The times they are a-changin’ — but it’s hard to tell whether it’s for better or worse

I have to confess, I’m a trifle perplexed today, campers. Should I feel hopeful about the present, near future, and life to come for aspiring writers, or shouldn’t I? Is despair appropriate, or rejoicing?

Take, for instance, the mixed news coming out of this year’s BookExpo America. the major publishers seem wary of how the combination of a slow economy and interest in the presidential election will affect what readers will be willing to buy this fall, judging by their offerings; opinions vary about what the Kindle and similar devices will mean for the future of the paper-and-ink book market; this was the first year in a long time when more independent bookstores opened in the US than closed.

Should the average writer be psyched or bummed in the face of such tidings? Try as I might, I can’t quite decide.

A little closer to home, while I was perusing the finalist list for the Contest-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named, I was delighted to see frequent commenter Auburn McCanta in the poetry category (congratulations, Auburn!), as well as a few other names not entirely unknown on this website (who should e-mail me to give me permission to gloat about them, by the way).

But then I was startled to notice that the top-named finalist in the screenwriting category has had books on the New York Times bestseller list. Recently.

Hey, I’m just quoting from his website. If it and the Organization-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named’s conference promotional materials are to be believed, he’s also going to be Thursday night’s featured speaker at that very conference.

Merest coincidence? Eyebrow-raising conflict of interest for the organization? Or clever self-promotional move by a well-established author? Again, I’m not sure I can make up my mind.

To be fair, there’s no longer anything in the contest’s rules that precludes established writers from entering (as I seem to recall that there was in 2004, when I won the NF book category); it’s just traditionally been considered, well, not entirely cricket for someone making a living at it to enter an amateur contest. In theory, at least, it’s not really starting with a level playing field, is it?

At least, if the author in question is well-respected in his genre. Heck, if he had a truly unique narrative voice, it might even be impossible to maintain the anonymity that’s so vital to the credibility of a respectable literary contest.

I can only assume that the organization in question considered that possibility, though, long before it announced its finalists for this year. Given the rumors that published writers turned up in surprisingly heavy numbers on the finalist lists in other categories as well (please see the comments on Monday’s post), I’m inclined to believe that there’s been a carefully-considered rule change of which I was not aware prior to this year’s entry deadline. (Was anybody else?)

But, naturally, not having been privy to the decision-making process, I can’t really say. How can one differentiate firmly between, say, publicizing a policy change and merely letting one’s friends know about it?

In recent years, the advantages to aspiring writers of books engaging in the kind of verbal pitching that has long been the norm in the screenwriting industry have been much touted by writers’ conference organizers, and for some good reasons: by pitching to an agent or editor at a conference, a writer may be invited to submit material directly, effectively skipping the annoying and often protracted querying process.

Which is, of course, a mighty fine thing for those who can pull it off.

It has some under-advertised drawbacks, however, chief among which is the assumption that a verbal pitch is necessarily reflective of the quality of the book it describes, which is certainly not always the case. The in-person pitch also most assuredly places the shy at a serious competitive disadvantage — and every year, countless conference-goers are petrified into a state of horrified inertia by the prospect of producing a three-line pitch that effectively conveys all of the complexity of a 400-page book.

I ask you: does this expectation represent an improvement in the lives of aspiring writers, or an unreasonable additional stress?

Don’t look at me to solve that knotty dilemma — I asked you first, after all. But I will say that in my experience, the three-line pitch conference organizers are so apt to tell prospective pitchers is the ONLY possibility often isn’t what agents and editors expect to hear.

At least, not the ones who represent books for a living.

Script agents, well, that’s another story; screenplays are not my area of expertise, so please do not look to me for advice on the subject. Perhaps someone could ask the NYT bestselling author his opinion; it seems to be well-informed.

Fair warning: what you’re going to be seeing me spell out over the next couple of weeks is MY opinion about what does and doesn’t work in various types of conference pitch. Please don’t bother to inform me that others are equally vehement that the pros will stop listening after three sentences; that simply hasn’t been my experience as a successful conference pitcher, nor the experience of any other successful conference pitcher I know, or anyone who has ever taken one of my pitching classes and reported back to me…

You get the picture.

But that’s not an immense surprise, right? As those of you who have been reading my blog for a while have no doubt already figured out, my take on the publishing industry does not always conform to the prevailing wisdom. (I know: GASP! Alert the media!)

The problem with the prevailing wisdom, as I see it, is that it is so often out of date: what was necessary to land an agent 20 years ago is most emphatically not the same as what is necessary today, or what will be necessary 5 years from now. And it is now every bit as hard to land an agent as it used to be to land a book contract.

Heck, it’s significantly more difficult than it was when I signed with my current agency — and honeys, I’m not that old.

My point is, the industry changes all the time, and very quickly — and it’s not always clear immediately whether each individual change is helpful or hurtful to the aspiring writer’s chances.

If you doubt this, chew on this: when I signed the contract for my memoir, A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK, in March of 2005, it naturally contained the standard contractual provisions about truthfulness; the contract specified that my publisher believed that I believed that I was telling the truth in my book. (Which I am, in case you were wondering.)

Yet if I signed a standard NF contract for the same book today, it would almost certainly contain some provision requiring me as the author to obtain signed releases from everyone mentioned in the book.

What happened in that intervening 3+ years to alter the standard memoir contract’s provisions, you ask? A MILLION LITTLE PIECES, that’s what.

The very tangible result: industry rumor has it that a couple of years back, a major publishing house required a writer who spent a significant amount of time living with cloistered nuns to obtained signed releases from each and every one of the wimpled ones, swearing that they would not sue the publisher over the book.

Yes, you read that right. Correct me if I am wrong, but don’t nuns generally take vows of poverty? And doesn’t cloistered mean, you know, not wandering up and down the aisles at Barnes & Noble, checking out your own publicity?

Yet such is the prevailing level of concern that the publishing house was legitimately concerned that suddenly the little sisters of St. Francis of Assisi would metamorphose into a gaggle of money-hungry, lawyer-blandishing harpies. I ask you: good for writers, or not?

Perhaps this will help you decide: since the MILLION LITTLE PIECES incident, writers have been hearing at conferences, “Oh, it’s impossible to sell memoir right now.” Which is odd, because the trade papers seem to show that plenty of houses are in fact still buying memoirs aplenty.

So you’ll pardon me, I hope, for saying that it always pays to look over the standard truisms very carefully, both to see if they still apply and to see if they’re, you know, TRUE. Many, I am sad to report, are neither.

You can tell I am gearing up to saying something subversive, can’t you?

Yes, I am: I would specifically advise AGAINST walking into a meeting with an agent or editor and giving the kind of 3-sentence pitch that you will usually see recommended in writers’ publications — and practically mandated in the average conference brochure.

Or, to put it another way: I think it is a common mistake to assume that the structure that works for pitching a screenplay can be adapted without modification to books. Because, you see, the screenplay pitch is intended merely to establish the premise — and there’s quite a bit more that any agent or editor is going to need to know about a book before saying yea or nay.

“Wait just a second, Anne!” I hear some of you shouting. “I have a conference brochure right here, and it tells me I MUST limit myself to a 3-sentence pitch!”

Well pointed out, imaginary shouters — this is quite standard boilerplate advice. But think about it: the average conference appointment with an agent is 10-15 minutes long, and if you are like most writers, you will probably be very nervous.

So I have one question to ask you: do you really want to have only a minute’s worth of material prepared, so you have to wing it if the agent of your dreams wants to hear more?

Because, trust me, he IS likely to ask. I’ve heard many, many agents and editors complain that writers pitching at conferences either talk non-stop for ten minutes (not effective) or stop talking after one (ditto).

“Why aren’t they using the time I’m giving them?” they wonder in the bar. (It’s an inviolable rule of writers’ conferences that there is always a bar within staggering distance. That’s where the pros congregate to bemoan their respective fates.) “Half the time, they just dry up. Aren’t they interested in their own books?”

Oh, the 3-sentence pitch definitely has its utility: it is helpful to have one ready for when you buttonhole an agent in an elevator, when you might genuinely have only a minute and a half to make your point.

That’s why it’s called an elevator speech, in case you were wondering; it’s short enough to deliver between floors without pushing the alarm button to stop the trip.

It’s also very useful in preparing your query letter, where you can use it as the paragraph that describes the book. Once you have a really effective marketing paragraph written, you can use it many contexts. So I will definitely be walking you through how to construct one.

However, an elevator speech should not be confused with a full-blown book pitch.

To do so, I think, implies a literalism that cannot conceive that a similar process called by the same name but conducted in two completely unrelated industries might not be identical. It’s akin to assuming that because both Microsoft and Random House are concerned with word count, they must be estimating it precisely the same way — because it’s just not possible for a single term to mean more than one thing to different groups of people, right?

News flash to the super-literal: the noun bat refers to both a critter that flies and a piece of wood used to hit a ball. Learn to live with it. (And if you don’t know how literary types estimate word count — which is not usually how the fine folks at Microsoft do — please see the WORD COUNT category at right.)

In purely strategic terms, there’s another reason not to use the same pitch format as everybody else at a conference: now that the three-line pitch is so pervasive, pitch fatigue sets in even more quickly. Not forcing an agent or editor to pull your plot out of you via a series of questions may well be received as a pleasant change.

Pitch fatigue, in case you’ve never heard of it, is the industry term for when a person’s heard so many pitches in a row that they all start to blend together in the mind. It’s surprisingly tiring to listen to pitches; there’s so much emotion floating in the air, and it’s so vital to pay attention to every last detail. Even with the best intentions, after the third pitch in any given genre in any given day, the stories start to sound alike.

Even stories that are nothing alike can begin to sound alike.

I can tell you from experience that pitch fatigue can set in pretty quickly. Two years ago, at the Conference That Dares Not Speak Its Name, a group of intrepid writers, including yours truly, set up the Pitch Practicing Palace, collectively hearing over 325 individual pitches over the course of three very long days. (Good for aspiring writers or not? Opinions differ.)

Now, all of us on the PPP staff are both writers and chronic readers, so our sympathies, it is safe to say, were pretty much always on the writer’s side of the pitching desk. And we heard quite a number of truly exceptional pitches. But by the end of the first day, all of us were starting to murmur variations on, “You know, if I had to do this every day, I might start to think the rejection pile was my friend.”

Part of the problem is environmental, of course. Agents and editors at conferences are generally expected to listen patiently while sitting under flickering fluorescent lights in uncomfortable chairs, being rapidly dehydrated by punishing convention center air conditioning. You can hardly blame them for zoning out from time to time, under the circumstances.

I know: poor, poor babies, forced to endure precisely the same ambient conditions as every writer at the conference, without the added stress of trying to make their life-long dreams come true. But I’m not mentioning this so you will pity their lot in life; I’m bringing it up so you may have a clearer picture of what you will be facing.

Gather up all of those environmental factors I described above into a neat mental picture, please. Pretend you are an agent who has been listening to pitches for the past four hours.

Got it? Good.

Now ask yourself: which is more likely to snap you out of your stupor, a three-sentence pitch, which forces you to make the effort of drawing more details about the book out of a pitcher who has been told to shut up after conveying a single breath’s worth of information? Or a slightly longer pitch that explains to you not only what the book is about, but who is going to buy it and why?

Or, to consider the other common advice about structuring pitches, would you be more likely to pay attention to a pitch that is rife with generalities, glossing lightly over themes that are common to many books? Or to a pitch stuffed full of briefly-described scenes, embellished attractively with a few well-chosen significant details?

Exactly. You don’t want to hand them the same vanilla ice cream cone that everyone else has been offering them all day; you want to hand them the deluxe waffle cone stuffed with lemon-thyme sorbet and chocolate mousse.

And that, dear friends, is why I’m spending the days to come talking about how to market your work in ways that make sense to the industry, rather than just telling you to cram years of your hopes and dreams into three overstuffed sentences as…well, as others do.

By the time we reach the end of this series, my hope is that you will not only be able to give a successful pitch AND elevator speech — I would like for you to be prepared to speak fluently about your work anytime, anywhere, to anybody, no matter how influential.

Even to a New York Times bestselling writer, should you happen to bump into one.

In short, my goal here is to help you sound like a professional, market-savvy writer, rather than the nervous wreck most of us are walking into pitch meetings. To achieve that, a writer needs to learn to describe a book in language the industry understands.

The first building block of fluency follows tomorrow. I know you’re up for it.

Truth compels me to say, though, that not everyone out there agrees that my take on this process is unequivocally good for aspiring writers — including, let’s face it, some of the folks to whom I have referred above. But then, we also have a long-standing, fundamental disagreement about whether the primary purpose of a writers’ organization — or literary contest, for that matter — is to help the struggling writers out there or those already established promote their work more effectively.

Try as I might to keep my opinion to myself, hints do seem to pop out from time to time. I encourage you to make up your own minds, my friends — and to keep up the good work!

15 Replies to “The times they are a-changin’ — but it’s hard to tell whether it’s for better or worse”

  1. I think I may be able to offer a bit of expertise on some areas . . .

    As a speech teacher and drama director, I suggest (obviously) rehearse. Note cards are useful–but don’t write out your speech word for word. You want to look at the person you’re talking to. Talk to them, don’t read to them.
    Use a loud voice. This may be a pet peeve of mine, but I hate straining to listen to people who refuse to speak at normal tones. It’s a natural response to quiet down in tense situations. You’ll have to fight that.
    I’m not sure what kind of impression an agent will get if you walk into a pitch with a note card, but try not to memorize your speech. It takes hours and hours of practice to make a memorized speech sound alive and energetic. Just write down (or remember) a few prompts.
    Writers are good at writing. There’s no reason they can’t write a speech ahead of time.

    Also, my expertise as a history minor who was obsessed with Vaudeville, periods of economic recession tend to be incredibly good for anyone in the entertainment business. I suggest feeling hopeful, despite what the agents say.

    1. Thanks for that, Jake! What good ideas.

      I’m absolutely with you about both the volume and the robot-like delivery memorization tends to produce. And it’s perfectly acceptable to walk into a pitch meeting with a notecard — far, far better to do that than to go blank in mid-sentence, right?

  2. Just for my own clarification, I just checked the website of a certain UNNAMED ORGANIZATION with regard to the rules of their literary contest. To condense and paraphrase somewhat, the rules speak of, “a writer’s unpublished work.” I would interpret that to mean that as long as the entry itself is unpublished, the writer could well be one with an extensive list of credits and previously published best sellers. Technically then, a previously published, well established author could enter this particular contest. Not at all fair, but as I see it, well within the rules. My suggestion for organizers of the contest, should they ever decide to heed it, would be to have two broad classifications: one for previously published, and one for never published.


    1. I like your two-tiered idea very much indeed, Dave — effectively, it produces the same effect as the old expectation of separate professional and non-professional competitions.

      I checked those rules, too, and my sense is that you’re right — but for the life of me, I can’t remember how it used to be worded to, um, discourage this type of thing. If memory serves, it wasn’t merely a matter of peer pressure or anyone being taken aside and asked, “Isn’t that a trifle tacky of you?”

      But however it may have been, it apparently isn’t now. It makes me wonder if any of the other (unhappily few) competitions for book-length unpublished work have also changed their rules recently. At minimum, I guess entrants should double-check before entering.

      I can’t even begin to speculate on the karmic implications of all this.

  3. Great thoughts, Jake. And, yes, staying hopeful is a good attitude to keep.

    Also, thanks for prepping us today, Anne. I’m definitely wearing my listening ears for the coming days in this series.

    As far as giving finalist status to the work of a NY Times bestselling author (who’s currently counting down the days for release of his FOURTH major publication) and, yes, conference speaker, I’m stunned to say the least! At least, I’ll be there proudly representing my fellow underpublished writer friends. Grrrr.

  4. I’m glad you posted this, Anne.

    You might remember some good exchanges we had maybe four or five months ago; I’ve been trying to learn all I can from your site and after following your recent entries I’ve been wondering if it’s been the state of the industry that’s been hurting me.

    I haven’t posted in a while so I figure it’s time for a status report:

    First, the good. My query package does its job because I have a phenomenal request rate of one in five agents asking for a partial or a full. I know this is because the writing is strong, and the idea is very fresh and hot — it’s a catchy, timely premise that’s never been done before in either commercial or literary fiction. (My book’s literary all the way.)

    I’ve also published award-winning non-fiction and have a strong, authoritative platform in the area that my fiction is about — in real life I pioneered the subject that the novel is about. And there’s a very big name in fiction, practically Stephen King big, who liked my writing (we’d corresponded and I sent samples) and he said that he’d be happy to blurb my book and told me to send the galleys to his home when the publisher had them ready.

    So what’s my trouble?

    Well, I’ve been trying to get an agent for over a year, and have had no success at all. I’ve queried over 100 agents; over 20 agents have read partials or fulls. While 5 never got back to me, 15 of them passed.

    Sometimes the agents are brief when they reject me but a handful of them wrote me long notes. In looking them over, I see a commonality: three of them said that it was too slow to start with, one said the plot wasn’t discernible enough in the beginning and one said it lacked “narrative tension as it gets going” and therefore “reads flat.”

    I’ve tried to speed it up as best I can, but after a *year* of revising and rewriting, I see that the early chapters still look very similar (at least on the surface) to what they were a year ago. That’s where I’m confused (and a bit scared).

    Oh, and the book is big — it’s the length of three big novels. There are three division points where, if it had to be, I would cut to make three “regular” novels out of the manuscript. But they’d be lesser novels, much less satisfying, because I’d have to remove the last few chapters and the final resolution which the whole thing was building toward. And even if I did this, I’d still have to start by selling the first third of the manuscript — and would undoubtedly get the same responses about it being slow.

    What’s the right thing to do here? Do you recommend that I try to sell it as three separate books given the state of the industry, or that I just keep going to find the agent who loves my writing and vision as it is (as some of these rejecting agents suggested), or should I keep working at speeding the thing up and making sure it’s never flat?

    1. Before I answer, could you be a bit more specific about what precisely the “the length of three big novels” means, in practical terms? To my rather jaded ear, that sounds like at least 1500 pages in standard format, perhaps longer. But if that’s the case, I don’t quite understand why it would be generating more complex feedback than, “I can’t sell something this long by a previously unpublished writer in the current market; sorry.”

      If it’s as long as I think, it may not even be making it out of the box before being slid into the rejection pile when you’re sending a full. Such a manuscript would be far more expensive per copy to publish than the average first novel — which would mean, necessarily, that any good agent would know just by picking it up that it would be SUBSTANTIALLY harder to sell than most.

      Or am I overestimating the page count fairly radically?

      Perhaps I am, since you’re getting other feedback. (On the full text as well as the partials?) I have to wonder what else is going on here to result in long rejection letters (HOW long?) that deal with the pace — and whether, given that all have mentioned slow pacing, why it would make sense to assume that ISN’T the primary problem. (Plenty of very good writers revise for years on end, so the year of revision in itself is not necessarily telling.)

      1. Anne,

        I probably made it sound bigger than it is — cutting it into thirds will make three 85,000 word manuscripts. That might be what, nearly 20,000 words longer than The Great Gatsby, but I suppose that’s still not three “big” novels.

        It’s 250,000 words. About the same length as novels by Tom Wolfe, Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace, Jeffrey Eugenides, and lots of others — so it’s not *that* crazy except for the fact that it’s my first novel (although not, of course, the first novel I have written). It’s about 750 pages in manuscript.

        I’ve been through such a roller coaster of excitement and dejection in this process, and I agree with you completely that a year of full-time labor isn’t that unusual for revision, especially with a larger manuscript — although I have developed a great affinity for monastery dwellers because my life is very much like that now.

        I’ve gotten the lengthy feedback from both partials and fulls. One uber-agent sent me a two-page email about the book and asked me to send some of my other writing, and we corresponded through a good half-dozen short emails and a couple of brief phone calls. A reader at one of my “dream” agencies sent me a two-page email with some of the most flattering words anyone has ever said about my writing. Two of these agents wanted to see more non-fiction proposals from me. Anne, that’s not where my heart or talent is — my last non-fiction book might have been a success, but it was just for money. I can’t bear the sight of it.

        I feel so extremely close to success — like I can feel her breathing down my neck. And that makes all of this so much more frustrating — unsure whether to keep trying more agents or somehow doctor the early chapters of the manuscript to supercharge the pacing.

        You’ve been on quite a roll lately, btw. You run the best blog out there for someone in my situation — real comfort for the isolated.

        1. Okay, that’s helpful to know, Harvey. The short answer is that if I told my agent that I was sending him a manuscript that long, he’d either faint or insist that I must be joking. And I have pretty good reason to believe that he likes me and my writing quite a bit.

          Here’s the long answer — long enough, I think, that after I finish the current pitching series, I may extend it to an entire post, because this is a question that perplexes many aspiring writers. 250,000 words is a quite long for a first novel — over 100,000 words, agents start to worry about increased binding costs. (Above 120,000 words, the production costs take a sharp leap upward.)

          But on the bright side, using industry standard estimating techniques , a 750-page manuscript is 187,500 words, not 250,000. (If what I just said doesn’t make sense to you, or if you don’t understand how all those words vanished, please see the WORD COUNT category.)

          Still too long for most publishing houses, in other words, but it points up a submission problem you may be having as early as the title page. When most US-based agents and their screeners see “250,000 words,” they automatically make the standard calculation and assume that the manuscript is 1,000 pages.

          As good an argument as you’re ever going to hear for using an estimate rather than the actual count, I think.

          And while you’re quite right that there are books every bit that long out there, virtually no one in the industry is going to respond to the argument that the already well-established authors you name routinely write books this long. For better or worse, it’s just a fact, that the standards are quite different for those who already have (a) agents, (b) editors, and (c) established novel readerships than those who do not.

          Why? Because it’s INFINITELY harder for an agent, even a very good one, to sell a first novel than one from an author who has already had a bestseller, or even just one with average sales. The risk in publishing their work is significantly lower.

          Which translates, often, into established authors’ being able to take greater risks in their subsequent books — and for those books to take up more shelf space. It’s almost certainly no accident, for instance, that Jeffrey Eugenides’ second book was about three times the length of his first, and a number of the other writers you mention came to public prominence before the current shorter standards prevailed. (And Tom Wolfe writes nonfiction, so he’s not a relevant comparison.) At one time, of course, all of these authors were breaking into the biz, but since length standards do change so much over time, it wouldn’t even make sense to compare any of the men you mention’s first novels with yours.

          What an established author can get away with at the moment, in short, and what a first-time novelist can are necessarily quite different. Unfair, perhaps, but true.

          I’m not surprised, though, to hear that the agents with whom you’ve spoken are eager for you to go back to writing nonfiction — it’s substantially easier to sell; you have a successful track record doing it, and they can see from your fiction submission that you can write. I suspect that the fact that your heart’s not in NF is not as relevant to them as the potential for moneymaking.

          So just between us, here’s a question to ponder: if you don’t already have an agent who handles your NF and some of these agents who handle both might be willing to represent it AND your fiction, would it be worth writing an NF proposal (which you can probably do in your sleep by now, right?) in order to get them to consider taking on the totality of what you write?

          Is there, perhaps, a NF book that might interest them that you COULD bear to see with your name on it?

          Just something to mull. A lot of novelists consider it somehow beneath themselves to write NF, but the business side of the industry really doesn’t understand that mindset. To them, a book that sells is a book that sells, for the most part, and a writer versatile enough to write more than one kind of prose is a blessing, not a dilettante.

          So in their eyes, asking to see another NF proposal is almost certainly a compliment, not a request that you give up writing fiction. A hard compliment to hear, I’m sure, in your particular situation, but not one that they would understand as frustrating for a writer.

          Frankly, given how many years of hard labor most writers who do get their novels published put into the agent-finding process, some might consider regarding writing a NF book as an entry fee, so to speak, as not a bad exchange. Quoth the playwright Brendan Behan: “If you have a talent, use it in every which way possible. Don’t hoard it. Don’t dole it out like a miser. Spend it lavishly, like a millionaire intent on going broke.”

          All that being said, I’m going to take you at your word and assume that it’s not a toll that you would feel comfortable paying — a perfectly legitimate stance, if you decide that’s what is best for you. Basically, from an agent’s point of view, this places you in more or less the same boat as any previously unpublished writer, since NF readers tend not to be eager to cross the fiction/nonfiction barrier to follow even a favorite author.

          Which brings me back to the length issue. Essentially, in order to land an agent for your novel as it stands, you are going to have to make the case that your writing is so good, your story so compelling, and your premise so original that an agent should disregard his practical experience, which tells him that when an editor sees a fiction manuscript over 100,000 words, he starts to back away without reading it. (At least in most fiction categories.)

          Your work may in fact be worth his expending months or even years of extra effort in trying to sell a book that (at your current estimate) is two and a half times the length of what he’s been selling lately — I have no way of knowing, However, if you expect him to make that logical leap, you will need to make that manuscript PERFECT in every other respect.

          Which raises the question of pacing. If memory serves, every time you’ve written in about this book, you’ve mentioned that agents have been telling you that it’s slow. To my editorial ears, that implies that there’s quite a bit of leeway to make significant cuts — not just in the opening chapters, but throughout the book.

          Again, I could be wrong — I have not, after all, read the book. However, it might well be worth finding a freelance editor who specializes in your type of novel to take a look at the first 50 pages SPECIFICALLY with an an eye to speeding it up. Or engaging a crack team of amateurs you trust to tell you the absolute truth.

          I would STRENUOUSLY advise making this your first step BEFORE either making the attempt to cut the whole thing down to under 100,000 words (estimated) — not impossible, with most storylines, but certainly painful — or chopping the story into a trilogy. After all, if pacing is your bugbear, turning it into a trilogy won’t necessarily change how quickly the reader is drawn into the story, right?

          Until you know for sure how the pacing and the length are connected — intimately, in most overlong books, but there are always exceptions — you can’t really make an informed decision about something as fundamental as cutting a book in half or thirds.

          You may well be right that the book would be better as it is — although, again, that’s not something I or anyone else could possibly assess without reading the entire book. If you feel strongly that cutting or rearranging it would ruin it, you might want to hold off on trying to find an agent for it until the current length standards for first novels change. If the Kindle really takes off, for instance, the per-book costs of paper, printing, and binding will weigh less heavily (so to speak) in publishing decisions.

          If you are going to try to get it published by a major publisher in the CURRENT book market, however, you’re almost certainly going to be better off conforming to their standards than trying to convince them to conform to yours. Which brings up another good question to ponder: which is more important to you, getting this STORY published, or getting this BOOK published in its current incarnation?

          There are no right or wrong answers here, I’m afraid, just very difficult questions. I wish I could suggest something brilliant that would smooth out your path, but it sounds as though you have a genuine quandary on your hands. If not several!

          1. Anne,

            Definitely a gigantic quandary, but your advice continues to aid.

            I’m not sending it out at the moment — going to finish these revisions and make the thing as quick as possible. And enlist some readers.

            What I’m going to do now, since I’m so close to that “PERFECT” point with the manuscript, is just get it there — doing it (in the words of Max Perkins) “as you feel and want it, without regard to anybody at all” — and only then see what options it has, from Kindle to cutting it in thirds or shelving it while I write and sell something less controversial in length, like a 70 thousand worder. (I’m actually very anxious to start this next novel project. The characters have been in deep-freeze for a year, and they want to live!)

            I smiled with your suggestion of trying to sell a NF proposal to land an agent who will represent your fiction, too, looking at the NF book as the “price” for getting your novel published — I think it’s a good idea, I don’t think it’ll work for me at this stage but it can be very good advice for some writers who are versatile and in a similar bind, provided they do it right from the start. I have to share my tale of caution here: this was the exact attitude I had when I wrote the first NF book — it was a breeze to do (well, compared to fiction), but I only did it because it was comparatively easy and I figured that having a NF book credit would set me apart in the difficult fiction market. I had an agent at first but we parted ways and I sold it without one. And then what happened was after the book sold through a few printings and a book club edition, the publisher wanted another NF title from me. I got wrapped up in that, thinking that I was buying myself time to write the “real” work. So a couple years go by and I’ve got two NF titles to my name, just enough royalties to settle down and write nothing but fiction … and I was able to stretch this out even further with some judicious magazine freelancing. I might be an obscure hermit who spends his days in a tiny room, but I’ve been lucky — this is writing heaven.

            But back to the technique and how it backfired on me, in a way: one of the agents who rejected this novel told me that he never takes on novelists who aren’t primarily fiction writers! So if someone wants to try this trick, I’d advise getting an agent who will represent both genres from the beginning, and go as easy on the NF as possible.

            But what do I know. I sold a few stories this year (literally, just two), and that was hard. Bang-on-the-walls hard. The pay? Ridiculous. Yet if you’re simply industrious, you can still line up enough NF work to keep you cozy — and no banging on the walls required. Writing novels and stories remains my only dream and goal and I still don’t know how those who do it can support themselves. It’s not a lifestyle for sissies, that’s for sure.

          2. Yes, one does have to be pretty tough — which always makes me wonder about the kind of agent you mention, who feels that writers should stick to only one kind of writing. Kind of old-fashioned, dating back (I suspect) to the times when it was a whole lot easier to make a living as a writer. MOST professional writers work in a couple of different vineyards these days, so to speak.

            I wonder if your perspective on this novel will alter at all after you start the next. Having a story burning inside one’s head can certainly raise one’s anxiety levels.

            Keep plugging away!

    1. Having broken bread with you a couple of times, Dr. F, I can’t say that the preference for vanilla would ENTIRELY surprise me. But no, I wasn’t talking about mixing them together.

      However, it has now become one of my life goals to concoct a chocolate mousse enhanced by lemon thyme, get you to eat it, wait until you say you love it, and then cry, “AHA! Vindication!

  5. Anne,

    Since you mentioned the eventuality of a full-bore post on this topic, I’ve got another thought for you about the big first novel.

    For those in my situation whose novels are much more on the autobiographical side, I wonder what you’d think about the suggestion that they try to market it as memoir — is it easier to sell a big large memoir than a novel?

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