatives with whom I have less frequent and less cordial contact than with my agent – and as such, you are trying to make a good impression.

So which do you think is more likely to draw a total stranger to you, ambiguity or specificity in how you describe yourself? Do you, as so many personal ads and queries do, describe yourself in only the vaguest terms, hoping that Mr. or Ms. Right will read your mind correctly and pick yours out of the crowd of ads? Or do you figure out precisely what it is you want from a potential partner, as well as what you have to give in return, and spell it out?

To the eye of an agent or screener who sees hundreds of these appeals per week, writers who do not specify book categories are like personal ad placers who forget to list minor points like their genders or sexual orientation. (Yes, it really is that basic, in their world.) And writers who hedge their bets by describing their books in hybrid terms, as in “it’s a cross between a political thriller and a gentle romance, with helpful gardening tips thrown in,” are to professional eyes the equivalent of personal ad placers so insecure about their own appeal that they say they are into, “long walks on the beach, javelin throwing, or whatever.”

Trust me, to the eyes of the industry, this kind of complexity doesn’t make you look interesting, or your book a genre-crosser. To them, this at best looks like a rather pitiful attempt to curry favor by indicating that the writer in question is willing to manhandle his book in order to make it anything the agent wants. At worst, it comes across as the writer’s being so solipsistic that he assumes that it’s the query-reader’s job to guess what “whatever” means in this context.

And we all know by now how agents feel about writers who waste their time, don’t we?

Don’t make ‘em guess; be specific, and describe your work in the language they understand. Because otherwise, they’re just not going to understand the book you are offering well enough to know that any agent in her right mind should read it.

Keep up the good work!

Your query letter, part II: Speedy Gonzales as agency screener

January 19th, 2007

After my last post, was it my imagination, or did I hear those of you new to the process groaning? “My God,” the little voice in the back of my head which I choose to attribute to you is saying, “how is all of that possible within the context of a single-page missive? How can I cram all I need to say to grab their attention in that little space?”

Um, are you sitting down? You actually don’t have the entire page to catch their attention; on average, you have about five lines.

That’s right: most query letters are not even read to their ends by screeners. Why? Because most of them disqualify themselves from serious consideration before the end of the opening paragraph.

Hey, I told you to sit down first.

Unfortunately, Americans are so heavily exposed to hard-sell techniques that many aspiring writers make the mistake of using their query letters to batter the agent with predictions of future greatness so over-inflated (and, from the agent’s point of view, so apparently groundless, coming from a previously unpublished writer) that they may be dismissed out of hand. Some popular favorites:

“This is the next (fill in name of bestseller here)!”
“You’ll be sorry if you let this one pass by!”
“Everyone in the country will want to read this book!”

To professional eyes, these are all absurd statements to find in a query letter – yes, even if the book in question IS the next DA VINCI CODE. Usually, they will simply stop reading if a query letter opens this way, because to them, including such statements is like a writer’s scrawling on the query in great big red letters, “I have absolutely no idea how the industry works.”

Which, while an interesting tactic, is unlikely to get an agent to invest an additional ten seconds in reading on to your next paragraph.

That’s right, I said ten seconds: as much as writers like to picture agents and their screeners agonizing over their missives, trying to decide if such a book is marketable or not, the average query remains under a decision-maker’s eyes for less than 30 seconds.

Okay, I’m hearing those ambient groans again – and even from those of you who stuck with me through the Idol list of first-page-of-manuscript rejection reasons in November. Query screening is actually – wait for it – MORE knee-jerk than submission screening, for one very simple reason.

Long-time readers, chant with me now: time. The average agency receives 800+ queries per week (that’s not counting the New Year’s Resolution Rush, folks), so agents and screeners have a very strong incentive to weed out as many of them as possible as quickly as possible.

That’s why, in case you were wondering, that agents will happily tell you that any query that begins “Dear Agent” (rather than addressing a specific agent by name) automatically goes into the rejection pile. So does any query that addresses the agent by the wrong gender in the salutation. (If you’re unsure about a Chris or an Alex, call the agency and ask; no need to identify yourself as anything but a potential querier.)

So does any query that is pitching a book in a category the agent is not looking to represent. Yes, even if the very latest agents’ guide AND the agency’s website says otherwise.

And you know what? These automatic rejections will, in all probability, generate exactly the same form rejection letter as queries that were carefully considered, but ultimately passed upon.

Again: how precisely is an aspiring writer to learn what does and doesn’t work in a query?

Over the next few days, I’m going to address precisely that issue. (Hey, I took a few days off this week; I can write through the weekend for a good cause.) Then we can get back to the contest tips, and everyone will be happy.

As happy, in any case, as a writer can be whilst querying or prepping a contest entry. Keep up the good work!

Ready, set: QUERY!

I’m completely exhausted today, dear readers, but extremely happy: two days ago I finished my novel revision for the excellent editor at major-publisher-who-shall-remain-nameless-until-there’s-a-contract-on-the-table. Printing and proofing always takes longer than any reasonable creature would guess it would, so it was not boxed up until well into yesterday evening, and not mailed until this morning. But it is done, done, done.

I shall now collapse into a little puddle of gratified endeavor until my next project starts poking at me. I estimate I have until Friday.

Now that Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is past, it is once again safe to send queries to agents: true, they still need to get tax information out to their clients by the end of the month (the IRS keeps an eagle eye on royalty payments), but by now, the New Year’s Resolution rush of queries has died down a bit. Translation: they are a WHOLE lot less grumpy today than two weeks ago.

I have been concentrating for the past couple of weeks on helping you prep for contest entries, since PNWA’s contest deadline is in February, but talented and insightful reader Janet gently reminded me of something last week: I haven’t actually written a blog on how to put together a query letter since…could it have been as long ago as September of 2005? Yet here I was, blithely sending those of you who have never done it before out into the tiger-filled woods with no guidance.

So I’m going to take a brief detour from contest prep issues to run through query basics again. Because, although I know that my readers are too savvy to fall into the pitfalls of the average writer, the vast majority of query letters agents receive are either uncommunicative, petulant in tone, or just poor marketing.

We can do better than that, I think.

For those of you absolutely new to the process, a query letter is a 1-page (single-spaced) polite, formal inquiry sent out to an agent or editor in the hope of exciting professional interest. Businesslike without being in business format (I hate to be the one to break it to those of you who just love the non-indented paragraphs common to business letters, but that style appears illiterate to folks in the publishing industry), a good query introduces the book and the author to a prospective agent in precisely the terms the industry would use to describe them.

There are a zillion guides out there, each giving ostensibly foolproof guidelines for how to construct a positively stellar query letter, but in my experience, simple works better than gimmicky. (Possibly because the former is rarer.) Typically, a query letter consists of five basic parts:

1. The opening paragraph, which includes the following information:
* A brief statement about why the writer is approaching this particular agent (Hint: be specific. “I enjoyed hearing you speak at Conference X,” “Since you so ably represent Author Q,” and “Since you are interested in (book category), I hope you will be intrigued by my book” all work better than not mentioning how you picked the agent in the first place.)

*The book’s title

*The book’s category (i.e., where your book would sit in Barnes & Noble. Most queries leave this off, but it’s essential. If you don’t know what this is, or are not sure where your book will fall, please see the BOOK CATEGORIES section at right).

*Word count. (Actually, I have never included this, because it makes many novels easier to reject right off the bat, but many agents to have it up front. Because, you see, it makes it easier to reject so many queries off the bat. If your work falls within the normal word count for your genre – for most works of fiction, between 80,000 and 100,000 words – go ahead and include it. And if you don’t know how to figure word count, please see the WORD COUNT category at right.)

2. A paragraph pitching the book. (If you already have a 3-4 sentence elevator speech prepared, feel free to use this as your second paragraph.)

3. A BRIEF paragraph explaining who the target market for this book is (over and above the book category) and why this book might appeal to that demographic in a way that no other book currently on the market does. If the demographic is not especially well-known (or even if it is; agents tend to underestimate the size of potential groups of readers), go ahead and include numbers.

Don’t make the very common mistake, though, of having your book sound like a carbon copy of a current bestseller: you want to show here that your work is unique. If you can compare your book to another within the same genre that has sold well within the last five years, this is the place to do it, but make sure to make clear how your book serves the target market differently and better.

4. An optional paragraph giving your writing credentials and/or expertise that renders you the ideal person to have written this book — or, indeed, absolutely the only sentient being in the universe who could have. Include any past publications (paid or unpaid) in descending order of impressiveness, as well as any contest wins, places, shows, semi-finalist lists, etc., and academic degrees (yes, even if they are not relevant to your book).

If you have no credentials that may legitimately be listed here, omit this paragraph. However, give the matter some serious, creative thought first. If you have real-life experience that gives you a unique insight into your book’s topic, include it. (Again, it need not have been paid experience.) Or any public speaking experience – that’s actually a selling point for a writer, since so few have ever read in public before their first books have come out. Or ongoing membership in a writers’ group.

Anything can count, as long as it makes you look like a writer who is approaching the industry like a professional. Or like a person who would be interesting to know, read, and represent.

5. An EXTREMELY brief closing paragraph, thanking the agent for her time, mentioning any enclosed materials (synopsis, first five pages, whatever the agent lists as desired elements), calling the agent’s attention to the fact that you’ve sent a SASE, and giving your contact information, if it is not already listed at the top of the letter. (If you can’t afford to have letterhead printed up, just include your contact information, centered, in the header.) Say you look forward to hearing from her soon, and sign off.

There, that’s not so impossible in a single page, is it?

Okay, so it IS difficult. Even more so if you play fair: 1-inch margins, 12-point type (yes, they WILL notice if you shrink it; the average agency receives in excess of 800 queries per week), and avoid flashy paper and typeface choices that might make your query stand out from the crowd.

Yes, these probably will make your letter visible in the midst of a great big stack, but probably not in a way that it going to help you.

Remember, this is an industry where standardization is regarded as a sign of professionalism. So bright white paper –20-lb or better, please – actually tends to make the best impression, as does using the preferred typefaces of the industry in query letter and submission alike: Times, Times New Roman, Courier, or Courier New.

Yes, I know it’s silly to be judged so purely on presentation, but trust me on this one: 99% of the time, a query letter in Times New Roman printed on nice white paper will be taken more seriously than EXACTLY the same set of words typed in Helvetica on floppy copy paper. Or on even on classy off-white stationary.

Go figure.

Do keep in mind that the SOLE purpose of the query is to engender enough excitement in the reader that she will ask to see a representative chunk of the book itself, not to reproduce what you would like to see on the book’s back jacket or to complain about having to work through an agent at all.

Believe it or not, I’ve seen both turn up many, many times in unsuccessful query letters. I didn’t mention petulance above by accident.

Yes, querying is a chore, and an intimidating one at that; yes, ultimately it will be the agent’s job, not yours, to market your work to publishers, and an agent or editor probably would have a far better idea of how to spin your book than you would. Agents and their screeners (it is rare for agents at the larger agencies to screen query letters themselves) are in fact aware of all of these things. And your query letter needs to market your book impeccably anyway, in a tone that makes you sound like an author who LOVES his work and is eager to give agent and editor alike huge amounts of his time to promote it.

As I said: not a walk in the park, definitely, but certainly doable by a smart, talented writer who approaches it in the right spirit. Sound like anyone you know?

I shall overwhelm you with more tips and tricks of the trade tomorrow, I promise. In the meantime, I would appreciate any and all positive vibrations you might see fit to send wafting toward my manuscript as it makes the way through the committee that needs to approve it for publication. I’ll keep you posted, naturally.

Keep up the good work!

Picking the right contest, part V: The fringe benefits

I have been writing for the last couple of posts about entering literary contests, and how to maximize your entry fee dollar. There are basketfuls of good reasons to enter contests in general – the writing resume candy, the query letter boasting rights, and the opportunities to promote yourself to conference-attending agents, to name but a few – but not all contests are created equal. Some will help you more than others, so it is very much to your advantage to choose your contests wisely.

This is particularly true for novelists and nonfiction writers who enter contests; poets, essayists, and short story writers have exponentially more contest venues, and entry fees tend to be correspondingly lower. If you write in any of these shorter formats, you have only to open any issue of Poets & Writers to find dozens of contests just crying out for your work – contests that often include publication as part of the prize. The greater scope of opportunity renders these contest wins a trifle less valuable in the eyes of agents and editors, but still worthwhile.

True, the adulation tends to be greater for winners of categories rewarding entire books, but the fact is, the vast majority of contests ask for short pieces, for the simple reason that it requires much, much less effort on the sponsoring organization’s part to process them. Book-length writers have many fewer contest fora at their disposal, and those that exist tend not to ask that the whole book be submitted, but only the first chapter and a synopsis, at most.

Writers whose ideas expand beyond 25-page limits can feel discouraged by this, or even discriminated against, and with reason.

Writers of book-length pieces also enjoy the considerable comparative advantage of being paid astronomically more for their work when it sells – you’d have to place a tremendous number of poems in paying venues to make ends — so don’t feel too sorry for them, writers of shorter works. But the fact that the contest universe is hugely biased toward producers of shorter pieces makes it significantly harder for novelists and such to chalk up a contest win.

If you write in the longer formats, yet are comfortable in the shorter, you might want to consider polishing a single short story, poem, or essay to a high luster and sending it on the contest circuit, to try to rake in a win you can add to your credentials list. No one is going to hold it against you that the credential you used to catch an agent’s attention was for a gorgeously terse poem, while the book you were pitching was a three-volume work of science fiction.

There is an unfortunately pervasive rumor on the writers’ conference circuit that every agency screener in the land has been instructed to toss any book-pushing query letter that contains reference to poetry, even if it brings up a major contest win, directly into the trash. This is not true, and as nearly as I can tell, has never been widely true: it’s an exaggerated way of saying that poetry contest wins are not an automatic entrée into the publishing world.

Which makes some sense, actually: being able to write a good poem does not necessarily translate into being able to write a good book.

Personally, I feel that the short story and the novel are also quite different art forms, as different as painting in oils and sketching in charcoal – witness the number of writers who publish several short stories in venues like THE NEW YORKER, and publish them in collections, only to find after they have signed a novel contract that they don’t have a novel in them. Short pieces are about the surprise of instant revelation; novels (and book-length memoirs, and nonfiction books) are about character and argument development. Mastering the skills of one does not necessarily prep an author to produce the other
I know a lot of writers disagree with me on this subject — including, I should mention, virtually everyone who has ever taught in an M.F.A. program — so you should feel free to try your hand in more than one format. However, if shorter work is not your forté, it probably is not worth the expenditure of energy and angst to stop writing on your longer work in order to pull something short together for a contest.

But if you do, make sure that anything you enter in a contest is your best writing.

If you are the kind of writer who sticks single-mindedly to a long project until it is finished, it is a good idea to look upon contests not merely as rolls of the dice to try to win the jackpot of recognition (and, the common writerly fantasy goes, an agent and major book deal immediately thereafter), but as tools to learn how to improve your work. Because – and I’m letting you in on a literary judge secret here – most of the time, contest judges are not so much judging the quality of the writing in an entry as assessing its marketability.

Yes, you read that correctly. A great idea with huge market potential, presented in a clear and professional manner, will often edge out a beautifully-written piece aimed at a tiny market niche.

Someone pick Virginia up; I think she has fainted again.

Marketability is not the primary orientation of every contest that accepts book-length work (or portions thereof), naturally, but it’s true more often than not. It’s not unusual for the final judges of a contest to be the exact same agents and editors who appear at the attached conference – and if there is anything that THEY’re looking for, it’s marketability. Great writing is always a plus, but to win a contest, it isn’t always enough.

Knowing this can save you a LOT of grief at contest time. If your work is not particularly mainstream, select contests that cater to your niche, rather than hoping your work will fly in a more general contest.

Look up on it as a learning experience. If you ultimately want to make your work appeal to the largest segment of the reading population as possible, select contests where the judges give feedback on entries – it’s some of the least sentimental, least punch-pulling marketing advice you will ever receive. If you approach it in that spirit, you can learn a great deal – especially if you are new to querying and aren’t sure why your work keeps getting rejected.

Which brings me, at long last (phew!), to the last on my list of questions to ask yourself before entering a contest: does it have advantages for non-winning entrants?

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but almost no one wins the first contest he enters. Contest entrants experience a fairly sharp learning curve, for reasons I shall be covering later in this series; there are many, many simple mistakes that frequently disqualify inexperienced entrants outright, even with otherwise well-written entries. Even if your entry is a monument of precision and contest-rule adhesion, you may have to enter a few times to learn the rhythms and preferences of a contest before you win.

So it is very much in your interest to make your first contest entries ones that will help you even if you don’t win. For instance, if you are new to the game, it is a better use of your contest-entering buck to go for contests that recognize semi-finalists, as well as finalists. That way, you maximize your probability of garnering boasting rights from those entries.

Contests that offer significant feedback to contest entrants are very, very useful when you are first starting out, as you may use them to learn how to polish up future entries. PNWA contest judges, for instance, have to fill out a questionnaire about every entry they read, explaining precisely how they thought the entry did or did not meet the contest criteria. The entrants receive these forms after the competition is ended, so they may study them for hints on how to improve their entries.

In other contests for novel-length work, an entrant would need to engage in serious bribery to obtain that type of information.

To sum up: there is a whole range of benefits that can accrue from contest entry beyond winning the grand prize. By selecting the contests that meet your current needs, rather than entering blindly or with an all-or-nothing attitude, you can maximize the good entering will do you.

And, of course, you might win!

I’m going on hiatus for the next couple of days, because I have a novel revision that an editor at a major publishing house would very much like for me to pop in the mail on Tuesday, but after I’ve accomplished that (phew!), I shall give you some tips on navigating the waters of contest requirements successfully. In the meantime, enjoy the holiday weekend, and keep up the good work!

Picking the right contest, part IV: But what’s in it for me?

If I had to pick a single piece of advice to summarize yesterday’s blog, it would be this: if you are going to hang your hopes – and your resources – on an array of contests, it honestly does pay to be selective. In this series, I have been going over what you can do to figure out which contests are and are not for you.

Obviously, the ideal outcome of your winning a contest would be a situation like mine: talent and hard work recognized one second, signing with an agent the next…but I am sorry to tell you, my results were not the norm. Contests that support their winners to the extent that the PNWA does are EXTREMELY rare.

I was, in a word, lucky. Thank you, Whomever.

Well, okay, it wasn’t JUST luck. Since I had done my homework before I entered the 2004 contest, I had learned that the PNWA has a reputation for bending over backwards to help its contest winners hook up with agents and editors. Not only are finalists clearly and vibrantly marked at the conference with rainbow-colored ribbons so agents and editors know who they are, but the winners are invited to have breakfast with all of the agents and editors, and each winner can stand up and give a universal pitch. Also, the top three entries in each category are displayed in the lobby at the conference, where everybody can read them.

(Tip to all PNWA attendees: one of the best places to troll for agents is at this reading table between 8 and 9 a.m. on the morning after the award ceremony: after the breakfast, the hallway is generally packed with grazing agents. The fact that each winning entry is in a clearly-marked folder gives you an automatic conversation-starter: “Oh, I read that genre entry – wasn’t it terrific? Since you’re interested in my genre, may I give you my 30-second pitch?”)

This level of support is unusual, however. I’ve been to many conferences where contest finalists are not marked at all, and other conference attendees are far more likely to meet a finalist than any of the attending agents. This is counter-intuitive, as most conference-related contests actively encourage their finalists to trek to the awards ceremony; you’d think that they’d take the extra step of making a few critical introductions, but often, they do not.

This is why it is a very, very good idea to check out a conference over and above its formal offerings before you attend it. Because – and I hate to say this, because good literary conferences are a blessing to humanity, and the volunteers who pull them together deserve candy and roses from all of us – there are conferences out there that exist primarily for the self-aggrandizement of their organizers.

Call me zany, but if I’m going to plunk down the dosh to attend a conference, particularly one far away, I don’t particularly want to be relegated to the kids’ table while the organizers hobnob with the agents and editors at the Important People’s table. Or are whisked off to private parties on some board member’s yacht, far away from anyone who might conceivably have come to the conference to pitch.

I’ll get down off my soapbox in a minute, but first let me say: the free mingling of the insiders and the undiscovered at conference bars is one of the great democratic institutions, and I am always sorry to see pernicious exclusivity sap its vital energy. Long live ice-fueled conversations.

Back to practicalities. If the entry fee to a conference-affiliated contest tied is high, I would advise checking out the contest description very carefully, to make sure it is worth your while. And there is no rule against dropping an e-mail to the organizers before entering and asking politely if there are secondary benefits to being a winner or a finalist. Or if your name badge at the conference will be delivered to you pre-marked. Should bring your own big blue ribbon to attach to it?

A sneakier way to find out how winners are treated in a conference-tied contest is to talk to NON-finalists who have attended the conference in question. Where the winners are treated extremely well, other attendees tend to notice – sometimes to the extent of being unhappy about what they perceive to be biased treatment. If your mole says, “My God, the agents there wouldn’t give the time of day to anyone who didn’t have a top ten entry!” it’s a good bet that the winners get some enviable perks.

I’d enter that contest – but not attend the attached conference unless I was up for a prize. Because, really, why? There are conferences that will demonstrate my profit motive in pursuing my writing equally well, where I will get more out of the experience.

And, honestly, didn’t all of us experience enough negative contact with cliques in junior high school to last us a lifetime?

It’s also a good idea to check out the list of your category’s winners from three or more years ago: how many of these writers can you find on a basic web search or by checking Amazon? More to the point, do any of them show up as clients on agency websites? Or as debut book sales on Publishers’ Marketplace?

In other words, are this contest’s winners getting published afterward? How past winners fared is an excellent indication of how you might make out if you win. However, try not to be overzealous: checking last year’s winners, or the ones from two years ago, is not entirely fair, as publication seldom occurs in less than a year after a book deal is signed.

An organization that supports its contest winners will usually be proud of them, so the successes of past winners is generally quite easy to obtain. If the sponsoring organization does not have a website listing member and past winner triumphs, try to scare up a chatty volunteer in the organization’s office.

Hint: ask the volunteer what she writes, and if she has ever entered the contest herself. If she has, you’ll probably get an earful; it’s a safe bet that anyone who volunteers for a writers’ organization writes, but almost nobody thinks to ask the receptionist. (This same logic applies at most political campaigns, by the way: everyone who calls wants to speak to the bigwigs, but for organizational dirt, you can hardly do better than chatting up the dear retiree who devotes four hours per week to licking envelopes.)

This may seem pushy, but most contest-running organizations will have a volunteer or staffer return phone calls and e-mails as a matter of course — see if you can elicit boasting about their post-contest success stories. Ask who their favorite winner was, and why. Ask if the organization sponsors readings for the winners, publishes excerpts, or offers other goodies to successful entrants.

All of this research will help you determine whether the contest is worth the entry fee and your prep time. As a writer – especially as a writer with a full-time job – you need to treat your writing time as precious. Three days or a week spent agonizing over a contest entry is necessarily time taken away from your actual writing, and the more expensive contest fees tend to run around the same amount as a good writing seminar. Weigh your options carefully.

Next time, I shall talk about evaluating the benefits contests offer non-winners – which, like the contests themselves, vary wildly. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Picking the right contest, part III: making the tax man happy

I have been writing for the last couple of days on how to determine whether to enter any specific contest or not. I intimated, in my patented winsome way, that it would behoove you to do a little background research before you invest time and money in entry fees.

I hinted gently that before you plunk down the green, you might want to ask yourself a few pointed questions. Is the contest credible, for instance? If it’s run by an organization, does it have a track record for awarding outside its membership? Do the judges win their own contests? Is it plagued by scandals? How good are the benefits for the winners? Would winning or placing in this contest give you notoriety or resources that are worth the investment of entering?

In short, I suggested yesterday that you begin to think of entering literary contests as an investment in your future as a writer, rather than as a gamble that may pay off big time. There are good investments, and there are bad investments, so select carefully.

What are the practical advantages of thinking of it as an investment? Well, prepping the average entry usually involves quite a bit more effort than merely printing out your first chapter and already-existing synopsis. There are generally formatting restrictions and length requirements that render it advisable to spend some fairly serious time tailoring the pages to the contest’s standards.

That’s time you could be using writing. Or querying. Or even having a life, as I’m told that non-writers do. If you choose to spend it entering a contest instead, make sure that the potential returns are worth the sacrifice.

Then there’s the money. Entry fees can be quite hefty, especially cumulatively, and not all contests give much in the way of tangible rewards, even to the winners. A high entry fee may be worth it if, say, the judges provide written feedback (as is the case with PNWA) or contest winners are If you enter many contests (or attend many conferences, or send out rafts of cover letters…), you might want to have a chat with your tax advisor about establishing your writing as a small business, so you can claim all of those entry fees as deductions.

Hey — contest entry is legitimate promotion for your work. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t necessarily have to make money writing in any given year in order to take tax deductions on writing-related expenses.

And this sometimes comes as something of a surprise to the average tax preparer; I know many writers who have been told point-blank by their consumer-minded tax guys not to bother filing a Schedule C until the first advance check arrives. So you might want to bone up on the facts a bit before you enter into that particular discussion with your tax advisor; here’s a nice brief summary.

I’m told by thems as know, though, that the IRS has changed its thinking about how quickly to expect artists to make money, recognizing that many talented writers NEVER make a profit on their writing, or even break even, yet still have legitimate business expenses. Printer cartridges, for instance. Reams of paper. The most recent agents’ guide. Conference fees. And so forth. (Poets & Writers online has a good article on recognizing what your writing expenses actually are.)

What they look for, I’m told, to differentiate between the hobbist writer and the professional, is evidence of a “profit motive” — proof that you are pursuing your writing in a professional manner, with the ultimate goal of selling your work for profit. Basically, they want to have some reasonable assurance that you WOULD be selling your work if anyone would buy it.

What kind of proof do they like? Well, again, you should ask a tax pro familiar with artists, but high up on the hit parade is evidence that you write on a regular basis and tangible evidence that you are consistently trying to find an agent and/or a publisher for your writing. So they not only don’t begrudge writers’ deducting the cost of stamps and envelopes – they regard buying the makings of SASEs as a mark of serious, potentially taxable effort.

It’s nice that someone does, no? Perhaps the IRS would send a representative to explain your profit motive to your carping coworkers who keep asking when your book is coming out.

Another way to prove that you really are writing with the intent to sell it, honest, is thorough making demonstrable efforts to increase your professional skills – which, for a writer, means not only learning better craft, but learning how to market as well. Continuing education efforts such as going to conferences and promotional efforts like entering contests fit very clearly within the profit-seeking rubric.

I mention this not only so you can make some inquiries in the months between now and tax time, but also to encourage you to apply the concept of the profit motive to any writing-related expense you may be considering. In the case of a contest, for instance, you might want to ask: how will winning it help you get my book published?

In other words, is entering this contest an efficient way to pursue my profit motive as a writer?

And I’m not just talking about ANY contest win here: I’m talking about any PARTICULAR contest you may be considering entering. The adulation and opportunities offered the winners vary so widely from contest to contest that it is almost impossible to generalize about any benefit accruing to all winners OTHER than boasting rights in query letters. If you do some basic checking in advance, you can save yourself quite a bit in entry fees by avoiding the contests that will not help promote you and your work.

Tomorrow, I shall talk about how to go about accomplishing that. In the meantime, enjoy the rare snow, Seattlites, and everybody, keep up the good work!

Picking the right contest, part II: weeding out the duds

Yesterday, I horrified the innocent Virginias of the world by pointing out that in the average literary contest, the impartiality emperor might, to put it delicately, be under-dressed. Today – my 150th post on the new blog site (and 359th since I first began blogging), another major milestone – I shall give you a few pointers on how to figure out which contests are most likely to serve you best.

What makes this particularly appropriate, of course, is that here in the Pacific Northwest, we’re experiencing an unusually blustery winter. So I actually have been writing these posts in sleet, hail, and dark of night – like the intrepid mail carriers of the U.S. Postal Service, nothing stays this blogger from her appointed rounds.

And, by the way, if you’re still casting about for your first good deed of the new year, what about thanking your mail carrier? S/he ensures that your queries, manuscripts, and other writing necessities travel back and forth in a reliable manner. And when we’re talking 8-pound manuscripts, that’s no mean feat. It’s a tough job, involving far more interaction with dogs’ bared teeth than I would be comfortable dealing with on a daily basis, and they definitely deserve to be thanked.

Back to the topic at hand, picking a contest with care. Yesterday, I brought up the possibility that not all contests are blindly judged.

I shall never forget the looks on the faces of everyone at the awards ceremony of a QUITE respectable Southern conference when the teenage daughter of two of the contest judges carried off the Young Writer award — and, as I recall, a not insignificant check, derived, no doubt, from the entry fees of hundreds of trusting high school students whose parents were not regularly having drinks with the judges. Had Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and Bob the Builder all been hauled out of the room by DEA agents for peddling narcotics to kids, the attending writers’ expressions could hardly have expressed more shocked disgust.

Now, that particular year, the winner’s parents had actually been judging in other categories, not hers, but since they had been her first readers and were rather chatty people, it is beyond the bounds of belief that the judges in her category would not have some inkling which entry was hers. I’m not saying that the contest was rigged, per se; I’m just saying that her mother won in the nonfiction category.

The general rule of thumb for avoiding this type of situation: enter contests sponsored by organizations, not cliques. The writers’ grapevine can really help you here. Ask other writers about particular contests before you spend time and money on entering them. Poets & Writers magazine, which lists literary contest deadlines in each issue, does a pretty good job of screening, so if a contest seems a bit shady to you, check if it is listed there.

And, of course, if you check out a list of the last few years’ winners (and you should), and you see the same last names recurring, or see that the judges themselves seem to carry off prizes on a fairly regular basis, you might want to think twice about sending in your entry check.

The next question you should ask yourself before mailing off an entry check is: how good are your chances of winning?

Yes, any contest win or place will look nice on your writing résumé, but obviously, some contests are more prestigious than others. Less prestigious ones can actually be a better bet, if they are legitimate.

“Wha..?” I hear some of you exclaiming. “Isn’t bigger always better?”

Not necessarily. You might be better off with a less well-known contest your first few times out, for an exceedingly simple reason: your odds of making the finals are significantly higher in a small entry pool than a large one. Big-ticket contests attract stiff competition; contests with large cash prizes attract a higher percentage of professionals amongst the entrants.

Also, your chances of winning are higher if your writing resembles that of past winners. This is true for another exceedingly simple reason (they are abounding today, aren’t they?): contest judges tend to be loyal folk, returning to the task with a tenacity a spawning salmon would envy. In most writers’ organizations that offer contests, the first round of reading is performed by volunteers – the same volunteers, year after year.

And, miraculously, their literary tastes don’t change all that much in the intervening twelve months between judging cycles.

Thus, if the volunteers of a particular contest have historically favored Gothic romance, and you write futuristic fantasy, and there is only one novel category, you’re probably better off going for a different contest, one that favors your type of work. The more specialized your genre, the more it behooves you to check in advance whether a conference’s complement of judges tend to treat it with respect.

Or (to take a purely hypothetical case that couldn’t possibly refer to any contest run in my local area, or in which I might have taken a high prize in years past) if the top mainstream fiction category prizes in a prestigious competition are carried off year after year by literary fiction writers, you might want to think twice about entering fiction that is, say, particularly mainstream. But if you happened to write on the literary side of romance, or are an unusually descriptive SF/fantasy writer, you might stand a good chance.

How can a potential entrant tell what the judges’ preferences are, short of taking them all out to lunch individually and asking them? Most contests will list past winners on their websites, tucked away in a corner somewhere; check them out. If the sponsoring organization publishes winning entries – and many have small magazines — read a few. If your writing style is radically different from what has won in the past, the contest is probably not for you.

In any contest with celebrity judges (i.e., famous writers who make the final selections from amongst the finalist pool), this goes double, or even triple. If your writing doesn’t resemble the famous judge’s in form, think twice before bothering to enter.

Even if you’re lucky enough to find a celebrity judge who is well-read outside of his own subgenre – and willing to reward work unlike his own — the bigwigs virtually never read all of the entries; commonly, they read only the finalists. That means that those crusty volunteers I mentioned above screen the entries first – and all too frequently, edge out good entries that do not resemble the celebrity’s, on the well-intentioned theory that our writing tends to reflect our reading tastes. They’re just trying to save the celebrity some time.

Finally, if the contest is attached to a conference where the awards are given (and many are), are the agents who typically attend that conference ones who might be interested in your work?

I can tell you from personal experience: while having a contest win, place, or show under your belt is great query letter candy, being a finalist at most conferences confers a good deal more than just a nice ribbon attached to your name badge. It marks you out as someone with whom, for instance, an agent might want to pause and have a hallway conversation, or ask, “So, what do you write?” during otherwise pitch-free social time in the bar.

In other words, it’s a great little conversation starter. As such, you might want to target contests attached to conferences that your dream agent attends.

The internet is your friend here: pretty much every conference will list which agents they cajoled to it last year and/or those who will be blandished into being there this year. Also, the standard agents’ guides tend to list which conferences agents from any given agency habitually attend.

As I said yesterday, there’s more to using contests to your benefit than sending in a well-written entry: there’s strategy. Tomorrow, I shall turn this question on its head, talk about what you can get out of entering a writing contest.

In the meantime, happy 150th, everybody, and keep up the good work!

Increasing your chances of making it to the finals in a literary contest, or yes, Virginia, there is more to a winning entry than great writing

Literary contest season is just around the corner, so by popular demand, I’m going to revisit one of my favorite omnibus topics, what differentiates a contest entry that makes it to the finals from all the others. What criteria do contest judges use, and how may a clever writer gear an entry to cater to them?

Was that great collective gasp I just heard from those new to contest entry? “But wait!” the neophyte entrant cries, “why should my entry be judged upon ANY criterion other than pure quality of writing? If not…“ and here, tears well up in the neophyte’s harp seal-like eyes, “how can we be sure that the best writing will always win?”

That roar you just heard, dear readers, was the chuckle of everyone currently alive on the planet who has ever been a contest judge. As both a former contest winner and a veteran judge of literary contests, I am here to tell you: no, Virginia, winning isn’t just about the quality of the writing. It’s about the writing AND playing the contest game well.

Which means — hold onto your hat here, Virginia, because this is a big one — that the best-written entry does not necessarily always win. The best-written entry that meets the judging criteria doesn’t even necessarily always win. But without a shadow of a doubt, a brilliantly-written entry that does not meet those criteria, or that violates contest rules, will virtually never make it to the finals.

Of course, there are criteria: as with any other art form, the assessment of quality is in the eye of the beholder, so there would be absolutely no way to standardize judging across entries if there were no pre-set criteria. And these criteria are not limited to matters of style and expression, but technical matters as well. Anyone out there care to guess why?

I can already my long-term readers chanting the answer: for exactly the same reason that agencies are so eager to use technical criteria to reject submissions – time. Since the vast majority of entries are rife with technical errors, it’s the single quickest way to thin the stacks of submissions.

Sorry about that, Virginia. And when you’ve got a second, I have some bad news about Santa Claus.

Unfortunately, unless you have had the foresight to have volunteered to serve as a contest judge for years before you enter your first contest – not a bad idea, incidentally; contests are always seeking new judges, and it’s one of the least expensive crash courses in why most manuscripts get rejected you’ll ever find – it’s rather hard for the average entrant to learn what precisely the relevant criteria are. And, as those of you who have been reading this blog for a while already know, I think the practice of keeping this kind of useful knowledge from aspiring writers is, well, let’s not say despicable; let’s call it counter-productive.

So in this series, I shall be dispensing bona fide tips on how to maximize your chances of winning a writing contest, as well as guidelines to navigate your way amongst the dizzying array of contests out there. You’re welcome.

Why do I feel so strongly that you need to have this information at your fingertips? Experience. For those of you new to my blog, I am the poster child for literary contests: I actually did have every writer’s fantasy come true. I won the Zola Award for Nonfiction Book/Memoir at the 2004 PNWA conference, met my fabulous agent within 12 hours after receiving the blue ribbon, and signed a publication contract with a NYC publisher before the 2005 contest winners were announced rolled around.

While such speedy results are not the norm for contest winners, winning or placing in a well-respected contest can definitely kick open a few doors. Agents pay attention to that kind of credential; it makes your query letters jump out of the daily pile. Most queriers list no writing credentials at all, so a writer with publication credits and/or contest wins automatically looks more professional than most.

Even if those credits or wins are in wildly different genres than the book being pitched: agents like to be the SECOND person to recognize a writer’s talent, after all.

There are a LOT of contests out there, as anyone who has ever Googled “writing contest” is aware. Most, unfortunately, do not offer cash prizes, but many do offer publication. (In fact, contests are a not uncommon way for literary magazines just starting up to rake in a whole lot of good writing for free.) Almost all, however, charge an entry fee, sometimes a hefty one.

As I have mentioned before, there is now an entire industry devoted to offering help to aspiring writers, and like seminars and conferences and how-to books, what the contests offer writers who enter varies widely. So just as you should learn all you can about a writers’ conference before you slap down the registration fee, before you pay to enter a contest, it would behoove you to do a little bit of homework.

The first question you should ask: is the contest credible?

There has been quite a bit of controversy within the last couple of years over how various literary contests are judged. Not all are blind (meaning that the judges do not know whose entry is whose), and not all contests that claim to have blind judging actually do.

I know, Virginia, I know. Just hold that cold compress to your head, and the dizziness should subside soon.

Why should a prudent entrant worry about how a contest is judged? Because selective judging may favor certain entries, rendering it harder for a newcomer to break into the finalists’ circle. It is not unheard-of, for instance, for organizations to solicit entries from outside their memberships, but have an established track record of only awarding prizes to their own members.

Check the fine type of the contest rules, as well as the hometowns of the finalists and semifinalists of years past: if they cluster too much, wonder if the locals have an edge.

Nor is it at all unusual for contests ostensibly for the unpublished to allow published writers to submit their work-in-progress for judging alongside the work of the less experienced. (Check last year’s winners’ list for the moderately well-known: if John McPhee has won their short story category any time since 1955, they’re probably not too careful about keeping out those with hefty publishing credentials.)

Not to mention the scandal a few years back when a major writers’ magazine happened to notice that the students of the writers who were judging contests seemed to be winning major awards on a fairly regular basis.

Ready for another shock, Virginia? After the scandal broke, absolutely nothing bad happened to the judges who were favoring their students in competition. Some of them are still regularly judging contests.

Obviously, this kind of pseudo-blind judging is grossly unfair to the other entrants, but the moral of this story is not that not all contests are squeaky-clean. It is no secret that there are many contests out there that solicit widely for entrants primarily as a fundraising effort, rather than a sincere attempt to discover heretofore unsung talent.

The moral: let the entrant beware.

Tomorrow, I shall give you some tips on how to go about bewaring. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

The short, short lifespan of the novel synopsis

As query season is about to descend upon us again – most agencies will have calmed down from the New Year’s Resolution Rush by the end of Martin Luther King, Jr. week – and the PNWA contest deadline approaches, I had intended to begin my promised series on prepping your entries for contest submission today. However, an excellent question from a longtime reader sidetracked me — and I’m pleased it did. Talented and insightful Soyim wrote in to ask:

“Did you have to write a synopsis for the publishing house for which you’re revising your novel? And if so, how long was it? I keep reading that the synopsis has to be as polished as the book itself, but the desired length varies. Some agents suggest 1-2 pages; others say 6 pages or longer.”

Soyim, this is a great question – and a topic, much to my surprise, I had not revisited since June, 2006! So I’m really glad you brought it up. One of the long-term problems of writing this blog is that I have SO much territory to cover that I sometimes forget time passes in between series. Never fear, those of you new to the synopsis-writing process: I’m going to deal with the issue quickly today, and then revisit it within the context of contest entries, to kill as many birds as possible with the few stones at hand.

And if that’s not a gratuitously violent analogy for an essentially positive situation, I should like to know what is.

A synopsis, in case you are unfamiliar with it, is a brief overview of the plot or argument of a book. Often confused with a back jacket blurb, which provides only the premise of the book, the synopsis goes over the entire plot and major characters. Written in the present tense, it provides an agent or contest judge with the essential story arc, demonstrating how the issues raised in the book are resolved.

I did write a synopsis for my novel, but purely for my agent’s eyes, not for the editor’s; as far as I know, the editor for whom I have been making pre-sale revisions has never seen it – of which, more below. It was 5 pages, but I probably could have gotten away with a touch less or a few paragraphs more.

5 pages is industry standard, but as my fair correspondent points out, some ask for longer and shorter. Unless an agent specifically states otherwise, though, you’ll never go wrong with 5 pages.

Yet, as Soyim points out, agency guidelines sometimes ask for much shorter synopses, 1 or 2 pages – and this is maddening, as it would obviously be INFINITELY easier on aspiring writers everywhere if we could simply produce a single submission packet for our work that would fly at any agency in the land. As I have mentioned before, though, however much speakers at conferences, writing gurus, and agents themselves speak of the publishing industry as monolithic, it isn’t: individual agents, and thus individual agencies, like different things.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying: no single synopsis you write is going to please everybody in the industry.

Give each what she asks to see. Literally the only pressure for length standardization comes from writers, who pretty uniformly wish that there were a single formula for the darned thing, so they could write it once and never think about it again. I can’t say as I blame them for feeling that way, but the fact is, any given agency wants what it wants.

Why might an agency want a shorter one? Like so much else in the industry, time is the decisive factor: synopses are shorthand reference guides that enable overworked agency staffs (yes, they really are overworked — and often not paid very much, to boot) to sort through submissions quickly. And obviously, a 1-page synopsis takes less time to read than a 5-page one.

As nearly as I can tell, the shorter synopses typically aren’t used for marketing outside the agency at all, Why not? Well, realistically, a 1- or 2-page synopsis is just a written pitch, not a genuine plot summary, and thus not all that useful for an agent to have on hand if an editor starts asking pesky follow-up questions like, “Okay, so what happens next?” (If you’ve never pitched your work verbally to an agent, and want to learn how to do it, please check out the PITCHING TIPS category at right. No matter how good a book is, learning to describe it in terms the entire industry will understand is a learned skill.)

Do I hear some confused murmuring out there? “Wait,” I hear some of you saying, “this makes it sound as though my novel synopsis is never going to see the light of day outside the agency. If I have to spend all of this time and effort perfecting a synopsis, why doesn’t the agent just forward it to editors who might be interested?”

Ah, that would be logical, wouldn’t it? But as with so many other flawed human institutions, logic does not necessarily dictate why things are done the way they are within the industry. Fiction is just not sold that way.

Fiction is sold to publishing houses on the manuscript itself, not the summary. So for a novel, the synopsis is a marketing tool for landing an agent, rather than something that sticks with the book throughout the marketing process. This is not true of nonfiction, where the synopsis is part of the book proposal.

Thus, since my book is a novel, and I already had an agent, it was not necessarily a foregone conclusion that I would have to write a synopsis for it. I just told my agent about it verbally; she read it, then she began shopping it around. (To give you a sense of the timeline on a novel submission, she and I decided last February to start marketing it; I sent her copies in March, and the first round of submissions to editors went out in June. In September, one of the editors asked me to revise the book, pending passing it up the food chain at her publishing house; around Thanksgiving, I was asked if I would be open to a bit more tinkering. I received the second revision request just before Christmas, and I shall be sending the revised manuscript early next week. This, incidentally, was an unusually quick chain of events for the marketing of a first novel.)

Why did my agent have me write a synopsis, then, since I didn’t have to sell her on the book? So she would have an easy reference guide in front of her when she spoke on the phone about the book. Here again, we see the synopsis being used primarily as a tool within the agency, not as a document that markets the book directly to an editor.

And that, my friends, is almost certainly the last anyone will ever see of my novel’s synopsis. R.I.P.

I’m not quite sure why agents aren’t more upfront at conferences about the synopsis being primarily an in-house document when they request it. Ditto with pretty much any other non-manuscript materials they request – indications of target market, author bio, etc. Requiring this kind of information used to be purely the province of the non-fiction agent, who needed it to put together a book proposal. Increasingly over the last decade or so, however, fiction writers are being asked to provide this kind of information to save agents time. Since the tendency in recent years has been to transfer as much of the agents’ work to potential clients as possible, it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if agents started asking for the full NF packet from novelists within the next few years.

But let’s not worry about that dread day until it happens, shall we?

And yes, it does need to be ultra-polished (which isn’t really fair, as summaries entail a completely different kind of writing than a book), as does everything you place under a prospective agent’s nose. Synopses are marketing materials, and should be taken as seriously as anything else you write. No matter how good your book is, your best strategic move is to take some time to make your synopsis gorgeous; Miss America may be beautiful au naturale, for all any of us know, but you can bet your last pair of socks that at even the earliest stage of going for the title, she takes the time to put on her makeup with care.

It should be polished because it’s a writing sample, another way to wow the agent. On the bright side, since almost everyone just throws a synopsis together, impressing an agent with one actually isn’t very hard. Being able to include a couple of stunning visceral details, for instance, is going to make you look like a better writer — almost everyone just summarizes vaguely.

My readers, of course, are far too savvy to make that mistake, right?

It’s also helpful if a synopsis gives the impression that the writer is genuinely excited about this book and eager to market it, rather than being deeply and justifiably angry that it needed to be written at all. Believe me, to an experienced eye, writerly resentment shows up BEAUTIFULLY against the backdrop of a synopsis. The VAST majority of novel synopses simply scream that their authors regarded the writing of them as tiresome busywork instituted by the industry to satisfy some sick, sadistic whim prevalent amongst agents, a hoop through which they enjoy seeing all of the doggies jump.

Show that you are professional enough to approach the synopsis as a marketing necessity it is. Remember, agents do NOT ask writers for synopses because they are too lazy to read entire books: they ask for synopses because they receive so many submissions that, even with the best of wills, they could never possibly read them all. The synopsis, then, is your chance to make your work jump up and down and scream: “Me! Me! I’m the one out of 10,000 that you actually want to read, the one written by an author who is willing to work with you, instead of sulking over the way the industry runs!”

Mind you, I’m not saying that you SHOULDN’T sulk over the often arbitrary and unfair way the industry runs: actually, it would be merely Pollyannaish NOT to do that from time to time. Vent as often as you please; it’s healthier than keeping it inside. But it simply is not prudent to vent anywhere near an agent or editor whom you want to take on your work, and certainly not in the tone of the synopsis. The synopsis’ tone should match the book’s, and unless you happen to be writing about deeply resentful characters, it’s just not appropriate to sound clipped and disgruntled.

Sorry. As I believe I have mentioned before, if I ran the universe, not only would manuscripts be judged purely upon the quality of their writing by book-loving souls who would read every submission in full, but there would be free merry-go-rounds in every schoolyard, college tuition would cost nothing, lions and tigers would want nothing more than to cuddle up to humans and purr – and I would have more than a week left before my revision deadline.

However, as my calendar informs me quite clearly every time I sit down to revise, I do not, in fact, run the universe. Unfortunate.

A lot of writers tell me that they find 5 pages a difficult target length for a synopsis. If your draft persists in being less, and you are synopsizing a book-length work, chances are that you are not including the plot or argument in sufficient detail. Remember, your goal here is not just to give the bare bones of the plot, but also to bowl that agency screener over with your incredible storytelling acumen: telling little asides and sensual details can go a long way toward making your synopsis stand out in the crowd.

If you really get stuck about how to make it longer, print up a hard copy of the synopsis, find yourself a highlighting pen, and mark every broad summary statement about character, such as “Bartholomew was a morose man,” as well as every time you have wrapped up a scene or plot twist description with a sentence along the lines of, “and in the process, Sheila learns an important lesson about herself.” These types of statements show up so often in synopses that agents tend to read them as clichés.

Go back through and take a careful look at these highlighted lines: would a 2- or 3-sentence scene SHOW the conclusion stated there better than just TELLING the reader about it? Is there a revealing character detail or an interesting plot nuance that might supplement these general statements, making them more compelling to read?

I’ll let those of you into brevity in on a little secret: given a choice, specifics are almost always more interesting to a reader than generalities. Think about it from an agency screener’s POV, someone who reads 800 synopses per week: wouldn’t general statements about lessons learned and hearts broken start to sound rather similar after awhile? But a genuinely quirky detail in a particular synopsis — wouldn’t that stand out in your mind?

If your synopsis has the opposite problem, and insists upon running over 5 pages (the naughty thing), you should also sit down and read it over with a highlighter gripped tightly in your warm little hand. On your first pass through, mark any sentence that does not deal with the primary plot of the book. Then go back through and read the UNMARKED sentences in sequence, ignoring the highlighted ones. Ask yourself honestly: does the shorter version give an accurate impression of the book?

If your synopsis still runs too long, try this trick of the pros: minimize the amount of space you devote to the book’s premise and the actions that occur in Chapter 1. Much of the time, extensive explanation of these is redundant within the context of the submission.

Why? Well, presumably, if you are sending the synopsis with a query letter, the query itself will state the premise of the book; if you have been asked to send chapters along with the synopsis, as commonly occurs, the agent will already have the actual chapters on hand.

Phew! That was a lighting-paced run through the topic, wasn’t it? Don’t panic, first-timers, if it went by a little fast: as I said, I will revisit the synopsis in my upcoming series on contest entries. If you would like a fuller explanation of the mechanics of the synopsis in the interim, check out the SYNOPSES category at right. And, of course, if you have any questions, feel free to drop me a note via the COMMENTS function.

Thanks, Soyim, for reminding me to come back to this important subject! And everybody, keep up the good work!

Making it easier to keep your writing resolutions, Part III: placing your work in its best light

After yesterday’s post, I had a jolly old time picturing all of my readers marching up to their loved ones, putting their wee feet down very firmly, and declaring, “I deserve support for my writing!” If that didn’t happen in EVERYBODY’s household, please don’t tell me: let me dream of a world where writers get all the help they need to write terrific books.

Those of you who haven’t yet read yesterday’s post are probably scratching your heads right now, right? Manifesti don’t bear repeating, my dears; I’m afraid that was one I can’t paraphrase. Suffice it to say, I suggested a few radical steps a dedicated writer might take in order to carve more consistent writing time out of an already busy life, creating a New, Writing-Positive Schedule (NWPS for short) that will amaze the masses with its efficiency.

If yesterday’s steps were too sweeping for you, you might want to try going on a media fast for a week or ten days, to get a sense of how much the yammerings and enticements of the TV, internet, etc., are eating into your creative time. It won’t hurt your worldview to turn off the TV and radio for that long, not to skip the daily newspaper, nor – dare I say it? – miss my daily musings.

It sounds odd, but simply taking a brief vacation from outside stimulus and noise will help you get back into the habit of listening to your own thoughts without distraction, as well as gaining a more accurate sense of how you would use your untrammeled time.

Not only will this allow you to assess just how much time every day you are currently spending being entertained, annoyed, and/or informed, to see if you could purloin some of that time for writing, but it is also mighty impressive to bystanders. “This writer is committed!” they will think – and if you are intending to institute some time-purloining measures in your home, establishing your devotion to your writing will help minimize the resentment of the rest of your household about your NWPS.

Trust me, nothing impresses kids with the seriousness of a project as much as your giving up your favorite sitcom for it.

Even if you are not trying to free up time, but are instead trying to free yourself from writer’s block, a media fast can be extremely enlightening. I go on one of these fasts every spring, and it honestly is amazing how much it calms the thoughts. It also arouses the pity and wonder of my household, and reminds my kith and kin just how important it is to me to have inviolate writing time. It reminds them that they, too, are contributing to my writing success, if only by remembering not to call during my writing time. (Did you hear that, Marge?)

It reminds them, in short, that they can actually LOOK for a paper clip or a stamp when they need it, rather than asking me. What am I, an office-supply shop? A post office? The neighborhood information booth?

It also reminds them why I am so strict throughout the rest of the year about not wanting to hear what is happening on the currently hot TV show. (Paris who? Jennifer what?) For me, getting sucked into an ongoing plot line is a big dispensable time waster. I have seen a grand total of one episode of FRIENDS, and none of ER, but I have written a couple of pretty good books.

And that, my friends, is nothing at which we should be sneezing.

Even if you have arranged your life so that you could not pick any of the casts of FRIENDS, SEINFELD, or any of the fifty thousand crime scene dramas out of a police lineup, you may well be having trouble sitting down to write – and for reasons that have absolute nothing to do with willpower, but have everything to do with why New Year’s is positively the WORST time to expect a reasonable person to be chipper about a new endeavor.

Those of you who live in the Pacific Northwest, Canada, Alaska, Sweden, Scotland, or anywhere else where winter light gets scarce probably already know what I’m talking about: Seasonal Affective Disorder (or SAD, to its friends). Here in Seattle, it is an annual epidemic: people who hold day jobs droop visibly, as they are going to work AND coming home in the dark. On top of that, this is the rainiest winter in the history of well, ever, so even those lucky enough to be able to snatch some noontime rays would be hard-pressed to find them. It can be depressing, making getting out of bed feel like an outright burden.

The late dawns and early dusks of wintertime are particularly hard on writers, I think. No matter whether you get up early or stay up late to snatch your precious daily writing time, the fast-waning winter light is bound to alter your schedule a little. I write and edit full-time, so I am spared the pain of the pitch-dark commute, but let me tell you, when I look up from my computer and notice that I have only an hour of daylight left, I practically have to lash myself to my desk chair to keep myself from running outside and flinging myself onto my front lawn, covered in solar panels.

Yes, the gloriously long days of a northern summer do compensate for the blahs of a local winter, but that’s awfully hard to remember in mid-January, isn’t it? Just try to remember the kind of September when grass was green and…well, admittedly, the grass does stay pretty green around here all winter, but still, you know the song. My point is, back in September, you could get off work and still SEE that the grass was green without whipping out a pocket flashlight.

So if you’re feeling blah and unmotivated, you’re not alone, especially if you happen to live in my neck of the woods. After all, Seattle is where those clever doctors DISCOVERED Seasonal Affective Disorder. (Possibly tipped off by all of those people leaping off the perversely-named Aurora Bridge – THE place to do oneself in around here, my dears – screaming, “The sun is never coming back! The sun is never coming back!”)

It really isn’t just you — or me, for that matter. We who live far north need to take better care of ourselves in the winter. I’m no doctor (well, I am, but not of medicine), but see if any of these classic SAD symptoms sound like anything that might be making it hard to stick to your writing resolutions:

Increased sadness
Higher irritability
Greater anxiety
Difficulty concentrating
Falling asleep earlier
Feeling less rested
Tiredness during the day
Decrease in activity
Craving of sweets and/or carbohydrates
Weight increase (usually blamed on the preceding two)

If you take just the first five, it reads like a diagnostic list of writer’s block symptoms, doesn’t it? Enough so that the FIRST thing you should do when you encounter writer’s block in the winter is to turn up the lights in your studio. The problem might well be physical.

Fortunately, there is a low-cost tool that makes seasonal adjustment easier: the full-spectrum light bulb. Yes, they are a bit more expensive than your average light bulb, but they do undoubtedly help fight the deep-winter blahs — they really are worth the investment. Write ‘em off as a writing expense; most writers do find that they are more productive in the winter months with adequate lighting. And if you use them strategically, you need not spend a fortune to improve your mood.

If you are willing to spend a fortune to improve your mood, go ahead and invest in a lightbox. Sitting in front of one of these babies for a scant 45 minutes a day replicates standing out in the sun at noon on the equator, without any of the harmful UV rays. Do comparison-shop, however, because even low-quality lightboxes, the ones where you practically have to have your nose pressed into them to enjoy any significant benefit, can be quite expensive.

Even if you would be perfectly happy living in a cave year-round, you can use the body’s response to light to help you keep your good writing habit resolutions. I’m about to share a trick of the full-time writing trade, one of those professional secrets that you always suspected the published shared with one another in furtive whispers: in the winter months, have your writing space be the ONLY room in the house equipped with full-spectrum lighting, and plenty of it. Make it blaze.

“That’s it?” I hear you cry in frustration. “Light my studio differently from the rest of the house?”

Yes, oh scoffers, that is what I said. Do it, and make sure you spend at least an hour per day in the room for the first week with the new lighting. (Try playing your writing CD at the same time: ideally, you should be writing while you’re there, of course.) It does not take very long to inculcate the habit in your psyche. Soon, you will find that your body actually CRAVES being in your writing space. You (and, most likely, any pet animals you own) will automatically gravitate there.

Nifty trick, eh?

Remember, no matter what advertisers for weight-loss and smoke-cessation programs tell you, there is more to changing your life that brute willpower. There’s being smart, and being creative. And, of course, keeping up the good work!

P.S.: There’s a really good discussion about what techniques readers use to jump-start their writing sessions going on in the comments on the first post of this series, January 4th. Some really creative solutions!

Making it easier to keep your writing resolutions, Part II, or, yes, I really DO mean it, Marge

Yesterday, I was discussing ways in which to make it easier to adhere to those New Year’s resolutions about writing more often and more productively. At the end of my day’s ramblings, I advised jump-starting your writing time by playing the same piece of music at the beginning of each writing session, to alert your body that it is time to write.

And the instant I posted the blog, I swear I heard whimpering out there. “But I don’t write to music!” the small voices said plaintively. “I find it distracting. So how do I get myself started?”

Simple. If you are a person who needs to write under conditions of complete silence, try always lighting the same type of incense or scented candle seconds before turning on the computer. Or always pull on the same pair of socks (laundering them occasionally, of course). Or pull your hair into a specific type of ponytail. Or eat a Satsuma. Or turn on that nifty light box you picked up at Ikea that makes colored patterns on the wall.

It actually does not matter what you do, as long as it is a sensual experience that occurs ONLY when you are writing – and is repeated EVERY time you sit down to write. Consistency is the key: otherwise, it isn’t going to work.

And sensual experience is the operative term here: your rational mind already knows that you want to sit down to write. These little rituals are for the benefit your subconscious, that deep, deep well where the hobgoblins of self-doubt like to hang out. No matter how much you tell them that this book needs to be written, those little demons have a comeback. But if you set up a mechanism that teaches them that regardless of how much they poke you after you’ve put on that Run-DMC CD or wafted a lily before your face, you’re going to remain sitting in front of that computer for the next couple of hours, they generally learn to get out of your way, at least for the time being.

If finding the time to write is the problem, pay attention to your normal routine for a week or ten days. Keep a written record of how you spend your time – not just the hours, but the minutes as well. This will help you gain you get a clearer idea of what is and is not immutable in your usual schedule.

Once you have a fair idea of where the time is going, deliberately break some of your major patterns, to figure out where you can squeeze in time to write. Keep records of how you spend this time, too. Switch around chores with your spouse; if you pick up the kids after school, try rearranging your carpool so you drive them there in the morning instead; it may well leave you fresher for evening writing. If you always do the dishes or laundry in the morning, do it late at night; maybe it will turn out that early morning is your prime writing time, and if so, do you really want to fill up that time with housework?

At the end of a week or ten days of seriously messing with your schedule, after your routines are good and disrupted, look back over your account of how you spent your time. What worked and what didn’t? What drove you nuts, and what seemed like a dream come true? Where could you fit in chunks of solid writing time on a regular basis?

Most importantly, did you find that any of your usual time-takers were disposable? Or might you cut back on their frequency? Chances are, you’ll find a few. Be imaginative. If no one actually needed to be hospitalized for ptomaine poisoning because you didn’t scrub down the kitchen like every other week of your adult life, for instance, could you perhaps do it only once per month?

Discuss the results with anyone who happens to be sharing your house, bed, or significant portions of your non-work time. Apart from forcing you to reexamine your habitual use of time, there’s a sneaky reason to do this: many writers are too darned nice or too indelibly responsible or just too habit-bound to expect their family members to change anything about THEIR schedules in order to make room for a loved one’s writing.

Stop blushing. You people know who you are. C’mon, admit it: deep in your hobgoblin-ridden subconscious, you think it’s selfish to ask anyone you love to make even the most minute sacrifice in order to support your life’s work.

Okay, so perhaps no one in your immediate vicinity is spontaneously offering to take a second job so you can quit yours and write full-time. Perhaps you live with people who snarl nastily if you are 45 seconds late in putting their dinners on the table. Or perhaps – and this is far and away the most common cause of the I’m-in-this-alone assumption – you have never actually asked your kith and kin to help you make time to write.

Your writing is important to you, isn’t it? Important enough that you would make sacrifices for it, right? If you suddenly decided to train for the Olympic clean-and-jerk competition, no one would expect your schedule not to rearrange itself a little. So why would writing a book dear to your soul, which is roughly as time-consuming, NOT radically affect how you spend your time?

Or – and this is the rub for a lot of people – how your household spends its time?

Let your mind reel with the possibilities for a moment. What if, say, you were no longer the household resident doing the laundry? Or your teenager cooked dinner twice per week? Or you opted out of hosting your thirty-person family’s Mardi Gras dinner this year? How much time would that free for your writing?

You deserve this time. You are not being selfish to ask for it, and it doesn’t make you a bad person. Actually, by making the effort to evaluate your shared time so carefully, you will be being considerate of other people’s needs, too, because you open up room for negotiation.

But trust me, very, very few writers have the luxury of families, roommates, or friends who spontaneously say, “You know, honey, I’ve been thinking, and you would have two and a half hours of clear time per week to work on your book if I did the grocery shopping for the next six months. Please, please let me do this for you!”


Once people who love writers come to understand that writing isn’t a hobby or a whim, but a practice as necessary to the writer’s happiness and well-being as regular exercise, they are often surprisingly accommodating. This is not to say that they won’t kick and scream at first: they probably will. And they may well try to trespass on your time, to see if you really mean it. This is especially likely to happen if you have not yet proven by day-in, day-out effort that you are committed to taking the time to work, rather than getting distracted. If you expect your kith and kin to take your writing time seriously, you need to take it seriously, too.

And that, in case you’re wondering, is why my fiancé’s mother is absolutely petrified of me. She called once too often during my writing time — and she still has the burn marks on her ear to prove it.

Having grown up in a family of writers, I can tell you with absolute confidence: when intensive writing schedules work, it’s because EVERYONE in the household is actively cooperating to make that happen, starting in babyhood. A professional writer’s kid learns to go to sleep by the sound of typing (and actually, the sound of a manual typewriter still makes me groggy, speaking of conditioned reflexes), and to this day, I seldom raise my voice above quiet conversational level, lest there be someone writing in the next room. It’s habit, like everything else.

Yes, it is hard to change ongoing patterns — but in the middle of a major, editor-induced revision, I would be the last person on earth to tell you that being a writer is easy. But think about it: if I had not put down my wee foot years ago and said, “Look, if you love me, you’re going to need to change a few things to accommodate my writing,” and didn’t keep stomping that foot to make sure it happened, what kind of a fix would I be in now? The day you suddenly receive the edits that are going to take you three weeks of 16-hour days to finish is NOT the best time to say for the first time, “Um, honey, I think we need to talk.”

Selfish? Maybe, but I think not. And you know what? I’ve made dinner a grand total of once in the last two weeks, and my revision is proceeding right on schedule. And no one, with the possible exception of my prospective mother-in-law, seems to think this makes me a bad person. And she’s getting over it.

Ask for some help. And keep up the good work!