Hey, I just noticed something: this is my 400th post since I set up this website! In standard format, that’s 2,540 pages. (That’s not counting the 220 or so blogs I posted earlier for the Organization That Shall Not Be Named, of course.) Of those posts, about 50 have been on standard format, I notice, which should give you some idea of just how important I think it is to any aspiring writer’s success.
In case you might have missed that over the last week or so.
Deviations from standard format are not the only hurdles submissions face, of course. Like many, if not most, freelance editors, when I begin reading a new manuscript, I anticipate finding certain problems, simply because they are so very common. Run-on sentences are ubiquitous, for instance; in dialogue, characters often use profanity as a substitute for expressing emotion; the actual action of a novel often does not start anywhere near page 1. That sort of thing.
Since there are a few dozen such mistakes that turn up in the vast majority of manuscripts, most professional eyes zero in on them immediately. I’m anticipating launching into a lovely, long examination of some of the most frequent offenders in the early weeks of the new year, to get everyone ready for the big midwinter push.
I have some holiday treats for you in the meantime, of course, but with Christmas practically upon us, I wanted to spend today prepping you to deal with that question aspiring writers so frequently face whenever they are reveling in the warm embrace of their nearest and dearest: “When will your book be coming out?”
As in, “Why is it taking so long for your book to get published? Aren’t you, you know, working hard enough? Isn’t the book any good? Don’t you have enough talent? Shouldn’t you have given up this ridiculous quest long ago?”
Okay, so that’s NOT usually what they say — but it’s often what we hear, isn’t it, when we’re asked about an unpublished book’s progress? Even the most innocuous inquiry, if it comes at the wrong time, can sound like a challenge for us to produce instantly a full and complete explanation of exactly why this book DOES deserve to be picked up, and pronto.
And then, before we realize what’s happened, we’ve been talking about the horrors of searching for an agent, or revising a manuscript, or finishing that last chapter, for 20 minutes as our original questioner looks at us with deer-the-headlights eyes.
They know not what they’re getting into, obviously. Amazingly enough, non-writers often do not have the vaguest conception that implications that the process is taking too long can be to writers fighting words, akin to calling someone’s mother…well, I wasn’t brought up to call people’s mothers that sort of thing. It’s not nice.
In fact — and I tremble to be the one to tell you this, but better that I inoculate you before your Great-Aunt Rhoda’s new husband mentions it while passing you a second helping of turkey — one’s kith and kin frequently seem to be laboring under the to-writers-bizarre delusion that you will be HURT if they do not ask you how the book is going.
They don’t want to be remiss or insensitive about your little hobby, after all.
So they fling their arms around you practically the instant you cross the threshold into their homes, bearing platters of cookies that you took time out of your writing schedule to bake, crying at the top of their lungs, “Darling? Have you finished that novel yet?”
Or, “Sweetheart, what a lovely color on you. When will I be able to pick up your book on Amazon?”
Or, “I won’t even ask if you’ve managed to sell that book of yours yet, so spare me the speech about how hard it is to catch an agent’s eye. And is it safe to assume that you burned the pies again this year?” (Some relatives are more supportive than others.)
In North America, at least, it is not considered permissible, or even legal, for a writer to respond to such ripostes by taking a swing at such people in response, or poisoning their holiday punch, or even making fun of those completely unattractive reindeer antlers they’re wearing. No, we’re expected to smile, hug back, and say, “Oh, it’s coming along.”
In the moment, it can be difficult to bear in mind that even for writers, discovering just how challenging it is to land an agent and/or sell a book comes as a big, ugly surprise. Come on — you probably remember precisely where you were and what you were wearing when you first realized that there was more to winning this game than talent, don’t you? Or that even the most brilliant authors don’t produce Pulitzer-worthy material in first drafts, but revise until their fingers are sore?
Catching your mother playing Tooth Fairy probably didn’t even come close in the disillusionment department.
Fortunately for human happiness as a whole, most members of the general public are spared more or less permanently the disorienting shock of learning that not all good books necessarily get published, or that speed of writing usually isn’t a particularly good indicator of its quality.
So when George, your next-door neighbor, waltzes into your Solstice party and booms, “When are you going to be finished with that damned book of yours, Harriet?” he probably doesn’t mean to be nasty. Or even passive-aggressive.
No, George just isn’t that kind of guy.
He almost certainly believes, bless his heart, that by remembering to tease you light-heartedly about the book you have been SLAVING over for the past fifteen years, he is offering non-judgmental support. Because in his world, if you HAD finished the book in question, you would already be burbling with excitement about its imminent release — if not planning what to wear on Oprah.
Come on, you believed in the Easter Bunny once, too.
Just so you know, these unintentionally pointed questions from well-meaning non-writers most emphatically do not cease after one lands an agent. Quite the contrary: they increase, often exponentionally.
Why? Well, the average citizen of this fine republic has only a vague sense of what a literary agent actually DOES with a book; it is not all that uncommon for one’s kith and kin to conflate an agent with an editor. Although they may not say it outright, many people will just assume that because a writer is so excited to have landed an agent, the agent must therefore have BOUGHT the book.
“So,” these kind-hearted souls chortle, sidling up to a writer who has been sitting on the proverbial pins and needles for four interminable months, waiting to hear back on a round of submissions to editors, “when will I be able to buy your book?”
They mean to be supportive, honest. Which is why they will not understand at all when you burst into tears and empty your glass of eggnog all over their sparkly holiday sweaters. They will think, believe it or not, that you’re overreacting.
So what’s a writer to do, especially when these questions come during unusually stressful times, such as when that agent you met at a conference has had your first fifty pages for three months and counting, or when you’ve just received three requests for material (because you were so good about SIOAing those query letters in early November) and are frantically trying to get those packets out the door before the end of the year?
(My, that was a long sentence, wasn’t it? You might want to avoid paragraph-long questions in those submissions. Yes, I know that Henry James was a great advocate of page-long sentences. I’m fond of his work, but I suspect that he would have rather a hard time getting a manuscript past Millicent today.)
Well, you COULD regard the question as a serious inquiry, and talk for the next fifteen minutes about characterization, the desirability of semicolon usage vis-à-vis Millicent’s literary tastes, and just how much you hate form rejection letters. If you are gifted at disregarding your interlocutor’s eyes glazing over, this actually isn’t a bad strategy: once you have established a firm reputation for waxing long, humorless, and/or angry on the subject, the non-writers in your social circle may well learn not to ask.
If that’s not your goal, I would save this tack for when you are speaking with other writers. Like any shop talk, it’s far more interesting to those who deal with it regularly than to anyone else.
Alternatively, you could, most politely, take your favorite cousin by the arm and say confidentially, “You know, Gladys, I spend so much time obsessing over my book that I’m likely to bore you. Do you mind if we give my brain a rest and talk about something completely different?”
Gladys may actually be relieved to hear this, you know. Because of the naïve-but-pervasive belief in the inevitability of publication for talented writers — what, do they think that our fairy godmothers go around whacking editors at publishing houses over the head with their wands on our books’ behalf? Don’t be silly; that’s the agent’s job — non-writers (and writers who have not yet worked up the nerve to submit) are often puzzled by the intensity of writerly reactions to casual inquiries about their work.
Especially if they only asked in the first place to be polite just as they would have asked you about fly-fishing had that been your passion. (People do, you know.)
Again, the people who are going to be the most fascinated in your book’s ups and downs at every stage are going to be other writers.
Actually, after you’re agented, other writers may be your most persistent questioners, especially writers who have not yet had a book under editorial scrutiny. It can be a very lengthy process, the timing of which is utterly outside the author’s control, but even most writers don’t know that until they have been through the submission wringer themselves.
But if they haven’t, they think they’re just supporting a fellow writer when they ask, “So, has your agent managed to sell that book of yours yet? What’s the hold-up?”
As if you would have sold your book and neglected to shout the news from the rooftops. Or at least to your Christmas card list.
I like to think that they ask out of love — as in they would LOVE to be able to celebrate the triumphs of a writer that they know. Admittedly, it sometimes takes some determination on my part to cling to this inspiring little belief (when one’s memoir has been on hold at a publishing house for a couple of years, people do tend to express sympathy by venting frustration about the delay at one), but ultimately, I’m quite sure I’m happier than I would be if I took every iteration of the question as a demand that I instantly drop everything I’m doing and rush off to rectify the situation.
Because, really, most of the time, neither writers nor non-writers mean their enthusiastic cries of, “Is it done/sold/out yet?” as criticism about not being the latest Oprah book club pick. Not even if they walk right up to you and say, as if it had never occurred to you or as if every writer in the world didn’t aspire to it, “You know, your book belongs on Oprah.”
What they mean is, “I like you. I want you to succeed. And even though I don’t really understand what you’re going through, I want to acknowledge that you’re trying.”
A little Pollyannaish of me? Perhaps. But permit me to suggest a little stocking-stuffer that writers can give their kith and kin this holiday season: just for this one dinner party or get-together, assume that that’s what they do mean, even if they express it poorly. And respond to the underlying sentiment, not the words.
Just a suggestion for keeping the peace on that typically not-the-most-silent of nights. Keep up the good work!
(P.S.: photo appears courtesy of the fine folks at FreeFoto.com.)